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Building a CPG Community One Startup at a Time

Founder Erin Mann shares the importance of mentorship on her food journey.

Having the grit to turn lemons into lemonade, or better yet, elderberries into syrup, when presented with a very personal challenge gave way to a startup journey that eventually spread internationally. On this episode of the Consumption to Conception (C to C) Podcast, Erin Mann of namesake Erin’s Elderberries tells her story of how ‘no’ became a brand that would create “yummy” products, as well as a CPG community.

This episode highlights how determination, mission-driven values, and shared knowledge with other like-minded individuals can help turn a passion into a successful business for those just starting out with their CPG companies. Erin’s insights are relevant to all types of brands, whether you’re identifying a gap in the market and creating a product based on a family recipe, seeking guidance from mentors in your industry, or pursuing a completely different path to create a brand/product you’re passionate about. Tune in for more advice that will assist you at any stage of your journey.

 

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Gary Nowacki: Welcome to the podcast everybody. Really cool guest today, Erin Mann from a company called Erin’s Elderberries. Welcome to the podcast, Erin.

Erin Mann: Thank you so much for having me on today.

Gary Nowacki: So, Erin, just to launch your background, pretty unusual. Masters in criminology, a Ph.D. in public safety, and you worked 10 years for the FBI. What the heck are you doing in a consumer products group? Consumer packaged group podcast?

Erin Mann: Yeah, I get that question a lot.

How did you go from law enforcement to food manufacturer? And the short of it is I grew up in a law enforcement family. My dad and my mom are both in the FBI, so that’s all I ever knew I was going to be, you know, be a bad guy chaser when I grew up, and that’s all I ever wanted to do.

– Erin Mann

Continue reading the full transcript here:

Erin Mann: So, I went to college for that. I got my master’s while I was waiting in the bureau to finish my background and went in at 22. I got to travel the world and do amazing things that I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do. I worked mainly counterintelligence, counter-terrorism cases, and then I got transferred up to DC, where I ended up meeting my husband and decided to settle down.

 

And I never thought I was going to be the person to have kids. I was going to kind of live and die, the FBI as they call it, and just work up, you know, my career, the career ladder. And once I met my husband and, you know, time went on, I kind of decided, you know what may be nice to actually have a family, you know, kind of. It would be a cool thing. So, we ended up struggling to have a child and we ended up having Lucas, who’s seven now. But when he was one, he had some really bad health issues. They actually thought he had leukemia, and by that point, I had actually decided to leave the bureau early so I could stay at home.

 

With my family, I traveled like 360 days out of the year typically. So, when you have your own child as a woman, I felt very selfish and protective and I decided I wanted to stay at home, to see, you know, my son grow up. And when he was one, like I said, he ended up being in the hospital. They thought he had leukemia.

 

All of his blood tests were coming back that way, and he ended up not, they put him to sleep, and they did a bone marrow tap. And he did not have leukemia. He had a virus that mimicked leukemia in the blood. He was very sick for a while, but after he got better and was discharged from the hospital, he just stayed sick.

 

We were rounding his two-year birthday and it was cold after cold, just fever after fever, and I could never keep him well. At that point, we were seeing two specialists. He was on six medications a day for medications that children under six were not supposed to be prescribed. And it was at one point with one of our allergists that I went, that we were doing a checkup and I said, what can I do to help my child? I am a smart woman. I know how to do research. This child is my job. Tell me what to do. If it’s 24/7 physical therapy with breathing treatments, I will do it. Just tell me.

 

And he looked me just dead in the eye and he said, there is nothing we can do. We just have to wait until he’s about five to see if he outgrows it. And that was, for some reason, it was the little, you know, the fire that got lit within me. And I said that is not acceptable. That is not okay. And I’m not, I’m not doing this anymore. So, I brought him home and started researching and Googling. I was looking at things like, you know, immunity, health and wellness, lung strength, lung function.

 

I was learning all of these things about the body that I had never known before. But I know how to do research. I know how to do research well and weed through what’s accurate, what’s not, you know, what’s reliable, what isn’t. And a lot of things that kept popping up were these research studies about elderberry and how it’s beneficial, how it was kind of becoming more mainstream.

