Keep it simple, genuine, and real.
This is the mantra that Brazi Bites founders Junea Rocha and her husband Cameron MacMullin live and work by, and, of course, this is the philosophy that lives in the hearts and minds of many Oregonians.
But more than just a mantra, it defines the brand values of a company that is on a journey to bring a little taste of Brazil to the United States. A journey that began when Junea initially made her way to the U.S. through a work exchange program, and has taken the couple from growing local production here in Portland to being in front of the cameras on Shark Tank.
It’s a journey that began with the simple desire to make the distance between Brazil and Portland seem a bit smaller, one tasty bite at a time.
Bringing a taste of home to Oregon
“I grew up with Pao de Queijo (pronounced “pow day kayyo”) a popular Brazilian staple, cheese bread. When I met and married my husband Cameron, I moved to Portland to be with him. Soon I started missing my favorite snack and realized I couldn’t find it here. In 2009, I asked my mother for her recipe. This recipe began several generations ago with my grandmother, who grew up on a farm, with fresh milk, eggs and cheese.”
The first challenge Junea encountered was finding the right cheese.The cheese used in Brazil is called Minas. It is not available in the U.S. Thus, they went about finding a replacement – no easy task.
The process involved testing hundreds of cheeses. Junea and Cameron tried every possible combination, and through trial and error, found that mild white cheddar with parmesan gives the perfect cheesy bite.
The bread has very few ingredients in it. Along with the cheeses, milk and eggs, Brazi Bites uses tapioca flour from Brazil, safflower oil, water and salt. The bread is naturally free from gluten, soy, and sugar but is loaded with taste.
With the recipe set, it was time to do some market research.
“Our first test of the product was at the Spring Beer and Wine Festival here in Portland. We made a ton of freshly baked product and it sold out half way through the show. We knew then that we had something special.”
But having something special does not always translate into being a successful business.
To get started, the couple took a 12-week course on how to take a family recipe to market, offered at Portland City College. The course covered packaging, regulations, marketing and branding, which gave them a huge leg up.
“The recipe-to-market class is unique to Portland as is the support system here. People are very willing to share their expertise and see you succeed. Another thing we found is shared kitchen space. Because it’s so expensive to start, we looked into sharing our overhead at a facility in Tigard. We did that for a year, then moved on to our own location. When we were ready to leave, there was another up and coming company ready to move in. This ecosystem is very important – not only are you sharing costs but knowledge. The mistakes NOT made because of the shared experiences … this is invaluable.”
But even with the knowledge gained and support of the Oregon food ecosystem, success is still hard to come by. Going from markets and shows to grocery freezers many times takes having a key person on your side.
Junea and Cameron found a champion in Denise Breyley, a local forager with Whole Foods. Denise travels the Northwest to find the best new products and produce to bring to Whole Foods, before anyone else sees them.
“Denise saw us at a food event early in our journey. She tasted our bread, loved it and gave us the chance with Whole Foods. We started in the Pearl store and grew from there. She has helped us get Brazi Bites into more stores, more regions of the country, even helped us with better shelf space.”
To honor the invaluable mentoring, Junea and Cameron give in return. It’s a way of recognizing the ecosystem does not thrive without putting in as much as you get out.
“Denise is always doing events for Whole Foods so we support her with product. And, we will meet with younger brands she is working with, to share our knowledge and experience.”
Sounds simple, right? Work hard and focus. Always listen to your customer. Adjust to market conditions, the next obstacle, the next lesson. Give back to the ecosystem that gave so much to you.
It also takes a good team of employees.
“The employees love working here because it’s a family company and they know that Cameron and I have done every single job here. We’ve mixed the dough, swept the floors, checked the freezers and they know this. Working side by side builds mutual respect.”
Success also takes something else – the guts and courage to put it all out there.
In November of last year, the couple went before the Sharks on the hit TV show Shark Tank.
“Shark Tank was one of the coolest experiences we’ve had, nerve wracking but you also know something big is happening. We went on the show with so much gratitude just to be there, that we actually had a blast.”
And of course, the Sharks loved the bread. Junea and Cameron are now negotiating a deal. The details are not ready to be released, but they will be shortly.
Growing by concentrating on the core
From a simple idea to being under the lights of Shark Tank, The Brazi Bites journey is one that has taken many twists and turns – so what’s next?
Currently Brazi Bites comes in four flavors: the original cheese bread plus Jalapeno Pepper Jack, Garlic Asiago and Nitrate-Free Bacon. That’s it for now for this “take and bake” style snack found in the frozen freezer department of over 1,000 grocery stores.
With the growth comes questions on how to expand and enhance the product line. Whether to add more flavors or brand extensions are questions many founders ask themselves. But to Junea and Cameron, the answers always tie back to being true to what they started. They realize that if you lose your focus, the core brand can go sideways, or worse, downhill altogether.
“We are staying really focused on Brazilian cheese bread, period. Potentially we might do more flavors and more sizes but we want to remain true to the original cheese bread line’” adding
“We work very hard and focus on the quality of our product. It’s a daily fight to make sure you make the best product while you continue to grow.”
Since September of last year, Brazi Bites sales have grown 10-fold per month.
“We don’t want to be another casualty of the food industry. ‘Oh you have the perfect artisanal product, everyone loves you, you have a great family story.’ And then you get so big your quality goes – you’re everywhere, and you have a horrible product because you grew too fast while trying to save another 5 cents.
We want to offer an artisanal product that has national distribution. Sometimes you have to say ‘no.’ We walked away from a lower quality of cheese and tapioca flour and said no to fillers. The margins would go up but the product would suffer.”
It all goes back to the original mantra of simple, genuine and real.
“Our story would not have happened anywhere else in the country, with the exception of maybe Austin, Texas and possibly Denver or New York City “ says Junea. “Because Portland knows about great food and artisanal products, you start your company out at a very high level, otherwise, you will not succeed. People here want the best of the best.”
The end game for Junea and Cameron?
“We want Brazi Bites to be in every freezer in every grocery store all over the country.”
They are well on their way.