From Burger King chair to natural-foods maven

July 16, 2014, 7:48 PM UTC
Sweet Earth Foods
Sweet Earth Foods
Courtesy: Sweet Earth Foods

Brian Swette’s resume reads like a Who’s Who of huge American consumer-goods companies. A former chief operating officer and head of marketing at eBay, he was chief marketing officer of PepsiCo’s beverage division and a brand manager at Procter & Gamble before taking the non-executive board chairman seat at Burger King.

So what was he doing in March 2012, tramping across strawberry fields in Moss Landing, Calif., to break into an empty warehouse?

“We needed a place to manufacture our products, which we were making in a small kitchen in a storefront,” recalls Swette (pronounced “sweetie”). “I saw this building, in the middle of miles of farmland, that I heard was in foreclosure. I had to break the lock on the door to look inside, but it was perfect for us.”

Six months later, the 35,000-square-foot space opened its doors as Sweet Earth Natural Foods’ new factory.

It’s a long way from Burger King. The company, launched in late 2011, makes all-natural vegetarian foods, including veggie burgers, burritos, and a new line of something called Benevolent Bacon, made of buckwheat, red beans, vital wheat gluten, and 13 spices. “It’s earth friendly, heart healthy, and cruelty-free,” Swette says. “I’ve always had an interest in sustainability. This business is redemption for me.”

It’s also growing like mad. Sweet Earth started with just Swette and his wife and cofounder Kelly Swette, formerly a PepsiCo marketing executive and then head of global marketing for Calvin Klein. The startup now has 60 employees and, Swette says, a $400,000 monthly run rate he expects to reach $1 million by year’s end.

What would Swette advise aspiring entrepreneurs about quitting the executive suite to start their own ventures? He says he’s learned three big things from his experience:

It’s a lot harder than you think. “This isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Swette. “But it comes pretty darn close. In the corporate world, people talk about hard choices, but every decision is magnified in a small company, where you have no back-up and no history. There’s a lot more ambiguity.”

He especially misses having a human resources department. Recently, Swette came up with a plan to give all Sweet Earth’s employees, many of whom are native Spanish-language speakers, some equity in the company. “I had to figure that out myself, then get it translated into Spanish, and present it,” he says. He then had to deal with employees’ initial suspicion. “They were skeptical, like ‘Why is he giving us something for nothing? There must be a catch,’” Swette says. “I really could have used some help with that.”

Everything is hands-on. “In a big company, you spend most of your time in meetings. But with a startup, your survival is based on action,” says Swette. In his old job as a top marketing executive at PepsiCo, he recalls, “I would set strategy and, once in a while, go along on a sales call.” Now, he knows every distributor that carries Sweet Earth products, and answers their emails himself.

“Most consumer goods managers don’t taste their products or see them made every day,” he adds. “We do.” He’s also haggled with suppliers, picked up a hammer to fix a recalcitrant machine on the factory floor, and driven a delivery truck.

Think fast. Turning that abandoned warehouse in Moss Landing into a running factory in just six months “could never have happened in a large company,” says Swette. “But in a startup, you can move quickly and make adjustments on the fly. In fact, you have to.”

Benevolent Bacon, for example, took just a few months to develop from prototype to store shelves. It’s in 300 stores now, Swette says, and will be in about 1,500 by the end of 2014.

“In a big company, a new product would take twice that long just to get to test markets, and that’s with a huge staff and lots of support,” he says. “Here, it’s usually Kelly and I and maybe one other person cooking up different versions of a new product in our kitchen at home until three in the morning.”

Swette has no regrets about exchanging the boardroom for the burrito business, but he does sometimes miss the executive perks he once took for granted. “[Big companies’] private jets are overrated,” he says. “But the middle seat in coach on a no-frills airline is really a drag.”