LA Business Podcast

37. Russell Barnett, Managing Director and CMO of My/Mo Mochi Ice Cream

Russell Barnett Mochi Ice Cream
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In this episode, we discuss with Russell Barnett how to create a platform to take products to the masses.

Intro: [00:00:00] Welcome to the LA Business Podcast, a form for business owners and senior executives to share the experiences about the elements that drive their success. Your host is Robert Brill, CEO of an Inc 500 company. Delivering the power of hyper-local advertising. Robert writes for Forbes, Inc. and ad trade publications.

Our goal is to bring you the stories about successes and failures of people who are making big things happen in marketing, entrepreneurship, and management.

Robert Brill: [00:00:36] Everyone. Welcome to another episode of the LA Business Podcast. Today, our guest is Russell Barnett, managing director and chief marketing officer of My/Mo mochi.

Thanks for being on the show.

Russell Barnett: [00:00:48] Hey, thanks for having me today. How are you?

Robert Brill: [00:00:50] Good, good. So, Russell, I love your ice cream. I’ve totally had it at restaurants. I’ve seen it at the stores a lot, and I was doing a little bit of research before this recording. And you guys have a fantastic history. You’re an LA based company.

My understanding is, the company started as a retail location in 1910. Tell us a little bit about the story and how we got to here today in 2020, where you’re selling My/Mo.

Russell Barnett: [00:01:19] Yeah, well, it’s, it’s a crazy story. So, you know, Mochi ice cream is actually uniquely American and, it’s widely believed that it was invented in Los Angeles by a woman named Francis Hashimoto, in the early nineties.

And Francis was a fourth generation, Japanese American, taken on the family business. And, unfortunately she passed away, in about 2010 or so, and the family decided they were going to get out of the business. And so we took the company over, in 2015. With the investment thesis, we were going to bring Mochi to the masses and people said motion to the masses, never heard of it.

And we said, well, that’s exactly it. And so, we launched the My/Mo brand in 2017, with this sort of belief that, it was more than ice cream. It was really a snack that happened to be frozen. It’s handheld portion control, and really by textual in nature, if you will. And so that sort of began our journey, to create this amazing brand.

Robert Brill: [00:02:30] I’m doing a keto diet right now, and what I’d give for one bite. Because it’s such an interesting experience, right? Like in my household, we joke about mouthfeel.

Russell Barnett: [00:02:43] It’s all about mouthfeel.

Robert Brill: [00:02:45] Exemplify like such a unique mouthfeel from other types of products.

Russell Barnett: [00:02:50] Well, that’s exactly it. I mean, snacking is the Holy grail.

And, you know, consumers today snack more than any other generations, four plus times a day, texture and duality for us that by textuality, as we talk about it is such an important piece, that idea of biting. And getting the gooiness is of the mochi ice from the mochi, with the creaminess of the ice cream.

And it really becomes an experience first with flavor as a place where you can go, Oh yeah, I like that. Or I don’t like that. But it’s all about the experience first and foremost.

Robert Brill: [00:03:31] So you’ve had, you’ve worked at a number of places. You’ve had some fantastic experience with Kavita, popchips, mike’s hard lemonade.

Tell us how you got into this position, where you’re, where you’re managing such an interesting product.

Russell Barnett: [00:03:48] I got really lucky to be honest, you know. I cut my teeth early on in the agency business. Actually my dad was a creative director for an agency. And so I tried like hell never to do this.

And unfortunately, you know, sometimes you just take the path of least resistance. As I left the agency business, I got a call from a crazy Canadian guy named Anthony Von Mandel, who had this interesting idea and this product called Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and he really wanted to bring it into the US.

Through a mutual friend, he gave me a call and asked me to do this. And, I begrudgingly said, look, you know, we’ll give it a year and we’re going to either do one of two things. Either we are going to fail miserably or we’re going to make history. And, so there was no real sort of middle ground for that.

