How to Growth Hack Your Food Startup

Growing a food startup from the ground up is tricky business. There's a whole lot of trial and error and a whole lot of options for where to spend resources. With the tight constraints on any bootstrapped startup, coming up with a marketing budget presents tough choices that keep entrepreneurs up at night. Will this risky, expensive decision pay off?

We're here to help. Not only have we grown Chicory to reaching an audience of 50 million users monthly, but our team also includes founders who have grown food startups other than Chicory--including packaged goods that landed on the shelves of all the country's top food retailers. Plus, as we build out our advertising products, we talk and learn from countless food brands working to become household names (or hang onto their existing market stronghold). 

So, how do you do it? Here are four ways to take your food startup from an operation in your mom's unfinished basement (true story: this is where Chicory started!) to a multi-million dollar business.

Free Fill

Free fill's the concept that new food brands will offer free product to a store in exchange for presence on their shelves. Obviously, this comes at a cost to your company. Production of your product isn't free, so that means free fill isn't actually free, but is actually costing your company a chunk of change for every unit you're giving away.

But the idea of "pay to play" has some truth to it. Even if you're not a startup producing a food product to put on Whole Foods' shelves, you should think about the free fill concept. How can you distribute your product to get the word out there and get in front of the people who will ultimately become your early adopters and brand cheerleaders?

Here at Chicory, we regularly run short-term campaigns that offer new publishers a free $20 gift to use toward trying Chicory out for themselves upon sign up. It incentivizes their sign up and gives them a sense of how our product works in a very real way. We add that $20 cost into our CPA (cost per acquisition) and ultimately determined that this upfront cost feeds into our bottom-line profits in such a way that makes the $20 here and there totally worth it.


Listen to any networking or marketing expert speak and they'll almost always celebrate the lost art of face-to-face connections. As a millennial marketer I am very guilty of favoring email or social media as my main means of communication. At Chicory, though, we've made attending food blogging conferences a core portion of our marketing strategy to publishers and it's been very successful for us.

Not only has meeting new partners in person facilitated more lucrative and long-term relationships for us, but attending conferences also gives us an amazing social reach, every time. Take a look at our Twitter interactions during a recent conference that we attended. Our engagement hit its highest levels on May 16 through May 21, the days we were at the conference meeting and tweeting with all those bloggers we met.

Twitter Engagement - Chicory Blog

Attending events and conferences like these are an incredible way to get a real bang for your buck, between social reach and the high quality relationships that can only be forged in person.

A Viral Job Posting

Anyone in the growth phase is likely always looking to hire, and hire only the best candidates, of course. I was particularly excited by this "viral" growth idea that I saw this week: Extra Crispy, a brand new food publication that launched this week got to trending status with the cleverest idea. Along with their launch, they threw out that they were seeking a talented individual to hire as their BACON CRITIC.

Photo via  Extra Crispy,  Illustration by Lauren Kolm

Photo via Extra Crispy, Illustration by Lauren Kolm

Yes, you heard that right. In fact, the ploy was a marketing gimmick (and a brilliant one, at that) from the beginning. Looking at the listing on their site, the promotion is more of a contest than a traditional job posting, in fact. 

Have a quirky new food startup... or even a boring one... that needs some fresh blood? Think like Extra Crispy and turn your recruiting process into a viral phenomenon by tweaking the job posting to have some of that Buzzfeed-y flavor. (Plus all that press coverage so soon after their launch meant some SERIOUS SEO juice for Extra Crispy.)

Figuring Out Where Shoppers Roam

As we've built out our advertising solutions here at Chicory, we've realized that recipes are the key for finding grocery shoppers online. Why? Well, we talked lots more about it here, but essentially, people don't look for groceries online the way that they look for other products. In the grocery industry, identifying a customer as a qualified lead is not nearly as simple as it is with, say, electronics. 

With these different rules, brands need to get creative about how they identify purchase intent online. The solution? Recipes. Whereas someone shopping for a TV might Google "best TV prices NYC," when they're in-market for chicken, they're way more likely to be searching and visiting things like "best chicken parm recipe." Our solutions activate recipes for food brands in new ways; in order to growth hack your startup, look for companies that understand the unique challenge you face.

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