We spoke to Monica Mendiola-Salazar, co-founder of beloved healthy snack brand, Take Root, famous for their kale chips and their delicious healthy granola and bliss balls. Take Root takes pride in being a junk-free snack company, which means they have no refined sugar or flour, preservatives, or artificial additives. They are plant-based, so they don’t serve any animal products and they highlight minimally processed fruits and vegetables, plus other nutrient dense whole foods.
Monica and co-founder Aileen both suffered from auto-immune disorders in their 20’s while living abroad. That’s when they decided to move back home and start a business around plant-based food. Monica takes us in-depth on her journey to a holistic lifestyle, and how she manages the highs and lows of running a business, especially during these unprecedented times.
We go Behind The Brand with Take Root.
When did you first think of starting a health food brand and what was it that inspired you?
The idea for a health food business came about in 2013. I was living in New York and had been experiencing severe auto-immune issues for years. I chalked it up to the daily stresses of living in the city, but as the symptoms got worse (I started losing pigment in my face and neck), I knew I had to make a change. I quit my marketing job and made some major lifestyle changes. I took Ayurvedic cooking classes, attended seminars on nutrition and started to experiment in the kitchen with plant-based, whole foods. I also started working at a raw vegan juice bar called Organic Avenue and it was then when the idea for starting my own health food business was cemented. The nourishing, healing food at Organic Avenue was a revelation to me and I learned so much from talking to customers everyday about their needs and issues. I decided that I eventually wanted to return home to Manila and bring back what I had experienced, in some form or another.
What business models have inspired Take Root?
I'm inspired by female-run businesses that were built from the ground up like Deliciously Ella, Glossier, Soul Cycle and Outdoor Voices. I'm inspired by quirky snack brands that are putting their own spin on healthy products and who speak to customers in a new way like Barnana, Dangs and Hippeas. I'm also inspired by sustainable businesses that support local farmers and supply chains, like Human Nature.
Take Root has also adapted a business model of giving equity to their employees. Can you tell us more about this wonderful strategy?
We want to reward those that want to join us for the journey and take part in the business through equity ownership. For employees that are in it for the long-haul and dedicated to growing Take Root with us, we want to ensure that they have the opportunity to be a part of the business.
What are the biggest challenges you have taken on and can you tell us how you were able to deal with some of those challenges?
There have been many! But in recent times, I would say having my co-founder move away last year was pretty tough. Having team members leave always requires some adjustment, but having my partner, confidante and sounding board leave for the states, was sad and jarring. Business has its ups and downs, but when you have someone who is in the trenches with you and loves the business as much as you do, it makes everything easier and less serious. Leading the business on my own and having to make all the key decisions by myself can be pretty scary and uncertain.
But I choose to focus on my purpose, which is bigger than me. I started Take Root for a reason. I believe in it and I'm committed to growing this business as big as it can be. I've learned to let go of the things that I can't control and instead focus on the positives and the possibilities. I've also learned to seek support elsewhere - my husband, other business owners and female founders.
Can you tell us more about your farm and it’s farmers?
We work with small, family-run farms in Cavite and Benguet. We've cultivated long-term relationships with them based on mutual respect and open communication. We visit the farms to learn about their processes and ensure that we are aligned in our values, such as using natural methods of pest control as opposed to chemical. Transparency with our farms is of utmost importance.
What do you love about the food process?
Well first of all, I myself love to snack and consider it as a treat throughout my day. So I love figuring out how to create clean, functional, delicious snacks that make me feel amazing, using whole food, natural ingredients. I love the fact that through the produce we source, through the recipes we create and through the products we put out there, we can directly impact how a person feels. It’s such a personal thing, and I know for a lot of people, women especially, the joy is sucked out of the experience of eating because we’re too busy counting calories.
I like the fact that we can bring back some of that joy and create a safe place for people whenever they’re eating a Take Root product.
