Rising StarFounders of Ground Up PDX Offer Nut Butter With a Side of Social Change

When it comes to nut butters, peanuts may no longer reign supreme. Almonds, cashews, and even seeds have entered the fray, adding new and exciting flavor profiles to your classic PB&J.

Julie Sullivan and Carolyn Cesaro, co-founders of Ground Up PDX, are not only grinding up almonds and cashews with unexpected ingredients like espresso, lavender, and cardamom, but they are also building a mission-driven business from the ground up. Here, Julie tells us more:

Julie Sullivan (left) and Carolyn Cesaro (right), co-founders of Ground Up PDX.

What was the spark that inspired the birth of your concept?

Formed in April 2016, the company started when two young women brought their passions together with a vision for social change. Julie’s heart for empowering women and Carolyn’s unique nut butter recipe merged to create Ground Up PDX.

What problem does it solve?

Ground Up PDX aims to address two problems: to offer a healthy yet delicious treat unlike any other on the market, and to provide employment opportunity to those in need.

We noticed a gap in the nut butter market for peanut-free butters in unique flavors, without sugars, oils and other additives. With the exception of our two unsweetened nut butters, all of our nut butters are sweetened with just a touch of honey.

Carolyn’s own health journey informed us that there is a real need for more delicious food products made without sugar. With the growing number of people on strict diets—including Whole 30, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, the GAPS diet and others—more people are shifting their diets to sugar-free or honey-sweetened alternatives.

Our product not only meets these consumers’ needs, but it also provides a delicious and healthy treat for customers without dietary constrictions. We aim to include as few ingredients as possible in each jar, with the goal of delighting customers and showing that it’s possible to “indulge” in a truly healthy way!  We have also found a number of people who struggle with peanut allergies and our product is made in a peanut-free facility and appeals to this crowd.

In addition to the customer’s need, we are also addressing a larger issue with our product: employment opportunities for impoverished and disadvantaged women, which is a real issue in our city. In Portland, 41% of female-headed families with children are in poverty. Through our own research at shelters and local organizations, we’ve seen firsthand that women trying to get back on their feet often have the motivation to work, but may lack the skills, experience, or confidence to gain employment.

We learned that even working just 10-15 hours a week could have a huge impact on a woman’s ability to save up (and gain confidence!) while searching for housing and full-time work, as well as give her job experience that could translate into longer-term employment.

That’s where Ground Up will come in! We hope to provide both our team of women and our customers with the opportunity to feel good about their purchases, and themselves, while also spreading good.

How did you come up with the name?

We went back and forth with a number of different names. Then one day our friend suggested Ground Up PDX, and it fit the two-fold business model perfectly!  Not only do almonds and cashews grow from the ground up, but we are supporting disadvantaged women from the ground up.

Ground Up Products

How do you differentiate from your competition?

Our competitors have the advantage of scale (lower costs and prices), as well as established brand loyalty. But not only are we filling the gap for flavored almond and cashew butters that are free of sugar, oil and other additives, we are also making meaningful social change.

Additionally, we have the advantage of being a small-batch producer, which means we exercise greater control over the final product and can respond more quickly to market trends.

Finally, we consider our community to be a great advantage to us, as we owe all of our success thus far to the enthusiasm and support for our mission and product! We hope to continue to establish a presence in Portland, and even hope to provide opportunities for customers to get more involved with our mission. With all of our branding, we emphasize the “PDX” and authentic, homemade, small-batch look and feel, which also makes our nut butters a great Portland gift!

Unlike some of our competition, we really have emphasized a commitment to being involved in the local community, and love the idea of Oregonians helping Oregonians through the sales of our product. We believe that we can eventually leverage the success, community, and excitement around our product here in Oregon to expand nationally.

How do you make money?

Our current sales channels include: farmer’s markets, business tastings, monthly subscriptions, our website, and a few wholesale accounts (bulk and retail). We have been talking to a couple larger local grocery stores and are hoping to be on their shelves this summer. Check out our site to see the latest spots where you can find us!

What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur?

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is being kept on my toes! No day is the same and there is the opportunity to learn and grow through each challenge and success. Also, I enjoy being able to shape and grow the company in the direction my co-founder and I choose.

What has been the biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date?

The biggest surprise has been how many people are willing to share their expertise and support us in their purchases in these early stages. My parents have always said, “it takes a village to raise a child” and I definitely agree that “it takes a village to start a business.” We have been so thankful for the village that is growing around us in a short amount of time.

Your biggest success?

In 2016, during our first five months of business, we sold over 5,000 jars and brought in revenue of around $40,000. Given these purchases, we’ve been able to hire two interns from Outside In teen shelter who have worked with us part-time to pilot our employment training program. Through our interns’ work at Ground Up PDX, we have seen a significant increase in self-confidence. This motivates us each day to increase our sales so we are able to provide additional opportunities for women in the Portland community.

As an entrepreneur, what keeps you up at night?

What keeps me up at night is figuring out how to sell more jars! The goal is that soon jars will be selling while I’m sleeping. What also keeps me up at night is the desire to have a fully fledged employment training program for disadvantaged women. We need to establish more consistent sales channels before we are able to fully launch this program.

What is your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur?

Don’t take “no” for an answer.  There will be many challenges and points at which you feel discouraged or want to quit. But remember why you started in the first place and remind yourself of that which inspires you each day. One “no” is an opportunity for other doors to open.

Secondly, build relationships and have a team in your court. It’s so important to have a support system and individuals in the community spreading the word and rooting you along. They will help you to see forward progress, even when it’s hard sometimes to see yourself.

Imagine your venture becomes wildly successful. What does that look like?

We will be selling our product on a national level and become a reputable employment training program in the Portland community. Businesses looking to support and employ graduates from our program will feel confident in the skill sets the women have gained to transition them into full-time employment at their workplaces.

Do you think Oregon is a good place to start a business?

Oregon has been a great place to start a business! There is such a supportive network of individuals in the community. I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of busy individuals who are willing to sit down over a cup of coffee and listen and share their expertise and connections.

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