How Sarah Michelle Gellar intends to slay the $4.7 billion baking-mix industry

More and more, celebrities are transitioning into the business world. While being a red carpet entrepreneur doesn't guarantee success, there are many who have managed to carve out a second career and parlay it into a multimillion-dollar venture.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, known best for her title role in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is no exception. In 2015 she launched Foodstirs (No. 19 on CNBC's inaugural Upstart 25 list), joining a long list of other female stars — such as Gwen Stefani, Jessica Alba, Beyoncé and Victoria Beckham — to launch a side business.

With the desire to help create memorable, long-lasting experiences through baking, Gellar teamed up with longtime friend Galit Laibow and entrepreneur Greg Fleishman to create the Los Angeles-based company, which sells organic, GMO-free mixes and dessert baking kits online and in stores such as Whole Foods and Fresh Market.

Its mission: to disrupt the $4.7 billion baking-mix category with the first-ever USDA organic, full-gluten product line to utilize biodynamic sugar, Equal Exchange fair-trade cocoa and identity-preserved heirloom flour, according to Fleishman, who is also the co-founder and CEO of Purely Righteous Brands, a boutique consultancy dedicated to fostering the growth of "green" brands, those that act responsibly when it comes to sustainability and environmental impact.

(Left to right) Foodstirs Modern Baking founders Galit Laibow (CEO), Sarah Michelle Gellar (chief brand officer) and Greg Fleishman (COO)
Source: Foodstirs
(Left to right) Foodstirs Modern Baking founders Galit Laibow (CEO), Sarah Michelle Gellar (chief brand officer) and Greg Fleishman (COO)

Building a coveted brand

Fleishman, who is also Foodstirs' chief operating officer, has a long history with consumer packaged-goods companies such as Fuze and Kashi. His past experience and insight has helped Laibow and Gellar navigate the challenges of creating a brand that is committed to being clean and green and also affordably priced.

"Galit and Sarah Michelle already had a strong vision of what they wanted in a brand," said Fleishman. "For me, having worked across 17 different categories all within the green space, I was most excited with their commitment to offer the cleanest ingredients available, making sure there are deep roots there and an authenticity. ... We can trace back to the acre and get to know the farmers. I help validate this."

For example, their equal-exchange chocolate comes from Madagascar, their biodynamic sugar is sourced from a family-owned plantation in Paraguay, and their wheat stems from Colorado.

Foodstirs' kits start at $14.99. They come with all the ingredients and directions to make desserts, like Brownie Pops and Celebration Cupcakes. The mixes — Chocolate Chippy Cookies and Simply Sweet Vanilla Cake, for instance — retail for around $5.99. Customers can also sign up for a 3-, 6- or 12-month subscription service ($59 to $215) that delivers a holiday-themed baking kit each month.

Foodstirs will soon be rolling out a new pancake mix and an organic GMO-free dry vanilla icing mix.

Foodstirs’ product line contains a variety of mixes, all organic and GMO-free
Source: Foodstirs
Foodstirs’ product line contains a variety of mixes, all organic and GMO-free

Yet just as important as the ingredients is the team's desire to make baking into a fun family event.

"The three of us are all busy working parents," says CEO Laibow. "We wanted to create meaningful experiences and connect with our kids. For myself personally, being with our busy lives, it's very hard to find the time where we can actually get off our phones and do something meaningful. And what better way than in the kitchen."

With two kids apiece all 8 and under, the team says their children are a constant part of the process. "The kids' involvement is really important," says Gellar. "You want to show the next generation of creators and content makers, or any kind of maker, that they can do it. For them to be able to watch us have an idea and have it physical and make it successful and watch it grow, that's the most important lesson we can impart on them."

Yet their kids are their harshest critics, admits Laibow, who says they originally tested their products on their friends and family. "Then it sort of snowballed through word of mouth."

"While at first it may seem like my celebrity might have given Foodstirs an easier entry … there are more eyes on us and more anticipation of failure." -Sarah Michelle Gellar, actor and co-founder of Foodstirs

Foodstirs currently has about 12 employees. "We have a great culture," says Gellar, who is the company's chief brand officer. "We bake all day. There's no typical day. We get up at five in the morning and don't go to sleep until well into the next day!"

Converging food trends

According to Gellar, the timing to launch Foodstirs was right on key. "This is a time when people want to Instagram their food. They want to have these Pinterest-worthy beautiful projects," she said. In addition, consumers are now looking for more healthy choices. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the healthy eating, nutrition and weight loss sector is currently valued at $648 billion.

The Foodstirs product line is currently being sold in 500 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods and Fresh Market and has plans to expand to 1,500 stores by June, says Fleishman, the company's chief operating officer. "We will be across all of the key channels — Costco, conventional grocery stores and then natural foods outlets, as well as Amazon.com," he said.

Gellar says she was surprised by the reception. "We had retailers coming to us right after we launched online," she said, but she also admits that being a celebrity can be "a double-edged sword." "While at first it may seem like my celebrity might have given Foodstirs an easier entry … there are more eyes on us and more anticipation of failure. It certainly helps to have my platform to spread the word, but it takes that much more to be accepted as a serious business woman," she said.

While Gellar, Laibow and Fleishman all agree that it was the millennial parents they were targeting, they found that their products appeal to all ages — for various reasons.

"It's interesting how multigenerational this can be," says Gellar. "When you talk about the [Gen Xers], they care about the ingredients, where it came from. The grandparents are interested for the activities they can do with their grandkids. There's a little something for everyone."

Thus far, the company has raised $5 million from investors, including Beechwood Capital and Cambridge Companies. Although they won't disclose their revenue, they claim to have surpassed their goals.

"We've been exceeding the markers that we set for ourselves, and we set pretty high markers, because Galit, Greg and I don't do anything unless we achieve the best," said Gellar. As for any need for additional investors, Laibow claims, "We have all the money we need right now."

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