Eric Kimmel is the first to say there’s plenty of competition in the nutrition food bar manufacturing business, be it natural, organic, functional, healthy, or diet, but the co-owner of Quebec’s Noble Foods has managed to successfully carve out a particular niche in the medium-sized manufacturing market, delivering superior service for customers needing hands-on involvement, quality control and company growth.
Noble’s ability to both pivot and change over the course of the past 20 years has played a large factor in the company’s growth and success, says Kimmel.
“When we started out, we were a very small company. We were just getting into the bar manufacturing business and we didn’t really have anything other than a bar line. Over the years, we’ve created our quality control systems and our operating procedures, and everything required to exist in the food business. But we’ve also changed our customer focus.”
With its initial focus on the natural and organic food trade and a minimum production of between 5,000 and 25,000 bars, Noble Foods is now more focused on the diet industry, the direct consumer industry, and the multilevel marketing industry.
“Not that focusing on the former would have made it impossible to survive, but there’s so much turnover with startups, and so many that don’t survive, it was really important for us to find new customers — that was a very important transition for us,” he says.
Noble successfully figured out where its customers were and made sure the company was there, too, developing and maintaining positive relationships along the way.
“One thing we realized very early on is that we were not, and never wanted to be, a massive bar manufacturer,” says Kimmel. “We could never compete on price with big manufacturers, so we decided we wanted to compete on service level. We service the heck out of our customers. For 20 years, I did all of the business development and R&D. My second partner, Lee Shulkin, handled day-to-day operations, and our third partner, Alex Dekhter, handled production, making sure we’re running as efficiently as possible. The three of us were, and still are, directly involved in the business every single day.”
It’s this direct, hands-on, personal involvement that has made such a difference for Noble’s customers, especially when transitioning from other bar manufacturers, where they often weren’t receiving the service they wanted.
“Customers tell me they weren’t getting their phone calls received, or their orders were getting put off because another order was bigger than theirs, and they were shocked and pleasantly surprised when they came to Noble Foods and could call me on my cell, and I would actually answer the phone any time they called.”
Kimmel, who is in charge of making samples in the lab, is intimately involved in both the process and the knowledge of Noble’s particular bars. If customers have questions or commentary, Kimmel knows how to provide answers, resolve a situation, or fix issues simply because he’s directly involved in making the actual samples. And as a former startup, Kimmel understands innately the importance of involvement and taking every aspect of a business seriously.
“New customers were either transitioning here from other manufacturers, or were startups where everything was riding on the launch and where everything had to be perfect,” he says. “They put everything into this and they need to know that the person they’re talking to understands what they mean when they say they need a different flavour profile, or the chocolate chips aren’t coming out right, or the texture is changing over time — those are all things we work on with our customers on an intimate basis because we’re so directly involved.”
The passion, dedication and enthusiasm required for starting a business and keeping it going over time is precisely why Noble Foods is managing to grow and evolve successfully, while keeping customers happy at the same time.
“It’s important for our customers who were startups to know we were a startup too. We had to make it work, and we were and are absolutely passionate about it.”
Last June NovaCap bought a majority share in Noble Foods, leading to the hiring of more staff, more purchasers, and more employees in mechanics and R&D. This has deepened the bench, but not negatively affected Noble’s commitment or involvement in any way, says Kimmel.
Noble Foods remains proud of its close relationship with its employees, some of whom have been with the company for more than 20 years. And it’s the employees and their dedication that help Noble overcome the obstacle of finding the right customer for a business regularly facing stiff competition.
“We really pride ourselves on running an efficient and strong bar manufacturing facility,” says Kimmel. “We could attract business by giving the lowest price for sure, but if we want to sustain the level of service and level of support we give our customers, we need to make sure that we have the right customer and we’re charging the right price for that customer, and that we’re profitable enough that we’re not running on a string.”
