March 20, 2023
Jennifer Lassley Knight
We’re excited to announce the $10,000 February Amber Grant recipient. Congratulations to Jennifer Lassley Knight, Founder of Earthling Food Company. They are the third qualifier for the 2023 year-end Amber Grant ($25,000).
Recently, WomensNet Advisory Board member Marcia Layton Turner sat down with Jennifer for an exclusive interview. You can listen to their conversation and view the transcript below.
WomensNet: Hi, everyone. Welcome to a conversation with our Amber Grant winner for February, 2023. Today we have the pleasure of chatting with Jennifer Lassley Knight, who is the founder of Earthling Food Company based in Olympia, Washington.
I’m Marcia Layton Turner, and I’m one of several WomensNet Advisory Board members. So, Jennifer, thanks so much for making some time to chat today. I really appreciate it, and I know everybody’s really curious to hear about your business. So tell me a little bit about Earthling Food Company. What do you sell? Where did the idea come from? Tell me the story.
Jennifer: Yes. Oh, thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here. Earthling Food Company is an impact driven food manufacturer. We’re based in Olympia, Washington, and we produce vegan and gluten-free, shelf stable, pantry goods.
Our main products are granola, and we have toasted pumpkin seeds and also a seasoning blend. We are all about creating packaged foods that do not contain oil or refined sugar in addition to being vegan and gluten free.
So we’re just kind of filling that need in the grocery space for convenient packaged foods, where you don’t have to compromise and you can find something that’s wholesome. And we only use organic maple syrup for our sweetener. So just a natural sweetener.
WomensNet: Excellent. And so where did this idea come about? Why vegan and gluten-free foods?
Jennifer: Yeah, so a lot of this really has to do with my personal experience, going through breast cancer. I was diagnosed at age 29, and I was totally taken aback. It was out of left field really. I didn’t have any history of breast cancer in my family. I was relatively healthy. And I was just really thrown.
That was kind of a big dose of reality I had to face. Going through chemo and all that too, was really rough on my body.
Shortly before my diagnosis, I had gone vegan. My husband and I both had gone vegan together, and I was really in that kind of honeymoon phase of buying all the dairy free Ben and Jerry’s and all the fun vegan food out there…kind of mimicking the nostalgic foods that I used to eat.
Jennifer: And when I got cancer, I started to really think differently about my health. I went to see an oncological naturopath, and I was asking her all about what kinds of foods should I be eating? I want to minimize my side effects from chemo. I want to continue to work. I wanna feel as strong as possible through this.
And she really opened my eyes to the importance of eating whole foods and [not] unprocessed foods. I really decided to take my health to the next level. With the help of my husband, I was cooking a lot more at home. Now I was using less oil, less heavy foods that come out of a jar or squeeze bottle.
And filling my plate with vegetables and filling my plate with mushrooms and things that I hadn’t really considered. And it just blew my mind how good I felt through chemo. Obviously, I didn’t feel amazing the whole time. It was still tough, but I was definitely expecting it to be a lot harder. I was expecting to be in bed a lot more, unable to work as much and just really wiped out. And I was pleasantly surprised that the foods I ate were good for me. And the absence of inflammatory foods in my diet really served me well, made the chemo more effective. It honestly was the day that my doctors told me I did not need radiation, that it really clicked that, ‘wow, I did this.’
I ate the food that I needed to, to stay strong enough, and I was able to skip the entire last phase of my treatment plan. So now I’m cancer free. I feel amazing. I’m in the best health of my life. So ever since that experience, it really just opened my eyes that I need to share this with more people, especially with young women who are getting diagnosed with cancer, breast cancer, at a higher rate every year.
And so now that I’m past all of that, I just could not be happier to be where I am. I’m certainly not out of the gate yet — I have a lot more work to do, but it just feels so incredible to be able to share my labor of love with people and share the magic of plant-based eating.
WomensNet: And it sounds like, although this started based on a personal health situation that you were facing, really, you’ve found quite a market. You’re in this space for a pretty short period of time. You’ve launched a number of different products, and yes, just verified that there is demand for this type of food. So what do you think has been the secret to this success?
