AUSTIN, Texas — Epic Provisions has had an epic year. In 2016, the meat snack company launched 12 new products, nearly tripled the size of its team, opened a new warehouse in Austin, grew top-line revenue 2.6 times, added more than 16,000 points of distribution and was acquired by General Mills.
“Things moved so fast this year that we didn’t really appreciate how much we had accomplished until the end of the year when we started talking as a team,” said Taylor Collins, who co-founded Epic Provisions with wife Katie Forrest in 2013. “‘What are you proud about? What made you happy this year?’ When we started to write down all of these things, we thought, ‘Wow, we did accomplish a lot.’ It wasn’t by any means all easy.”
Epic is debuting its latest innovation, a range of premium jerky snack strips, at the Winter Fancy Food Show, held Jan. 22-24 in San Francisco. Varieties include Wagyu Beef, Venison Salt Pepper, Smoked Salmon Maple and Turkey Cranberry Sage. Inspired by a convenience store staple, the strip format may be more familiar to mainstream consumers than the brand’s original line of meat bars, Collins said.
“It’s definitely more mass friendly right off the bat,” Collins told Food Business News, a sister publication to MEAT+POULTRY. “It’s a more familiar form for our product to be presented in, but we’re still trying to do things with meats that people might not be exposed to, like venison and wagyu beef. We’re doing an early three-month exclusive with Whole Foods, but this product is definitely bigger than the natural foods set.”
Another accomplishment of the past year was the development of the Whole Animal Initiative, a nose-to-tail effort that has spurred the introduction of such products as bone broth, animal cooking fat, beef liver snack bites and pork rinds. The company also purchased more than 200,000 lbs. of regeneratively raised animal meat, creating a positive impact on the environment and, as Collins wrote in a recent blog post on the company website, “changing the narrative on ‘sustainability’ at the executive level of one of the world’s largest food companies.”
In an interview, Collins discussed Epic’s whirlwind pace of product development, emerging competition in the premium jerky category and the company’s first year as a subsidiary of General Mills.
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In the past two years, you’ve introduced bone broth, cooking fats, pork rinds and more to the market. How do you develop and launch products so quickly?
Collins: We just move fast. We don’t plan our innovation or a product pipeline a year or two years out. We have no idea what Epic is going to be making a year from now.
So the approach we take is always trying to keep a really close pulse on what’s happening within the food industry, and the second we find something, we critically evaluate it over a week or two, and then we commit all out to doing it.
With the strips, from the moment we thought, “Let’s do it,” it took us about two-and-a-half to three months to execute it and ship it out to a national account. So it really is all about staying nimble and pivoting and just being able to be responsive to those market trends and move fast. And that’s something that I hope we have influenced General Mills and taught them that there is extreme value in. Certainly things are slower with them, but they are pushing themselves way out of their comfort zone to innovate aggressively.
What has the acquisition by General Mills enabled your company to do?
Collins: I think there’s maybe a false sense that because we were acquired by General Mills we’re just dumped with resources and have so much more muscle and money, but that’s really not the case. They truly have let us maintain autonomy, and we have our own P&L. We’re running the business like we’ve always run it.
Certainly they have provided us tremendous resources and quality assurance and then, with some of our larger mission-based initiatives, they have supported us with some awesome funding. But it hasn’t come without struggle.
Things slow down and are a lot more bureaucratic. There is way more structure in the organization, whereas before I always felt like Epic was a colony of ants. Okay, maybe more like a beehive, but everyone knew what they were doing. There was no org chart. Everyone was just so in tune with this living organism that was Epic. Everyone just on their own got done what they needed to get done without micromanagement. But that’s changed a lot.
They’ve never tried to step into the innovation/product development part of the business. That and the marketing department have had zero influence by General Mills.
Now that the premium meat snack market has expanded, what is your perspective of the competitive landscape?
Collins: I think it’s really great that more companies are stepping up and sourcing meat responsibly. With that, really adding a lot of validation to this idea that high-quality meat can be very nourishing for the consumer. We love having reinforcements and other brands backing us up and telling that same story.
To stay competitive with food in general, you can’t make “me, too” products. That’s the reason we made meat bars instead of plant-based bars. People need to stay innovative and continue to develop products that are authentic and genuine and solve a problem in their own lives or for specific consumer needs.
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A lot of times, when companies are just trying to jump on a bandwagon because something is trending and a category of a grocery store is growing, consumers can smell that inauthenticity from a mile away and want nothing to do with it. I think people just have to be genuine and create cool disruptive products, and then they can win.
What’s next for Epic Provisions?
Collins: This year is very much focused toward optimizing, and so I think we can take a step back and look at the products we have right now and work on making them even better. We have a lot of resources that are going toward that.
As far as the brand, Katie and I last year when we sold Epic we were looking to purchase an Epic ranch with 11 different species of animals, and we would have retail partners, ranchers that we source from, kind of more as an educational hub but also an actual part of our supply chain. That’s still something that we’re pursuing very aggressively. I hope that by the middle of this year Epic Ranch is a thing and people are able to come out there and learn and explore and it’s really inspiring and just a great place.