 

It was used a lot in the 90s, specifically during the Cuban Flu Crisis, which led to all of these peer-reviewed research studies being conducted on elderberry and it spoke specifically too about, you know, colds and flu and viruses, but also about asthmatic responses in the body and how it had different polyphenols and flavonoids that actually worked to help decrease the inflammation that asthma can cause.

 

And I thought, you know, why not? Let’s just try it. It’s safe for littles. I’m going to get some. So, I went to a leading national, you know, retailer and was going buy some elderberry syrup off the shelf. I turned, the bottle over to look at the ingredients and it was a red number this and blue number that, and all of these ingredients. I didn’t know what they were. And I kind of thought to myself, you know, I’m on this mission to get rid of all of this junk I’ve been giving my kid for a year now why am I just going switch it to other junk? So, I decided to try to make my own and talked with my dad because we’re a German family. So, I actually got my grandmother’s recipe from Germany, for her elderberry syrup.

 

Made some. He hated it. and I went through several renditions and found a recipe he actually loved within seven days. He’s calling it his yummy syrup. And so we started using it daily on a daily basis, and within six months we were released from all of our specialists and all of his medicines and everything.

And that is the short of how it got started because I started a blog in a Facebook group to tell other moms about my experience. You can have the confidence to say this is not okay and do something about it. And people started asking me for samples, asking me to try it. Their kids loved it. I had moms telling me that their kids were crying because they could not have more because it was so delicious.

 

Gary Nowacki: Hmm.

 

Erin Mann: And I kind of became known as the kid-friendly elderberry syrup lady. So, my husband was the one that was like, “If you’re going be giving into this, you got to get insurance, you need a business license. Like we need to do this so we don’t get sued and lose our house.” So, he is kind of, you know what helped prompt the business just by making it, um, just an easy way our family was protected for me to share this with everyone. And once I realized there was such a need for it, Erin’s Elderberries was born. It was kind of just as simple as that.

 

Gary Nowacki: That’s an amazing story. And you think it was just their immune response for Lucas that was boosted by the elderberry? Do you think that was it?

 

Erin Mann: Oh yes, absolutely. Because elderberry part of, or one of the polyphenols that’s in it, actually helps viruses and bacteria from not replicating or not binding to the cells and replicating within the body. So, if you’re starting to get sick and you start taking it, it helps get that out of your body before it can just replicate and make you more and more sick.

 

So, as he was taking it, his body was able to naturally fight off everything and he wasn’t getting a fever all of the time. He may be a little run down, but it wasn’t that lay him out of school or preschool for a week at a time because he had a fever that wouldn’t go away. So over time, his immune response was getting stronger and stronger.

 

Gary Nowacki: Hmm. And so, tell us about your company today, Erin’s Elderberries. What, you know, what are your products, how are you selling them? Talk to us about growth, all that kind of stuff.

 

Erin Mann: Yeah, so when I first started, I was going to two farmer’s markets; one farmer’s market two times a month, and within my first two months I had expanded to three full-time farmer’s markets and had hired three stay-at-home mom friends to help me sell and kind of get my name out there. Just because the demand became so high in our area.

But what I like to do is educate people instead of starting a supplement company, which is what most elderberry companies are, I chose to start a food company because I wanted people to know that this is not a medicine, it is not a supplement. It is actual food from the ground that we just make into something delicious. 

Continue reading the full transcript here:

Erin Mann: That’s all you need is food. So, I kept my business as a food company. I never wanted to turn it into a supplement company. And everything that I have created thus far, I now have over 20 products that I create. Either elderberry, eronia, or honey themed all fall in the food category. So, a lot of times people reference me as a gourmet food, um, but I just don’t want to be known as that supplement company. Um, but we’ve expanded into wholesale retail.

 

We wholesale all across small stores within the United States. Um, we have two globally, one in Spain and the other in Italy. And. Yeah, we still travel around doing lots of events. We have a retail store now. We opened that a year and a half ago, and our retail store not only has my products, but it also showcases 88 other handmade small businesses from here in the local Virginia area.