And what that experience really taught me was, you know, how to really bring a brand to life big way and looking at usage occasion to drive sort of the brand personality. And so spent a lot of time doing that. We took Mike’s to about 150 odd million dollars still sitting around 25 years, you know, later 20 years later, and really the precursor to what is white claw today, same group.

So that was really cool. Then I got asked to join pop, with, Keith Belling and Keith is an interesting guy. And, we got to really dig into lifestyle and understood the, the sort of idea of how lifestyle and usage occasion could really come together to, to create a platform for snacking.

And that really taught me the importance of snacking. And then I was fortunate enough to be, drafted over by another TSG, backed company called guardian. And really that was about bringing plant based protein to the masses.

And so again, it was building upon something we had already done, which was this idea of really creating categories really understand how to take things to the mass, understanding that the niche wasn’t really, we would want them to play.

And an understanding that the idea of inclusivity in how you take a product to market was really the most important thing we could do. And so when I joined my My/Mo, it was really this idea that people believed mochi ice cream was a very, very nichey product.

But in fact, it had a 20 plus year history being sold in a lot of sort of specialty places, but hadn’t been given the permission to go to the mass. And so what we really decided to do was take all of the goodness that was inherent in it, mochi ice cream and create a platform that allowed it to be acceptable by the mass market.

Robert Brill: [00:06:57] How do you do that? What’s interesting when I look at the commonalities across your career, like the rounds that you’ve touched. Are really brands that like take a unique spin on it on an existing idea.

Like you’re not, you’re not selling ice cream, you’re selling mochi ice. You’re not selling potato chips. You’re selling corn chip, like pop chips. Like it’s different. It’s like a slightly different twist on an existing idea.

Russell Barnett: [00:07:22] Well, that’s really a great point because consumers and what we did with mama was really cool. It’s the same principle. You know, consumers can really only deal with one step change.

And if you give more than one step change, they lose their bearing. They lose their footing. And I can’t quite figure out what you are. And now you’re in this position of having to spend, you know, a lot of money to educate people on a lot of different changes that gets really expensive and really confusing.

And so with mochi ice cream, what we understood was that the STEM changed that people could, could handle was this idea of chewing your ice cream, keeping the weird, because that doesn’t happen. Now you’ve got to lock step, everything else into place. So keep the weird chew your ice cream.

Name people can pronounce. So my My/Mo, right. Take it away from this idea of being Holy Japanese, this belief system, and again, mochi ice cream, you know, it, it is widely believed it would be invented in Los Angeles, and give it more of an Asian inspiration. Okay. Now take a look at flavor profiles.

Now I didn’t grow up with yuzu and black bean and red plump, but I did grow up with vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. And if I have to get really exotic, I can get to green tea and I can get to mango. Alright.

Robert Brill: [00:09:00] And if I want to get really crazy, if I want to get really crazy, I’ll have Oreos into my vanilla.

Russell Barnett: [00:09:05] Right? Exactly. Well, we’ll do that, but we take heritage flavors that you understand now it’s act like a snack and run like hell. What we did was we said, look if we’re going to take this to the masses. We’re going to go to the masses right away.

So we didn’t start in, you know, your local stores. We started at, you know, Kroger. We started at Safeway, we started at Wegmans, and then we back-filled into sort of the, the more natural and specialty space, which is unheard of in how we do this. And so through all of these trials and tribulations over this business in the past three years, you know what we’ve been able to accomplish?

You know, we’re in 30,000 stores, like in three years on unbelievable where, you know, the category mochi ice cream is a category of now 2% of all ice cream, novelty sales. My/Mo owns 85% of the category. These, these are unheard of and we’ve lovingly come to this conclusion that if you think about it, our business, it makes no sense.

But if you feel it, it makes perfect sense. So we really become really aligned with this idea of being a feeling business that’s backed by some level of data to help support the feeling of, of where we’re going.

Robert Brill: [00:10:25] Now, I did some research, a couple of things. I think I saw the number it’s a hundred million dollar company.

Russell Barnett: [00:10:31] We’re gonna eclipse $150 million in retail sales.

