Live Purely with Jesse Merrill
Live Purely with Jesse Merrill

"I've always believed that you could heal yourself through food and lifestyle changes." 

- Jesse Merrill

Jesse Merrill of Good Culture: Building a Mission-Based Brand and Reinventing the Food System

Elizabeth welcomes Jesse Merrill, Co-Founder and CEO of Good Culture, the maker of ridiculously good cottage cheese and the perfect snack pairing with some Purely Elizabeth granola. Jesse talks about food as medicine and the importance of gut health, how we can reinvent the food systems using regenerative agriculture, and what he learned at his time with Honest Tea about building a mission-based brand. Jesse opens up about his own health struggles and the personal wellness journey that led him into launching Good Culture in 2015. At the end of the episode, Jesse gives us a glimpse of what’s usually in his shopping cart and a few of his favorite life hacks for staying energetic and centered during his busy days.

  • PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

    Elizabeth Stein 00:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder and CEO of purely Elizabeth. And this is live purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey. This week's guest is Jesse Merrill, co founder and CEO of Good Culture, the maker of ridiculously good cottage cheese and one of my favorite brands to pair my purely Elizabeth granola with. Jessie co founded good culture in 2015, following a personal wellness journey, where eating real healing foods cured him of ulcerative colitis. Through the founding, he learned that most US dairy cows are confined creating not just human health issues, but animal welfare and environmental problems. Today, Good Culture's mission is to reinvent the food system from the ground up and encourage other businesses and consumers to do the same to create healthier people, animals and planet. In this episode, we chat all about Jesse's personal and professional journey from his early days at Honest Tea, to curing himself with cultured foods and launching Good Culture. Jesse and I talk about food as medicine and the importance of gut health, reinventing the food system with regenerative agriculture, the importance of a mission based brand and becoming a platform culture foods company. It was so great to catch up with Jesse keep listening to learn more. Jesse, welcome to the podcast. I'm so excited to have you on I was just chatting with a group of people yesterday, and we were saying that you have the absolute hands down best cottage cheese in the market. No questions asked.

    Jesse Merrill 01:44
    Awesome. Thank you.

    Elizabeth Stein 01:46
    Combined with our granola. It's perfection.

    Jesse Merrill 01:50
    Yeah, 100% I eat it daily.

    Elizabeth Stein 01:52
    Me too. So let's start with your journey that led to starting Good Culture.

    Jesse Merrill 02:00
    Yes. So I started in experiential Event Marketing. That was kind of the beginning of my career here. And that led to a opportunity with Moby the techno Rocker from the 90s, who had a small tea company called Teeny, so 14 New York, it was a better for you tea in Manhattan only. And I was brought on to help lead his experiential marketing charge. And I did that with him for about a year and a half. It was a crash course in brand building, because he had like three people. And I was though I was brought in on the marketing side, I also quickly learned how to roll within sales and within operations and finance, etc. So it was a great opportunity for me to learn a lot very quickly.

    Elizabeth Stein 02:43
    Was that your first job out of college experience, experiential marketing, or

    Jesse Merrill 02:48
    No, my first job out of college actually, if you go way back was in filmmaking, I was a PAing on film sets, because I thought I wanted to become a filmmaker, a director, cinematographer, I still kind of feel like I want to do that at some point in my life, but maybe I will, maybe I won't, but I started there. And actually, when you're PAing, you don't make that much money. And so I was looking for ways to make additional dollars. And I did that through becoming a brand ambassador, I became a sampler. So I was like working for brands sampling in supermarkets helping to push their product. And that's what opened up the world of that, you know, experiential marketing to me. So I started to meet some of the activation companies that were hired to drive those BA programs. And I ultimately got hired with those groups to become, you know, a larger manager within the within the design and concepting for those for those tours. So that's what put me into experiential event marketing that led me to Moby and teeny. Moby decided to sell the company after about a year and a half. It was growing quite well within New York, but it required him to continue to invest. He was personally funding the entire thing. He didn't want to raise money. And he was working on an album, right because he's a musician. And he ultimately decided to sell the company. And that, for me opened the door to Honest Tea, which was a great opportunity Honest Tea at the time was small, they were sub 10 million revenue. They were sold primarily in the natural channel, right, like Whole Foods was like their number one account, they were showing good traction there. But this was a time when folks didn't care about organic they didn't know about organic. They certainly weren't willing to pay a premium for organic they didn't care about low sugar alternatives that you looked at the tea space at that point in time. The stars were 99 cent can Arizona with high fructose corn syrup and you know Snapple Peach Diet Snapple that was my drink. Yeah, right right so like that's what was selling and so Honest tea was definitely well ahead of their time because they introduced this organic lightly sweetened better for you tea it was super disruptive doing well, like I said in the natural channel with accounts like Whole Foods, but they wanted to expand, you know and go wider than where they were. And so I was brought on to lead to marketing charge within the New York Metro market, I did that with them for several months, we did quite well. And then I was promoted to the director of marketing role. And then ultimately the vice president of marketing role. As I said, I joined when they were sub 10 million revenue grew the brand to about 75 million revenue. And then we sold the company to Coca Cola in 2011. So amazing opportunity got to work under Seth Goldman, who's the genuine, all real deal, he is authentically a mission driven founder, and I got to kind of learn a lot from him, and work under him. And that, for me, really became the inspiration or the catalyst for wanting to ultimately create my own purpose led company.

