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It’s going to be a big year of change for natural-foods brand steward and builder Ted Robb, whose ventures include the fast-growing New Barn almond milk and west Sonoma County-born Taylor Maid Farms coffee.

Operating out of a converted stone winery building in Healdsburg, Robb’s business pursuits include the InHouse agency, which offers brand creative design, strategy and sales services; administrative offices for Taylor Maid; and one of two offices for New Barn. This year, all that will be expanding to larger quarters in Rohnert Park as the coffee company expands regionally under a new name, a Central Valley craft coffee company joins the fold and New Barn takes off nationally.

“We’re at a really important moment right now, where we’re crossing over from first-gen to second-gen,” Robb said.

Robb’s move into brand building is focused on coffee as a craft beverage and on plant-based food. It’s driven by a passion to keep the natural-foods business from being “watered down” by an influx of capital from large companies and a lack of tougher standards beyond “organic,” namely the treatment of creatures involved in food and beverage production. He realizes the important direction set by local trailblazers such as the Berliners of Amy’s Kitchen and Drake Sadler of Traditional Medicinals.

To accommodate the growth of InHouse as well as the beverage ventures, Robb is moving those headquarters from Healdsburg to SOMO Village. It’s a former high-technology production facility turned business park and future housing development in southeast Rohnert Park. Also moving are Taylor Maid’s corporate offices and the second office of New Barn. Twenty staff members are making the move, growing to 30 to 50 over the next five years.

The coffee bar at SOMO Village will be a training facility for staff in current and forthcoming locations.

BRAND STORY-TELLER

Robb started InHouse 15 years ago. He had graduated from University of the Pacific with a degree in English and film in 2002 and pursued a career in movie-making.

“I went to L.A. and spent a week down there, and I was, like, nope, I’m coming home,” Robb said. “That was enough.”

As he was casting about for a new career, an unsuccessful job interview with Peet’s Coffee & Tea led Robb toward an idea for natural-foods brand consulting.

“A lot of these brands in the natural-food world really couldn’t afford to hire an agency,” Robb said. “They didn’t want to deal with individual freelancers at that point. It was when the industry was starting to pick up momentum.”

The idea for InHouse emerged to create a consultancy that functioned like an in-house marketing team, a flexible marketing department that could scale up and down as clients needed it. It would be an agency that merged Robb’s original passion for telling stories on screen.

“Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t a lot of story-telling in the industry,” he said. “There wasn’t sophisticated marketing. There was a lot of communication that had to happen to the customer.”

What is commonplace now with explaining the why, how and who behind natural foods was not common at the dawn of the 21st century, Robb said.

He had grown up watching the growth of North Bay natural-foods businesses such as Amy’s Kitchen, Barbara’s Bakery, Clover Sonoma and Traditional Medicials. His father, Walter Robb, started working for Whole Foods Market in Marin County in the early 1990s and worked his way up to co-president then co-CEO from 2004 through his departure from management in 2016. Today, Amy’s, Clover and Traditional Medicials remain privately held, each have annual sales in nine figures. Barbara’s sold to Weetabix Food Co. in 1986.

The eye-popping natural-foods marketing moment for Robb, where strategically marketed natural foods garnered serious attention from mainstream food companies, was the 2014 purchase of Berkeley-based Annie’s Homegrown for $820 million. Started in 1989, Annie’s bunny-forward marketing strategy later was supercharged by John Foraker. The company had been based in Napa until 2011.

Robb started InHouse with a new-media focus of videos and websites to reach the tech generation of customers.

For example, the agency worked extensively with Pitman Family Farms in Petaluma on its Mary’s Free Range Chicken brand, which also includes turkey. InHouse recorded video on how to cook a turkey properly and included that in each shipment.

Other major customers for InHouse have been major retailers like Whole Foods and Nordstrom as well as small startup merchants. Though large companies may have their own marketing budgets, InHouse received specific roles, such as translating messages from top Nordstrom executives into effective employee newsletters. The company also produced events for clients.

“It was typically bringing a younger, more media-driven approach to telling their message, whether internal or external,” Robb said.

But it hasn’t just been about executing on creative materials for marketing plans. InHouse has put emphasis on brand positioning, to focus the marketing plan on the most effective messaging and media to reach a target market.

“We started as a story-telling agency, and now it’s a full-service agency,” Robb said. That includes planning for the launch of a brand, putting it into action with design and media then getting the brand before consumers.

OUTSOURCED SALES

Two years ago, InHouse added a sales-outsourcing service, offering clients a sales team for hire. J.D. Collins is the vice president of that unit. Robb likens it to a corporate jet fractional-ownership program, which offers the convenience, discretion and prestige of private aviation but without the huge cost of aircraft ownership and operation.

“We give little brands a fractional VP of sales,” Robb said. With that comes sales strategy and support for promotions and distribution management. “It’s not uncommon for a lot of the little brands we work with on the creative side to struggle with getting distribution. Or they go into it without knowing the rules of engagement.”

And the big shift in retail epitomized by Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods likely is going to disrupt clarity of the effective path to market for consumer packaged goods for the next several years, Robb said.