Jennifer: I think the fact that we started a food company in and of itself is just so great because it comes with so much freedom. We started our business in October, 2019. We had a whole business plan to launch a prepared food concept that might, you know, take the form of a food truck, or it might take the form of prepared foods to go at a grocery store. But we were really planning to do prepared foods. Our first account that we had gotten was to start selling breakfast burritos at our local gym. The breakfast burritos would be vegan with tofu scramble and all that. But of course, the gym shut down shortly thereafter.
So we kind of just tried a bunch of stuff out. We experimented with meal delivery, contactless delivery. I had written a menu of anti-inflammatory kinds of dishes, breakfast and lunch. And so we tested that out with friends and family. It was really fun, but just way too much to manage. And then, an early mentor of ours, uh, a commercial kitchen partner of ours kind of helped get our heads in the space of packaged foods, foods that are shelf stable. That kind of helped us realize we don’t need to make it so hard on ourselves. We can create a product that’s shelf stable so it’s easier to manage. We can explore grocery accounts more with this model.
And so that’s when we started experimenting with dry goods, things like that. We were camping one day and we were eating my granola, just sitting at the picnic table. I had been making a homemade granola just for us to have, because we hadn’t been able to find any in the grocery stores that were both vegan and gluten free and didn’t have oil and also were sweetened naturally. That’s when we came up with Sweet Grains Granola. And I’m very proud of this line. We have three different flavors. This is our toasted coconut, which is our most popular and also my personal favorite. And we also have maple, walnut, and bourbon pecan. And our granola is special because it’s just really wholesome. There’s no preservatives, no oil, no refined sugar. It’s made with organic, certified gluten free rolled oats.
The illustration on the package of the Sasquatch is really eye-catching for customers. This is actually my own illustration. My husband and I, we designed our packaging ourselves, and that helped us save a lot of money. And so the image of the Sasquatch really: I love it because to me it represents kind of a resilience through the pandemic. He’s carrying an antique tool, used back in the day, which a lot of people still use. And he’s got a bundle of gluten-free grains. It’s our rolled oats and millet there.
I just love it because everyone out here in the Pacific Northwest already loves Sasquatch. And I feel it just ties in so well with the Pacific Northwest, but also with our journey of overcoming the odds and seeing opportunity in the darkness and going back to basics…eating foods that are natural and unadulterated.
After our granola, we launched a line of toasted pumpkin seeds. I created the pumpkin seeds in response to customer demand. A lot of customers would come to the farmer’s market interested in what we had to sell, but they couldn’t do nuts or they were on a grain-free diet. So I wanted to cast a wider net and try to reel in those customers who kept passing us up.
So I developed these pumpkin seeds, which are awesome to go on salads or just a trail snack or anything. We have a matching Sasquatch image who’s carrying a vine of pumpkins that he just pulled out of the ground. Our most popular flavors here: maple, vanilla, and hickory barbecue.
I love the hickory barbecue because it’s almost like a bacon bits alternative. It’s great on salads. Just really nice on soups, main dishes. And same thing with the granola. Our pumpkin seeds don’t have any oil. There’s no refined sugar, no preservatives. They’re also soy free and just really fun. There’s lots of creative ways to use them. So, the toasted pumpkin seeds and our granola are main products.
And then we have our seasoning blend here, which is based on our very first product. This seasoning is what we used in our original breakfast burritos that we were going to sell. And we were thinking, ‘man, how can we take that product and repurpose it into something that people might wanna buy, people might wanna add to their spice cabinet’? And we do have a small cult following now for our Impact Seasoning.
It’s a strange product to try to sell, you know, savory eggless flavoring…what could that be? But it’s got nutritional yeast and black salt in it. Those two ingredients together create a cheesy eggy flavor. It’s umami, it’s great on lots of things, perfect for tofu scrambles, and we’re really proud of that one too.
So, those are the products that we have for now. And that is just whittled down from a bunch of ideas that we’ve had.