 

So, over the course of the last four years of my business, I have not only enjoyed food making and manufacturing. But I’ve also enjoyed meeting other food makers in the area or just makers of things in general. So that’s what the store highlights and showcases.

 

Gary Nowacki: Well, that is an excellent, excellent story. So, as you were going through this journey as an entrepreneur, what did you all learn? And you know, maybe that’s also a good segue into the fact that you’ve been a mentor for a lot of. Startup CPG. So, tell us about, you know, what you learned and how you’re mentoring other CPG companies.

 

Erin Mann: Yeah. What I learned was that not only starting a business is hard and confusing enough when you have to deal with taxes and business licenses and zoning permits, but just food laws in general. Virginia has some of the toughest food laws in America, which is, I think fantastic because it protects consumers, but it also makes it very hard to start a food business depending on what you’re making.

 

So, one thing I have learned a lot about is food laws, not just in Virginia, but in the United States in general. Um, I started to be a mentor during Covid actually, when kind of everything locked down and a lot of people were losing their jobs.

 

A lot of people turned to cottage law baking or food making to support their families because they thought, well, if I have access to ingredients, people are at home, and they want comfort food.

 

I make the best cupcakes on the block. You know, I could sell them to help support my family. And people did that, and they did well at it. But a lot of people didn’t know what they had to do to do it correctly or to do it legally.

 

When I first started mentoring, it was just because a woman reached out to me and said she was talking to a friend of hers that was a customer of mine, and she was completely confused about how to start her business, and her friend said, “Hey, there’s this woman named Erin. She is fantastic. She’s kind of well-known in her community. She’s very kind. She’s very nice. Why don’t you just reach out to her and see if she could give you some advice on what you should do? Because she’s been there before.” And when that woman reached out to me, I said, Absolutely, I will help you.

 

Like here’s this link and go here and if you want a Zoom call, since we can’t meet in person, you know, we’ll have a Zoom call at 10 o’clock at night after the kids are in bed if you need to. And that’s what really propelled me into mentoring because I saw it as a way to give back to my community because people were doing it to save their livelihoods at that point.

 

And who was I to not help them if I could? Especially if they want to do it the right way. And they want to protect their customers and they want to protect, you know, their family by getting the correct licensing and insurance and all of that. Um, so word kind of spread. And I was mentoring businesses all over the US during Covid times.

 

I mentored an elderberry syrup company that was starting up, um, in Montana. And she’s like, I know you probably don’t want to talk to me because I’m, I would be a competitor. I’m like, no. No, you’re not. Like I, I go out within my community and people know me here and you know. Absolutely. If people have access to a quality product that you’re making, that people like, There’s enough of the pie for everyone in this country.

 

I, by no means, would say, I’m not going help you just because you make something similar to mine. We all have our unique talents within our business and what we make as food. Nothing is ever duplicated or exactly the same. So I enjoyed helping her because it reminded me of when I, you know, started my business.

 

But yeah, I, I do it all for free and I just try to be that person I needed it when I started because I would’ve been in business six months prior if I wasn’t continuously doing a circle of, okay, I think I have the answer. Nope, I don’t. I got to keep going. Nope, this isn’t right. It’s very confusing. So I just, I just want to be that person that I needed and see those businesses succeed.

 

Gary Nowacki: Hmm. Well, that’s fantastic that you’re, you know, giving back, mentoring other companies. And you also, you’ve also got some sort of commercial kitchen development on an old Army base, and it was used for intelligence gathering to, what is that all about?

 

Erin Mann: Yeah, so my store actually sits on that army base, um, it’s called Vint Hill, or Vint Hill Farm Station is the official term. And yes, it used to be an Army installation and it was, one of the area’s most prominent signal intelligence gathering locations, especially, you know, way back when. So it’s most famous for intercepting intelligence related to Normandy, and it had some very strong impacts on the decisions that were made as far as D-day goes.

