Harissa lemon chickpeas. Kimchi sesame navy beans. Enchilada black beans. If these recipe combos sound like one TikTok cooking video away from a weeknight dinner, I’ve got better news for you: they’re already canned and sold in grocery aisles nationwide. Heyday Canning, launched by CEO and Co-Founder Kat Kavner with COO Jaime Tulley in September 2020, has been on a whirlwind mission to disrupt the canned food aisle with creative ingredients and contemporary branding and label design.
I spoke with Kavner about the company for Forbes. Why beans, why cans, why great design? She gave a lengthy but fascinating interview that should be required reading for any entrepreneur with an eye on an outdated industry.
What did you do before founding Heyday Canning?
I’ve spent my whole career in the natural foods consumer packaged goods (CPG) world. I have always loved food and am a big home cook. Throughout my high school and college years, I grew more and more interested in food from a sustainability and nutrition standpoint. I consider myself very lucky that I found my home in the natural foods industry.
I got my start working for a startup called Sweet Earth Natural Foods where I spent most of my time on new product development. We were a very small, very scrappy team, which was an amazing environment for me to learn a ton about everything that goes into bringing new products to life. After Sweet Earth, I spent several years working in brand management at Clif Bar and then a few years consulting for a handful of food & beverage startups. The throughline in my career has been marketing and brand management with an emphasis on innovation and new product development strategy.
Why beans and why cans?
I’ll start with the last question first: why cans? I had a lightbulb moment a few years ago while walking down the canned food aisle. I realized canned food is a massive industry (billions in revenue) and still takes up a whole aisle in most grocery stores. But you walk down that aisle and there are essentially tumbleweeds rolling down it. The products on those shelves are all outdated legacy brands and cheap commodity items that compete exclusively on price. Meanwhile, nearly every other category in CPG has been reimagined by a new wave of startup brands that have their finger more accurately on the pulse of what a modern consumer wants from a flavor, quality, sustainability, and branding perspective. Canned food stands alone as a behemoth of a category that has been left entirely untouched for decades.
When you think about the fundamentals of canned food, you realize that it has the potential to be very relevant to a modern shopper. It boils down to three big things: canned food is convenient, canned food is naturally preserved using only heat (contrary to popular belief, no artificial preservatives or salt is used in the canning process), and canned food has strong sustainability benefits from both a food waste perspective—a long shelf life means you’re less likely to be tossing things out—and a packaging perspective since cans are the most frequently recycled type of food packaging out there. When all of that clicked, it became very clear that there was a massive opportunity to reimagine canned food for a new generation of consumers.
People often ask us why we chose to go with the can instead of the shelf stable plastic pouches that have become more popular in recent years. For us, it was a no brainer. Those plastic pouches are not recyclable curbside and as a result are most likely headed straight for the landfill. With cans being made from a high percentage of recycled materials AND being recycled more than any other type of food packaging, it seemed like an obvious choice to go with a can. I think there may be consumer perception that those stand-up pouches are somehow less processed than canned food, but they are not. The processing is the same. From a branding perspective, I also loved that the can is such an iconic staple in the American pantry. It was a juicy challenge to think about how we could freshen them up and make something so old feel exciting and new.
To answer “why beans?”: I wanted to start by reimagining canned beans with a strong emphasis on flavor. I’m a big bean fan and a frequent canned bean buyer. I felt like beans had a lot of tailwinds behind them—there is probably a bean joke in there somewhere—as more and more people are looking to eat plant-based and are realizing the intrinsic nutritional value and deliciousness of the humble bean. But when you go to buy canned beans, you have only two options: plain beans canned in water or brine, which you must drain, rinse, and then season or incorporate into a recipe; or baked beans which are often cloyingly sweet and a very specific flavor profile that doesn’t fit into that many meals.
This was another big lightbulb moment for me: why couldn’t you just can beans in delicious sauces so all you have to do is warm them up and enjoy them? I thought about all the ways I loved using beans in my home cooking and that became the basis for the flavors we ended up developing. I wanted to make it super easy to use beans as your main protein in everything from tacos, pasta dishes, grain bowls, curries, and more.
From a strategic standpoint, I also felt like most people are neutral when it comes to canned beans. Other canned food categories like canned vegetables aren’t so lucky. Lots of people have a pretty negative perception around those products and we felt like it made sense to start with canned beans and build up trust in the brand before trying to tackle other spaces that suffer from poor consumer perception of flavor and quality.
We launched Heyday with our six flavors of canned beans, and we already have our eyes on other canned food categories that are just as desperately crying out for a reimagination. Our big picture vision for this brand is to do our part in making healthy, delicious, joyful, plant-forward food accessible to more people. I would love to reimagine other dusty spaces, like canned vegetables and fruit, and enable people to have their pantry stocked with a bounty of legumes, veggies, and fruits that are ready to go whenever they want them.
How did you decide on the six bean flavors?
I started out thinking about the flavors I turn to most frequently in my home cooking. I love to cook and started off brainstorming all the flavors that sounded delicious to me. We probably tested close to 60-70 flavors in those early days and ultimately ended up with six. We got more strategic when it came time to whittle things down. It was important that we had a range of flavors that would allow you to use beans in different kinds of meals. The Enchilada Black Beans, for example, make great tacos and enchiladas while the Tomato alla Vodka Cannellini Beans can be tossed through pasta or spooned on top of grilled sourdough bread. I wanted each flavor to be unique from the last to provide endless options for how to use them.
