Today we're sitting down with David Downing, the Co-Founder and CEO of ChipMonk Baking as part of our "Startup Stories" series here on Food Box HQ where we learn how new food brands got their start.
How Did You Come Up With The Idea For ChipMonk Baking?
The first ChipMonk cookie was born in my apartment back in 2019.
My roommate, Jose Hernandez, had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in college, but was successfully keeping his blood sugar under control via a high fat, low carb diet. One weekend when he and I were particularly depressed about our respective career prospects, he decided to bake up some sugar free desserts to make us feel better.
He ended up creating a delicious chocolate chip cookie using almond flour and monk fruit sweetener, and, when I tasted it, a light bulb kind of went off in my head. Jose is just one of millions of Americans avoiding sugar due to diabetes or other dietary needs, but there really weren’t any good options for a convenient, tasty sugar free cookie. The very next day, we took his cookies and tried selling them at the office dining hall.
Enough people bought and enjoyed the cookies that we decided to keep going and 4 years later… here we are :).
How Did You Land On The Name “ChipMonk Baking”?
We get asked this question so frequently we actually have a dedicated page on our website to answer it.
When Jose and I were trying to come up with our business name during a road trip, we came across a giant squirrel statue at a nut store. That triggered us to think about “Chipmunks” (squirrels are way overused). Chipmunks love to eat nuts and seeds (our cookies are made from nuts), and they are inherently crafty and high-energy creatures (a perfect spirit animal for a new business).
We also use monk fruit as one of our sweeteners and monks themselves are a perfect symbol for mindfulness and balance, attributes we try to encourage when it comes to our relationship with foods. So we swapped out the “munk” for “monk” and boom, ChipMonk Baking was created.
What Is The Hardest Part Of Creating A Sugarless, Low Net Carb Baked Good?
Gluten and sugar are foundational ingredients in effectively all baking recipes, so when you try to take those things out, strange things can start to happen.
Jose and I had to do a ton of test baking and worked with a local food scientist to figure out how to remove sugar and flour while still delivering a cookie that looks and tastes delicious.
It’s not as easy as a one to one swap, and we discovered a lot of interesting natural ingredients that serve very specific functions in our cookie. For example, if you swap out sugar for allulose (one of our sweeteners) in a cookie, the cookie will likely lose its form and spread out into a giant pancake thing.
We found out that certain fibers like konjac root can help prevent that and allow your cookie to maintain a nice shape and chewiness. Jose and I had no baking background before ChipMonk, so it’s wild to think how much we had to learn.
What Is Your “Secret Ingredient” That Gives These Baked Goods Their Sweetness & Keeps Them Low-Carb?
Our sweeteners, monk fruit and allulose, are the real secret sauce. Both are naturally occurring sweeteners that don’t impact blood sugar, but allulose is just 70% as sweet as sugar and monk fruit is 150-200 times as sweet as sugar.
We figured out the perfect blend of the two to deliver the sweetness you’d expect in a cookie without all the calories and negative side effects of traditional sugar.
Did You Face Any Struggles Going From Idea To Getting Your First Sale?
Going from idea to first sale was actually the easiest thing we did. My philosophy has always been to launch something quickly, try selling it, gather feedback, and iterate.
We sold the very first cookies Jose ever made in our apartment kitchen. Were they perfect? Not at all. Were they intriguing enough for people to purchase some? Yes. And those people provided us feedback that has allowed us to continually evolve our product to where it is today.
I think a lot of people interested in starting businesses get stuck in the ideation stage. My advice is to figure out the shortest path to obtaining a paying customer and focus on that. Basically, apply a minimum viable product mindset. There’s definitely some potential pitfalls of this approach but it’s worked for us!
How Did You Scale From One Sale To Where You’re At Now?
At first we just sold at the office we worked at. From there we started going to farmers markets on the weekends.
After we were selling a few thousand dollars a month at markets, we moved into a commercial kitchen and launched our online business (www.chipmonkbaking.com and Amazon).
We used a mix of digital marketing initiatives to grow online (paid ads, organic social media, earned media / press coverage, influencers / brand ambassadors) and then used feedback from online customers to develop products and packaging that were “retail ready.”
Once we felt our cookies were ready for retail, we then launched our B2B business and started selling to independent retailers locally (e.g. coffee shops) and eventually nationally. With the increased demand, we raised some investor money and used that to build out a commercial bakery space where we operate today.
Who Are These Products Really Made For?
Our most loyal customers are those following a low carb keto diet. Often, they adopt a keto diet for weight loss and benefits like improved energy and mental clarity.
Outside of those doing keto, our products are made for anyone trying to avoid sugar or carbs. They are perfect for those with diabetes due to the very limited blood sugar impact of our cookies. Our cookies are also gluten free, so anyone with celiac disease can enjoy them too!
Which Are Your Personal Favorites?
Our birthday cake cookie bites and white chocolate macadamia cookies are my favorites. I also love the small batch products we make like our chocolate brownies, carrot cake cookie icing sandwiches, and our butter pecan cookie bites.
Where Do You Sell Them?
What’s Next For ChipMonk Baking?
Coming into 2023, we are focusing on the sports nutrition space (e.g., supplement stores like GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe), going to consumer trade shows for sales and to build our marketing email lists, food service (hotels, corporate campuses), and contract manufacturing (we make products on behalf of other companies using our commercial bakery).
2022 has been a very difficult year financially, so we’re focused on profitability and sustainable growth. That means avoiding sales channels that take a ton of money for promotion (e.g., mass grocery, convenience stores).
Once we have a strong profitable base, we’ll look into growing more broadly so that hopefully one day the ChipMonk name is known across the nation and is synonymous with delicious better for you desserts.