Welcome back to the Virginia Foodie Podcast! In this episode, we have a very special guest who we’ve been admiring from afar as her business has steadily grown its reputation and its fanbase over the years. Lesley Riley is the founder and CEO of the gourmet food brand Mama’s Biscuits and she came to our attention when she was able to secure a spot on Walmart’s shelves several years ago. Since then, her products have been picked up by Wegmans, Publix, and Trader Joe’s. These are great retail channels for craft food brands, and she promises us that there are more coming soon.
In our conversation with Lesley, we discuss how she started her brand, how she was able to grow it, and her process for sourcing and producing such a wide variety of flavors. Tuning in, you'll hear Lesley share how her company was affected by the COVID 19 pandemic, how rebranding helped her business, and why she chooses to do her own photography. Later, we delve into the logistics involved with upscaling her business and why the research and development phase was such a rigorous process. We are in awe of everything Lesley has accomplished with her business and we are very excited for everything on the horizon for Mama’s Biscuits! Tune in today for advice, insights, tips, and much more from Mama Biscuit herself!
Key Points Mentioned in this Episode:
Introducing today’s guest Lesley Riley, founder, and CEO of Mama’s Biscuits.
Get to know Lesley’s company Mama’s Biscuits.
Why Lesley decided to have a vast range of 50 flavored gourmet biscuits.
Some of Lesley’s recent successes like Mama’s Biscuits being stocked in Trader Joe’s and Wegmans.
Lesley shares how her brand was affected by the COVID 19 pandemic.
How one of Lesley’s photographs from Instagram was featured on The Food Network, broadening her reach significantly.
How Lesley tried out for Master Chef and the role that experience played in how Mama’s Biscuits developed as a business.
How Lesley does sourcing for her various flavors.
The challenges inherent to sourcing locally with the growth of her business.
Lesley shares details of her positive experience working with Trader Joe’s.
The logistics involved in scaling up a business.
Lesley shares some of the logistics involved in their rebranding process.
Why Lesley decided to work with a co-packer, instead of owning her own factory.
Lesley shares what’s on the horizon for Mama’s Biscuits including some new flavors and the continuation of their new vegan line.
Lesley shares her tips and advice for other small businesses. Links Mentioned in this Episode:
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
Click Here for Full Transcript:
[0:00:00] Lesley Riley: We actually had to turn down some business last year. I’m able to pick and choose the retailers now that I think will leverage the brand.
[0:00:12.4] Georgiana Dearing: Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast, where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the good food, good people, and good brands that you know and love. If you’ve ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered, “How do they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business?” Then we’ve got some stories for you.
Hi there foodies, thanks for tuning in today. I’ve got a special treat for all those craft food makers and bakers who are dreaming of seeing their products on the grocery shelf. Today, I’m speaking with Lesley Riley, the real mom biscuit. The CEO and founder of the Gourmet Food Brand, Mama’s Biscuits. I first became aware of her years ago when she scored a spot on Walmart’s shelves.
Since then, I’ve turned into a true stan, marginally stalking her accounts and cheering her on with every success. Recently, she had some big wins on the retail front and I thought, it would be great to hear straight from her, how did she do that? How did she turn her yummy biscuits into retail success?
Listen to her story, she turned out to be as warm and inviting as the insta pics of her biscuits.
[0:01:37.8] Georgiana Dearing: Hi Lesley, thank you for joining me today and welcome to the podcast.
[0:01:42.2] Lesley Riley: Hi, I’m happy to be here.
[0:01:44.7] Georgiana Dearing: Good, thank you. I’m so glad you are. Now, I found you a couple of years ago just by watching you online and seeing some of your success. For the listeners who don’t know us, could you tell us who you are and the name of your business and the things that you're doing?
[0:02:02.3] Lesley Riley: Sure, I’d be happy to. My name is Lesley Riley, I am also known as Mama Biscuit. I am the founder and CEO of Mama’s Biscuits. I actually make gourmet biscuits and we make over 50 different flavors of sweet, savory, gluten-free and vegan. I’ve been doing this for the last seven years.
