Frönen, the better guilty pleasureBy Jean-Paul Bowgen
Frönen, the better guilty pleasure
By J.P. Bowgen
Frönen is creating a movement in clean indulgence that answers consumers’ demands for natural and organic foods. Frönen’s simple four ingredient formula is a purposeful alternative to the gums, pastes and preservatives that other ice creams frequently leverage. Midwest Scout J.P. Bowgen sat down with Founders Jessy Gartenstein and Erik Nadeau to get the inside scoop (pun intended).
Nothing hard to pronounce…or digest!
Vanilla may not be vacating the throne as “America’s top ice cream flavor” any time soon, but today’s consumer is asking for more than just flavor from their ice cream brands. The global ice cream market grew to $57.7 billion in 2018, and is expected to grow 158% by 2024. For a category that’s been a stalwart in many American households, ice cream is growing not only in sales volume, but in product innovation too.
At the core of this growth is two phenomena:
- Consumer demand for dairy-free and plant-based ice cream offerings
- Psychographic acceptance of ice cream as both a guilty pleasure and a nutrient-dense snack
The team at Frönen recognized the need for a different ice cream and delivered: 4-5 ingredients, 90 calories per serving, natural honey sweeteners, and ingredients that are not only easy to pronounce, but also easy to digest.
A founder-driven mission
Founders Jessy Gartenstein and Erik Nadeau met each other through internships at Morgan Stanley and through the University of Chicago ecosystem. Both had worked at BallotReady, a University of Chicago College Social New Venture Challenge winning startup focused on informing voters on political candidates and referendums. It wasn’t long before they took another bite at the apple and teamed up to launch Frönen – a noticeable pivot from their last entrepreneurial endeavor, but a pivot grounded in Jessy’s life experience with celiac disease.
Jessy notes that a core problem with ice cream today is the product’s lack of transparency, particularly in its ingredient composition. Big ice cream producers’ reliance on gums, pastes and sweeteners prove particularly harsh on your stomach and aren’t easily absorbed into the microbiome. So for the 23.5 million Americans suffering from autoimmune disease, ice cream can be less of a blessing and more of a curse.
“It’s definitely misleading when you see these certifications on packaging, but the ingredient deck is forty plus ingredients that you don’t know – ingredients you can’t pronounce. Surprisingly a lot of it is processed even though it claims to be gluten-free or dairy-free. And the ice cream space is one of the worst.” – Jessy Gartenstein, Co-founder
This poignant observation proved to be the catalyst for what is today now Frönen’s guiding mission: if a five-year-old can’t pronounce an ingredient, it’s not going into Frönen’s product.
We all scream for ice cream!
Frönen officially launched in 2018 at the Taste of Chicago and in 5 stores, after winning the University of Chicago’s College New Venture Challenge. Since then, Frönen has generated meaningful traction, expanding its presence to 16 states and nearly 350 brick-and-mortar stores.
Whole Foods? Check!
Wegman’s? Of course!
The team has accomplished all this while staying lean, having raised minimal outside capital from their College New Venture Challenge achievements and the Polsky Center Summer Accelerator.
Jessy and Erik lead all major sales, including cold calling grocers and retailers. They also recently hired an outside sales partner in December 2019 to help accelerate growth even further. Frönen also has a strong ecommerce function, with direct-to-consumer performance exceeding expectations.
Their mission is simple: grow Frönen into a national ice cream brand and a household name.
“We have a really great customer base of people who similarly have autoimmune diseases who buy our products online because there’s nothing else in the market that they can eat,” Jessy says.
Frönen is empowering customers to indulge without sacrifice, and that message is sticking with consumers across the country.
“Our consumers have really been our champions, too, as to guiding us to natural health food stores across the country. They’re the ones who print out ten request forms and bring them into all the stores in the area just so they can get Frönen nearby. They’re our superfans for sure.” – Erik, Co-Founder
It’s clear the team recognizes the value of their customer evangelists and influencers for Frönen’s growth, as well, having implemented strategies to partner with influencers whose messages are well-aligned with Frönen’s mission.
“I think for us we’ve seen the most ROI on working with an influencer if their mission really aligns with ours,” says Jessy. “We’ve worked with an influencer who eats no gums, no unnatural flavors and all the things we avoid in our products, and her customer base placed a ton of orders online. It wasn’t the autoimmune community, but it was people who eat clean.”
A sweet time to be an ice cream startup
For Frönen, this is just the beginning. Erik and Jessy see consumers’ demand for plant-based alternatives as a catalyst for future success.
Retail sales of plant-based foods in the U.S. surged 11% year-over-year from 2018 to 2019, now constituting a $4.5 billion market, according to the Good Food Institute. The leading drivers of this growth: plant-based dairy alternatives, including ice cream.
As a category, plant-based ice cream grew 27% in the same time frame, while sales of conventional ice creams only grew 1%.
The Frönen team recognizes the massive market opportunity, and acknowledges that to succeed, it will be an exercise in continually refining the product, brand and messaging to communicate that Frönen is an ice cream for everyone.
“Nowhere on the packaging do we say paleo or vegan,” says Erik. “We’re not trying to limit ourselves to something like that. At this point in the game, most of our customers are coming from the product catching someone’s eye, and that person picking it up and liking it.”
Frönen’s success is certainly aided by the product’s bright packaging and positive, on-brand ingredient claims directly on the pint. According to Jessy, Frönen is the only ice cream in market today making an ingredient claim – a quality the team believes gives them a leg up on competition.
And with 33% of U.S. frozen treat buyers demanding products with more functional benefits, it may just be this claim and competitive advantage that takes Frönen from fledgling startup to a common household name.