Jenny Eu is the founder and CEO of Three Trees, an organic premium nut milk company. I’ve watched her will the brand and its products into existence from her early days at Kitchen Town Central, a Bay Area commercial kitchen and food incubator, to her search for a co-packer. Today, her products are on the shelves of many of the best-known specialty retailers.
As a child, Jenny would go on hikes with her grandmother. Together they would pick seeds, leaves, and roots of various plants and create all types of healthful concoctions.
Inspired by her grandmother’s philosophy on food, Three Trees is a company committed to producing plant-based foods with simple and accessible ingredients.
Jenny has worked for Nestle and as a management consultant. She received both her bachelors and masters from Stanford. So, what makes a person jump off the corporate merry-go-round and climb aboard the entrepreneurial rollercoaster? I decided to ask, and I hope you enjoy her answers.
Why are you doing this?
“I've always been passionate about food and I've worked for various food companies, big and small. I was inspired to start something when I realized that there were a lot of gaps in the drinkable nutrition space. There were a lot of sodas and teas, but not a lot of nourishing beverages.”
Eu went on to share with me the ways in which her background influenced her current ambitions. “In Asia, there's a real culture of using plant-based ingredients to create things that are full of nutrients. I wanted to bring something like that to the U.S. market. I had been looking at some plant based things and was just playing around in my kitchen one day. I threw some nuts into my soy milk maker, and out came this delicious nut milk. I tried cashew, almond, pistachio and other nuts. My friends loved it. I thought, okay I'll try to start selling it at farmers’ markets and see if I have something. So, it kind of just grew from there.”
“What’s inspired me is a desire to help people to eat clean, plant-based foods. I feel like there are a lot of nutrients in the form of seeds and parts of trees and plants that we don't use.”
What is your vision for Three Trees?
“Our mission is to help people eat more plant-based foods without sacrificing taste. There's a lot of food tech now doing things that are plant-based but highly processed. So, my whole philosophy, which comes from my grandmother, is just about eating whole foods, real food and as much plant-based as possible.
“Nut milk is something people are trying to make at home. It is something you can do, but it's very time-consuming. You can make your own bread, you can make your own yogurt, and obviously, those are all the best things. But we're just trying to make it a little easier for people to eat healthy in a way that fits their lifestyle and their schedule. There are lots of opportunities that I see around plant-based, delicious food. My vision for this brand is to be synonymous with good, wholesome food. Food that's honest and real, not highly processed and is nourishing and delicious. I think food must taste good.”
What’s the biggest obstacle you face?
“Finding the right people is always the biggest challenge for any growing organization. Building a team to go after the opportunities we have is one of the biggest challenges. Another challenge is growing the right way. It's a growing segment, so there's been a lot of investor interest in the sector which is good and bad. You want to grow but you want to do so responsibly.”
What would your current self, tell your former self?
“I'm proud that I've created a superior product, a really good product that people love and I’ve done so very organically. But I've put in a lot of time and sweat! I was one of the first to start making a clean, pure almond milk that's closest to homemade, but the category has grown so fast. I probably could have scaled more quickly than I did."
What would your advice be to future food entrepreneurs?
“I would tell them to put out a good product. I strongly believe that your product should be great. Great tasting, great without the packaging. Just the food itself. Whatever is going into people’s mouths, must be something you're proud of and is unique and different. While I do see that marketing and packaging are still important, I'm a purist. I think it's important that you believe in what you're doing. Food is not like tech, it's not going to be super fast-growing or have that hockey stick trajectory which venture capital investors typically like to see.”
“Food takes time, and I think you really must love what you're doing. I don't think you should be doing it for the money.”
We talked a bit longer about channel strategy, brokers and the nuts and bolts of the food business. As we ended, she shared one other challenge which is one that I often hear from leaders of emerging brands.
“Right now, my problem is not that I don’t have opportunities, it's more about how do I go after them all.”
Not an easy one to solve, but not a bad one to have.
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Elliot Begoun is the Principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on accelerating the growth of emerging food and beverage brands. He helps clients gain distribution and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and Food Dive.