How Caraway built the most in-demand cookware brand of the pandemic
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Since the start of pandemic-imposed lockdowns just over a year ago, Caraway, like other home brands, was fortunate to be part of an industry for which demand skyrocketed overnight.
With increasing numbers of American adults staying home and cooking more, the brand saw e-commerce sales rise more than 20-fold on an annual basis, selling out of its colorful cookware sets month over month and catapulting the brand almost instantly to cult status on Instagram.
Fortune recently spoke with Caraway founder Jordan Nathan to learn more about the business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, as well as plans for the new year.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Can you share more about your professional background prior to launching Caraway?
Nathan: Before launching Caraway, my experience was focused in the direct-to-consumer kitchen and home goods space—from starting my first company to developing a marketplace for direct-to-consumer brands, to a fast ascension to CEO at kitchenware brand Vremi, owned by Mohawk Group, where I launched more than 200 home products sold to over 1 million homes. Through this experience, I made connections with some of the best cookware manufacturing partners in the world, which opened many doors when it came to developing Caraway.
What inspired you to launch Caraway? What went into the design and development process for a new kind of cookware set? What makes Caraway cookware different from what is already on the market?
A few years ago I had accidentally overheated an empty Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)-coated fry pan, which led to me getting nauseated from the toxic fumes the pan emitted. After contacting poison control, it turned out I had been exposed to Teflon poisoning. That was the breakthrough moment that pushed me toward researching this harmful chemical and discovering that over 95% of nonstick cookware sold in the U.S. contains Teflon.
As someone who is very conscious of what I put in my body, it was shocking to find out that the items I use on a daily basis were made with harmful materials and chemicals. When developing Caraway, the most important factor for me was ensuring we could provide a safer nontoxic product.
Our cookware is coated with multiple layers of high-quality natural ceramic that is free of PTFE, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), lead, cadmium, nickel, and other toxic metals. The core is made of aluminum and features a stainless steel base and handles. Additionally, we believe in the importance of transparency when it comes to the materials in your cookware, and share our testing reports with all our customers. We’ve had tests performed by SGS—the same company the FDA uses—to ensure our cookware is 100% safe to use in any home.
Our cookware set was also designed with storage in mind, and includes handy organizational units for the pans and lids that make storing them easy and seamless, especially for small kitchens.
With restaurants shuttered for indoor dining for the better part of the past year, and completely in some regions, and more people at home all the time, cooking at home changed dramatically. Did Caraway benefit from this shift? What have sales and feedback from customers been like in the past year?
Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen an increase in demand for our cookware not only because of current stay-at-home orders, but because of the general public’s desire to take better care of themselves. Our business has grown more than 20 times over from January 2020 to January 2021, despite our cookware set being on back order more days than being in stock the entire year.
We observed in real time a passionate desire for consumers to get back into the kitchen and equip themselves with the necessary products to do so. Especially with the rise of eating regimens such as Keto, Whole30, and going vegan, people are simply becoming much more aware of not only the food they eat but also the toxins that lie in their cookware, and opting for healthier alternatives. We’re proud to be a safer solution for everyone—from new moms to people with specific allergies to chemical-free homes to pet-bird owners—and only expect this movement to continue expanding.
With a return to somewhat normal on the horizon and more restaurants opening up again in the coming months, what kind of shift do you expect among consumers when it comes to cooking at home? Could this affect your business in the short and long term?
With over a year of consumers creating a “new normal” in cooking healthy meals at home, we aren’t projecting everyone to shift back into their old habits immediately. On top of many businesses also making permanent changes to allow for more flexible working schedules and conditions, most consumers will continue to dress up their kitchens and homes, turning them into spaces that inspire and are true reflections of their aesthetic. Aside from offering a high-quality product, our community turns to us for guidance on design, color, and decorating a home, so we see this as a great opportunity to enter new categories and services that further this mission.
Even with sales skyrocketing in the past year, fundraising during an economic crisis is a challenge, to say the least. How is Caraway funded, and how has fundraising gone for your company in the past year?
Last May, we closed a $5.3 million seed round. The funding comes from more than 100 investors, which include traditional venture capital funds, consumer-focused angels, and other entrepreneurs, including Andy Dunn, cofounder of Bonobos, and Brian Sugar, cofounder and CEO of PopSugar. This nontraditional approach of having a wide pool of investors from various backgrounds, compared with a select few offering a higher amount of investment, has allowed us easy access to virtually any company or partner we’d like to connect with.
Looking ahead, where do you see Caraway in five years?
We have our sights set on expanding the Caraway brand way beyond cookware. We seek to become a leader in producing beautiful nontoxic home goods that make life easier and assist in helping consumers become more organized and healthy.