One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a busy model who needed a snack that was both nutritious and easily portable, to keep up with her on-the-go lifestyle. By modifying an old family recipe, she created something that not only kept her full and fed, but also earned her millions! -- Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
If you were to sneak a peek into Lizanne Falsetto’s cupboards, you’d discover rows and rows of china and tea cups, passed down through generations of her big Italian family. Not far from those family heirlooms, you might also find a secret family recipe -- the surprising inspiration behind what would become a multi-million dollar food empire.
“In an Italian family,” Lizanne laughed, “the first thing you learn is how to eat! And my grandparents had an amazing garden filled with apple trees, where they grew everything you could think of. I remember there were always homemade salamis and cheeses hanging in their garage, and, of course my grandfather made his own wine. Grandma was always in the kitchen cooking, and we’d have these amazing meals. We’d have to take breaks during Sunday dinners because they would last for hours!”
So it was no surprise that when Lizanne graduated from high school and began an international modeling career, she took a little bit of home with her. As she moved from Tokyo to Hong Kong and on to Paris and Milan, she lived out of a suitcase -- a suitcase filled with her favorite pots and pans.
“The agents called me 'Mother Earth,' and where ever I went, they made sure I had an apartment with a kitchen and extra bedrooms. They’d have the young models live with me because they knew I’d watch over them and make sure they ate well!”
But it wasn't only the new girls that Lizanne was feeding. After years of searching airports for something healthy that she could eat on the run, she decided there must be something she could create in her own kitchen. So she began with her grandmother’s brownie recipe -- replaced a few of the more indulgent ingredients -- and after a few attempts, she had the perfect healthy snack that she could stow in her bag.
“I’d make thirty or forty bars before a show,” Lizanne recalled, “and give them to the other girls. I began making so many that they all started chipping in to help me buy the ingredients. I was living in Los Angeles by that point and beginning to think about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I thought about going to cooking school and becoming a chef or maybe having a baby. But I’d walk through the aisles of Trader Joe's and I’d see all the nutrition bars on the shelves, and I began to think that maybe I was on to something.”
It was the late 90’s and at the time, the big sellers were PowerBar, Balance, Cliff and Atkins. But there was nothing that was high protein and all-natural -- nothing that reflected the farm to table way Lizanne had always lived. So she began doing research and she found a woman named Ivette Morales, a food consultant and the daughter of the creators of the PowerBar. She paid her a one month retainer and together, they refined Lizanne’s concept -- creating a bar she named ThinkThin, that contained 20 grams of protein, no sugar, and was gluten free.
And then the former high fashion model began pounding the pavement. “It was Whole Foods that recognized what I had. They said, ‘You’re the only natural low-carb bar on the market.’ And that’s when I knew I hit my groove. I hadn't even thought about the idea of low-carb. I was focused on the protein. But when you added it up, that’s exactly what we were. And the country was in the midst of a low-carb craze.”
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It wasn't long before Trader Joe's was on board too, and both stores were eager to fill their shelves. “I had two people working for me,” Lizanne explained, “and my mom would come in and help answer the phones. I remember getting an order for 26 pallets from Trader Joe's and I was hyperventilating. I had no idea how I was going to afford to produce that many. I’d put every penny I’d saved into starting the business. And because I was small, people wanted me to pre-pay. So I started rotating between 12 to 15 credit cards. It never occurred to me to go out and get a loan.”
But if 26 pallets were enough to make the fledgling entrepreneur hyperventilate, imagine how she felt when the biggest retailer in the world was on the line.
“A buyer from Walmart called and said, 'my boss’s wife loves your products. You need to fly in tomorrow because we’re doing a category review.' So I got on a plane and went to Arkansas that night!”
It was that phone call that turned the little bar that began because Lizanne and her fellow models were hungry -- into a million dollar business. On the spot, Walmart was prepared to place an order for 2,500 stores.
“I had just found out that I was pregnant with my daughter Alexa,” Lizanne remembered, “and I had no idea how I was going to make that happen. Big companies like Balance were eating up all the production time and Walmart deducts a percentage of their payment when vendors are late on a shipment.”
“But at just about that same time, I was at Expo West in my little 10 by 10 booth, and I was approached by a man named Wes Felton. He was about to start his own facility and he’d heard I needed help. He said, ‘I’m going to produce your product.’ And that day, he became my mentor.”
Within two years, ThinkThin bars were exactly where they needed to be. Companies like Kraft and Nestle were scooping up brands like Balance and PowerBar for hundreds of millions of dollars. And Lizanne got the call every entrepreneur dreams of -- from Hershey's.
“I’ll never forget the day the financial advisor faxed over the offer,” Lizanne remembered. “I was completely prepared to sell. And then a week later Dr. Atkins died and the FDA began questioning all the labeling on low-carb products. That’s when everyone realized they’d better make some changes. And Hershey's pulled out of the deal.”
“I’d worked so hard to get to that point and everything just collapsed around me. I began to wonder whether I could do this again. Now I was competing with big consumer packaged goods companies, and I was doing it alone. But I’d had my first baby, and you begin to think differently after you have children. You start to think about putting them through college. I knew I couldn't go back to modeling. I didn't have a degree. So I decided to hire consultants for a week at a time to teach me what I didn't know about the business of the business.”
For a short time, Lizanne began to follow the trends -- developing ThinkThin Organic and ThinkThin Green. But as it turned out, what really worked for her, was returning to her roots.
“Kraft and Nestle had more money to spend,” Lizanne explained, “but I knew if I could focus on my original intent -- to get the message out about the importance of protein and weight wellness -- and remind people that this product began in my hands, that I could win. No one else had an owner at the helm. No one else could deliver the kind of customer service I could.”
And that’s exactly what Lizanne did. She expanded her assortment of ThinkThin protein bars and added lines called ThinkThin Fiber and ThinkThink Crunch that included fruit and nuts -- and she listened to what her customers wanted. What she learned, was that they craved balance. They wanted to be able to eat a treat without the guilt. And that’s when she began to eye the candy aisle.
“I wanted to create a 'better for you' candy. So I tore apart a Mounds bar and began taking things out -- in the same way I did with my grandmother’s brownie recipe. Then I added in protein and fiber. And I began exploring better sugars -- like tapioca syrup and coconut. That’s how ThinkThin Divine was born, and in a blind taste test, they come pretty darn close. What I've learned is everything is okay in moderation. I want people to know that nutrition can be delicious.”
Today, out of 120 brands on grocery store shelves, ThinkThin’s sales rank number one in weight wellness and number three in the industry. Lizanne has turned a recipe that began in her grandmother’s kitchen into a brand that brings in more than 70 million dollars of revenue a year and is sold in more than 15,000 stores.
“For me, all of this happened organically,” she reflected. “There was something that I needed myself and it was different than what was on supermarket shelves. I saw an opportunity. And I think that’s what entrepreneurs have to keep in mind. You need to find the open space.”
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