If there is one staple of nearly every household with children, it is a pantry with boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese (or maybe Annie’s). But Jen Zeszut and the team at Goodles are out to change that, while making it ok for adults to admit that boxed mac and cheese doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. I sat down with Zeszut, the CEO and Co-Founder of Goodles to learn more about the launch of the brand a year ago, why they tackled a space with such large competitors, and how they are differentiating themselves to make a product loved by adults and kids alike.
Dave Knox: What is the founding story of Goodles?
Jen Zeszut: We have quite an extraordinary founding team. Paul Earle and I hit it off instantly. He is an entrepreneur and educator at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. We have spent our careers building brands that stand for something bigger than just selling products. Given our extensive experience in the food space, we eventually started circling around the idea of noodles and asking how we could put as much nutrition as possible into a tiny noodle without changing any of the taste. Paul also loves tinkering with and playing with names. He had this word, “goodles” and was like, “well, there’s something there.” So Paul and I started this journey as soon as we decided to go make gooder mac and cheese together, which for us means both tasty and delicious but happens to be packed with incredible nutrition. We first called Deb Luster who was the original President of Annie’s, who is clearly the queen of mac and cheese. We gave her a ring and for her it was just so exciting to help and be part of this. Then we roped in Molly Michet, who has worked with me for years and is an incredible food scientist who actually knows how to make something taste delicious and filled with nutrition. So Molly was also a critical part of this team. Then Gal Gadot, the award-winning actress who plays Wonder Woman – and so many other roles! She is also a producer and a philanthropist. She and I met about four years ago, and I knew that she had been thinking about being part of a founding team, but I am certain that she had never thought about starting a mac and cheese company! When I reached out to her, it turned out mac and cheese was a lifetime passion and love of hers and she was pretty instantly like, “I’m in!” So this crazy, wonderful founding team came together with a really clear mission to make delicious mac and cheese without the guilt. More amazing rockstars joined us to launch GOODLES! We are celebrating our first year anniversary in November – a small but mighty team that first launched direct-to-consumer on goodles.com and now 365 days later, you can find us on thousands of shelves across the U.S and Canada, in Whole Foods, Target and more. GOODLES is reinventing the multi-billion dollar prepared pasta aisle that hasn’t seen real innovation in decades, under the belief that mac and cheese is more than a childhood memory; it’s a lifelong food that can be delicious and nutritious.
Knox: Related: how does someone say the name Goodles? Does it rhyme with noodles?
Zeszut: We say “Good-ulz” with an emphasis on “good” because our mission is to make, be and do gooder. We are Noodles, Gooder! That means great nutrition and really great taste, all in one. Gooder is a larger movement to be the unexpected pleasure in people’s daily lives, from providing better access to a nourishing meal to mobilizing our community to spread acts of gooderness. As a matter of fact, our community – all the people who support us and who have been taste testing noodles even before we launched – they’re all called our Do-Gooders. But gooder also means doing something on the branding side that is totally different and impactful in the space. So “good” is at the core of all that we’re doing here.
Knox: The brand was created and launched during the middle of the pandemic. How did you bring a team together to launch during this?
Zeszut: We incorporated in 2020. It was a pretty dark time and I think everyone on this team said, “You know what? Life is short. We want to work with people that bring us joy, do work that brings us joy, and put joy out into the world. We need to do unexpected, delightful, and surprising things that really make an impact.” The hard part was that we couldn’t actually work together in person! There was so much FedExing of little, tiny noodle bags all over the country – between our own team and also to our thousands of Do-Gooders who were our initial taste testers. It was a lot of logistical complexity, but I’m really, really grateful for what the outcome was from that time. People really love the joy that our brand represents. We’ve heard it from people who taste the food, they say, “It tastes like you guys are having a really good time,” which is the biggest compliment because launching a company is hard work, but this feels so good to do every day. Mac and cheese just brings joy, it’s an amazing category. Those are the positive parts that came out of launching a brand during the middle of the pandemic. Everyone loves themselves some delicious and nutritious mac!
Knox: Of all the categories you could make “gooder”, why start with mac and cheese?