I also enjoy connecting with and learning from the various people that make up the supply chain—farmers, suppliers, distributors, retailers and consumers.
Can you describe what your team’s working dynamic is like?
On the office side, we're a small, lean team and we all wear multiple hats. We're more relaxed in terms of certain regulations, like no one has to clock in and clock out and people are free to work from home when they need to. We are more output based and encourage balance.
On the production side, we employ an all-female team who are paid above minimum wage, with full benefits. We provide staff housing within walking distance from our facility so they can get to work easily. Rent, utilities and expenses are 100 percent covered by Take Root. We also provide unlimited rice to our employees.
We've tried hard to foster an atmosphere of trust, communication and camaraderie.
I encourage everyone to speak up and make their opinions known instead of harboring ill feelings. We want to cultivate a happy working atmosphere because happy people create happy products. I think the vibrancy of the brand is apparent to people and I really believe that happiness and love will be evident in the food.
How has Take Root adapted to the current pandemic? What challenges is the business dealing with?
Where do I start?! First off, we put all expansion plans on hold for the time being. We then took measures to reduce our expenses where we could, without affecting our daily operations. Production never halted but the office side started working remotely. We boosted our online presence and upgraded our website to improve customer experience. We added more payment options and are offering on demand delivery in Metro Manila. We also implemented a loyalty program to offer cash back on all Take Root purchases, plus perks like free shipping and early access to sales. Taking into consideration the effects of the pandemic on customer behavior, we've also been working on new, lower cost products.
It has been challenging to keep our sales healthy due to partner stores closing or ordering in smaller quantities. In general, we've had to be more aggressive and creative in seeking out new sales.
Are there times you feel like giving up? Any advice on how to keep going?
There have definitely been times when I've felt like throwing in the towel. The highs and lows are nuts, sometimes within a single hour. In order to stay sane, I keep focused on my goal and keep moving forward even through all the setbacks. I stay the course.
Being a founder means making tough decisions and having to adapt to all sorts of situations. At the end of the day, I go back to my why - why am I doing this, why is this important to me? What do I love about Take Root? I think of our employees and how much I want them to prosper. And I remind myself that we've created products and a brand that people seem to really love. When I hear about someone who has struggled with their weight or who was diagnosed with a condition that required a strict diet and was able to find joy through our products, that's what keeps me going.
How has the coronavirus affected your mental health? Can you give any tips for entrepreneurs to stay mentally healthy?
I don't think I'm alone when I say this pandemic has caused me a lot of anxiety. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of the company and our employees. But the truth is pandemic or not, business is a never-ending cycle of highs and lows. It rarely stays in the equilibrium of everything being just dandy and I accept that as part of the territory. I can't control the pandemic, but I can control how we respond to it as a business. We can be flexible and nimble.
I read an article that compared business to a heartbeat. It just keeps right on beating. In order to stay sane, I've had to learn how to manage the highs and lows and not spend too much time in either place. So the advice that has worked for me is that when something amazing happens, pat yourself on the back and celebrate but then come back to normal again. And when you go through a crisis or low point (which you inevitably will), pick yourself back up and tell yourself it’s going to be okay. Because it will.
Can you talk to us about purpose? Purpose for Take Root and how it intertwines with your soul's purpose?
Because of my experiences, I have come to believe that health and vitality is the foundation of a good life. And it's from this foundation that I can live my life, make the best decisions for myself, have the energy to pursue my goals, be more empathetic to others and more. We built Take Root with a mission in mind: to help as many people experience vibrant health through the power of plant-rich food. Food is information and we’re either feeding it information that can promote healing or information that can cause disease and promote imbalances. We approach food as a tool to help get you to your purpose in life.
What is your working schedule like?
My schedule is always changing. But these days, I'm at the Take Root commissary twice a week or as needed. I work from home the rest of the time. After my morning rituals (meditation, journaling, workout), I'll get online to deal with any pressing issues and communicate with the team. Then if I'm going to the commissary, I pack a lunch and head to our office where I work with the team, checking up on production, overseeing the orders going out, testing prototypes for new products or flavors, strategizing for sales and marketing, whatever needs to be done to push the business forward.
