Jayden Hemmings was only 8 months old when he showed signs of developmental delays. When his parents, Jilea and Jamie Hemmings, learned Jayden was on the autism spectrum, they looked for ways to help him progress, including a diet of only natural foods. "But we both worked full time, and it was hard to make traditional home-cooked meals every night," Jilea, said.
To save time, Jilea looked for frozen organic meals for Jayden, but didn’t find anything that tasted really good. So she decided to harness her cooking skills and create her own product. Now the Hemmingses own Greenie Tots, a line of frozen organic meals for kids.
Here’s how they did it:
The big idea
Greenie Tots is a line of frozen, organic entrees for kids that are meatless, but have the texture of meat. There are five entrees, including macaroni and cheese and peas, pasta with spinach marinara and Chik’n nuggets (a soy product) and sweet potatoes. Entrees are 6-7 ounces and can be heated in the microwave or oven. They sell for $4.49 at Whole Foods and at www.greenietots.com.
The daughter of an entrepreneur, Jilea loves to cook, but went to school for business. She has a bachelor’s and master’s in business administration from Florida A&M in Tallahassee. She still works full-time in pharmaceutical sales.
Her husband Jamie, has a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in business administration from Florida State University. He worked as a health insurance agent before joining Greenie Tots full time in June 2012. The couple live in Plantation.
Jilea got the idea for the business in 2008 when Jayden was 1 and she was pregnant with her second son, Jaxon. The day after Jaxon was born, she opened her laptop in the hospital and started doing research on the industry, to find out what products were being offered, and who was doing it.
She and Jamie began to visit grocery stores, to buy frozen kids’ meals to evaluate them for taste. Jilea began to develop recipes, and looked at how to make traditional kids' food healthier.
She researched the food industry and started looking for a commercial kitchen to lease. They decided to go with a kitchen in New York, where Jilea’s mom, Toni, lived at the time.
Greenie Tots tested products on kid focus groups, and launched its initial product line at the end of 2009. The original line included 12 items -- infant purees, plus entrees for toddlers and kids that were the same food, but in different portion sizes, Jilea said. They originally packaged the food in bags that could be boiled or microwaved. Jilea and Jamie sold the products at farmers markets on weekends and online.
They used the New York kitchen for six months, then found an Italian restaurant in Sunrise that could lease them a kitchen at night. Jilea and Jamie do everything – cook, package and ship.
Things changed when they began talks with Whole Foods in March 2011. The revamped the product line, eliminating the infant purees and combining the rest to kid-size meals. They downsized product offerings from 12 to five. They changed the packaging from bags to trays that could be microwaved or prepared in an oven.
Jilea said they had the products tested for shelf life and nutrition, and became organic certified.
"We didn’t change the recipes, because people liked what we had to offer," Jilea said. "We just wanted to have a third-party certification."
A website was set up in 2009, and the couple began selling products online and at farmers markets. They’ve hired public relations consultants on and off to get exposure on television and in national press.
"But I knew if I wanted to increase credibility, I needed to be in a major chain," Jilea said. Publix told them they didn’t take on "mom and pop" businesses, and that they would have to be represented by a major distributor. Whole Foods had a program more welcoming to local vendors, Jilea said. They got on the shelf there in October 2011.
The Hemmingses also have partnered with schools and events to sample products and get visibility. They do demos, discounts and coupons through Whole Foods, and offer coupons online. They have tried paid advertising in regional parenting magazines and in a national magazine.
Greenie Tots started a Facebook page two years ago, where they advertise demos and engage with fans by posting articles about healthy eating. They also developed a Greenie Tots
app to provide brand information, product updates and a link to the website.
The Hemmingses spent about $40,000 getting the product off of the ground, including product testing, development, website, packaging, shipping and ingredients. They’ve invested about $130,000 in total, self-funding from retirement funds. Greenie Tots sells about 400 units a month and is not yet profitable.
Manpower and capital. "We want to do a lot more, but we have limited time," Jilea said. "There’s only so much two people can do."
Greenie Tots has been in talks to get products into Costco, so they are moving manufacturing to a Chicago facility in the fall to handle the increase in volume.
Future plans include adding desserts, gluten- and casein-free foods, and a product line for adults. They would like to get into school systems, and to do some outreach and provide free meals to inner-city schools.
Jilea and Jamie rise at 5 a.m. and make a plan for the day. They get Jayden, now 4; Jaxon, now 3; and baby Jia, 1, ready for the day. Jamie leaves at 7:30 a.m. with the kids and brings the older two to school.
Jilea works at her pharmaceutical job from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Throughout the day, she checks emails or orders, Facebook and demo scheduling.
After her day job, she gets the kids settled with homework, dinner, then bed at 7:30 p.m.
On a production day, about once a month, Jilea’s mom will come over to watch the kids, while Jilea and Jamie head to the leased kitchen. They’ll be there until 1 or 2 a.m.
"We’re not sleeping a lot," Jilea said. "We’re like zombies on those days."
About three times a week, Jilea and Jamie will head to the kitchen to make food for their weekend demos. On those nights, they’re home at 11 p.m.
"The hardest part is to start. Once you start, you can find momentum. You can find the hours in the day," Jilea said. "There are a lot of resources out there for women-