Robert Brill: [00:10:36] Wow. That’s amazing. When you took it, when you, when you started with this three years ago, like how fast did that grow?

Russell Barnett: [00:10:45] Well, My/Mo remember we launched My/Mo in January of 2017. So the memo brand was a goose egg. It was a zero. So, My/Mo as a brand, but you know, it has as grown a category. You know, almost seven X, it was less than half a percent of all ice cream novelties.

When we came on the scene and here we are, you know, three years later and really created this category.  And become this what we  lovingly say sort of deem this, this once in a decade phenomenon.

So the way to think about it is, think about what Chobani did to yogurt, what kind did to bars. It’s really that really  creaminess of brands who have hut through and created their own sort of platform in which other spring, spring up to, and, that’s really been so wonderful and fun.

Robert Brill: [00:11:49] So, when I think about this, right, you have the quality of the product and the way you’re thinking about the product and the story and the way it makes people feel is the exponential driver there, the fact that you have distribution in 30,000 stores.

Russell Barnett: [00:12:06] Yeah. And the driver is where we’re in 30,000 stores and yet we haven’t even begun.

So, you know, our ACV is around 45 or so in conventional grocery.

Robert Brill: [00:12:21] What’s ACV? I’m so sorry.

Russell Barnett: [00:12:24] ACV is really the percentage of total available stores you can sell it. Okay. So we’re not even, you know, we’re not even halfway there now. The good news is we’ve conquered, and we’re available in all the majors.

So that’s been fantastic, but what it means is a lot of opportunity. So when you think about it, it’s convenience stores. I mean, that’s a tremendous place to be there. It’s, drug. So the CVS is, and international, for example, we’re only in the US with a little bit in Canada, but, but mostly domestic. It leaves a whole arena for food service for us.

So it could be colleges and universities. It could be business and institution campuses like the Google campus, Twitter things along those lines. And, it also leads to two restaurants. For example, a, you know, quick serve restaurants have yet to jump on this, but we know there’s a great opportunity.

So in our mind while we’ve done a great amount of work in three years, we’re just beginning.

Robert Brill: [00:13:36] So I noticed, so I did a little bit of research on your website. I noticed you get a lot of great press from like a Refinery 29, something going on with Unique, Low, Piece Of Home, Thrillist.

There’s a lot going on around national ice cream day. What I noticed is that you, you’re not doing at least on the two places that I look, I looked at Moat for banner advertising and I looked at Facebook ad library. I see no advertising running.

Russell Barnett: [00:14:03] Yep.

Robert Brill: [00:14:06] Tell me about that decison.

Russell Barnett: [00:14:07] So we do do a little bit of paid media. And you know, it is in the digital domain. It is generally, spotty throughout the year, really during sort of seasonal moments for us. You do see it and we always have been always on mentality where the brand really resonates and how we really go to market up until COVID, has really been through the experiential world.

So you’ll see a lot of partnerships through things like the Museum of ice cream, Color Factory. You brought up Uniclo, which was great because there’s a true convergence between food and fashion. And that was a great way to sort of extend the brand at a really interesting way of going at it.

You know, PR is always an important part of our business. And, a lot of that happens through, uh, through people finding about the brand and falling in love with it. And a lot of the other work happens through is in social. And a lot of influencers tend to fall in love with the brand. We do very little paid in that arena as well.

And so that’s how this business, this brand has come to life. And the other piece, by the way, I should really mention, and probably the most important piece is if you go into major retailers, you see the memo mochi bar, which is that bar in the bakery section where the balls are loose and you can pick and choose your one, your two, your three.

We’re we’re in about 3000 stores with that, and that’s really become a paid profitable sampling mechanism for our business. So the retailer wins and we win because it’s a low barrier to entry to trial. Now, when COVID hit, obviously that business as loose went away. But funnily enough, a year ago we identified that that business as a loose business, would have a finite shelf life if you will.

