Going back to CALI CALI
Dynamic duo Tom Gannon and Niall McGrath’s latest venture is an exciting new brand combining divergent consumer trends, a distinct market opportunity and an inbuilt retro cool that can’t be bought or borrowed, writes Doug Whelan
16 September 2019 | 0
Getting a food business off the ground in Ireland, or anywhere for that matter, is a tall order. Many attain a certain level of growth before levelling off, while others simply fail in their first year. Sometimes though, just sometimes, a producer’s idea turns out to be lightning in a bottle, and the sky is the limit.
That’s exactly what happened with food entrepreneurs Tom Gannon and Niall McGrath when they revolutionised the snacking segment just three years ago with the Fulfil brand of nutrition bars. In an unfathomably short time, Fulfil became a household name, and while McGrath and Gannon’s exit from the business in 2018 may have been sudden and somewhat acrimonious (more about that later), they wasted not one moment of time, using the momentum they had generated on a personal as well as professional level to catapult themselves right back into the breach.
They say you shouldn’t mix your metaphors, but if you bottle lightning once, can it strike twice? For this duo, there was only one way to find out.
ShelfLife is in Dublin’s Citywest Hotel (home of the C-Store Awards) to sit down with Gannon and McGrath and learn about their latest project, a two-pronged assault encompassing two very different segments with one brand: Cali Cali.
In short, Cali Cali is a both a crisp brand and sauce brand, and while these two things might seem like something of a non-sequitur, Gannon and McGrath’s enthusiasm for the product, and the food business in general, is infectious. Plus, when the duo tell the story of the birth, development and launch of the brand, it actually makes perfect sense.
“We’re trend watchers,” begins McGrath, “so around a year ago we were looking at insights about what the next trends in food might be. What we saw was there are two ‘megatrends’ out there at the moment. One is the trend for healthy eating, which is where we were coming from, and the other one is a trend for international street food.”
These trends are very well known too. Currently in Ireland, there is an obvious passion for Mexican food, while Hawaiian cuisine is also growing steadily. The world is a small place though, and as consumers discover these exotic menus, the chase is on to find the next one, and the next one after that. So what you had was two health food entrepreneurs whose interest was piqued by street food, but there was a third element that acted as a spark plug for their new business: hot sauce.
“We’re in an office of around 17 people,” McGrath explains, “and the kitchen was going through like two bottles a week!
“We ended up looking at that too,” he says, “and thought, right, there is something going on here.”
Research into the sauce segment began in earnest, especially sauces in the context of health and fitness products. McGrath explains that there are sauces billing themselves as “zero calorie” or some other such benefit, but they tend to all contain the artificial sweetener Sucralose, which gives them a “gloopy” characteristic and disappointing taste profile. In short, there was an opening in the market.
At the same time, and as-yet unrelated to their ongoing sauce research, McGrath and Gannon had been also looking at the possibilities available in protein-based crisps. They had been discussing the street food trend with a manufacturer, about how the focus on “low sugar, low fat” products had evolved into snack products based on “real food”. This manufacturer responded immediately and presented them with a trial version of what would eventually become Cali Cali crisps.
Rather than being potato-based (so passé!), Cali Cali crisps are made from a core combination of chickpea flour, rice flour, black beans and green beans. The discovery of this unique new snack became another notch in Gannon and McGrath’s circling of their new venture, and they eventually found themselves looking at the two research areas and considering what to do next.
“We took the snack,” says McGrath, “and we took the sauces, and said what if we were to take the flavours we’ve been researching with the sauce, and applied them to the megatrends we already knew about?”
The next step on the journey was to discover a cuisine and get started on a brand identity. As regular visitors to the USA, Gannon and McGrath were already aware that while New York might be one of the food capitals of the world, it is rarely where trends begin.
“Where do you find trends,” McGrath asks rhetorically. “Portland. Los Angeles, Santa Monica; places like that are where they start.
“Food trends begin life on the West Coast,” he says, “then move to New York to get financed and launch.”
So then, it was to Los Angeles; where Cali Cali’s third founder was working away on his own career, unaware of the proposal that was coming his way. Irish food writer and broadcaster Donal Skehan has lived in LA for some years now, where he appears on multiple television programmes as well as his own highly popular Youtube channel. An acquaintance of McGrath and Gannon’s, the duo travelled to Los Angeles to meet with Skehan, with a view to enlisting his aid in spearheading flavour research for their existing and rapidly flourishing concept.
“So we sat down with him last year over Korean tacos,” McGrath recalls, “to go through with him what we had so far. And throughout the conversation, that same word kept coming up: California food, California lifestyle, California health and snacking, California this and California that…so we brought those things together, shook on it, and the new company was born.”
(As for the name itself, McGrath reveals that Cali Cali was inspired by a line from the iconic rapper Notorious B.I.G., in the track Going Back to Cali. You simply cannot buy that kind of brand identity).
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the energy momentum behind Cali Cali was instantaneous. Having just come away from Fulfil, Gannon and McGrath were energised and hungry, but with a combination of humility and chutzpah they add that it would not have been possible without the high level of cooperation and assistance they got from their partnerships with manufacturers, as well as Kerry Foods, who came on board during the extensive flavour research phase.