[0:02:24.9] Georgiana Dearing: Wow, seven years and 50 flavors, that’s a crazy expensive product line. How do you do that? Do you run them all the time or do you do them seasonally?
[0:02:36.5] Lesley Riley: Yes, they’re done seasonally, we have rotating flavors that we do every season. About four times a year, we’ll rotate out some flavors and then we’ll bring some new ones in and we usually go by basically, we pretty much fall all things fall, we have a lot of different flavor profiles. It is really good to be able to showcase those throughout the year. So people don’t get tired of the same old biscuit flavor.
[0:03:03.4] Georgiana Dearing: Yeah, flavor variety is always a good way to get people to keep coming back, that’s good strategy there. You came on my radar years ago when I saw that you had some success in Walmart and that’s one of the reasons why I brought you here today because I saw that you had that great win and a lot of my clients are looking for that same kind of success and then recently, I mean, like very recently, I saw that you had a time where you were in Trader Joe’s and then now you’re in Wegmans.
Those are some pretty good successes at the – we’re talking now the summer of 2021 but the last years has really been a roller coaster for the food industry. I’m just curious, how has it been? I can tell you’ve come out with some wins but how was that past year for you?
[0:03:53.0] Lesley Riley: The past year has been really good for our brand. Prior to last year, I guess, prior to COVID, I had made a decision to kind of put the brand on hold a little bit and then I ended up rebranding the whole company. In rebranding, that meant packaging and was trying to look for something that was more appealing and came up with – I have a really good graphic designer and she’s been with me since – for about six years now and she’s amazing.
She has a little boutique in Tennessee and we worked really well together. She has been really, the brains behind the branding with Mama Biscuit and when we rebranded, we’ve already had that meeting with Publix so we already knew we were going into Publix last year but I took a one Sunday, I had taken, during COVID, there was a lot of downtime for a lot of people so I actually took some free classes that people were offering a lot of free classes and one of those was a photography class.
Because, I do pretty much all the photography for Mama Biscuit and I just wanted to kind of enhance the photography so on all the packaging, that’s all me.
[0:05:06.9] Georgiana Dearing: Oh my.
[0:05:07.9] Lesley Riley: I decided to take the new packaging that we did, I put it on my desk on Sunday, just snapped a couple of pictures and posted it on Instagram. That picture ended up on the Food Network and ended up being one of the most 30 – I forget how it was phrased, it was like, one of the 30 black brands, black owned brands you must have in your kitchen.
From there, it just kind of really just took off. I have market reach out, just, everybody reached out while Wegmans helped, yeah, Trader Joe’s. A lot of people had reached out at that point but it was something as simple as a photo.
[0:05:44.8] Georgiana Dearing: My goodness.
[0:05:46.3] Lesley Riley: That pushed us to the next level, yeah.
[0:05:48.7] Georgiana Dearing: Oh my goodness, there’s so many things in there that I want to unpack a little bit to use an overused phrase. First of all, I know that you are CEO of this business but I also know that you have another career. You are doing two things at the same time, which I think is insane and then now, to hear that you're your own photographer, makes small business owners, wear a lot of hats. My goodness, you have a lot on.
[0:06:16.6] Lesley Riley: We do, we wear many hats and partly, I did the pictures because I didn’t want anybody else to own them. I know with a lot of photographers these days, there’s contracts out there and then you do have to – they allow you to use the photos for five years and you pay for that but I just kind of want to do things on my own terms and I guess even with the rebranding, that’s kind of how I’ve been, I’ve been doing things on my own terms now.
We actually had to turn down some business last year. I’m able to pick and choose the retailers now that I think will leverage the brand, yeah.