And so a year ago we started working on a single serve package. And so we just launched our single serve packaging a month ago. So now these loose balls are in a single serve FDA compliant label. That you can now pick up one, two, three at a time, fully packaged, ready to go and fresh. And so that becomes our new sampling mechanism.

Robert Brill: [00:16:37] On the last episode we interviewed, Garrett Smith. Who’s a president of American popcorn. So their brand is Jolly Time. A great few months, sales are increasing dramatically. They’re trying very hard to keep their. You know, manufacturing to meet the pace of demand. How has the last three, four months been for you?

I imagine people are at home. Any ice cream.

Russell Barnett: [00:17:00] Yeah. I would say to you, you know, we’re an essential business. And so we’re always open, which is, which is good. And, I’d say to you, we’re a joy based business. And we do have a purpose and play as our purpose.

And so for us, the idea that we can, enhance a crudy situation, is important. And, certainly the business has taken an uptick. A freezer stocking is, really important and comfort is really important. And snacking is, more important than ever.

So that’s, it’s been really nice for us. The good news is that we also understood a couple of years ago that the business would scale, and  early on invested heavily in doubling the capacity of the business from when we first acquired it. So plenty of run rate and, and we’ve been, we’re super proud to say that as our customer orders have increased, that we’ve been able to keep up with demand without a real issue.

Robert Brill: [00:18:07] That’s incredible. What does the rest of the year look like for you? Like, is it getting like, what, what has changed, has anything changed for you guys? Like, you know, the funny thing is like, we’re, we’re both recording this from Los Angeles and it’s like, you know, ups and downs one day, you’re open next day you’re not open.

Like how do you plan for the uncertainty that we’re all living through over the next few months?

Russell Barnett: [00:18:33] Well, I think the uncertainty is not from  a business perspective from putting the product on the shelf. Again, as an essential business, that’s important for us. We’re not gonna close anytime soon.

You know, it’s more important than ever that our, retailers can, can get food to those folks. You know, whether that be that they’re coming in the store or through a pickup or some level of delivery. So, our world really now functions in a way that supports that retailer and that consumer ability to get the product.

And because we’re a frozen item. Know, overnight shipping is not an option. Very expensive. So what we’re really looked to do is ensure that our retailers and, and the folks who are supporting those retailers, uh, know that they can in fact pick it up directly from the retail and they can place those orders online and, and can find the product with, with, with little to no issue.

So that’s been important. I don’t find the marketing side, you know, that’s the, that’s really the, the, the ups and downs, if you will, because you, you, the idea of the experience and the idea of really putting mochi balls in people’s hands and creating tasty conversations that world has, has ended.

But with a business that really has this idea of bringing play to your world, now we have to get more creative than ever to bring, this notion of playfulness to your mobile phone, because that’s where you’re on every day. And, not to get so serious as to believe that we are what’s top of mind.

I mean, we’re a transaction, you know, we take up maybe a minute of your day, every couple of days. And so the idea that we’re a transaction, you had to be really singularly focused, that if you think too much about my My/Mo ice cream, we’ve spent so much time with you. And so having that real clear lens, aware that permission slip resides in our consumer’s lifestyle, it is important for us. It’s our North star.

Robert Brill: [00:20:35] Can you tell us more about plays our purpose and we’re a joy based business. Like, you could have gone so many different directions, but just looking  at the background of your resume right now.

Like, I can tell that totally expands on that position, that joy you’re a joy based business.

Russell Barnett: [00:20:54] Well, you know, I think what I’d say to you is look, you know, I always get the question, what’s your favorite part of your day? And I’m usually very crass and I get to say, I play with my mochi balls all day.

And you know, and so, that’s real. And so when, when that’s your business, I mean, that’s a smile based business for God’s sakes, who can take yourself seriously. But my background is in food and I look at a lot of, things that are happening in the food world, whether it be retail product, whether it be chef based product, whatever that may be.

And I think my biggest frustration, where my, the biggest opportunity is that food’s gotta make you feel good. I mean, it’s a base thing. And when I say that I literally get a shiver in my body because  it’s basis of things you need, you know, just to sustain your life and food should be a joyful moment.

