Veggie Confetti: From at-home vegetable pickling to multi-region CPG success

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Cullen Gilchrist  All right. This is Cullen, CEO and founder of Union Kitchen. And I'm here with Kelsey, from Veggie Confetti. We're going to talk today about what Kelsey has been doing for the last couple years, maybe a little bit before that, and learn about how she got here. And all the fun things that happen there. So, hi, Kelsey.


Kelsey Tressler Hey Cullen, how's it going?


Cullen Gilchrist It's going very well, happy that we get to have this conversation. There's no video. But Kelsey is, is about to give birth. And she's been so kind to come here and have this conversation with me regardless.


Kelsey Tressler Exactly. Due date was yesterday, and I had to hold off for the podcast.


Cullen Gilchrist Good. This is important content. Alright, so Kelsey, just want to talk a little bit. So I'll ask you some questions. And you know, hopefully, you have incredibly insightful things to say.


Kelsey Tressler Awesome.


Cullen Gilchrist Cool. So just to start us off, why don't you introduce yourself. Like, who is Kelsey, you know, where you're from, and how did you end up in the world of food?


Kelsey Tressler Yeah, definitely. So my name is Kelsey Tressler. I'm from the Washington DC area. So local, local ish born and raised here. And I guess how did I end up in the world of food. Prior to starting veggie confetti, I have always worked for different retail companies and retail management, and have worked for brands that are extremely value driven. So when I got out of school, I was super interested in food and ready to take the next step and had to take some prerequisite classes before wanting to jump back into a nutrition degree. And while I was doing that, I ended up working for Lululemon Athletica. And I think that really starting working for a company like that it was so interesting, because I, you know, it was a brand that I loved. But I, when I started working for them, I saw behind the curtain, and just how it was this big, amazing business that I could be a part of. And so worked for Lululemon Athletica for a period of time, then got to work for Whole Foods, which obviously was a great asset before starting your own food business, And then worked for blue bottle coffee. So I think what, what these companies all really showed me is I was working at these places where I didn't feel like I was at work. I felt like I was living their brand and their mission, and would just find myself in my spare time constantly making up logos or business ideas or food products, whatever it was. And so I always knew that one day, I would probably start something. I just didn't know what it was.


Cullen Gilchrist When did you start Veggie Confetti?


Kelsey Tressler I started veggie confetti... I think it was summer of 2018.


Cullen Gilchrist Gotcha. So a couple years ago. Maybe two and a half years ago.


Kelsey Tressler Two and a half years ago.


Cullen Gilchrist And then so you're you're working in food, food retail, thinking that you're going to want to use these skills, maybe do your own thing at some point. Exactly. And I think it was, it was kind of one of those things where it was always like a "what if", it wasn't like a sure thing. It was just like, you know, waiting for the timing and the right idea and all those... the magic things that kind of perfectly come together. Yeah. Well, they did. You started your company in 2018. When you were working... this is what I was doing. So before I started Union Kitchen in 2012, every job I had prior to that, was entirely about how can I learn enough about this industry so I could kind of, you know, start a business one day.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist Were you being pretty intentional about that. And those, you know, how many ever years before 2018? Like, okay, I want to go the extra mile here. I want to learn more here. You know, I'll sign up for the next class or I'll stay late and you know, merchandise the broccoli. Yeah, exactly. No, I think definitely it was it was a little bit of both. It was... I almost didn't see, I think I was lucky enough to be getting this education. And I was 50% aware of how awesome it was. But you know, now having left that world I'm like, wow, I really was able to absorb so much just from working in those industries. So it was a little bit of both. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, those are great companies.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist Certainly value driven.


Kelsey Tressler Very, value driven.