“Now, it might mean e-commerce or independents like Oliver’s (Market),” Robb said. “There’s a number of paths to market these days, but small brands need guidance in getting to those accounts.”

CONSULTANT BECOMES BRAND BUILDER

After helping to build clients’ natural food and beverage brands over the years that also includes Humboldt Creamery and Blue Bottle, InHouse started looking to own its own brands. Robb assembled six other investors three years ago to launch the almond milk brand New Barn. The concept was incubated out of InHouse’s main offices in Healdsburg, and now is based in Modesto. Robb is chairman and CEO of the venture.

New Barn is distributed in nearly 5,000 stores nationwide and is said to be the biggest-selling organic almond milk in the U.S. Conventional almond milk by nut growers continues to dominate the market overall.

“We felt the hole in the market was organic,” Robb said.

New Barn also has a line of organic almond milk frozen dessert, called AlmondCrème. The brand has recently been reformulated to be entirely plant-based, and the brand is being positioned to capitalize on that distinction.

Robb’s interest in plant-based food led him to focus his energy on New Barn and other brand ventures, turning the day-to-day operation of the InHouse agencies over to business partner Ryan O’Halloran. Robb now is chairman. Then in mid-2016, Robb, three partners and an equity investor acquired Sebastopol-based coffee company Taylor Maid Farms.

Recently, Robb has created two venture vehicles. One is New Food SPV, totally focused on New Barn, and Propagate SPV, aimed at coffee-related brands. New Food in March led a $3.75 million round of funding for New Barn.

In Propagate are Robb’s stakes in Taylor Maid and newly added Central Valley-based Trail Coffee Roasters. New Food and Propagate take the place of InHouse Ventures.

Taylor Maid has been undergoing several organizational changes recently to prepare the brand to scale up. With only 12,000 square feet of roastery space at The Barlow industrial development in Sebastopol, Taylor Maid was pretty much tapped out capacitywise after landing a contract to supply Safeway grocery stores in Northern California. Such is a move is key to the two-pronged growth strategy for the brand: wholesale and retail.

Now, Tailor Maid is roasting in a 77,000-square-foot Petaluma facility, arranged by partner Mike Mountanos, part of the fifth generation running Mountanos Family Coffee & Tea out of that city.

NEW NAME, NEW CEO

Taylor Maid also just brought in a new CEO, Darleen Scherer, former founder and CEO of Gorilla Coffee in Brooklyn, New York.

And in June, Taylor Maid is getting rebranded as Taylor Lane, the name of the road in the western Sonoma County community of Occidental where Chris and Terry Martin started the organic coffee company in 1991.

“We feel that the word ‘maid’ is a little outdated in 2018,” Robb said. “I wouldn’t call my daughter a maid. We feel that one of the higher purposes of the company is to focus on gender and social equality.”

And part of the rebranding of what is now Taylor Lane will include a strong local focus.

“We are positioning the brand to be from Sonoma County, as opposed to being just in it,” Robb said.

With a quarter-century of legacy and new production scale, Taylor Lane is poised to be a national force in organic coffee, he said. The brand primarily is distributed in Northern California and since the beginning of the year has expanded into the southern half of the state. The goal is to take the brand nationwide by the second quarter of next year, Robb said.

The third partner in Taylor Lane is Michael Woods, a South San Francisco-based Baywood Capital Corp., which is involved in real estate investment and construction. His involvement is key to the retail growth of the brand growth, which means opening more Taylor Lane stores. One opened in Petaluma recently, and store-in-store locations are bound for Whole Foods site in Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa and in San Francisco’s Castro District.

“We’ll be at five stores this year, and we’re looking at 20 in 24 months,” Robb said. Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties are the base for the Northern California expansion. “We know that Equator (Coffee & Tea of San Rafael) is coming this way, and we’re going that way.”

San Rafael-based Equator Coffee & Tea told the Business Journal late last year that it is seeking store locations in Sonoma County, among other North Bay spots.

CENTRAL VALLEY TRAIL

The new Trail Coffee Roasters company is based on supply from a single farm on Cerro de Jesus in Nicaragua. Bing Kirk, a partner in the venture, purchased the farm in the 1970s. Stepdaughter Gianna Vickari moved from Brooklyn to work at the roastery in a downtown Stockton alley. They created a Blue Bottle-style company that sold coffee from the facility.

Robb said he’s been watching Stockton for a while, as he and family members have attended college in the Central California city.

“Stockton is like Detroit of the West Coast,” Robb said. “It’s one of the last affordable places in California.”

Home to artists and furniture makers in the downtown area, it’s the largest inland port of commerce in California. And like Detroit, the city went bankrupt, filing in 2012 and emerging in 2015.

“It’s one of the most diverse cities in California and has north of 500,000 people in the metro area,” Robb said. “And you have zero local specialty coffee.”

The new Trail roastery and 3,500-square-foot café was opened on Main Street near a Chase office and the courthouse in downtown Stockton in March. The plan is to scale that business to have most likely standalone locations northeast toward Lake Tahoe, southeast to Fresno and west to Pleasanton. It’s an area Robb sees as underserved by local coffee brands outside the Sacramento area.