Some days are spent just putting out fires.
How do you know when you are off balance and how do you find balance again?
I know I'm off balance when every little thing seems to overwhelm me, I'm unable to make decisions and I'm irritable. A good, sweaty workout is the first thing I'll do to clear my head. The world looks a lot different to me after a run. Going for a swim or walking the dog also does wonders for me. And of course, sitting down at my desk and getting even a couple of things accomplished can be the best antidote to any anxiety I may be feeling.
Can you share your thoughts on the local health food industry?
When we first started Take Root, healthy and delicious food options were few and far between. The term "healthy snack" was still novel. But through the years, we've witnessed a growing awareness around health. People are seeking out better options and making the connection between the food they eat and how they feel in their body. As a result, there are now more options available. But companies throw around buzz words like healthy, good-for-you, all-natural a little too easily.
Just because a product is claiming to be healthy does not necessarily mean that’s true. There is still a transparency that’s lacking among many local brands, so I’d encourage consumers to read labels, read ingredient lists, get to know the brand’s philosophy and most importantly, know what works for your body.
What are your favorite local health brands?
My favorites change, but lately I’ve been a regular customer of Hearty Bread and their gluten-free almond and multigrain loaves. I like Niyog’s coconut kefir. I like The Superfood Grocer, for their vegan ice cream, Charlie and Angus for their hummus. I recently discovered The Healthy Bean, who makes delicious vegan desserts. My favorite activity is to visit health food stores or markets and discover new brands!
What advice can you give to budding entrepreneurs, especially during these uncertain times for SME's?
As a new entrepreneur in covid times, you have the benefit of studying current trends as you go about building your business. For example, we know that people are spending more time at home, are more careful about their budget, but are more aware about the need to stay healthy. Covid-19 has brought health and consumer safety to the forefront. So how can you cater to changing needs and evolving tastes while building consumer confidence and trust?
Take this time to re-think your purpose and study the landscape of the industry you are entering. We have come into an era of purpose-driven companies who stand for and take action on issues on a wider scale than its products and services. How can you use your purpose as a roadmap to remain relevant in this fast-changing economy?
Tell us what inspires you.
I'm inspired by stories of people who have done amazing things with their lives, overcome obstacles, built businesses, made big contributions. I use them as references for what I could potentially do.
Can you share with us some podcasts that you listen to, and books to read?
I love podcasts - How I Built This, Oprah's Supersoul Conversations, Impact Theory, Pivot and Fresh Air are some of my favorites. Books that I've read in the past few years that have made an impact on my life include, The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Killing It! by Sheryl O'Loughlin, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, Becoming by Michelle Obama. I could go on for days, but I'll stop. I'm always reading two books at any given time, a non-fiction/business/self-help book to keep me learning and growing and a memoir/fiction book for fun. Right now, I'm reading Awaken the Giant Within, by Tony Robbins. I also just finished Elton John's memoir and a historical fiction novel from the 1940s called I Capture the Castle.
What keeps you grounded?
Eating well and regular exercise keeps me grounded. I’ll either run in the morning or I’ll do some yoga to wind down after the work day. Meditation and books keep my head in the right space. I spend an hour each morning having coffee with my books and journal and I really believe this time to myself sets me up to take on the day. I talk to my sister a couple times a week, who's based in New York. It always helps me to hear her down-to-earth views, because I remember that there is a bigger world out there and my problems are seriously minute. Talking and laughing with my husband also always puts things into perspective! He gives the best advice ever.
Where else can we find Take Root?
Our website, takeroot.ph and on Instagram or Facebook @takerootph. Our Kale Chips are in most supermarkets like Rustans, SM, Robinsons, Unimart, All Day and more. We're also exporting to Hong Kong, Singapore and the Middle East.