Cullen Gilchrist So you started in 2018. So tell us about Veggie Confetti and kind of like, what's the passion that drove you to start this? Yeah. So um, I started in 2018. And I guess I didn't even really know I was getting started. And I think how I got started as I've always been a foodie my entire life and have just loved loved food. And then have kind of like, also loved creativity and design and aesthetics and was spending a lot of time just doing food photography at home. And then a lot of time just investing in my own understanding of nutrition and food and what eating whole foods means. And I belong to a CrossFit gym. Just finding out the best way to fuel my body, and was kind of found, I guess, just a lot of joy in creating meals that were nutritionally dense, beautiful the photograph, and put on my Instagram, and beautiful and enjoyable to eat. So spent a lot of time doing that and found out that what was jumping out in all these different places was color was like the biggest thing that was coming up as something that was nutritionally dense and driving my workouts. Color was showing up on how I was taking my food photography and how, how engaging my pictures were. So how I was adding or manipulating color. And then that color was really like how people were responding to my food photography, or when I was at work, and I'd open up my meal prep container, and they would say, Oh, my gosh, like, what is that? Did you did you make that. So I truly was looking for more pops of color and flavor to add to my food, and I started pickling onions. And I just kept experimenting and you know, looking at what other people were doing online or to find a recipe and give it a shot and say, oh, that color wasn't dense enough for my food photography. So I want to try again and make it more dense or whatever it was. And was literally pickling these onions taking pictures and just kind of like I said before, was always on Canva or, you know, a design app, like creating logos. And next thing I knew I was like, "Oh, this is just like Veggie Confetti" and putting it on everything.  And you're doing all this at home.


Kelsey Tressler Correct.


Cullen Gilchrist So your free time, you're at home, just having fun messing around with this.


Kelsey Tressler Exactly. Yeah. So it was totally free time, totally for fun. And I think I one of my goals that I had written down Lululemon is all about... it's a goal driven organization and really like creating your life based on goals. And I think I written down one of my goals is I want to get my next job through my Instagram profile, which I was trying to build with like, food photography, right?


Cullen Gilchrist Yeah.


Kelsey Tressler Um, so you know, while I wasn't employed, while I didn't get a job with a company, I did kind of, you know, create my own...


Cullen Gilchrist You made your job.


Kelsey Tressler Made my job. So you know, that's always kind of cool to think about is like, that passion just turned into something completely different.


Cullen Gilchrist Very cool. So what is Veggie Confetti?


Kelsey Tressler So Veggie Confetti, we are pickled vegetables, and we're all about bold color and big flavor. And we're a topping for a salad, toast tacos and everything in between. So the idea is completely to make food more fun to make, eat, enjoy and look at. Because we know we eat with our eyes as much as we eat with our stomachs. So the goal is really to have people... It's the worst feeling when you open up your fridge and you're just like, "Ugh, what am I going to make? Like I don't have anything in this fridge. I have sad green spinach" or...


Cullen Gilchrist Yellow mustard.


Kelsey Tressler Yellow mustard, you know, just nothing that's like looking enticing to you. So it's everything from the experience of opening up your fridge and seeing a hot pink bag of green onions of pickled onions, or the jalapenos. Whatever it is and being like "Wow, I can make avocado toast today, at home. That's as good, if not better, as the one I'm paying for down the street" or motivated to make your breakfast tacos because you have that little extra topping of pickled cabbage, whatever it is. So it's really about, you know, as much about the these are vegetables, but really about how can we make food more colorful, fun and just delicious to eat?


Cullen Gilchrist Yeah, I mean, having your product in your fridge allows you to kind of take everything you're eating to the next level and pickled onions or the pickled jalapenos on just about everything I'm eating.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist Like, you know, it would be better if I put this on top.

Kelsey Tressler Exactly. I always wanted to do a tagline like, we're the icing on the cake but for the world of vegetables, or really everything else.

Cullen Gilchrist That's you know, you're going the right direction. Yeah, you have to workshop that.


Kelsey Tressler Exactly.