And if you do it well, it brings a smile to you. If you do it well, you have people around you. If you do it well, it creates conversation. If you do it well, it’s all smiles. It should not be a shitty situation. The crappiness comes in when, when you put boundaries on it, when you say I can’t do this, or I don’t want to do this.

And when guilt comes in or when I’ve got a diet that says this, screw that, I mean, that’s, you know, Those are your choices to make. And, and we respect everybody’s choice to make that kind of choice, but at some point have fun. And, and so when we think about what that idea of play is our purpose, it is really that idea of  a less serious, more playful tonality to your day when you’re ready for it.

Our business is really predicated on three things. One play as our purposes, our consumer promise. Our product promise is keep the weird to your ice cream and our, corporate culture is, have more fun than anybody else. So when you play within fun, weird and play, I mean, the world is amazing.

And it really started with when we first started, okay, we have a 110,000 square foot facility. We’re  a pretty good size operation. And when you go into our facility, our manufacturing facility, we’re a vertically integrated facility. We make the ice cream, we make the Moji dough. We make the Moji ice cream. We don’t private label. We don’t co-pack for anybody else. We like to have all the fun.

And the first time I went into the back, I was taken aback by how big it is, first of all. But then we have a room where it’s  of course, minus 25 degrees because it’s a freezer. But we have another room that’s a hundred degrees and almost a hundred percent humidity. And then we have every room in between. And when you look at this and you look at one room, you’re making something, another room, you’re making another thing, you bring it into another room, you destroy those two things you made to make something else.

It’s Willy Wonka. And I realized that these folks in the back who were making this product, we’re having more fun than anybody else. This is craziness it’s mayhem. And so that was the genesis for the idea of how do we bring this play to the world outside. And that’s what we went and did.

Manufacturing this idea. Well, this would be a really cool position. It was just looking around and seeing what we inherently had and went, Holy crap. This is really cool.

Robert Brill: [00:24:58] I love that. So, it seems like these ideas came naturally and were derived naturally out of the, out of watching your business grow.

Like, you know, I always wonder, yeah. Business has such a how should I put this? It’s such a, it’s such an interesting, unique expression of the person who’s starting the business. Right. So I imagine that you didn’t like, did you have like an agency or some like brand folks help you hone in on that?

Or was that a fully like, it just came to you guys?

Russell Barnett: [00:25:32] Well, the original, the guys who invested in this business were a private equity group called Century Park Capital. And they really had the vision of, bringing Mochi to the masses and clearly, you know, they had some outside help.

And, when, so my partner, Craig Berger, who’s the CEO and I,really, uh, started digging in on this. I would say that we looked at the work that had been done and we understood why the work was there and what we realized was, it really, got the nod because you couldn’t say no.

And, and I don’t mean, couldn’t say no in a good way. There was just nothing you could argue. And I was really fortunate. A little bit at a time in my career, just to study with the cultural anthropologists and a cultural anthropologist taught me, but you have to have conflict in brand and, without conflict, passion, doesn’t resolve conflict is a great, it’s a great thing.

And if everything’s sticky, sweet, and wonderful, and it’s all happy, happy, joy, joy. There’s nothing. There’s nothing for you to, there’s nothing for you to grab onto. There’s no grit. There’s no, friction. And so really when, when we, when we took this on, okay, we looked for friction and friction was dough and ice cream.

Well, that’s effing amazing, but chewing your ice cream, that’s where friction is because you don’t chew your ice cream. So we’ve found that friction. And then we said, well, yeah, we’ve got ice cream in our name, but we’ve also got dough. Well, so that means we’re really a snack that happens to be frozen friction, act like a snack.

Robert Brill: [00:27:36] That’s amazing.

Russell Barnett: [00:27:39] And, so we looked for those friction points  and those became the places where we really found our world. And so we both, we all, you know, Craig came out of 25 years of McCormick and building world-class brands out of McCormick. And I came from smaller, you know, brands that really created something special. And what we both had in common was this idea of bravery and really feeling comfortable, being uncomfortable. And so we always know that if we’re uncomfortable, we’re in solid, we’re in a good place. If we find that it’s not comfortable, we know that we haven’t pressed hard enough.