Our Coconut Curry Chickpeas and Kimchi Sesame Navy Beans were probably the two flavors that took the most trial and error to get right. With the Coconut Curry Chickpeas, we struggled for a while to take the flavor from good to great. It was all about turning different flavors up and down – we had to mess with the acidity, sweetness, saltiness, creaminess, etc. until everything was just right.
The Kimchi Sesame Navy Beans were actually the first flavor I ever attempted to make in my home kitchen. In total it took about 18 months to get that flavor dialed in. It was another instance where the balance was so critical and we just struggled for a long time to figure out how to properly balance so many bold, powerhouse ingredients like kimchi, gochujang, and toasted sesame oil. For a while we put that flavor on the shelf because we just couldn’t crack it. Thankfully we kept going eventually as this has turned out to be my personal favorite flavor.
Let’s talk branding. Your label and website caught my eye. It made me want to try your products. How important has branding become in today’s market?
Branding is critical for new brands. For emerging brands like us focused on brick & mortar retail, packaging is the #1 most valuable marketing tool in your arsenal. Most people walking down the canned bean aisle have never heard of Heyday, and we have a split second to catch their attention. The label must draw them in and intrigue them enough that they pick it up off the shelf, take a closer look, and hopefully toss it in their cart.
For us specifically, I felt like branding was even more critical to get right. Our success as a brand hinges on our ability to fundamentally change the way people think about canned food. We need people to think about it in the context of great flavor and quality, which is not the mindset most people are in today when shopping in this aisle. Our branding had to communicate that Heyday canned goods are premium, flavor-driven, and modern. You saying that the label and website made you want to try our products is about the best feedback we could get.
Who did you hire for branding and what did they bring to the table that was fresh or complementary to what you already had in mind?
We worked with a small agency called Outline based out of Charleston, SC. I spoke with a handful of designers and agencies and landed on Outline based on the quality of their previous work, my intuition that the team deeply understood my vision, and their excitement to execute against it. I initially found Outline after snooping around to see who did Omsom’s brand design, which is one of my favorites in recent years. The creativity and thoughtfulness of that project alone signaled to me that Outline was going to be a great partner in building our brand.
Outline took the strategy and creative direction I provided them with and ran with it. It was a very collaborative and interactive process. Outline developed everything from the initial brand identity, including our custom Heyday font and a color palette that captured our nostalgia-meets-modern vibe, to the packaging and website design.
While working with a branding agency is a significant expense, it was 100% worth it for us. Brand identity and packaging design is the foundation for your whole brand, and I feel that it was absolutely imperative for us to invest in a high quality foundation in order to be successful.
Let’s talk price positioning: how do you figure out how to price canned beans? People generally expect them to be “affordable” which is defined differently depending on the market, but in general, it would be hard to sell a $10 can of fancy beans. Or would it?
Pricing is definitely tricky. Our products most often get shelved next to the plain beans which retail for less than $2, and in many instances, there are items on the shelf under $1. It’s a very price sensitive category where people have been trained to shop for the lowest price.
Even though our products are fundamentally different from those plain beans, it’s reasonable to assume that most people seeing our brand for the first time will compare our price to the prices of the other canned beans on the shelf. We retail between $4.49-$4.99, so we are frequently double the price of those plain canned beans. That said, we are in the ballpark with other ready-to-eat bean products like baked beans which retail for up to $4.99 in natural grocery stores.
Our intuition is that $5 is the price ceiling for canned beans. We felt that if we tipped over $5, we would create a significant price barrier that could really hurt us as a new brand. It is also extremely important to us that our products are accessible to as many people as possible; we aren’t interested in making hyper premium products that only some people can afford.
We’re confident that once someone tries our products, the price premium will be immediately justified and the price will actually be seen as a good value for what’s inside the can, even for people shopping on a tighter budget. So it’s all about getting people to try it for the first time, which is why we’re investing in promoting the product with in-store sales, demos, and other initiatives designed to get beans in hands.
Where do you source your beans? Do you work with organic or sustainable farmers and if not, is that in your future?
Right now we use four different bean varieties (navy, black, cannellini, chickpea) which are sourced from a variety of bean growers across North America. We are currently sourcing a mix of organic and conventional beans.
Moving forward, we’re going to be working on developing a regenerative supply chain for our ingredients. We believe regenerative agriculture practices make the biggest impact on the environment and on human health. We’re in the very early stages of our regenerative sourcing journey, but our plan is to start by identifying regenerative bean growers that we can source from directly. We’ll be sharing more about that on our website and social media as it develops.
Would you say you’re disrupting canned goods? Or just selling a better tastier product with a fun label for a better overall consumer experience?
Heck yeah, I would say that! From day one, we’ve been on a mission to completely disrupt the canned goods category by leading with flavor, quality, and a vibrant, fun brand. Just about everything we do at Heyday is antithetical to the status quo of the canned food industry, which I believe will be the key to our success.
Heyday Canning Co. products can be found in Whole Foods and Sprouts stores nationwide. You can also find products in a handful of regional and independent stores, like Town & Country in Seattle, Big Night in Brooklyn, and Wine + Eggs in LA.