Cullen Gilchrist Alright, so you've been doing this for, for two and a half years. The company is growing a decent amount. You're in what we talked about is phase three. So you know really starting to grow the company, regionally looking at how you're going to manufacturer at a larger scale, getting into the world of kind of continuous manufacturing, working with new distributors, maybe brokers kind of all those fun things that happen at that level when you're kind of in that $200,000 sales level. So, anyways, that's where you are right now you've done some awesome things during that time. What are you focusing on right now? Like what's, what is your job at the company? And do you have other people at the company with you. So right now, I think for all entrepreneurs are a little bit always going to be the jack of all trades, but your trades really get more and more precise or specific. So in the beginning, I was physically doing the manufacturing myself, physically doing the distributing myself. And as you get some of those things taken off your plate, you have more and more time to focus on other things. But I think right now, the biggest focus has been building a team, building a manufacturing team, and a team who can function you know, completely on their own, and help me scale Veggie Confetti. And so that team, you know, has to do with people, a supervisor and team members, but it also has to do with building out continuous manufacturing, like you said, in terms of equipment and things of that nature. So the biggest thing right now is: how do we scale Veggie Confetti to production so you can reach more people? And then you can do kind of the other things?


Kelsey Tressler Exactly.


Cullen Gilchrist So we think of the companies a lot, and I always talk about this, you have manufacturing? Right. And you got to get in there and the other good at it. You've spent a lot of time working on, now you're taking those things you've learned, you're training a team.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist And then now you get to work on like, next level stuff, like machines with conveyor belts, and, you know, scales, whatever. You've got sales, which is a huge part of a consumer packaged goods company, you got to sell.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist I mean, you have to always be selling. So, you know, if you do more than manufacturing, and you train the team to do that, you can step away, that you can go and sell that. And then the other bucket, which is, you know, the least cool is the administration. You know, you got to run your company and make sure there's money there. Maybe you have to raise money, maybe you have to just make sure that your your QuickBooks is accurate. So what, um, what is kind of, as you tighten up the manufacturing, build that team, where do you want to see your efforts going towards, like, you know, you've got 40 hours in a week, or you have 80 hours a week, you know, however you want to think about it. How much of that is going towards something else? 

Kelsey Tressler Yeah, so I think for me, it has to do with sales. And then I think, also, I spoke earlier just about design and aesthetics. So it also be just marketing and branding. So really building out. You know, I think what's like interesting is I didn't invent pickled onions, I didn't invent pickled jalapenos. I just have created an awesome recipe and branded them in a way that is, like, almost like more user friendly. So I want to spend more time just building out. What does our brand mean? What are offshoot products that work for that are veggie confetti, but maybe not pickled vegetables. So if I could do anything for 40 hours a week, it would be all branding and marketing.

Cullen Gilchrist What I think is that, you know, like branding, and marketing, to some degree is almost like passive sales, right? You're out there, people see it, right? Or they engage with it, or they hear about it, and it's passively. And then you have the active side of sales, which is like beating the street. Yeah, you're in stores and selling.

Kelsey Tressler Yes. And that is I think, I think that's like people really underestimate. They're always like, how did you get on shell for? How did you, how did you get to the, you know, 70 stores that you're in today? And it truly is like, it's nothing simpler than being on... being in the stores, making contact with people, and just following up, following up, following up. 

Cullen Gilchrist Not taking no for an answer.


Kelsey Tressler Not taking no for an answer, knowing like you're never annoying, and that you, no matter how many times you show up, it's not annoying, it's just you doing your job. But that also has been like the most exciting and fun part is you got to get on shelf, you got to go back, you got to talk to the same grocery buyer again and again. So I think it's just you know, that I've been doing that regionally here in DC, talking to grocery buyers, but it's like how are we taking that to the next level and growing out of this region and things like that?


Cullen Gilchrist Yeah, yeah. You can only... one person can visit so many stores


Kelsey Tressler Exactly.


Cullen Gilchrist It's such a, you know, range of, you know, geographics. Yes, that is the next phase. Building a, I guess a sales or sales program? A team? Brokers, you know there's a lot there.  What? What was your first sale? Like, what was the first time you went into a store? You know, not counting at Union Kitchen, and you tried to sell? Was it hard? Was it easy? It wasn't what you thought?