And so that’s a really, you know, that’s not for everybody. That is a really scary place to be. And we tend to really create a culture. And a business that thrives on this, the idea of being brave and being a little uncomfortable to get to a really special place.

Robert Brill: [00:28:43] So that, that conflict should really appear in your brand. What happens if that? Okay, so I mean, look a couple things, right? Like Popchips total conflict. I think you can see that, right. Mike’s hard lemonade. There’s conflict there. So I guess that’s interesting because the innovation that comes out of that conflict.

Russell Barnett: [00:29:05] Yeah. Yeah. And,  and, you know, we lovingly use a tagline because whatever to your ice cream, because whatever it’s are, it’s an absolute indifference and a real notion of we get ourselves like, so what it’s dough and ice cream for god sakes.

It’s not, it’s not changing the world.  Is it important? Yeah. To me. To the 200 folks that we two weeks that we employ to our retailers, because we, bring something special, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s still an ice cream. And so it’s that focus of understanding your real purpose and where you live and where you reside and how you go to market and the idea of not taking yourself too seriously.

Robert Brill: [00:29:58] It’s like you’re living the brand. Like I can, I can tell in your enthusiasm that like, this is, this is like the job you were born for.

Russell Barnett: [00:30:07] You know, look, I have never had more fun in my career. I will never have this much fun ever again in my career. And all that, the things that I’ve done up to this point, I’ve taken something from every one of those things we started out with and I’ve been able to build upon those.

And, we have taken our, you know, collective experience of, you know, 50, 60 years or something obscene, you know, in our management group. And, and  really taken that in a way that’s allowed us to do what we’ve always wanted to do, because why not?

Robert Brill: [00:30:54] Yeah.

Russell Barnett: [00:30:54] You know, it’s working.

Robert Brill: [00:30:56] Amazing. Amazing. So, Russell, in Los Angeles, for example, are you in all the major stores.

Russell Barnett: [00:31:04] Yeah you can go to you go to Vons, Pavilions, Ralph’s, Sprouts where in every one and you can go to every major retailer, Target stores, for example, a great, great retail partner of ours as well. You’ll find us in Walmart.

So anywhere that you’re shopping, if you’re in the frozen section, you’ll find us.

Robert Brill: [00:31:27] Have you ever considered retail like retail operations, or is that not a business that makes sense for you guys?

Russell Barnett: [00:31:35] You know, it’s not a business that we’re really, you know, actively pursuing with the idea of the mochi bar with this idea of that single serve, grabbing go, which does reside in the, in the grab and go section of a retailer that really becomes a much more interesting and much more scalable solution for us.

And frankly, it’s in the experience for you as the consumer on your terms, which feels much more on brand for us than, as opening up a shop and going come on in, how can we help you? You know, and, and so again, looking at that filter and saying what’s how would we act in it? And what’s the right way for the brand two, get people to put my mom mochi ice cream balls in their hands and mouths.

Robert Brill: [00:32:22] Awesome. Well, Russell, I think we’re going to wrap up the interview. This was fantastic. I got so excited listening to your enthusiasm for my My/Mo, thank you for being with us here in the LA business podcast. If people want to reach out to you, go to the website, what’s the best way to do that?

Russell Barnett: [00:32:39] You can go to the website and reach out, or you can, you know, I’ll give out my email. It’s [email protected]. Yeah, you can send me a note and I’m pretty good about getting back to everybody.

Robert Brill: [00:32:50] Russell Barnett everyone. Thank you so much.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the LA business podcast. If you like what we’re doing on this podcast, please consider subscribing on Apple or Google play, leaving a five star review and sharing with your friends. If you have any questions, comments, or recommendations for a guest you’d like to hear on this podcast, please email me [email protected].

Thank you. Have a fantastic day.

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