The following interview is part of a series of interviews with brand builders and leaders in the CPG Industry. We recently spoke with pastry chef and Founder Max Pouvreau, whose brand Petit Pot is a manufacturer of French-inspired gourmet desserts based in Emeryville, Calif.
Unioncrate: Let’s get right into the nitty-gritty: How has the pandemic affected your business on a day-to-day basis?
Max Pouvreau: We’ve been incredibly fortunate. We’re lucky to have been designated an essential business in California, where we’re based, so we haven’t had to shut down. As a result we’ve been able to keep on our entire staff on the payroll, even now as cases rise again.
But it’s not been easy. We’ve implemented extra safety protocols for anyone entering the plant. We regularly check people’s temperature, and everyone washes their hands even when they’re not in the manufacturing area. We’ve also implemented two zero-overlap shifts: one in the morning and another in the evening. This enables us to both deep clean and implement procedural social distancing.
Luckily, we haven’t had any cases so far. We’re so very fortunate, and we’re hoping that it’s going to stay that way. Petit Pot is nothing without its employees.
Has the pandemic disrupted your supply chain or your ability to fulfill orders?
Yes, particularly on the shipping front. Our DTC business has exploded, which has been both good and… challenging. We pack everything ourselves, so any co-packer obstacles other brands have faced haven’t been an issue for us. Instead, almost all the challenges we've faced have revolved around shipping via USPS. What would usually take one or two days to ship now takes three to five, sometimes even seven. This can negatively affect both our service levels and product reviews, as the pudding has sometimes gotten to the customer warm. You’d think that the USPS situation would have improved now that we’re chest-deep into the pandemic, but it hasn’t, so we’re currently looking for alternative solutions.
Tell me about your journey from a pastry chef to a founder whose pot de crème desserts are sold at 6,000+ retail locations?
I worked as a pastry chef in restaurants (Coi and Radius) when I moved from France to San Francisco a decade ago. I was making pot de crème (pronounced poe duh KREM) recipes at the restaurants, and I always served the dessert in a little glass cup. People loved them. But I couldn’t find the creamy desserts, which you can find everywhere in France, in American retailers. When I took a good look around, I noticed a big gap in the market when it comes to single-serving non-frozen desserts. There’s really only Jell-O here.
I wondered: If I put a lid on the glass cup and sold it in the grocery store, would it sell?
The first couple of years—beginning in 2014—were just me in that restaurant kitchen, making the product at night when the restaurant closed, then selling it in the morning. Our first customers were Good Eggs—a grocery delivery service in San Francisco—and then a bunch of mom and pop stores. After six months, I moved to a commercial kitchen with more refrigerators and split the space with other businesses. Six months after that we got our own little spot, a 1200-sq. ft. catering kitchen that used to be an old Domino’s Pizza. We were there for about four years and were able to grow quite a bit. Some of the original staff is even still with us today—one of our current production managers helped us wash dishes when we first started out.
What are some significant challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Because it’s a refrigerated product, logistics are a major challenge. The West Coast is 60% of our business, which is great, but expanding to the East Coast means that we have had to ship out more product at once. The plant that we have in the Bay Area has a huge refrigerated area which helps us with the storage, but that has no effect on the transport. It’s costing us an arm and a leg to ship product cross-country, so we’re still developing our freight process to make it more efficient, including putting more product on each pallet to cut the cost per unit.
Another challenge has been elongating our shelf life. When I started the Petit Pot brand, I didn’t know much about the CPG world; I didn’t realize that if I wanted to be successful, I would need a much longer shelf life than a mere few days. As you can imagine, this led to some problems. I remember driving to all the grocery stores in San Francisco because the cream was starting to turn sour! We had to pull the product literally off the shelves because it was going bad before the end of its shelf life. That happened a lot.
How have you increased shelf life while maintaining the integrity of your puddings?
Obviously I didn’t want to add any preservatives, so the question was: How do I make the product in a clean way that still maintains its integrity and increases its shelf life? The most important answer, for us, was small batches. It definitely increases the overhead and price point, and we could produce more if we sacrificed the quality that the smaller batches allow for.
But what matters the most to us is creating products that taste good. A higher bottom line is okay.
Describe a breakthrough moment for us—distribution, scaling, customer adoptions, you name it.
There are a few! One major game-changer for us was partnering with Whole Foods. Within a year of getting started, we were approached by Whole Foods of Northern California and got into their SoCal region soon after. That helped us grow quickly and build our brand recognition. Then came Albertsons, Safeway, and Walmart. As soon as you get into one of those, your doors can double overnight.
Another is in terms of our manufacturing capabilities. At first I was filling product with a pitcher—literally just a water pitcher—and I would fill the jars by hand. We’ve overcome that initial manufacturing challenge by scaling output capacity: About a year and a half ago we moved to Emeryville, next to Oakland and across from San Francisco, and got a 21,000 sq. ft. plant with lots of refrigeration. Now we have a line that can fill almost 50,000 jars a day.
Finally, I'd say that breakthrough moments also happen in the supermarket and in the kitchen. A lot of the time, moms buy our products as a treat for their kids but end up treating themselves instead. They try it at home before giving it to their kids and end up eating the whole thing—we hear that a lot.
Tell me more about your vision for Petit Pot—revenue goals, product development, etc.
Now we’re in a space that’s significantly bigger than what we need, we expect to grow quite a bit over the next four years. The move has already catalyzed some pretty significant growth: We had $4,000,000 in revenue last year.
We’re also launching two flavors for the holidays that we’re very excited about: pumpkin spice and chocolate mint. They’re going to be in every Whole Foods in the country in October, November, and December. We also are developing more plant-based recipes that will most likely launch next year: we have a coconut lime and raspberry one, and we have a mango passion fruit one.
Plant-based desserts… that doesn’t sound very French to me.
Well, about three years ago, my main investor came up to me and was like, “I think we should get on that vegan train. It’s trendy and it’s good for the planet.”
And my French background was like, “No—we’re not doing that. This is a French brand, I grew up on butter and cream, vegan is not in the cards.” In my head, I didn’t think we would be able to make something I would be proud of in terms of texture and taste.
He understood, and we moved on.
But then a year later he came back and said, “We should really think about this.” So I got to the drawing board. The first recipe I developed was our coconut rice pudding. Coconut milk is very creamy—it has a lot of fat—so as I was making it, I was like, “Wow, this is actually super tasty.” I realized that with the coconut fat, I was able to make something comparable to a dairy product that I would be proud of. Now we have three plant-based items and we’re developing more.
We’re also developing a brand new line of product that I can’t disclose right now—it’s too early in the process—but, what you can know is that we’ll be doing what we always do: maintaining high-quality products and making sure that whatever we put out into the world, dairy or not, is super delicious.