Sonoma County natural-foods entrepreneur preps Taylor Maid coffee, New Barn almond milk for big time
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.
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.