Kelsey Tressler Yeah. Yeah, it was... it was hard. It wasn't completely what I thought. And I think the first experience I had was at a Yes organic market in DC. And this is like a question people ask all the time. It's like, " Who do you ask for?" "When you go in the store?" "What do you say?" And I always say just like find your point of contact, and it honestly doesn't matter who it is, just keep going back to that same person. 


Cullen Gilchrist Even if it's like just the person at the register?


Kelsey Tressler Even if it's just the person in the register. So whoever the... whoever my point of contact was, I would go to that person every time because then you're going to find your next point of contact and your next point of contact, and so on and so forth. So I think at that, yes, I had, like, started to befriend the produce buyer, who eventually it was like, the manager works on this day. So why don't you come back on this day and meet the manager perfect, so that I was able to go back and meet the manager. And after, you know, probably three weeks of visiting guests organic market, going back and working my way up, finally got in touch with the manager and was able to make the sale into that specific, Yes organic market. And then what's so important there is you start with your first store, and then that manager was able to set me up and all the rest of the stores. So yeah, it's challenging. And you know, it's really hard. You walk in and you think you have this product that's all beautiful and tidy and ready to go. And then the produce manager doesn't have doesn't have time today, he's stocking the shelves, he really doesn't care that much about pickled vegetables at all. And so you have to figure out, you know, does this guy care about margin? Does he care about shelf space? Like, what does he care about that I'm going to figure out with him, and then it's going to be different store-to-store. So you really can't take it personally that they may not have time for you. And you have to come back and make them make time.


Cullen Gilchrist Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it's like you have it's like five trips, basically, before you get to the decision maker.


Kelsey Tressler Exactly.


Cullen Gilchrist And you have to be nice to everyone along the way, have lots of samples.

Kelsey Tressler Yeah. And your only goal is like get on the shelf, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter where in the beginning, it doesn't matter how much. It's just like, get it on the shelf. Because if you can get it on the shelf, you can go back and start doing your demos, build your relationships, whatever it is. So that's my other piece of advice. I'm always like, "I literally don't care where you put it and just get it off the shelf". 


Cullen Gilchrist Well that's when you start learning. So you learn nothing, and it's just you doodling. Until you're on a shelf.


Kelsey Tressler Right.


Cullen Gilchrist Once you're on a shelf, now you start to learn what the store thinks. You start to learn what customers think. And you can go and demo and you can really, learning what customers think. So that's obviously the thing I think a lot about: product market fit. Get in stores, get in just a few that you can manage, and find out what customers think. So then you can you know, change your price. Change the name, change the colors, change the product, change everything, you know, whatever. So you're in Yes, you get into more, you're in your Union Kitchen stores, you're maybe in a couple other stores at this point, maybe trying to pitch Whole Foods. What were you learning about your product from talking to customers? And did you did you adapt much?


Kelsey Tressler Yeah, it was really... So the first, you know, couple months of demoing are this awesome time where you're slogging tables and table claws and everything in your car and talking to people. And one of the first things I found out about my first iteration of packaging, it was awesome. And I had so many experiences like this, I'd have all the packages out on the table. And people would kind of approach the table and they they would look at the packaging, and they would be curious, and they approach me and they'd be like, "This looks cool, but what is it?" and immediately just realize some really quick messaging errors that we had made. And putting, you know, we put Veggie Confetti as the biggest text on the bag. And people like, didn't know and veggie confetti was but they did know what pickled onions were. So we had to reverse like the hierarchy of the messaging on the bags. So immediately learned, like wow, this, these, you know, bags look cool, but people don't know what they are. So it's like, "Great. Gotta go back to the drawing board, redesign so we have bags that speak to the customer and without me being there, tell them exactly what it is".

Cullen Gilchrist So your first design, you basically learned you had to rebuild it.

Kelsey Tressler Exactly. And, you know, you spend so much time trying to make that design perfect. And it's it's just, it's progress, not perfection. So you can't get started until you just put the first one in front of people. Because we, you know, we showed it to so many people. And it doesn't mean that that work was like, wrong or bad, and that we didn't like catch those errors. But we just got it in front of more people and got it on the shelf. And, you know, when I was pitching it to people I knew they kind of maybe knew what veggie confetti was, and just the same things didn't come up. 

