By Stephanie Smith
On a steamy Saturday afternoon, Keisha Smith-Jeremie sat at her kitchen counter in her sun-drenched Manhattan apartment. She scrolled through her phone and paused at a photo she took at her local grocery store. The image included the store’s section of applesauce. Most, like popular brand Gogo Squeeze, were in pouches. Why? Because applesauce is traditionally marketed towards kids. “Every new player comes out in a pouch,” she noted.
Enter sanaia, Smith-Jeremie’s one-year-old brand of flavored applesauce. Sanaia is targeted to adults who love the fruit snack, but crave something that doesn’t look like it was stolen from a kid’s lunchbox. After incubating recipes in her home and selling direct to consumers from her website, she’s now selling sanaia on Amazon.com and quickly expanding to other retailers. But unlike the competition, sanaia is not carried in pouches.
“If you want to be that thing that’s in an adult lunch box that people are eating at three o’clock, or as an after dinner snack, that pouch won’t do it. Adults aren’t carrying a pouch to the office,” she explains. “We have sanaia in a plastic cup, and it’s grab-and-go in the refrigerated section. That is how you move applesauce from an occasional treat to being part of a daily habit.”
And that, Smith-Jeremie explains, is what gives sanaia the potential to become a billion dollar business, doing for applesauce what transformative brands such as Chobani, SoulCycle and Uber have done for yogurt, fitness and transportation.
Entrepreneurship is in Smith-Jeremie’s blood. Growing up in the Bahamas, her father, Jude Smith, launched the country’s only national brand of paper products. “If you ever go to a hotel, there’s a brand called Softex from the company Paper Pak Products. It launched the paper converting industry in the Bahamas,” she said.
After college at the University of Virginia, Smith-Jeremie went the corporate route, working as a successful human resources executive for more than 20 years, as well as a certified life coach. “I’ve always looked at my dad and thought I could never be that courageous,” she said. “You’ve got to have real fortitude and resilience. I thought I belonged in the corporate space enabling others to bring their ideas to life.”
But the flavors of home combined with a nostalgic snack food sparked an idea in Smith-Jeremie that was worth pursuing. “I’ve been making applesauce since college,” she said, as a snack for herself, family and friends for gatherings. Her recipe involved two specific components – green apples for their bold, tart flavor; and apple skins for the crisp textural complexity adults prefer. “It made it feel not like baby food,” she said. “I made it that way for 20 years.”
Then, she added exotic flavors such as guava and hibiscus to create distinct flavor combinations for her homemade snacks. “I had a bunch of friends come over and they said, ‘this is the best thing I ever tasted. You should think about this as a business.’”
In early 2017, Lezli Levene Harvell, who founded and curates the Iconoclast series of culinary events at the famed James Beard House, swooned over Smith-Jeremie’s homemade snacks. Harvell told Smith-Jeremie they could serve sanaia at their next event if she could get samples of product ready in time. “Having that type of deadline made me extremely focused with my time and decision making,” said Smith-Jeremie. By June, she had a full product line, and a name, sanaia, named after her goddaughter.
As Smith-Jeremie developed sanaia, she maintained a high-profile position as Chief Human Resources Officer at News Corp., publisher of The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal. It would take plenty of work to balance growing her brand and maintaining her busy day job. It would also take purpose to make that work worth it.
Smith-Jeremie identified purpose early. “I knew I had to do something that was a category disruptor,” she said. “When I look at successful businesses, they saw an opportunity that others didn’t. sanaia is my version of that.”
She points to Greek yogurt powerhouse Chobani as an example: “They took a product that was pretty bland and basic, focused on a small market, and repositioned the flavors to be more sophisticated, adult, and culturally authentic. The rest is history.”
With exotic flavors and elevated packaging in glass jars, Smith-Jeremie tailored her brand for adults —specifically busy, working women—as a nutritious snack that felt both healthy and indulgent.
She also applied learnings from her career in human resources to growing sanaia. “When you’re good at HR, you have to be good at observing people and knowing their motivation. You have to look at why people make choices. When I look at products, I can see why a particular product is so compelling.”
Like a workout or social media, the key is becoming a consumer’s daily habit. “How many times a day can you become part of someone’s daily habit? That’s the factor between whether or not companies are moderately successful or widly successful.”
After the Iconoclast dinner, Smith-Jeremie moved her operations to Harlem’s Hot Bread Kitchen, a bakery and incubator for up-and-coming culinary brands. There, she was able to package and sell her line with professional resources, but without astronomical startup costs. It was clear to Kobla Asamoah, the program director for HBK’s Incubator program, that Smith-Jeremie had something special. “She was very prepared, polished and willing to take feedback and learn,” he said. “That is the sign of someone who’s going to move quickly,”
After launching a website, attending trade shows and meeting with buyers from specialty retail and food worlds, sales of sanaia took off. In just 8 months, demand grew to a point where Smith-Jeremie needed to find a bigger production facility, outpacing most HBK incubator start-ups. “On average, businesses stay in the Incubator program for two years,” explained Asamoah.
sanaia is now poised for expansion. Smith-Jeremie has moved operations to Rhode Island, and hired a full-time COO who previously launched and successfully exited a startup. She is still self-funding the business, but has started meeting with potential investors in order to secure capital to meet the growing demand.
Up next – launching this fall on Jet.com, Amazon and in Whole Foods. Her six flavors — guava, ginger, hibiscus, lavender, pear, tamarind and unsweetened original — will be available in 5.3 oz. single-serve, white disposable cups, as well as 8 oz. and 16 oz. sizes.
She’s also slightly tweaked the recipe. “We‘ve moved away from having skins in product to including baked wedges,” she explains. “The baked wedges of apple are similar to what you see and taste in apple pie.”
Smith-Jeremie still experiments with new flavors in her home kitchen. Her refrigerator is piled high with jars of sanaia to hand out to visitors. She also still maintains a demanding C-suite level day job, but in August she left News Corp. after a five-and-a-half year tenure to become Chief People Officer for Tory Burch. As exciting as the new role at a major fashion brand is, the pursuit of creating sanaia is satisfying on another level.
“The reason I’m an entrepreneur today is I found an idea so compelling and so in my sweet spot that I know I’d regret if I didn’t advance it,” she says. “This is a billion-dollar idea and one worth pursuing, even though I have been a successful executive. There’s a difference between working for someone, and pursuing what I think is a generational wealth creator.”
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