Know Your Food Entrepreneurs #6: Joyce Lee of Nibble

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Snacking is trending. Everywhere you look, people are forgoing the “three square meals” regimen to incorporate more snacks and light meals into their day. But finding the coolest and newest products in the snacking world isn’t easy. Grocery shelves are overflowing with options, and it’s hard to know what to choose, especially, as Joyce Lee would argue, from a taste standpoint. Lee, who founded the Nibble popup snack shop in Cambridge MA’s Kendall Square, is capitalizing on the Snackification movement.

During a visit to Nibble, I asked Lee about her background, as I knew she has worked extensively in food and marketing. She went to the Kelogg School of Management at Northwestern, and most recently ran the culinary and food marketing program at Cosi. Before that she worked in contract food services for Unidine, focusing on food made from scratch. There, she spearheaded their consumer engagement and retail experience. Before that, she was the Director of Marketing at Bertucci’s, working on their various rebranding projects. Her work at Bertucci’s was her first foray into the restaurant space. And prior to that, she was at Colgate and Welch’s, where was a brand manager. At this point in our conversation, Lee paused to mention that she is a career switcher – before all of the above, she worked in finance, specifically options trading. So how did all of this lead to her founding Nibble?

“A year ago, I left my job because I was getting to the point where no time [would be] a good time to start a business,” she told me. “I met Lauren [Abda, of Branchfood] and started going to food events.” For Lee and others, the Boston food startup world is a collaborative space, a fusion of education, social, and networking opportunities. Lee said that being part of Branchfood has allowed her to meet food entrepreneurs in a supportive environment. After leaving Cosi, she started exploring all different ideas, for which, Lee claims, she had very little expertise. Her background would suggest that she could take on anything, but Lee knew she didn’t want to pursue launching an app or online market. But she kept returning to food, especially packaged foods and snacks—consumer packaged goods, or CPGs.

First, Lee decided she wanted to create a soy-based snack. She started attending trade shows, where she saw many interesting snacks and brands she was unfamiliar with, and she began to ask herself why she couldn’t find these in stores when she wanted a snack. She started thinking about how to bring all of these things into one place, without the stigma associated with a convenience store. Now, when sourcing products for Nibble, Lee targets specific companies that have outgrown farmer’s markets but not to the point where they’re national household names. Most brands at Nibble are very small, and many use better-for-you ingredients, but Lee says this is a byproduct of finding products that just taste good.

The first important factor to tackle was convenience: making snacks accessible and putting them all in one place by bringing brands together under the same roof. A brick and mortar store made the most sense. One key component of the experience of stepping into Nibble is being able to sample products. Lee values the element of exploration at Nibble that isn’t available with an online store. The next thing to consider was which brands to bring into the space. Lee told me that unless you’re a major foodie, you wouldn’t recognize most of the brands at Nibble. I would agree, even though I consider myself very literate in the world of snacks. For Lee, the most important filter for choosing the products at Nibble is taste. She believes that if something doesn’t taste good to the consumer, it doesn’t matter how nutritious it is: they won’t eat it. Lee believes in indulgence, but wants her customers to still feel good about the choices they’re making. For this reason she seeks out smaller brands who are doing something positive in the food space.

I asked her if she had noticed any trends within snacking since starting Nibble. Customers would come in looking for certain qualities in their snack (think high protein, raw, or gluten-free). Lee and her team started checking out the ingredients of each product so they knew what to recommend. She realized that many snacks on the shelves of Nibble were conveniently meeting these standards already.

Lee told me that in terms of future directions, she hopes to retain Nibble’s small footprint. It’s possible that she will open more pop-up shops once Nibble’s March lease is up. She hopes to open more stores, and not just in urban areas, although they have been her target so far. The thought is to test different neighborhoods and find either a new temporary pop-up space, or, if the opportunity appears, a permanent location.