Fresh off the announcement of our revamped Food Incubator program, we sat down with one of our alumni who was with us from the very beginning: Swati Karia, founder of Fit Fix Foods. With it's all-natural, decadent tasting premium snack bars, Fit Fix Foods is providing customers the "Fix" to "Fit" their life. Launched during the pandemic, Swati details how she tackled the rapid growth of her business proactively through the Incubator, the importance of being committed to your vision, and how to best connect with customers.
Venturepark Labs: What is Fit Fix Foods?
Swati Karia: Fit Fix Foods is a refrigerated, high-protein, premium snack bar. It is all-natural and made with plant-based protein. There are no preservatives or artificial sweeteners and it contains simple ingredients that you can find in your own pantry. They are handmade in small batches so it’s more of an artisanal product.
VL: How did you get your start?
SK: Fit Fix Foods happened in the most organic fashion. I had no experience in the CPG world at all. COVID comes along and I was also experiencing major health issues at the time. I had been diagnosed with a tumor. It put me in a spot where I really needed to pivot and start fresh. At 42, that was a very daunting idea. With that said, I have forever been a proponent of health and wellness. I am a firm believer of balance and being a mom of two young kids, I have always made my own food. I never liked packaged goods, but I did have a wicked sweet tooth. So I would make homemade treats. I also never found a true bar that I could eat guilt-free that also tasted good. So I would make these bars for myself to fulfill that gap.
During the pandemic, my sister asked if I could give her a batch that she could share with her co-workers. I hand-packed her a small batch and she sold out in under two minutes. She called me the next morning explaining that she had orders for me and wanted 50 bars. It started with 50 and then before I knew it, an influencer posted on Instagram recommending my bars and my phone was nonstop buzzing with interested customers. This was all within 10 days of me giving the first batch of bars to my sister. I thought to myself ‘maybe I did hit on something sweet’! I made a label, found stock packaging, and started making the bars out of my kitchen. I started at 50 bars and very quickly I started selling close to 150 bars a day - I couldn’t keep up! It just continued to build and I got an increasing amount of followers on social media. From there, I started a website, started shipping within Canada, then to the US, and stores were calling me all within a few months!
VL: After the launch of Fit Fix Foods, how did you find yourself at the Venturepark Labs Incubator?
SK: I stumbled upon Marlis Bens who shared a link on co-manufacturers in Canada, because I knew I needed help with my bars and the increasing demand. I reached out to her and she mentioned the Incubator program and recommended that I apply. I felt like I had imposter syndrome at the time because it didn’t feel like I had a real business - I was just making these bars out of my home! But I took a chance and applied because I had nothing to lose.
When I received the news that I got in, I was thrilled! It exposed me to the support that my small business really needed, and detailed the steps I needed for my business to succeed, as well as the potential of my business straight from the mouth of experts, like Sobeys. I was even able to speak with Walmart through the connections I made at Venturepark Labs. So here I am: it’s been a little less than a year since I started, and I’ve sold 30,000 bars. I’m now at a commercial kitchen and I’m in the midst of a re-brand and figuring out my steps towards retail. It’s been an exciting journey, one that I didn’t think I’d take, and one that I didn’t think would bring me so far, but it’s continually growing. If it wasn’t for Venturepark Labs, I think it would have been a bit slower in terms of my education.
VL: You mentioned social media was pivotal to your business – how specifically did social media help you with sales?
SK: It’s the only way I could get started and get traction. It also allowed my product to spread organically through word of mouth. I didn’t spend money on advertising and didn’t even know much about social media in the beginning to be honest. People were organically sharing their love of my bars and recommending it to their friends because it was a quality product. Having influencers try your product also holds a lot of power: if it’s a good product, they will share it.
I live in Vaughn, which is a small suburban area outside of Toronto. Yes, it’s a slightly affluent neighbourhood and it may be the right demographic for my bars, but I didn’t really know who I was even targeting at the time. But through social media, the target customer presented itself to me. I was able to meet them through social media, and understand what they like and what they don’t like. It was the best form of market research for my bars. It allowed me to learn and grow with my customers and now I know them! I talk to them. Customers come to my front door and picks up bars from me and I can learn about who they are. I know my typical customer is a suburban mom, she’s shopping for her family, and she’s looking for natural options.
I think we are all a little afraid to put ourselves out there. But if you show up with your truest self, with a product that you truly believe in, and it’s what your customer wants – you will see results. My website is great and it’s accessible, but customers will still message me through Instagram wanting me to place an order for them. So, I think social media is powerful in that it gives the ability to connect with your customer and it makes the experience even more tangible. I never understood the value of social media at first, but I've learned a lot because of it.
VL: What challenges have you experienced in your business?
SK: Entrepreneurship is extremely competitive and there are so many products out there already in the Canadian market already. We are lucky to be where we are because it’s easy to launch a product, but that also means there’s so much chatter. It means you have to set yourself and your product apart. What makes you different? For me, it is passion for real food with simple ingredients and it has to taste good. We understand that we should eat healthy, clean food, but we almost always associate that with something that doesn’t taste good. And I believe that I’ve created a product that sparks joy and brings a joyful snacking moment to power you through your day. When it came to creating a product and what I wanted, that was great. But when it came to manufacturing, it was challenging because I didn’t even know all that it entailed with regards to compliance and regulations. Every manufacturer I came across always said the same thing: you can’t use ingredients you use in your own kitchen. You can’t use premium chocolate; you must use milk compounds, etc. The reality is: I am not that $1.50 bar. I make a $4.00 premium product and I want to give my customers what they are paying for.
I still haven’t found a manufacturer, so I’m renting a commercial kitchen space and making the product myself. I have grown my business enough that I can now afford help. But those who have the manufacturing capacity can do even more. At the end of the day, I don’t want to have to compromise my ingredients or my ethos because I believe in my product. So yes, it is a challenge and one that feels like an uphill battle, but one that I am committed to. I know my product is successful because of what it is and if I change to fit the mold, then I’m just another bar. So as an entrepreneur you must be passionate about your product and what you stand for – which can be challenging.
VL: What kind of insights or takeaways did you gain from the Incubator program?
SK: Branding was big for me. The small glimpse into the retail world and the steps I needed to take. It allowed me to have insights on how the wheels turn. The regulatory aspect of working in a commercial kitchen, as well as packaging design from guest speakers like SourceNeutraceutical. I was able to learn about ingredient standards and sourcing. There were so many channels that I had to go through, which in turn helped me with the new packaging that I’m working on. Marlis is still very hands on and is helping me with this transition.
It all comes together, there aren’t one or two things. You need to connect the dots and Venturepark Labs allowed me to see the whole picture where I could then chart my path. Starting with packaging, to retail, to food distributors, to understanding retail channels; the ability to grow feels attainable now.
VL: Any other words of advice?
SK: You have to be passionate. You have to believe in your product and stay firm in it. Go with your gut and think of the ethos of your brand. Think about the basis of which you found your success! Stay true to it rock steady. There will be pivots, but you have to believe in that passion. Believe in yourself. Learn about your product by talking to your customers and find a way to communicate with them. They will tell you what they want and keep you on track.
Swati Karia of Fit Fix Foods
Obsessed about creating guilt-free joyful snacking moments to fuel you through 'life'. Her love for all things natural coupled with her wicked sweet tooth led her to creating a line of mindful snack-bars fuelled with simple ingredients, plant-based protein, no artificial sweeteners, no preservatives and a whole lotta love.