 

So there’s, um, some, like a little spy museum over there. Um, you know, the land has been kind of bought up by different developers and things like that. But the county or Faulker County that I reside in actually owns some of it. So, there’s a county park, and then right next to the park is county-owned land where I actually sit.

 

So the building is zoned for economic development. So when I went in to say, “Hey, I want to rent this, this is how I’m going help economic development because I’m going have basically, 90 other small businesses, half of which are from your county in this building.” You know, they didn’t have an issue with me renting and when another space in the building became available, I said, you know, I have kind of this goal when I retire to build this big, huge, like, commercial kitchen that small food businesses can rent.

 

But for the meantime, this space would be a really good beta test for this county because currently, our county does not have a rentable commercial kitchen dedicated to small food businesses. A lot of our small food businesses will go to restaurants when they close or super early in the mornings before they open and get a health department inspection there and operate their business that way.

 

But there’s no just dedicated facility for our small food businesses. And what I have learned over the course of the four years is that one, I like to help people, especially small businesses, and I like to find, you know, I like to find the solution for problems that may be like my FBI experience or just being a mom, or, you know, some of both.

 

But I like to find affordable solutions for larger problems within our community. So I, you know, made a deal with, um, the county and our economic development office. I said, hey, I want to do this. Let me do this. Um, get, you know, let’s talk about the rent so that I can afford to give our small businesses affordable rates when they come.

 

So last week we officially opened the kitchen and any small business can come and rent it by the hour. They can rent it as a popup. If they want to try out a storefront for a weekend or a day just to see if they enjoy it or like it or can handle the stress, you know, they can come there and do that.

 

So it’s. Not really meant for the large catering company that’s been established for years. It’s not meant for the food truck that goes out and does 15k in a day, you know, at an event. It is for those very, very small businesses, those moms, dads, men, women, you know, kids who have a dream of getting their cottage law business out of their house and kind of scaling it up.

And that is what we are for, what I have created this kitchen for.

 

Gary Nowacki: That’s fantastic. And any particular stories so far that you know, that you’re proud of in your whole mentoring or, or that are intriguing?

 

Erin Mann: Yeah, I, I’ll be honest, there are so many, but the one that makes me, I guess, like the happiest or the proudest when I think of is there’s this woman named Tiffany. She is the owner of Purposeful Pecans, and she started. Her pecan is like baked pecans, like different flavors and things like that. She started it as a therapy for herself when her son was tragically killed in a car accident.

 

And the baking and the creating and the giving of gifts to people made her. Like I said, it was kind of her therapy. It was how she kind of worked through the grief and so she created this business out of it. But what she didn’t realize was that she was doing it wrong. She was shipping when she shouldn’t have, she was selling online when she didn’t have the authority to do so, and she found out about that and she just stopped cold turkey.

 

And a friend of hers sent her to me and she said, Hey, I need to do this. I want to get my business back up and running, but I have to do it the right way. And I said, absolutely. Like, I will help you from start to finish because she could be an in-home inspected kitchen. You know, I helped her with the paperwork, kind of helped walk her through it.

 

Um, I was on spring break with my family, my son’s, you know, spring break from school when she called me to tell me she passed her kitchen inspection and she was, 100% legitimate, you know, business again. And at that point, because of the other connections I had made, I started linking her up with wineries in our area.

 

So now she supplies all of these wineries within our area that do their own charcuterie boards. So not only did she get to start her business again, she has grown it and has thrived and what makes me most proud is that she’s a dear friend now because of the work we did together. But she was the very first product that I put up on my store shelf when I opened my store.

 

And I, you know, I brought her in for that and I said, I want you to be the very, very first, you know, retail food product I put on my shelf because of the relationship that we’ve had for the last few years. So that’s, as I said, just the one I’m most proud of because she realized she was doing something wrong. She wanted to do it right. She worked her butt off. And just her story also of why her business started. It’s just fantastic.

 

Gary Nowacki: That’s, that’s fantastic. Good, good for her. And it sounds like it’s all real. You know, when I heard Army Base – Intelligence gathering, you used to be at the FBI, I figured Erin, I figured this whole elderberry thing is just a coverup and you’re really just, you know, a spy of some sort.