Cullen Gilchrist Yeah.


Kelsey Tressler So learned a lot about the packaging. And then I think the other thing that we started to learn as we grew is just like, where does it sell best in store? So it's a pickled item. And this typically wouldn't be with other, like really traditional sandwich pickles or things like that. But we started to find out that some stores were putting it in their produce with salad dressings and other salad toppings. And that's somewhere where I would have never put this product initially. and ended up being like one of our best moving sets. So you just find out store-to-store and just getting in front of people, like no matter how scary it is,


Cullen Gilchrist Then you start to learn.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist Then you start to learn, you start to learn get better. One of the things that we always talk about is, you know, your first design, you want to get a right.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist You wanna hire the right person spend the right money. But everyone's got it wrong. Not through lack of effort, but through lack of customers. And once the customers like meet that, like once, like, you know, plan hits reality, things change.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist And I love your first set of packaging. That was really cool.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah, I got great feedback on it. And I loved it, too. And had like, all these sleepless nights like, do I put a window on the bag? Do I not put a window on the bag? And, you know, you just aren't going to know the answers to those questions until you do it. And you know, I had a, I had a similar experience where I had to switch designers and my second designer worked and you're just not going to, you're not going to get the answers until you start asking the questions and just doing it.


Cullen Gilchrist So you're asking questions, you're making the product better, and you've grown from that one store to about 100 or so stores now?


Kelsey Tressler 100 or so stores today, yup.


Cullen Gilchrist So what was that growth? Is that 100? independence? Did you kind of work through chains? Are there kind of some good wins in there that you're pretty pumped about?


Kelsey Tressler Yeah, so I think in the beginning, it was all focusing on independent accounts. So when you're first starting it, when I was first starting, it looked like self delivering to the stores, which was so awesome, because even though I was I was just going for it, I had no delivery fee, I would bring you the product when you needed it. But it was so worth it. Because I was keeping their shelves full, building relationships, and all the things that go in with that, and seeing how quickly the product was moving, seeing where they were placing it. So 100% focused on independents until I couldn't drive to meet all the stores. So my delivery circle just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And that's when I reached out to my first distributor and pitched the product. And we still did focus mostly on independent accounts at that time. So probably grew to like 30 independent accounts or so before I started focusing on big chains. And then that's when I really went after Whole Foods. And that was the biggest bucket jump just in terms of shelf space platform. The amount of time you get back not driving your product around is pretty amazing. And that was kind of a you know, it's good to focus on those independents first. And a lot of things worked out perfectly. And our second redesign hit right before we hit the shelves at Whole Foods, like probably within, within like a week even. So a lot of the stars aligned there too.


Cullen Gilchrist Yeah. And that's obviously been a big part of the growth.


Kelsey Tressler Exactly.


Cullen Gilchrist The perfect product. Gotcha. And so, pretty cool story so far, there's a lot to kind of a growth in front of Veggie Confetti. I mean, you've proven that it works in the stores, right? And so now it's growing the region, going to another region will be a really interesting thing. We'll have to catch up at all that six months or a year. But just kind of wrap it up today, two questions always like to ask is what's, you know, what's a win that you're really proud of?  F- yeah, like, that's cool. And then what's something that maybe not gone your way that you learn from?


Kelsey Tressler Yeah, I think a big win, in the beginning I really struggled with the importance of manufacturing. And, you know, when I started this product and this brand, I really didn't think about what it would be like when I had to make 6000 units in a day. You go into this thinking, like not even 100% understanding how the products got on the shelf, right? Because like when I worked at Whole Foods, I was seeing all this product arriving perfectly packaged. And I never quite went over into the manufacturing part. But I'm, I'm really proud of, you know, starting chopping the onions by hand, with a knife, and moving on to a robo coop and so on and so forth. And just going from making 30 cases at a time, to being able to make 200 cases in a day, and things like that. So it's really like falling in love with the manufacturing piece was really challenging for me, because I was so just frustrated, you know?


