Viktoria Sater often entertained family and friends with the fruits of her culinary skills. But after students and staff clamored for the granola treats she had baked for a fundraiser at her daughters' school, Sater experienced the entrepreneur's quintessential aha moment.
"I thought, 'This is a great idea for a business,' " said the Port Washington resident.
Today, she is president of Viki's Foods LLC, a 4-year-old company with a customer roster of more than 3,000 chain stores and specialty shops including Whole Foods, Fairway, ShopRite and Stop & Shop. For the past two years company revenue has jumped about 400 percent annually, logging in at $900,000 last year, according to Sater. She anticipates turning a profit in mid-2016.
In January, courtesy of its burgeoning growth, the firm moved from its original production site -- a 2,500-square-foot bakery in Port Washington -- to an 8,500-square-foot plant in a Bethpage industrial park. It produces five granola varieties, including blueberry almond, banana walnut and apple cinnamon. A 12-oz. bag generally retails for $3.99 to $5.39, depending on the store and whether it is on sale, said Sater.
Timing is key
According to experts, Viki's granola is the right product for today's times.
Darren Seifer, the food and beverage analyst at the Port Washington-based research firm NPD, said the line is a beneficiary of the current "better-for-you" trend, which has also lifted the consumption of fresh fruit, yogurt and cheese.
At IRI, a Chicago-based market research company, executive vice president Sally Lyons Wyatt said niche items like granola are a growing presence in mainstream stores because "they provide excitement and bring in customers who don't usually come in."
Experts said Viki's has other things going for it, too, including resealable packaging that dovetails with the on-the-go consumption trend, and label buzzwords that score big with health-conscious consumers, such as "100 percent all natural," "sodium-free" and "gluten-free." It also bears the non-GMO Project Verified label, a third-party verification that it contains no genetically modified organisms.
GMOs were one of the fastest-growing concerns for some consumers in a survey last year, said NPD's Seifer, even though "they're not sure what the concern is about."
Still, challenges abound. Within the granola market, Viki's must compete for the consumer dollar -- and retail shelf space -- with other startups as well as large brands such as Nature Valley.
Although Sater said food brokers help market Viki's to stores and she has secured major distributors to deliver the line, the onus remains largely on her company to get its granola into shopping carts, which is a must for retaining retail accounts.
"Getting it on the shelf is a huge challenge, and then getting it off the shelf is another huge challenge," said Sater, who supports her brand with price promotions and uses demonstration companies for in-store tastings.
Sater's success exemplifies the dream of many Long Island mompreneurs who yearn to turn their homemade edibles into a business.
"I had been a stay-at-home mom, not in the food industry and no idea how to start a food company," said the Ukraine-born entrepreneur who, before landing in New York, lived in Israel, Belgium and California.
How she did it
To get started, she bought the book "Sell Your Specialty Food: Market, Distribute, and Profit from Your Kitchen Creation," by Stephen Hall, which served as her veritable follow-the-dots guide to launching Viki's Foods. With an initial $25,000 investment from savings, she leased commercial space and purchased baking pans and ingredients. North Shore Farms in Port Washington was her first customer.
These days, Sater travels more than 40 percent of the year to prospective and existing accounts nationwide. She also works the trade show circuit.
According to Ben Mandell, executive vice president of a six-store Key Food operation, which is part of the Key Food cooperative, his chain started buying Viki's three years ago partly because of her visibility.
"At the food shows, you don't see the owners of the specialty brands but reps," said Mandell, noting that Sater, in contrast, is a "very hands-on" owner.