 

Erin Mann: Yeah, no, um, no. When, you know, I tell people what, you know, my job before was to be in the background. Like if you saw me, there was a problem. Like if you knew I was there, there was an issue. And so being in front of people and in front of the crowds and kind of being you know, face first, um, in this business is very difficult for me.

 

I’m obviously comfortable in front of people and in front of crowds, but yeah, I’m used to kind of being in the background and not taking credit for anything, not getting credit for anything, and I’m okay with that but I kind of see it more as the universe telling me, this is where you should be because.

 

Every day I go to work and I go to my store. I think about that army base and how that was my life, you know, kind of before in the intelligence realm. And now I still have it, but yet I have my store here. So, I still feel at home and I still feel comfortable with the big change that I made because it was, it was a huge life change for me.

 

Um, you know, to go from that to being a stay-at-home mom and an entrepreneur. So, it’s, you know, it just makes me feel at home.

 

Gary Nowacki: Hmm. That’s great. That’s a great transition. So, Erin, this podcast is a lot of our focus is about innovation, and also growing. Growing brand. So, what can you share with our listeners about your future plans for innovation and growth for Erin’s Elderberries?

 

Erin Mann: Yeah, so my future plans are I would like to build a dedicated facility just for Erin’s Elderberries. I don’t want to say I like to follow trends, I like to try to find the trends when they’re first starting or think, okay, this is going to be a trend. I see this coming. And within our community, there is so much of a need for allergen-specific style foods.

 

And while I do not put any allergens into any of my products, no gluten, no dairy, no nuts. Anything like that I am constantly getting, you know, from moms or from parents or anyone, does this have gluten in it? Is it safe for celiac? Are there any nuts? Are you a nut-free facility? And I am ridiculously picky about our sanitization methods, but I can’t say, oh, we are a nut-free facility because we sell things like Tiffany’s pecans and you know, things like that in our store.

 

So my future goal for myself is actually to get that. Established certified nut-free, dairy-free, gluten-free facilities so that our customers will have 100% knowledge and faith, you know, in the product that they’re buying. Um, they don’t just have to trust me as far as me telling them what our sanitization, you know, is but as far as like how we grow, like I said, it’s kind of. I always tell people who have their own business just listen.

 

Sometimes I think, oh, I need to do this, or, oh, I need to do that, or, oh, I haven’t created this lately. No, just kind of stop and listen to what your environment, what your community, what your audience is telling you that they need, and if you do that if you give them what you need, that’s really how you can just organically be successful. Um, for example, I make elderberry jelly.

 

Never in my life did I want to be a jelly manufacturer, but I had these older men coming to the farmer’s market saying, oh, elderberries, do you have any elderberry jelly? It reminds me of my mama. And then like these 80-year-old men on like their canes and they were thinking of their mom at like that point in time.

 

And I was like, no, I make syrup. It’s for your health. It’s not jelly. Jelly is not healthy. Um, but I got asked so many times and I thought to myself, my community is asking me for this. And so, I decided to make it because part of being healthy is mentally healthy. Right? And being able to give someone a memory of, you know, someone that is no longer with us.

 

I think is just as important as, you know, putting healthy food into your body. So, you know, just listen to what’s going on with your customers or with your audience base, and you’re setting yourself up for success that way.

 

Gary Nowacki: That’s great advice. Just, just listen. Well, good luck with building that new manufacturing facility. That’s, that’s an exciting opportunity. Do you have any timeframe that you’re looking to build that in?

 

Erin Mann: Yeah, I kind of say the next five to eight years, you know, um, this, this new commercial kitchen has been such a project and I’m like, I kind of want a breath for a minute and make sure it’s foundation is good, established, and then we’ll move on, you know, to the next thing that we can kind of help with.

 

Gary Nowacki: Mm-hmm. And, and speaking of advice, we, we always ask, our guest, what advice would you give to somebody who’s just, you know, starting as an entrepreneur? In the food and beverage industry, what advice or direction would you give them?