Cullen Gilchrist You thought the brand side was more exciting.


Kelsey Tressler I thought the brand side was way more exciting.


Cullen Gilchrist And it's actually kind of daunting. And, it's a lot of work, physical. But yeah, you did a great job going from.. yeah, like you said, the tabletop to 30 cases to, I don't know, what what do you do, like in a week now? 300 cases, or 3000?


Kelsey Tressler Yeah, around 300 cases. So that's really exciting to kind of and, you know, even I have a team who's doing all the manufacturing now. And I've stepped away from chopping vegetables myself, and you know, crying for hours, because you're peeling onions or whatever you're doing. But you know, even just stepping away this early level, you realize, you realize how important it is to be close to your production and close to your product at all times. So I'm really excited about what that looks like in terms of starting to visit co-packers and like really learning about manufacturing at the next level, which is something I never thought I would say. I was like, "I have to do this one more day...if I have to get up and you know, be at the kitchen at 5am another day to get these onions chopped, I just can't do it". But...


Cullen GilchristA lot of crying.


Kelsey Tressler A lot of crying.


Cullen Gilchrist That's underestimated in the pickled onion business.


Kelsey Tressler It's very underestimated in my, you know, my kitchen mates around me the the onion, you know, fumes waft over into... they're very strong. So it's a good skill to have. But yeah, really, I think that's kind of like the biggest win is just, I haven't even fully like owned a manufacturing, right? Because we're not it's not continuous.


Cullen Gilchrist You've come a long way with it.


Kelsey Tressler I've come a long way. And and people knowing that that like, that's it. If your product isn't good, and it's not made well, then...


Cullen Gilchrist Doesn't matter.


Kelsey Tressler Don't even put it on the shelf. Yeah. And then I guess like a loss or a win? Or I'm sorry, a loss or I'm like learning?


Cullen Gilchrist Yes. There's only maybe you've lost like it hasn't gone the way you wanted to, but you've learned from it. And I think it's interesting for you, because you've been really resilient. You just described kind of the painful elements of part of the business. Yeah, the manufacturing. But I don't think you, do you thought it was a win? Because you're able to kind of see it, do it, be resilient through it, and have a win?


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist Which is kind of the idea. Like, what didn't go your way, and how did you learn from it, is the question.


Kelsey Tressler Right.


Cullen Gilchrist Maybe you're just too positive. 


Kelsey Tressler Maybe I'm just too optimistic. No, I think, I think something that... again, I guess it's like a learning is. So I had a customer who wanted to buy food service onions.


Cullen Gilchrist Oh, yeah.


Kelsey Tressler And I just was kind of over it. It wasn't my brand, it wasn't on shelf, and I cancelled, I told this person that I wasn't going to make pickled onions for them anymore. And I think the the learning there is like this person wanting to buy my product and use it. And I couldn't see like how that fit into my bigger plan. So if there are people who want to buy your product, don't say no, because you're overwhelmed by you know, the manufacturing or whatever it was. And, and really being able to see that, like, you know, people may see your product other ways than you're seeing it. So like, step into their shoes to see it through their lens and good things can come from that too.


Cullen Gilchrist Yeah, I think that's that is fantastic learning.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist Cool. Well, thank you, Kelsey.


Kelsey Tressler Yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist Thanks for being here. I look forward to kind of chatting with you. And another time we'll learn about how things have changed how you've grown. what you've learned.


Kelsey Tressler Definitely, yeah.


Cullen Gilchrist Good luck.


Kelsey Tressler Thank you. Yeah. Now I'm excited for my first official podcast experience. And I was telling Cullen, I listened to Guy Raz all the time. And, you know, maybe we'll talk to Guy Raz.


Cullen Gilchrist Yeah, yeah. He's gonna take take my role in this podcast.


Kelsey Tressler Well, you did a good job.


Cullen Gilchrist Cool. Well, Kelsey from Veggie Confetti, talking about her first two years. Thanks so much for joining us.


Kelsey Tressler Awesome. Thanks, Cullen. 


Cullen Gilchrist Take care, bye.