Saskia Sorrosa, founder of Fresh Bellies, talks about her baby food company that focuses on ingredients like herbs and spices, and savory foods, on March 12, 2020 at Balducci’s in Scarsdale.
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Saskia Sorrosa hatched a business plan for a new product during a six-month maternity leave from her job as a vice president of marketing for the National Basketball Association.
As a working mom with another child at home, she was experienced in cooking large batches of homemade baby food on the weekend and freezing them for use during the week.
This was in 2015 and Sorrosa noticed that there was no commercial product available that didn’t mix vegetables with some fruit to make it sweet. Instead, she made her own.
And just like that, a business was born.
Sorrosa is CEO of Fresh Bellies, an organic baby food startup whose snacks and meals are now sold at more than 2,500 stores throughout the country, including Walmart, Kroger and Whole Foods.
“Walking down the grocery store aisles and realizing everything that was on the shelf had sugar, that’s what got me first interested in this whole space,” she said. “Even the flavors that were marketed as vegetable … they all had fruits as the first three ingredients.”
So in 2015, the company became the first to offer vegetables for babies seasoned with herbs and spices, without added fruit sugars. Offerings include savory blends such as broccoli with Swiss chard and garlic, cauliflower with bell pepper, golden beets with thyme and flavorful sweet ones such as pears with ginger and apple and blueberry with mint.
Customers ate it up.
From selling a couple of hundred jars at local farmer’s markets per week in 2015, Fresh Bellies produced just under 500,000 jars and 200,000 snacks last year.
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Sorrosa grew up in Ecuador eating savory food at a young age.
“I was eating spicy food with onions and bold seasoning since I was an infant and I eat everything today,” she said. “I never had an issue with food.”
Growing up, Sorrosa spent her weekends on a banana farm where her father, who worked in the banana export business, would host impromptu lunches for 50 people.
“He was passionate about food,” she said. “I was the youngest of five and so I was the one who was with him the most in the kitchen and learning what he was making.”
At 17, Sorrosa moved from Ecuador to attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C. After graduation, she spent five years at Burson-Marsteller, the public relations and communications firm, before joining the NBA in 2004, where she rose through the ranks to become a vice president of marketing.
“I was getting promoted every two to three years and progressing quickly,” she said. “I was at the height of my career.”
Giving it all up for an uncertain startup future was not easy.
“When I quit my job, it was a big decision for our family because I was leaving behind a really big salary,” she said. “I was an equal income winner at home and cutting out half of that was a huge deal for us and we didn’t even know if we would be able to make it work.”
But she had high hopes.
“I told my husband, don’t worry, in six months I’ll be paying myself what I was being paid at the NBA,” she said with a laugh. “And then fast forward to two years, I didn’t take a salary for two years. You know, I was putting everything back into the business. So we were making a lot of sacrifices.”
In 2018, Fresh Bellies was selected as one of nine companies to join the Chobani Incubator program, which offers food startup founders access to experts and workshops in manufacturing, production, finance, fundraising, branding, marketing and sales.
Her first order of business was to contact a friend, Nick Kennedy, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who had worked in fine dining restaurants in New York City, including Jean-Georges, Mario Batali’s Del Posto and Scarpetta.
He came on board as a founding partner and helped her rent a commercial kitchen in Mamaroneck, New York, get the right food-processing licenses, buy the right utensils, hire a cook and test out recipes.
Weekends were spent waking up early with her husband, piling up their kids in a car, and setting up stands at the local farmer’s markets, including Chappaqua, Hastings and Irvington.
Initially, Fresh Bellies produced a couple of hundred cups for farmers markets, but as they got into local stores such as Mrs. Green’s, Fairway and independent stores in New York City, they dramatically increased production.
“At our peak in our commercial kitchen in Mamaroneck, we produced about 2,000 jars a week but we produced for stores on order,” she said.
Eventually, they moved to a manufacturing facility near Kingston.
From the beginning, Sorrosa had big plans.
“It was never for me a hobby business. Our mission was around batting childhood obesity and getting kids to eat differently,” she said. “I didn’t want this to be just available in Westchester. I wanted to grow a national brand.”
After winning awards at trade shows, Fresh Bellies started making inroads with national food brokers and grocery distributors.
But funding was a challenge.
“The stats show that while 40% of all new businesses are started by women, only 2% of women get venture capital funding. For Hispanic women, that number is less than 1%. I see it every day,” Sorrosa said. “I go into rooms that are 100% men to pitch my baby food product. I look different than they do and then they say things like ‘I don’t know anything about what kids eat. My wife used to do that’.”
“All I am thinking is, ‘Can you look at the numbers and the projections of this business and where and how much it has grown in the last year?’” she said.
Sorrosa said she went through almost all her savings to start the business. “I pitched to every single angel group in New York, pitched to every single one of them.”
Pipeline Angels, which brings together investors and entrepreneurs who identify with womanhood, whether cis, trans or nonbinary, provided some funding.
“Many of our investors, some of whom were Latinx, invested early in Fresh Bellies,” said Natalia Oberti Noguera, founder of Pipeline Angels. “With credit to Rihanna, I like to say that if we want more of us to shine bright like a diamond, we need to invest in diamonds in the rough and that is exactly what our members are doing.”
Things started turning around in a big way last January when Sorrosa appeared on the TV show “Shark Tank,” where small-business owners get to pitch investors their ideas.
While she didn’t receive funding from the “sharks,” the exposure changed the trajectory of her business. The ABC show generally receives 40,000 applicants, tapes about 158 pitches, and airs only 88 of them.
“By the end of 2018 we were in 150 stores. We aired on “Shark Tank” and we got meetings with all the major retailers that we’re in now,” said Sorrosa. “In January, right after we aired, we made more in revenue than we had the whole prior year. By the end of 2019, we were in 2,000 stores. It was crazy.”
Sorrosa knows there is an appetite for her product and she said getting children to try a variety of food is all about training the palate.
“We might not like something today, but if we practice eating it, we can actually learn to like anything. And yet the way we feed kids is just sugars all day, even if it’s from fruit,” she said.
“So when they transition to table foods they don’t want to eat it because they’ve never actually exposed their palates to it. It’s almost like starting to learn to eat all over again.”
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy covers women and power for the USA Today Network Northeast. Write to her at email@example.com.
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