[0:06:54.9] Georgiana Dearing: Wow, so actually, that’s a smart thing to do regardless of the number of offers that you have is to kind of know who your best partner is and then look for people who do those things. That’s a pretty smart thing to be doing. The other thing that I wanted to say, you got picked up by the Food Network but you have sort of a passing history with them or HGTV, is that right? You were in a Master Chef, something rather early on, before you started?
[0:07:25.0] Lesley Riley: That was just auditions. The very early on, when I first started Mama Biscuit, I was just kind of basically cooking for friends and family. I used to own a restaurant years ago and I just kind of, we’d have like Sunday dinners, we just get together at my house and I would go up and – one day we would just sitting on the back and someone said, “Hey, you should try out for Master Chef” and I was like, “Okay” and I did, I went to New York and made it through a couple of rounds, never made it to the television show. We got cut and I was like, “Oh gosh” I got devastated when I cut.
I had already had the Mama Biscuit page up and they were kind of cheering me along and it just – I like the camaraderie. I love the fact that they were still supportive, even though I had failed. I didn’t fail in their book but they were like, “Hey, you know, you did well” I was just like, “You know what? I’m going to keep this going. Somehow I’m going to keep this going” and then we just ended up started showcasing biscuits. I’m going to have 50 different biscuit flavors by the end of the year and that’s exactly what happened and then I turned it into an online business.
[0:08:31.3] Georgiana Dearing: When you do those 50 different flavors, where do you find the ingredients that you used? You use any local sourcing or unique sourcing or anything like that?
[0:08:40.3] Lesley Riley: We do, we used to use some things from – at the time we were in Frederick, we used to use things from the Frederick Farmers Market or from local suppliers in Frederick. Not as much anymore, it’s hard to do local when you start expanding. A lot of times though, with the online orders, they’re much smaller batches so I can still use some local things like honey, stuff like that.
When you start expanding and mass retail, it’s really hard to use local because a lot of times they can’t keep up with the demand.
[0:09:16.2] Georgiana Dearing: Yeah, that is one of the pieces of the puzzle that is constantly a back and forth. I was just talking to a farm financial guy the other day and that set balance of how do you get farms who can produce the production levels that a manufacturer needs?
[0:09:30.7] Lesley Riley: Right.
[0:09:31.7] Georgiana Dearing: There’s a bit of back and forth there. I’m curious about Trader Joe’s as well, that was like a seasonal contract, was that correct? Your lemon blueberry was in there.
[0:09:43.3] Lesley Riley: Trader Joe’s came and you know, we tried a lot of different flavor profiles and they ended up choosing the blueberry lemon to go in as a seasonal item for 12 weeks but extended a little past 12 weeks because of our production schedule but they were very great in working with us. You will see us again, you will see us back. I love the beauty of Trader Joe’s of being able to come in with seasonal items. They’ve been great to work with. I mean, they are an amazing team and how they do it just beyond me.
[0:10:16.5] Georgiana Dearing: That was under your own brand, right? That was your brand.
[0:10:19.8] Lesley Riley: That is correct, we were one of the few branded items, that’s correct.
[0:10:23.9] Georgiana Dearing: Yeah, because they have – they’re very stingy about bringing other names in because they do so much under the Trader Joe’s name. I was particularly excited when I saw that. I thought, “Look at you, look at you getting a good spot.”
[0:10:40.8] Lesley Riley: Yeah, about 80% of their products are private label but occasionally, you will see – usually in the health area, like the health food area, more of the kind bars, those kind of things, they are usually branded in Trader Joe’s or the candy, you may see that branded but yeah, not to often that they do food products.
[0:11:01.8] Georgiana Dearing: No, I thought that was a great win for you, I was over here clapping for you going, “You go, that’s great, that’s great.” I have so many questions now and I’m going to try and stick to the pattern and that we were talking about, I get so excited over these milestones and I am curious, I imagine that you were planning the future to kind of leverage some of these things, right? You just spoke to turning down some partnerships, I imagine, would you be going to purposefully reach out to brands that you think would be good fits?
[0:11:37.8] Lesley Riley: We have, without me saying, our quarter four this year is huge.