Noble’s minimums are now at 100 thousand bars, which means the company is looking for people with existing businesses and existing distribution channels who either are transferring to Noble Foods from another manufacturer, or who are existing brands, but have never made a bar before. This rules out a startup who wants 10 or 20 thousand bars. If you walk the floors at Natural Products Expo West, for example, says Kimmel, you see a lot of bars out there and a lot of startups. There’s definitely a market out there for a manufacturer who handles smaller runs and Noble has developed good relationships with those manufacturers, directing a lot of business their way.
“I get a lot of calls from people looking for smaller runs, and I have manufacturers I can send them to,” he says. “I can help people out there who are looking for manufacturers that don’t necessarily fit with Noble Foods.”
Kimmel’s dedication to helping not only his customers but his fellow manufacturers has cemented the company’s reputation as one to work with: trustworthy and personally involved in every step of the process.
“People say they’ve heard about Noble Foods and that they’re happy to finally be with us,” he says. “In terms of our accomplishments, I think our reputation is one that I’m most proud of. When people call me up and say a number of people told me I have to be with you, the premier medium sized bar manufacturer, that’s our biggest accomplishment. A great reputation is a hard thing to acquire and it can also easily be lost. It requires constant hard work to maintain a great reputation.”
The success the company has experienced, both in customer satisfaction and profitability, are mutually inclusive and beneficial, he says.
“A great way to measure success is: are your customers happy? We’re pretty unique in that we allow our customers to own their formulas, because we don’t want to handcuff them to us. We want them to stay with us because they’re so happy with the service they’re getting from us that they wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else.”
He’s happy to say that all of Noble’s customers stay with them, due in part to ongoing efficiency and profitability. The company works tirelessly to find customers who work with their pricing model and who appreciate great service.
Novacap’s majority purchase means more growth, whether through acquisition or building a larger facility with different capabilities and more production choices, and Kimmel is looking forward to seeing how that plays out for Noble Foods over the next five years.
Kimmel’s longtime, hands-on involvement in the bar manufacturing industry has created personal expertise in the field, which has further led to his involvement in the creation of an important, worldwide organization. MotherFood International, in particular, is close to his heart, as they help pregnant and lactating women in underdeveloped countries receive the nutrients they need while they’re pregnant and/or lactating in order to help avoid giving birth to stunted children. They’re presently active in countries including Jordan and Colombia, and are working on projects in Ethiopia, Ghana and potentially Bangladesh.
“I’m working with different women entrepreneurs who are starting businesses in Jordan. I’m teaching them how to make bars that use local ingredients and local flavour profiles,” he says. “They start a business selling bars that are fortified with proper vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid, in places where maybe it’s not culturally accessible, or maybe they can’t afford to buy supplements.”
In many of these countries, taking capsules doesn’t exist in their culture, he says, so teaching them to eat locally made food, using local ingredients, produced by a local, trusted person, has been shown to ultimately get the nutrients into them, and that’s what’s required to prevent stunted children.
“Hundreds of millions of babies are born every year in chronically malnourished countries, and it’s a very simple problem to solve because we know how to solve it — get the nutrients. No one’s ever really been able to do that and we have.”
Kimmel’s personal involvement stemmed from his years of knowledge in a field that could provide huge differences.
“My friend and co-founder asked me to help out, and I thought ‘why would we make bars to give or sell to people in other countries.’ If I can make them in the lab, I can teach anyone to make them. It’s a simple thing,” he says. “Studies have shown if they’re made locally using local ingredients, they have an 80 to 100 percent acceptability rate, but when they come from outside sources, they have a 20 percent acceptability rate.”
Using his years of acquired skills to give back is just one of Kimmel’s goals as he and his partners continue to establish Noble Foods in its specific niche as a premier medium-sized bar manufacturer. And for everyone involved in the company, it always boils down to both customer satisfaction and profit, and how no business can have one without the other, he says.
“I can’t help my customers if I can’t stay in business. If I’m really profitable and all my customers leave because I’m too expensive and they’re not happy, nobody wins. So finding that balance is what’s important,” he says. “We’re not the company to work with if you need five or 20 thousand bars. We’re not the company if you want 50 million bars, but if you’re looking for a medium sized bar manufacturer with 400 to 500 thousand bars per SKU, to five million bars per SKU, then there’s no better manufacturer than Noble Foods.”