WomensNet: It seems like your original plan to do the breakfast burrito had some limitations in terms of scalability. But by pivoting to shelf stable foods, now you can ship nationwide. You’re not just limited to your local market.
Jennifer: I love our pivot. It’s strange to think of it this way, but the pandemic really guided our business in an exciting direction. It was terrible of course, but there was a lot of great things that came out of our time, pivoting quickly and having the courage put all of the work we had done on the back burner. And focusing on something that was manageable. And it has allowed us to scale our customer base beyond our local farmer’s markets because we have online sales all across the country now.
So it’s just very exciting whenever I see an order come in. It might be someone who received a gift from a family member who bought our pumpkin seeds, or maybe it’s someone who saw an Instagram ad.
So yeah. It’s very, very exciting.
WomensNet: Now that you’ve won the $10,000 Amber Grant, how do you intend to use that money to grow the company?
Jennifer: We are buying a van. That doesn’t sound exciting, but we really, really need a van. We’ve been operating completely out of our personal vehicles. Between my little sedan and our SUV, it has been a challenge.
I remember a couple years ago, we had to strap a cooling rack (for the sheet pans of granola) on top of our SUV because we just didn’t know how else to transport it. And two times, not once, but two times, we backed that thing into our garage, and it just totally got warped. And we had to kind of jam it back into place.
Those were the very early days of us figuring out how to be food processors. We had no experience. So anyway, the van is gonna be so helpful. It will allow us to scale up our operations.
One of our main goals is to find a co-manufacturer for these products. Once we’re able to get these handed off to a co-manufacturer we will be able to pursue all the other ideas that we have. So I’m very excited.
WomensNet: As far as future plans, three to five years out, where do you see the company?
Jennifer: We have built a new concept and we are getting started with testing it this year. And we’re kind of coming full circle on our idea now that the pandemic has kind of petered out a bit.
We’re coming back to the prepared foods and we have been spending a lot of time over the last several years at farmer’s markets just kind of observing what the other vendors are doing and what customers are attracted to. We have been successful ourselves at farmer’s markets, but we are definitely envious when we see those long, long lines at a breakfast and lunch joint here and there.
And we think, ‘man, we have so many good things that we’ve come up with.’ I’ve come up with so many recipes, and I hope to write a cookbook one day, but that’s separate.
I just wrote a menu for our new concept — we’re calling it Earthling Grill for now. And we have just a small menu we’re starting with; we’re gonna see how it goes. Our whole plan is to try to have these shelf stable products kind of be the foundation for us to launch a prepared food model and hopefully sustain that. And then grow from there.
We’re trying to let the business do its thing. We’re trying to let it evolve on its own, because that’s kind of what we’ve been doing. So maybe this ends up leading to a brick and mortar restaurant. Maybe this ends up leading to a catering service, or maybe it takes the form of more grocery items that we could sell, possibly frozen or something like that. So, we’re gonna see how it goes and we’re really optimistic.
WomensNet: That’s amazing. Well, what’s one piece of advice that you might give an aspiring female entrepreneur based on your success so far?
Jennifer: I think the main thing that has really helped me is to embrace the idea of never being caught up on your to-do list, first of all. But something else that’s more, that kind of ties in with that: is staying true to your why, but flexible in the how.
So we obviously started our business with a completely different idea than what we have going right now. And we would not be successful if we tried to force our original plan through all of these avenues we’ve been navigating and all that. I think it’s really important to stay flexible in your how. That has really been my mantra through this time. It’s been very hard to let go of things that I really thought would work and things that I personally know to be very good. It’s been very hard.
And so as long as you’re able to trust the business and listen to it, and trust the market research that you’re doing, and pay attention to how your customers are responding and listening to their remarks, their requests…you can allow your business to grow in the direction it wants to grow.
WomensNet: Excellent. Great advice. Thank you for your time today. Thank you for sharing your story. I know the WomensNet community is going to be fascinated by it. And congratulations again on being our February Amber Grant winner.