[0:11:43.9] Georgiana Dearing: Oh my goodness.
[0:11:44.6] Lesley Riley: We’re really going into detail.
[0:11:48.1] Georgiana Dearing: You're already on it, you’ve leveraged some of these.
[0:11:50.2] Lesley Riley: Yeah, after basically, after our Trader Joe’s run, everything now is going to a co-packer, everything except our online orders and our dry mix, that will stay in house but everything else is going to a co-packer. Then, we’ve put together an advisory board, there’s some big things happening for Mama Biscuits into quarter four.
[0:12:11.4] Georgiana Dearing: Oh my goodness. That’s one of the things I was going to ask about was your operations, because I know that you’re CEO and I know that you have bakers who have worked for you in the past, in a commercial kitchen, I’ve seen you celebrating those people on your team and I think that’s such a great thing.
Yeah, capacity is a thing. Finding a partner who is going to be able, who owns that big industrial equipment and it can be doing those much larger production runs, that’s a whole process. Did you find that difficult or did you do a lot of recipe testing with them? I mean, it’s your recipe, what was the experience like?
[0:12:52.1] Lesley Riley: Yeah, there’s a lot of R&D that goes into that a lot, a lot. I guess at some point I’ll talk about that a little bit more but yes, that’s a lot of products that has to be tested and making sure things are correct and yeah.
[0:13:07.9] Georgiana Dearing: When you did this new rebranding and you started taking on these bigger clients, my experience in package design is that the packaging starts to become a manufacturing process, right? It has to sort of work with the equipment that you’re working with so that you can be the most efficient. Were you making some of those decisions as well?
[0:13:31.5] Lesley Riley: Absolutely, we brought in – we actually ended up purchasing a machine from Italy. It is in the process of being shipped here now and instead of what’s going to pouches now, we are actually going to film, so we are making our own pouches with the machine and the machine can actually handle the biscuits. It does pretty much everything for us because we found that the hand packing, it’s a lot. It’s a lot of hand packing and we did Trader Joe’s. We handmade over a million biscuits and hand packed those and it was a lot. It was a lot.
[0:14:04.6] Georgiana Dearing: Wow. That is a lot.
[0:14:05.3] Lesley Riley: At some point, you have to make the decision to automate things.
[0:14:10.3] Georgiana Dearing: Yeah, that’s a lot in labor cost when you are getting up to a million biscuits, which kind of starts to eat into the whole margin and profit and marketing spend that you have to do to get into the deal, right?
[0:14:25.0] Lesley Riley: Right. That is correct.
[0:14:26.4] Georgiana Dearing: Yes.
[0:14:26.9] Lesley Riley: That is absolutely correct. You walk away and you’re like, “Gosh, did I even make any money off of this deal?” you know? So yeah, you do. You think about different things, yes.
[0:14:38.0] Georgiana Dearing: Yeah, so I think that’s one of the things that an emerging brand like they just don’t quite have that in the back of their mind is that switch from myself to my team to my contractor and then ultimately, do you own a factory one day. That is kind of the steps that you have to go through but there’s really a lot of back and forth like do it, be successful at it and figure out how to squeeze some more out of that margin.
[0:15:07.5] Lesley Riley: I do know that a lot of businesses, you know they want to own their own manufacturing facility. I’m one who does not, so I have no desire. I am perfectly okay with the co-packers.
[0:15:20.6] Georgiana Dearing: Well, that’s a lot. It is a lot of different types of people management and equipment management and facility management. Those are a lot of other hats to wear. Speaking as just in my small business with eight employees, I had to be IT and HR and trainer and hiring.
[0:15:43.1] Lesley Riley: That is correct.
[0:15:43.7] Georgiana Dearing: When you start adding roles like that, you can’t be all those things so then you are managing managers.
[0:15:51.7] Lesley Riley: You get it, yeah. I woke up one day and was like, “This is not what I want to do” with HR, yes, so I was like, “I don’t know” yeah and I just said you know, that is when I started sourcing co-packers because I realize that it was bigger than me at that point.