    Elizabeth Stein 05:41
    What were some of the biggest lessons that you learned from Seth?

    Jesse Merrill 05:45
    To stay true to your values, right, never never stray from your values, no matter what you can change your strategies, but you can't change your values. If you start to erode values, you really lose kind of your, your purpose or your why. And then you don't have a team of dedicated, passionate folks that are all rowing in the same direction, and that don't have the passion and the fight to really want to get to the top of the mountain. And so I think the biggest thing that I learned two big things that I learned that that kind of touch on those, those items, number one, don't stray from values, be authentic, and everything that you do show up every day, and show up every day with passion and ensure that you are communicating those values in a coherent way so that everybody understands what the bigger purpose of the company is, that they understand what the why is. And like I said, if they all believe that, then you're going to breed a group of incredibly passionate people, I mean, that the team at Honest Tea was insanely passionate. I mean, they would run through walls to to achieve our goals, right. And so for me, that was a huge learning is something that I absolutely wanted to take with me and rebuild with Good Culture.

    Elizabeth Stein 06:53
    What were I guess, digging a little deeper into that? Like, what were some of the best ways that you saw Seth do that? And that you might do that today in okay, you have a set of values you have heres our why and purpose but like, how do you really bring that to life? And for tips for anybody who has their own business? What are some of those great tips to really help instill that time over time? So people don't forget?

    Jesse Merrill 07:18
    Yep, no, a great. So our it's our why is to reinvent the food system from the actual ground up. That's kind of the the highest ground right? So we have a brand architecture sheet, we have a company strategy that we that we circulate to the team, we actually just took our team through this exercise about a week ago to ensure everybody was calibrated fully clear on what what the highest ground is, what did you know, what is our why? What is our? What, what is our? How are we ensuring that everyone is fully in line with that. So number one, make sure they understand it. And then number two, make sure that you're actually walking the walk, right. So it can't just be a piece of paper. And I think that's a misstep that several companies do make where they have good intentions. And they may document the things they may have, may have process, but it never becomes more than that piece of paper. And so you have to ensure that you are truly making decisions based on those core values. You have to hire and fire against those against those core values. And you have to make key strategic decisions for the company growth decisions for the company, based on those core values, even if it doesn't mean you know, better, better economics initially. You have to look at the higher the highest ground and look at your purpose and let that really be your Northstar. And like I said, walk walk the walk. So, you know, at Honest Tea, you know, they were pushing forward on democratizing organics on driving more Fairtrade SKUs. And though that was challenging, and potentially not the most, you know, not not the best thing economically at all times. It still was a decision that they made because it, you know, it laddered up to the mission. And that's something that good culture that we we also do, right? We make decisions on ingredient sourcing on selection on supply chain, that don't necessarily always drive the best economics, but it does roll up to the mission and ensures that we're truly creating change and doing what we're saying we're doing.

    Elizabeth Stein 09:03
    That's awesome. Thank you. So alright, let's take one step back. So you're at Honest Tea, decide you want to, you know, create your own mission aligned business. How, why cottage cheese, how did that come about?

