In summer 2020, buoyed by interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, Southern Roots Vegan Bakery owners Marcus and Cara Pitts were profiled in several San Antonio publications, including the Current.
The publicity yielded a "jaw-dropping influx of orders" from all over the nation, according to Cara Pitts. The then-tiny business scrambled to keep up, at one point thanking customers for their patience if they faced delays.
Fortunately, the married entrepreneurs were able to add staff and avert a crisis of too much success too soon.
That challenge now behind them, Southern Roots' owners are looking to expand, setting their sights beyond shipping sweets nationwide and focusing on building partnerships with hotel and coffee chains looking to better serve customers adopting a plant-based diet.
We caught up with Southern Roots co-owner Cara Pitts to chat about how the business has grown since the pandemic, current vegan food trends and the successes and struggles of building a plant-based empire.
The last time we checked on you, your business had kind of gone crazy because of its early publicity. Maybe you can give an update on what the past 12 months have been like.
The pandemic was definitely an interesting time for us, because it kind of had the opposite effect on us versus other foodservice businesses. As you mentioned, we went viral during that time, so it was a crash course in business. Thankfully, we had taken a culinary accelerator the year prior, so we had a lot of contacts to get our licensing and permits and we are now a HUB (Historically Underutilized Business) certified company. It forced us to grow really quickly, but we still have a lot of the same customers from that wave, even though we filled a couple thousand orders during that time. On the back end of our business, we've been able to expand our team to build a better customer service experience ... and we have some marketing help. We're looking to get some more people into the bakery as we expand, just to have a couple extra hands to produce all of these products. Small businesses don't get the luxury of having the capital to expand as quickly as some other businesses are able to, but we have access to mass-production equipment, so our small team has the ability to fulfill large orders, which is why we're looking to get into hotels and coffee shops.
The idea that you can bring vegan treats to hotels seems like it could open a whole new world for guests. Is that your goal: to be in every Hyatt and midsized coffee chain?
We would love to be partnered with big hotel chains, because there's a lot of revenue being left on the table. We travel a lot for business, and when we go places, especially if your flight gets in late, and you're just checking into a hotel at like 10 o'clock at night, the restaurant's not open, and the little convenience retail spot at the check-in desk doesn't have vegan options. So, we want to be in those spaces, we want our doughnuts to be in that little refrigerated area where a late-night guest can pick something up and not have to DoorDash, because that's what a lot of vegans are experiencing. We're having to get food outside of the hotel because there isn't the option within it.
A lot of food-industry experts expect sweets without tree nuts, peanuts and sesame to blow up in 2022. Is that something you have seen more demand for lately?
I think people's voices are just being heard more. I don't think it's just about going vegan or vegetarian, but so many people are identifying food allergies. So, now there's a push for dairy-free and nut-free products. Growing up, kids that had a peanut allergy didn't really have any options. But now, schools and restaurants are much more accommodating. Things that just were kind of being looked over, [whereas] now there's a big push to have options on the forefront. Even things like dairy, so many people are lactose intolerant, and they're just used to the idea, like, "If I eat some ice cream, I'm gonna hurt afterwards." And that doesn't have to happen.
If the need is there, and you're raring to make it happen, what do you think is slowing things down?
We have conversations with hotels, and they say, "We love your product, we want to order it, but we have to use [wholesale food distributor] Sysco. So, you need to go into Sysco." And we try, but I can't get Sysco to call me back. So that's the goal, and it feels like the wholesale foodservice industry doesn't want to really give small businesses a chance. There's a narrative that they want diverse, small, minority-owned businesses, but I can't get anybody on the phone. So, where are we supposed to go from here?
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