[0:16:14.5] Georgiana Dearing: Oh yeah and what you are is you own that brand, it’s your brand right? You own that and the rest of the things that go into getting that out the door are things where you can find experts to do those things for you. That’s a big light bulb moment for you is to figure that out because I think many small businesses begin to drown in the day to day and it’s hard to keep that brand excitement, wrestle with all of those other things that you have to do. Good on you, I’ll become your super cheerleader today.
[0:16:51.1] Lesley Riley: You are absolutely right. You are one of the few people that get it from a CEO standpoint and even a lot of CEOs have a hard time getting it and you’re right, that light bulb, you have to have that light bulb moment as a founder, as a CEO and be like, “Okay, I would rather just go out and me drum up more business” or you know, find where you really – kind of take it back to in the beginning, what you really like about the brand because it does.
It gets lost and you’re kind of like, “Oh gosh, I didn’t sign up for this. It’s not what I want to do” and you know, it is your brand and you kind of wear many hats but at seven years later, when you are starting to get into more major stores, you’re like, “Okay, I can’t still be wearing the same hat” and so you know, I have to make some decisions and I’m kind of happy because I actually, I love making the online orders. That is where I was passionate because it allows me to be more creative.
[0:17:51.4] Georgiana Dearing: I was just going to ask you about creativity because your decision that you mentioned earlier about photography just as a side note, there are ways to get just to own your photographs outright. Lots of corporations do that and it’s because they don’t want the hassle to have to keep track of five years. That’s a big admin function but your decision to take on your photography and to get better at it sounds like that’s a creative thing that you enjoy, so that’s okay to keep that piece of it.
[0:18:24.6] Lesley Riley: With the photo – me sourcing photographers too, it was because I had so many different flavors, so that starts to get pricey. When I told them, okay, we have to do 10 photo shoots of 10 different flavors and that was just 10 and you know the quote that I got was just astronomical and I was just like, “Oh, I’m not paying that you know?” I’ll figure it out. I Googled how to do a white box and that was outside on my desk about 9:20 when the sun was shining right in the morning, so yeah. I mean it is hilarious but I mean, you know we did it.
[0:19:04.9] Georgiana Dearing: You did it. Well, I’m going to ask you, you don’t need to reveal any new things by this but I am going to ask you, what’s next for you? Are you in general terms, what are new flavors or new things that just the general shopper might except from Mama’s Biscuits?
[0:19:25.1] Lesley Riley: We have some new things coming out on the market for fall, so you’ll see some of those flavors in some stores. Of course, we do have our vegan line and that took off really well. We are the only certified vegan biscuit on the market. Yeah, so that’s been really great to launch that. We do some other product lines. They were always in the works, you probably may have seen little things about them on our social media pages.
We just never really pushed them but those are coming to market as well and of course, we finally got the dry mix out. That’s in over 258 World Markets nationwide, so yes that’s out and we have a lot of new things on the horizon.
[0:20:13.9] Georgiana Dearing: That’s exciting. Those all sound really interesting. I’m going to ask, I just have a particular interest. I saw that you had gluten-free. Do you offer a gluten-free line or?
[0:20:24.2] Lesley Riley: You know, we did and to go back to your question, we did use a local miller for our gluten-free flour. The commercial off the shelf brands, you can tell the difference. You can taste the difference. We used to get a lot of people that say, “Oh wow, these tastes amazing” and that’s because we use – the miller used to mill the flour for us once a week every Monday. I’m hoping to get back to doing gluten-free but just on a very limited basis.
We stopped doing it because of the facility we were in, we get manufactured so much non-gluten free that it was just impossible to kind of run the line of gluten. Now, because we’re on a smaller scale now, we can go back to running that gluten-free line. Yeah, I would see that probably on our online stores like towards the holidays.
