Junea Rocha is an unconventional culinary entrepreneur whose career has been driven by passion. Eight years ago she was running projects for a construction company. Now, she is the co-founder of Brazi Bites, a frozen bake-at-home cheese bread sold in over 7,000 grocery stores nationwide. The company has experienced 13x revenue growth the past two years, is a Shark Tank alum, and has just closed a round of funding to accelerate growth plans.
Sustained Enthusiasm Comes from Passion
Junea, like her beloved Pao De Queijo was born in Brazil. “Growing up, cultural and family expectations led me to pursue a Civil Engineering degree in college,” she explained. After graduation, she moved to the US and started a career working as a project engineer for a general contractor, “building massive condo towers, parking garages and military bases around Portland, Oregon,” she recalled. But she felt her true calling was elsewhere. “I had a serious passion for my family’s Pao De Queijo recipe and thought there was an opportunity to bring the Brazilian staple to the US,” she explained. But it wasn’t just that passion that encouraged her entrepreneurial leap. “It was clear to me that Americans loved Pao De Queijo,” Rocha said. “Especially when friends and family from the States came to my wedding in Brazil and went crazy for it! I wanted to build something that was fueled by that excitement.”
Find the Why, While Staying True to the Recipe
It was that group of family and friends that provided the first customer research. The founders then “spent the first two years sampling Brazi Bites at local grocery stores and events,” she recalled. “We kept adjusting the product, branding and messaging as we learned from our consumers how best to communicate,” always staying true to the original family recipe. Although a staple in Brazil, cheese bread is new in the States. “The two biggest questions that we heard at that time were: what is this, and when do I eat this?” she said. “Soon after we got started, it became clear that gluten-free awareness and clean label products were gaining momentum and our recipe was hitting the mark. Early adopters were raving about us and their excitement fueled us to keep pushing forward.”
Customer insight continues to drive innovation at Brazi Bites. “I’m always talking to consumers at grocery stores, food shows, and listening to our social channels,” Rocha said. “Our Brand Ambassadors on the ground meet thousands of consumers every week and come back with a wealth of information for us to digest. We also use surveys when something big is on the way or we enter a new market.” They have plans to bring other better-for-you Latin foods to the US market, beyond the variations of Brazi Bites now available.
Customer-Informed Intuition is the Source of Innovation
Rocha offers advice for any marketer or business leader to keep your passion in the center of your efforts. “As you grow, stay true to what earned your first customers. Never stop listening to them and make sure to remain open to change if you miss the mark,” she said. As an entrepreneur and leader, it is critical to “be laser-focused on execution, to value data and to understand the trends, but to realize that sometimes you must go with your gut to innovate.”
This article was originally posted on Forbes.com.
Junea Rocha is a Forbes contributor. Jennifer Davis is a Brazi Bites customer. The product is sold in thousands of outlets across the country, including Whole Foods which is a subsidiary of Amazon.