“By this stage,” says Gannon, smoothly picking up the story from his business partner, “we were working alongside Kerry Foods; this was an important part of the puzzle because we were really able to experiment. They are some of the best people in the world to be doing that with, and they really rolled out the red carpet for us.”
The runaway success of Fulfil, he says, meant that the duo were in what you might call the ‘difficult second album’ phase; a challenge, but also a bonus because partners in the industry were willing and eager to get in on the ground floor with them.
“We were able to take them right through our vision for the brand’s journey,” Gannon explains, “and as a result we were getting a lot of time off them in terms of NPD. This process might have taken three years instead of one, if it was someone else.”
“If we didn’t have the track record that we have,” McGrath adds emphatically, “Kerry Foods would not have talked to us. That’s a simple fact, but we did have that experience, and people were more willing to take a chance on us.”
Gannon also singles out Circle K as a strong supporter of the fledgling brand. Cali Cali display stands can be seen in stores nationwide, along with a growing number of convenience stores and supermarkets.
“Every retailer has been really supportive so far,” says Gannon, “not just of us personally – they’ve loved the product too. Our aim is to bring incremental value to the segment; we want to bring value from abstainees.”
The Cali Cali train was moving very fast at this stage. With Gannon and McGrath at the centre of the project, their manufacturer was perfecting the crisp, while Skehan was in the USA researching and creating flavour profiles for the brand.
“Donal had sign-off on the flavours,” Gannon recalls, “so he’d be over there calling for more garlic, more chilli, more this or that; meanwhile deadlines were approaching and we were sweating like ‘Donal, we’re on a timeline here!’”
Eventually, after going right down to the wire with the timeline, the next milestone came. Cali Cali made its public debut back in June at the mega-popular Bloom Festival in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, just 10 months after the project had begun. While the crisps and sauces were not yet ready for sale, every flavour and variety were on display for sampling by the festival’s thousands of visitors, as well as the brand being on display as a showcase of sorts for trade.
“You’re never going to get a better sampling opportunity than an event like that,” says Gannon. “We probably had six or seven thousand visitors to the stand over the weekend, and were getting instant reactions from every one of them.”
The sampling went through “kilo after kilo” of sauce and several pallets of crisps, says Gannon. “We weren’t selling at that point,” he says, “but people were asking if they could buy some.”
That was surely a good sign for the future, but still some tweaks were made to the Cali Cali flavours on the back of the feedback gleaned from the Bloom launch. After that, the team was on the final straight ahead of going into production proper.
The public launch of Cali Cali essentially brings the story right up to today, and the debut of the cool and breezy, 1980s-tinged brand profile. McGrath pointedly refers to the wording, which employs the Atari style font synonymous with 80s retro, while the colour scheme is reminiscent of a West Coast sunset. As with the astute research into megatrends that led to the creation of the product to begin with, so too does the branding come with a depth of insight into what Gannon and McGrath are trying to achieve.
“The way we build brands,” McGrath explains, “is to tap into existing memory structures. What you see in it is like your own personal association. Scratch the surface and those images and colours unlock latent residual associations in a person’s head.
“Those associations are brought to the fore,” he says “and the brand has an instant nostalgia to it.
As for that sunset orange across the entire product range, it also was carefully chosen in order to catch shoppers’ eye and disrupt the entire category.
“When I say ‘disrupt,’” he says, “that’s not to say our objective is to steal market share. Every category we go into, we want to grow the market.”
Such was the intention and outcome of the monumental success of Fulfil when Gannon and McGrath launched it in 2006.
“We didn’t go in there to steal from the confectionery market,” he says. “Fulfil grew the market by bringing consumers back in who were at that point steering clear of those products.”
‘Guilt-free’ was the mantra there, and so it is with Cali Cali: guilt-free sauces and snacks.
As for Gannon and McGrath’s quite public exit from the business they founded, at a time when it was poised for global success, both agree it was a tough finish but they were humbled by the level of support they got from colleagues in the industry during that time.
“It was tough,” says McGrath, “but it was a very positive couple of years, and a positive outcome for everyone involved.
“We left with our heads held high,” he adds.
It was the words of support that inspired the duo to dive straight back into their new project – not to mention the fact they were redhot at the time. If they had taken any amount of time to consider their future in the industry or elsewhere, all that reputational capital would have waned eventually.
“We knew we had created something special that was going to last a long, long time,” says Gannon, “but also we had learned so much during that time. We wanted to submerge ourselves in something new really fast. Straight away we said, ‘you know what, let’s make this work’.”
The alternative, he quips, was to go and travel the world for a couple of years and come back wearing dreadlocks and saying to those industry partners, ‘remember me?!’ That was not the move.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that the duo already have two eyes on the future of Cali Cali. Expansion into new categories are planned, as well as brand partnerships, some of which are already underway.
“We’ve got some exciting collaborations on the way,” Gannon says. “It’s all about bringing value to the proposition; some of them want to move as soon as possible but we’re saying hold your horses, let’s get out of the gate first!”
Collaboration between brands is a key to success, says McGrath. “It’s not about promoting each other,” he says, “it’s about something new. These could be temporary products, they could be permanent, but what it will do is build each category in new directions.”
Whenever and whatever form these collaborations take, it’s clear this duo will charge at them full speed, and if their track record is anything to go by, there’s little doubt that consumers will be “going back to Cali Cali” again and again this autumn and beyond.