[0:21:18.3] Georgiana Dearing: Yeah, I was going to say so that’s probably another advantage of this co-packer relationship is that now you’ve got someone to do volume and now you can go back to craft runs with your smaller team but it is so interesting. Well, I have to tell you, this was – I’m so glad that we connected and had this conversation because there’s – you’ve had so much success in this that I know people are going to want to hear about that.
Before we go, do you have any other things that you might want to share or things that would be of interest to other brands who are looking to have the kind of success that you had?
[0:21:58.8] Lesley Riley: I mean, I would just tell them to keep doing what you’re doing and the break will come and it’s okay if you hear no. You know, the company tells you, “No, not right now” you know, just keep checking by. Check in back every year and just don’t stop because eventually, they’ll come around. It’s ironic because a lot of the no’s we’ve heard early on are a lot of the yeses now, so they are searching you out.
Yes, hopefully the retailers has come back, back around, which I was actually surprised but yes, I wouldn’t just – sometimes you can go into spaces too early but sometimes it is just not the right time, yeah.
[0:22:41.2] Georgiana Dearing: I was going to say that these early no’s were probably because they didn’t think that you were ready like a smart retailer wants a partner who is going to be there for the life of the relationship and they are looking at small businesses like are they ready for me to take a bet on, right?
[0:23:03.0] Lesley Riley: Right and then you have some early yeses too and that’s why I talked about a little bit about some of your failures. Some of the retailers said yes and they didn’t do well in the stores because of – and again, I would say it was more of a branding thing for us. You have to know your product so I think it was – but I think the fact that when we rebranded, it made things a lot better. There was more clarity about the brand because early on when I was in one of the retailers, they had me in a bunch of different areas.
I was in bakery. I was in grab-and-go, I was in deli. I was just kind of all over the place in different stores and we had some brand identities and then when I actually stopped and said, “You know what? This is going to be strictly frozen” and then that’s when you know, I was able to command that we’re the brand that’s going to go.
[0:23:58.1] Georgiana Dearing: That’s another thing like a smart specialty brand knows where they play the best and will tell their retail partner like, “We do better here.” You know, I was talking to a snack brand and they said, “We’re not the snack isle. We need to be over in deli because we go with wine and cheese and deli events. We’re not going to do well if you put us in there next to the potato chips” and it was like, “Oh that’s a smart thing to do.”
If you can’t get that kind of buy-in from your partner, then you are probably not the right partner for you right now because it’s like, “Well, you are going to be disappointed.” You are going to order and then they are not going to move and those are the kinds of stories that I am always coaching my brands to like you know what works, right? You know it, you don’t have to grab everything. You grab the things that fit your brand.
Well again, I don’t want to keep you for forever and ever. I mean I have so many questions I could ask you off and on but I’m going to let you go but before we leave, can you share with listeners where they can find you, how they can buy you online and all of those great things?
[0:25:13.1] Lesley Riley: Sure, our online store, I think we’re going to open back at August 1st. We have August 1st right now but you can find us at www.mamabiscuit.com. Instagram, I think we’re under Mama’s Biscuits @mama_biscuit and the same with Facebook, it’s Mama’s Biscuit so you can find us. You can find us on all the social media outlets. You can find us on TikTok and Twitter as well, as well as Pinterest.
[0:25:40.6] Georgiana Dearing: We can find your mix in World Market and we can find some flavors or flavor in Wegmans and anywhere else shoppers might go.
[0:25:49.9] Lesley Riley: Publix, yeah, Wegmans, Publix, there is still some left at Trader Joe’s right now and then look for us in a couple more retailers towards the end of the year.
[0:25:59.6] Georgiana Dearing: Well, that is great. I am so happy for your success and thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
[0:26:05.8] Lesley Riley: Sure, thank you. Thanks for having me.
[0:26:08.9] Georgiana Dearing: Sure, I enjoyed it so much.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:26:11.3] Georgiana Dearing: Thanks for listening and if you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on “grow my brand” at vafoodie.com. If you’re a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are @vafoodie on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people and good brands.