Ramadan started looking for a new challenge just over two years after Unilever acquired Sir Kensington’s (the deal was struck in April 2017) but says he wasn’t on a formal earn-out deal that tied him to the company for a fixed period.
“[Sir Kensington’s co-founder] Scott [Norton] and I could have left at any time,” he told FoodNavigator-USA. “We had nothing tying us to stay, we had no commitment. I stayed because I loved the company and there was a lot of actually quite interesting integration work to be done to ensure the brand was set up for the future.
“But I’d been involved with Sir Kensington’s for nine years, which was basically my entire career, and I was ready for something new, so Scott took over from me as CEO, I left in June, and I put out some feelers. I had been thinking, I’ll just start another company, and that was my plan, but almost right away I heard from a mutual friend that Hu was looking for a new CEO.
“It was just a couple of weeks ago that we all shook hands. I start on September 16.”
Mondelēz could help take the brand into overseas markets
Hu, which was founded in 2012 by Jason H. Karp and siblings Jordan Brown and Jessica (Brown) Karp as a high-end kitchen and market in New York, has developed into a consumer brand with a fast-growing ecommerce operation, strong distribution in the natural channel, and some distribution in conventional grocery, but a “ton of opportunities” to expand nationally and overseas, said Ramadan.
“They are one of the fastest growing chocolate companies in the country."
Hu secured minority investments from Sonoma Brands in May 2018 and from Mondelēz International in April 2019, a partnership that could open up a lot of new doors, added Ramadan, a “chocolate fanatic” who came across Hu after being gifted some bars by a friend and was blown away.
“Mondelēz has most of its business outside of the country, so the immediate opportunity is how do we work with Mondelēz to make sure that there is a global platform.”
As for conventional grocery, he said, there is clear demand for the kinds of products that used to be restricted to the natural channel: “So Whole foods sells Cheerios now and Kroger sells Sir Kensington’s, and so I think Hu is super well positioned to grow [in multiple channels].”
While there is a lot of runway to grow the core chocolate line, he added, recent moves into new snacking segments and coffee also made sense for the company, which has the potential to be a platform brand that brings its ‘Get back to human’ philosophy to multiple categories.
‘You’ve got to spend all of your time, asking questions, and learning’
In the first three days, he said, “I’m planning to do what any good boss I’ve ever had has done, which is listen, talk to as many people as I can, because the brand is in a good place, it’s not like I am being brought in to fix something that’s broken.
“At Sir Kensington’s, Scott and I had this forever curious attitude. As soon as you assume you’re an expert in something, it’s a disaster, and so the last thing I am going to do is walk in say I know what to do. You’ve got to spend not just the beginning, but all of your time, asking questions, and learning."
Thereafter, he said, his focus will be “growing distribution and looking at the product line to make sure we have the right products for the next year or two years, and if not do we add things or subtract things?
“I’m also running the restaurant [Hu Kitchen] so I will be looking to understand the role of the restaurant; right now there is one location, it’s a great brand touchpoint, it’s a great test kitchen, so do we want to expand on that do we want to do other concepts?
“Also it’s about making sure the team is scaling properly as we grow the business, they have around 20 people now but that team will grow.”
As for Hu’s brand philosophy, he said, “I see it as very much the same as Sir Kensington’s, which was all about take tech out of food, so let’s make ketchup like they used to make it in 1900. For Hu, they’re not making chocolate with soy lecithin, refined sugars and other additives, stabilizers and preservatives, so the whole 'Get back to human' [tagline], that resonates to me.”
Asked whether ‘Paleo chocolate’ made sense – given that our Paleolithic ancestors were not roasting, grinding and conching cocoa beans – he said: “I think Paleo is just a shorthand way to communicate to people that there’s less junk, but if this were a brand that only resonated with people that kept a strict Paleo diet, it wouldn’t have interested me, but the fact is none of my friends follow a strict Paleo diet, but they all love good chocolate and they love Hu.”
‘I wanted to be part of a business with real purpose behind it’
Asked what he brought to the table, he said: “They are in a phenomenal position with a great brand, and huge potential, and they were excited to have someone with an entrepreneurial mindset but also someone that had experience of working with a large company [ie. Unilever].”
From his perspective, Hu was attractive because it was a brand that was built from the personal philosophy of the founders, which included a commitment to organic and Fairtrade and a desire to use simpler, less processed ingredients, he added.
“It was not that there was just a hole in the market and we’re going to fill it, not to put anyone down that does that, but I want to be part of a business with real purpose behind it.”