Former construction manager Junea Rocha grew up eating pão de queijo--a type of cheese bread--in her native country of Brazil. When Rocha came to live in the U.S., she saw that the savory cheese bread was noticeably absent from store shelves. After months of perfecting a family recipe, Rocha found a buyer. Soon Whole Foods came knocking. Then Shark Tank. Today, the Brazilian cheese bread brand Brazi Bites can be found in 4,500 U.S. stores. Here's how the Portland, Oregon-based company built a national brand that topped this year's Inc. 5000, at No. 81. --As told to Lauren Aratani
Pão de queijo is everywhere in South America. It's in the grocery stores, mall kiosks, airports--it's ingrained in the culture. But when I moved to the U.S. in 2005, I could only find it in international markets. Americans, for the most part, had no way of getting the product. I realized I could be the one to bring this staple to the U.S.
My family has a recipe to make the bread, but it calls for traditional cheeses that are only available in Brazil. My husband, Cameron, and I would spend our nights and weekends trying to create the cheese bread that tasted just like my family's recipe using cheese from the U.S. We were both working jobs at the time--I was a construction manager and he was in the industrial field. It took several months, but one night that perfect batch came out of the oven. We knew we had our recipe.
That was in 2010, and Cameron and I didn't know anything about the food industry at the time. We took a class at the local community college called "Getting Your Recipe to Market." There, we learned the basics of the industry--stuff like labeling and pricing different products, stakeholders, and legal requirements for commercial kitchens. Then we booked a shared kitchen incubator and started cooking.
For almost two years, we would go to grocery stores and demo the product. We learned from customers then what they thought of the product--the packaging, the name, when they were eating it. Our biggest challenge was understanding how Americans could consume the bread. In South America, it's usually enjoyed for breakfast or a midday snack. In the U.S., the lifestyle is different. We learned that people were eating it to complement their dinner--a substitute for your standard bread roll. Kids and parents also eat it as an afterschool snack.
We started growing even more when Whole Foods found us. In each region of the country, Whole Foods sends out a "local forager" to try to find the best local products to bring to its stores. Our local forager tried our product and ended up liking it. Just a couple of months later, we were in Whole Foods across the Pacific Northwest.
Getting to Whole Foods is only half the battle. Once a product makes it to Whole Foods, it has to fight to stay on the shelves. If something is selling below average in its category, within a year it's out. We built the brand around Whole Foods, because we knew if people loved it there, we could stay.
Between 2012 and 2015, we grew to 700 stores worldwide. Whenever we put the product in front of people, they loved it, but even with our partnership with Whole Foods, we were not profitable. We did the math, and we had to be in at least 2,000 stores to be profitable. In other words, we needed to become a national brand.
That's when Shark Tank came along. We knew it was a long shot, but everything that you do as an entrepreneur is a long shot. We auditioned, we got in, we practiced, and then we pitched.
We accepted a deal with Lori Greiner on the air, but the deal fell through. Even so, the show put us on the map. Our episode aired in November 2015, and in just three days, we were sold out in all the stores. With Shark Tank, we were able to save a huge chunk of money that would have gone to marketing.
Now we are in 4,500 stores nationwide; we are even in Costco in South Korea, and we'll be in Canada by the end of the year.