Zeszut: There are so many great categories that need to be reinvented. Some are being re-thought right now, but many are not. This one just checks a lot of boxes. It checks the box of a giant, giant category…a multi-billion-dollar category. People have certainly made ‘healthy’ noodles, but most taste healthy, too. Creating a nutritious noodle that actually tastes good and cooks well is incredibly challenging. The leader in this space is selling a million boxes a day and even the second in the space is doing so much business. However, nutrition has never been front and center for these brands. I think that the ability to truly differentiate with a truly better product is something that we were looking for. Beyond product, I’m always looking for an open space, a white space. When you’re a little company, you can’t go head-to-head with your big incumbents. In the mac and cheese category, everyone is really targeting just kids as eaters and moms as buyers. We knew instinctively there was a huge opportunity to skate to an open white space, because mac and cheese is not just for kids! We have a really unique positioning in the market, which comes through in our branding, in our flavors, our marketing and more. That’s a huge opportunity and why we went for this. Of course, there’s also the ability to differentiate on shelf. Old, sleepy branding is out there on the shelves in this category and it was just screaming out for something really different and unique to burst onto the scene. Lastly: it’s mac and cheese. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t love mac and cheese! Whether you come from a big city or a small rural town, or you vote political left or political right – everybody loves mac and cheese! So it’s a great category and we’re just so glad that we’re here, totally disrupting this category and not only stealing share, but absolutely growing the category which has not been done for a long time in this space. So it’s pretty fun.
Knox: What was the inspiration for making mac and cheese for adults as much as kids?
Zeszut: The mac and cheese aisle caters specifically to kids. We asked ourselves: what could give adults permission to love their favorite foods again? The answer to that question is Goodles – noodles that taste as good as they feel to eat. Because most adults love mac and cheese but before Goodles they felt guilty about eating it. We did a survey and a study to validate this, because it felt like an important hunch – that mac and cheese is not just for kids anymore. We ran a survey with adults aged 24 – 36 and asked, “What percentage of you are actually eating boxed mac and cheese – and not just while you’re serving it to your kid! How many of you are sitting down and actually eating boxed mac?” To our amazement, the answer was 85 percent of people. This inspired our initial roll out of flavors at launch with ones you would expect, like Cheddy Mac, a classic creamy cheddar and Shella Good, shells with aged white cheddar, but also ones like Twist My Parm and Cacio e Pepe, that were bit more unexpected and bolder flavors. It was an important signal to have these very sophisticated flavors in our launch line-up. In fact, our newest variety to launch is a spicy one called Down the Hatch which is inspired by the jalapeño popper! Down the Hatch is cream cheese-y and smokey and hot from Hatch chiles. We also launched a vegan SKU, Vegan Is Believin’, that’s 100% plant-based white cheddar with spirals. You’re going to see us continue to surprise and delight with our flavors which are good for kids, parents and young adults.
Knox: To communicate it’s not the same old mac and cheese, you have spent a lot of time on the packaging. Why make this investment?
Zeszut: If you earn your right to be on a retail shelf, that’s a billboard for your brand. It’s like an intimate little Times Square moment! You have shoppers walking by constantly and we wanted to totally shine on the shelf. That means everything from our really bright colors to the spot gloss that we invest in. Then there’s our logo, which is so juicy and modern and retro. (Yes – it can be all those things at once!) And those fork shots – it’s a serious investment. It’s about 10 people standing around a fork getting these amazing shots of our product. But it’s totally worth it. One of our retail buyers said that our box looks like a disco party in the aisle. Love that.
One important bit of packaging philosophy which guided us is: less is more. it doesn’t have a bunch of stickers and callouts like “power packed!” or “made with nutrients from veggies!!!” That’s junky. The biggest takeaway we were going for was: YUM. So that’s the most important thing. Yep, it’s got a lot of nutrition, but it’s mostly yum. That’s what people want first and foremost.
And yes, on the nutrition facts side panel, you will see that there’s nutrients from broccoli and kale and chlorella – a freshwater algae – but you don’t see that on the front of the pack. There are no pictures of broccoli doing pushups and all the usual healthy tropes. We didn’t go there at all. We figure the health nuts will turn it over, they’ll read it on the side, and they’ll be so excited to see there’s chlorella in it. We designed this brand to be mass and to have mass appeal. The philosophy for so many better-for-you brands is for packaging to scream, “It’s healthy!” They make their packaging green or brown or super natural-looking. We like to Zag when everyone else Zigs, so we are just leading with the yum and the bling. The nutrition is there as a supporting point for how good this makes you feel in your body. It’s a different philosophy.
Knox: As a serial entrepreneur, what advice do you give to other entrepreneurs?
Zeszut: The best advice I have is to skate to where the white space is. If you’re going up against big competitors, you can’t play their game or you’re going to lose. They are going to outspend you on marketing. They can pay more slotting fees. They can undercut your prices. They are going to out-do you on all of the usual things. You don’t want to play that game. You have to change the rules and play a net new game. And ideally it’s a game where they can’t follow. So be a premium brand that stands for nutrition and clean ingredients, that targets adults, that stands for joy, authenticity, and weird. Our big incumbents in the space spent dozens of years building a brand that is the opposite of all those things. So they can’t follow. When you think about your bowling pin – that first market that you are designing for and going after, which will hopefully knock down others over time – pick a bowling pin which is one that the others are not going to go after. The only way to win is to out-weird them or be more authentic or out-joy them. And then that becomes a place that they can’t really follow.