Erin Mann: I always say two things. One is don’t give up because it’s confusing and it’s hard, and you’re going give up like seven times and then you’re going come back to it and you’re going figure it out again. So just never give up. And two is to find a mentor. There are so many small businesses that want see to see other small businesses succeed as we will bend over backward for you so that you do not have to go through what we went through, right?

Erin Mann: It’s almost like your kids, right? You want to make their life better and less hard than yours was growing up. So find someone in your community, someone online, someone you follow through Instagram. If you reach out and explain to them who you are, and what you’re doing, 98% of the time, they are going to be so flattered that you have asked.

 

And that you were, and that you are, you know, respecting the way they’re doing business, um, that they will want to help. They may not give you all their trade secrets, which they shouldn’t, but they will absolutely help you in any way that they can. I have had probably five different types of mentors along this path.

 

Um, one from event management to shipping. I mean, I had a woman that helped me save $10 a package. Every time I shipped a glass bottle of elderberry when I first started, and that is huge in a world where everyone wants Amazon Prime and everyone wants free shipping, but it was costing me $18 a box to send one bottle of syrup.

 

So the fact that she took the time, to be like, “Oh, hey, no, let, let me tell you what I do. You need to go here, and you need to do it this way. And maybe even after that, you can find even more ways to save now that I’m kind of giving you these tips.” So look for that mentor. They will help you. They will, they will be happy to help you.

 

Gary Nowacki: Yeah. Yeah, that’s, that is good advice. Erin, before we go into wrap-up, is there anything else you want to share with our listeners about Erin’s Elderberries and you know, what you’re doing either now or in the future?

 

Erin Mann: You know, I, I always think of like a hundred things, but no, I mean, the, the mission of Erin’s Elderberries is just to provide affordable food with high-quality ingredients to the community all over the world, and, what I am trying to do, like this year, for the first time in four years, it’s been a goal is to start a scholarship program.

 

So now we are able to give a scholarship to an individual in our community every year now because of the support that our business gets, and I am also in the works to create a formal program with hospitals across the country. So, I always put this out there hoping that someone will hear this and will contact me and say, “Hey, this is how you do it, or this is how you can do it.”

 

Um, when, because of Lucas’s health journey and our time, you know, on a cancer floor of a children’s hospital, a lot of doctors and pediatricians will tell parents of children going through cancer treatments and things like that to take elderberry. And because they can’t take other types of, you know, medication to boost their immune system so they don’t get a cold or get the flu because they can’t get their immunizations.

 

And I had a mom come to me once and said that to me. So she said, “My son, is going through cancer treatments. My, my doctor said to take elder elderberry. He actually referred me to you because he heard you had quality ingredients, no fillers. She said, how much for a bottle?” And I said, your bottle is free.

 

Just come get it. I don’t know where you are. Like if I need to ship it to you, I will, but just come get it. It is free. And she started telling other moms about that and it kind of created in this area a very informal give program. So if anyone ever across the United States contacts me to tell me that their child is undergoing any type of cancer treatment, we will send them elderberry for free.

 

Through the length of their, you know, treatment program. Um, like I said, I’m trying to figure out how to make it an actual formal program and I just have not figured that out yet. So that’s my next biggest community-oriented give back. A Philanthropic thing that I want to do is make this program formal so we can do this across the United States for kids.

 

Gary Nowacki: Kudos to you. Kudos to you for doing that, and I hope, I hope you find a creative way to, you know, formalize and scale that program because it’s, it’s such important work you’re doing. Erin.

 

Erin Mann: Thank you.

 

Gary Nowacki: So, I want to thank my guest today, Erin Mann from Erin’s Elderberries. Check out her website and you can go online. Lots of neat products related to elderberry, honey, and other products. Go check it out, listeners. And Erin, thanks so much for being on C to C today.

 

Erin Mann: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

This podcast is produced for informational purposes and does not constitute any scientific, legal, or medical advice.

The views and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are those of the guest alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and positions of the host or any other entity or organization. Listeners are encouraged to listen with an open mind and form opinions of their own.

This podcast originally aired on July 27, 2023.

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