STANDALONE VS. IN-STORE

While coffee shops in their own locations provide the most flexibility for running the brand program, they also require more capital to open, Robb said. But properly configured partnerships — percentage of sales, capital input and rent — with host grocers can benefit both sides.

“For Whole Foods, foot traffic is a good thing for them,” Robb said. “For us, using their real estate, their backend infrastructure saves us quite a bit of capital. But for our customer, we have the cool backdrop of the grocery store. We can build in convenience for them.”

Speed of opening was a deciding factor in going into a Whole Foods store in San Francisco, versus trying to find a dedicated shop space elsewhere then secure permits, he said.

The decision to operate in another store or one of its own also comes down to which is better for fulfilling three consumer needs: convenience, community, and food and beverage, Robb said. Convenience includes ample parking and the ability to order ahead, especially on a mobile app. Coffee shops as a place for social or business meetings is an example of creating community, he said.

The food side of the equation is a growing focus for beverage shops, Robb said.

“It’s bigger than a cup of coffee or cappuccino,” he said. “It’s being thoughtful about the food offerings our customers are looking for. An egg sandwich in the morning? The right salad at lunch? And making it a meaningful place to come and work or grab and go.”

Food items might be something Taylor Lane and Trail produce in-house or outsource, Robb said.

WHOLESALE VS. RETAIL

Part of the relationship between the coffee producer and the retailer also includes wholesale, placing beans in the store aisles for consumers to buy for home brewing. Bean sales and prepared coffee sales in the same location are complimentary, Robb said.

“We feel they go hand in hand, and that happens either inside of a store or in one of our own,” he said. “It’s a convenience factor.”

A longtime practice of Taylor Maid in Sebastopol has been to refill consumer cans of coffee beans by request, when they come in for a brew, but that hasn’t translated much over to the other location, Robb said. Instead, consumers tend to buy a bag of beans on the same trip when they’re purchasing a cup to go.

The strategy is not to compete with online retailers like Amazon on sales of filters, brewers and grinders. Rather, it’s to offer things in the shop that it may be more challenging to have delivered — grab-and-go meals — and locally produced goods, Robb said. For example, the goal for the Petaluma store is to carry offer selections from the Petaluma Seed Bank.

PATHS FOR GROWTH

While a natural-foods brand, New Barn is on a planned trajectory similar to other consumer packaged goods: expand distribution and grow in scale. Often, that path ends in an acquisition. However, the plan for Taylor Lane is to hold it long term and closely associate the brands with their local communities.

Those brand strategies result in different conversations with retailers. For New Barn, conversations are with national retailers are mainly about national promotions. Regional promotions are with regional players such as Good Eggs of South San Francisco.

Whereas with Taylor Lane, brand programming with Whole Foods tends to focus on specific regions.

“Eventually, when Taylor Lane becomes more of a national brand, we’ll switch it to a national relationship,” Robb said.

And now the conversation with Whole Foods has changed the natural foods path to market, he said. Before the 2017 acquisition by Amazon, Whole Foods was a dominant player in that niche of the industry, and now it’s a “springboard” for a brand’s entry into the huge Amazon e-commerce reach.

“Consumer brands have to rethink how they approach Whole Foods and Amazon, as opposed to Whole Foods as it used to be,” Robb said.

This shift has made national retailers such as Safeway, Albertsons, Raley’s and Savemart more interested in thinking regionally, he said.

“They’re really being progressive in helping brands find their way to their stores, in a much more aggressive manner than ever before,” Robb said. “Going to Safeway (as a brand owner) now is like going to Whole Foods five years ago.”

That said, he noted that Robert Twyman, Northern California regional president for Whole Foods, has been working to keep an emphasis on local-products procurement.

E-COMMERCE

Consumer-products makers are still trying to find the best path to market in a retail landscape under pressure from and adapting to e-commerce. Key to entering that sales channel is the perishability of the product, Robb said. For refrigerated New Barn almond milk, the partners have lined up with Good Eggs, because it understands e-commerce for perishable natural foods, he said.

For coffee, the path to e-commerce is more flexiable. That means the Propagate’s coffees will start becoming available via online retailers.

“Probably, you’ll see a K-cup from Taylor Lane,” Robb said, referring to ready-to-brew single-serve containers popularized by home brewer maker Keurig. “I never thought I’d say that. It will be compostable. But that’s what the customer wants, so we have to get there.”

While K-cup lovers tend to shop online for them, consumers who like conventional brewing but the convenience of home delivery could be reached through subscriptions, where containers or grounds or beans arrive on a recurring schedule, Robb said. That kind of predictable revenue is appealing, he said.

“We have a lot to learn from wine,” Robb said.

Wine clubs have been shipping consumers bottles or cases from their favorite vintners or from custom-produced selections for years. That accelerated after a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling paved the way for more interstate wine deliveries to consumers.

And Robb also is exploring how coffee and wine can be complimentary items in winery or third-party club shipments.

Contact Jeff Quackenbush at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.