    Jesse Merrill 09:17
    Yeah. So there was one one step in between so, sold the company to coke moved on and found an opportunity with Anders Eisner, who is the son of Michael Eisner, who was the CEO at Disney, he had an enhanced water beverage called activate that was trying to disrupt the enhanced water space and enhanced water at the time was incredibly hot, because Coca Cola had recently acquired vitamin water for $4.2 billion. It was this massive exit. And he had a unique technology that was disruptive. And so I joined Anders on that journey and help build that company out over about a three year period. And Michael and Anders came together to sell the company at around that time. And when that happened, Anders approached me and said, Hey, look, I want to I want to continue to do something with you. I want to build my next brand with you. So let me know if you have any, any good ideas. And let's talk about them. And we looked at a bunch of different opportunity areas. But cottage cheese was one that really stood out because we looked at it as an overlooked superfood that wasn't being properly messaged hadn't you hadn't seen any innovation in the category since like the 70s. In 1975, cottage cheese is actually bigger than yogurt. Wow, yeah. And then totally fell off due to lack of innovation. And so we wanted to understand why right? Having a marketing background, I'm like, Okay, here's the space that's so ripe for disruption. But it says not being messaged in the right way, how do we tell the story in a way that's going to resonate with younger consumer segments that aren't shopping the category today, so we started to look at different brands on shelf. And all the brands on shelf were dated from a branding standpoint, packaging standpoint, you really didn't see anything other than large tubs of plain cottage cheese, the ingredients statements were not clean at all right? You had tons of additives, gums, thickeners, emulsifiers, preservatives, all these things. And you didn't have a lot happening in terms of use case, right? Like everything they said was a multi serve tub, there was nothing happening in single serve, there wasn't a lot happening in flavor. So it was just again, incredibly ripe for disruption. And it was a sizable category, it was a $1.1 billion category that had like no support behind it. So we saw that as a large opportunity. So the business thesis was, let's make cottage cheese sexy, let's make it relevant to new consumer segments. So younger consumers segments, primarily millennials and younger Gen X that weren't shopping the category. And let's see if we can drive drive some traction. And so that's what we did. And I will also say it was timely, because at that point in time, Greek yogurt and yogurt, broadly was starting to show some declines. And so retailers were looking for alternative portable protein options. And so there was a way, you know, for us, it was good opportunity for us to get in front of retailers, category managers, buyers, and show them that cottage cheese could be reimagined in a way that would drive category growth for them.

    Elizabeth Stein 12:11
    Wow, I can't believe that cottage cheese is bigger than yogurt. So interesting. And to your point, it's just like without that innovation it just kind of sat there and you guys came into market. So I know that part of your story also is that you had a personal health journey that kind of tied into cottage cheese and some some of the benefits. So would love to talk a little bit about that as well.

    Jesse Merrill 12:34
    Yeah, for sure. So we saw the business opportunity in cottage cheese and started going down that path, right because of all the things I just said. As I was going through that journey, I was diagnosed with a an autoimmune condition called ulcerative colitis, where you have unnecessary inflammation in your gut, your immune system effectively attacks itself that treats food as a foreign invader, it creates all sorts of pain and bloating, you can't really eat you don't absorb nutrition, you lose a ton of weight. It's hard to to sleep to function, et cetera. Right. So it was a pretty, pretty rough situation for me.

    Elizabeth Stein 13:10
    How long did it take you to figure that out that that was what you had?

    Jesse Merrill 13:14
    Like two months, because I just kept on riding through it. I was like, alright, it's probably food poisoning. Or maybe I had like a stomach virus. Like, I assume it'll go away at some point, like, I tried to grind through. But it got to a point, as I said, where I was, I started to drop weight rapidly. And that's when I started to get really scared. I was like, alright, like something is clearly not right here. I'm not getting better. It's getting progressively worse. And now I'm losing weight. And so I went to a GI and I took him through my symptoms. And he was like, okay, that doesn't sound good. You need to get into my office and have an immediate colonoscopy and see what's going on and did that and I was diagnosed with with ulcerative colitis, they told me that it was a chronic condition, that the only way to kind of manage the symptoms is through harsh drugs like steroids, not something I wanted to live on. They told me I would need to live on those for life. I asked if there was anything that I could do from a diet modification standpoint. And they said absolutely not. There's not enough science to support that. And that yeah, there's really no I had no other options other than to live on these medications. So I pushed back on that. I didn't believe in that. I grew up in a in a household where we believed in food as medicine. My mom worked for a nutritionist Gary Noll for several several years.

    Elizabeth Stein 14:29
    Oh wow. I used to live in New York across a Gary Noll store.

    Jesse Merrill 14:33
    Oh really? Yeah. Okay. Yeah. Yeah, she worked for him. She was a chef for him for soa few years. Yeah, totally. So I grew up in that household. So it was like in the 80s. And we're eating like veggie burgers and like all sorts of things that were like radical at the time. I've always believed that you could heal yourself through food and lifestyle changes. And so I pushed back I met with a functional doctor, an integrative doctor, and asked if there was something more that I could do something different that I could that I could do. They put me onto a special diet. And they said, Absolutely, we have other patients who have ulcerative colitis who have responded quite well to these lifestyle changes. And I got into a diet that consisted of grass fed meat, cooked vegetables, and nothing raw it's too hard to digest raw fruit and cultured dairy. And I did I cut out nuts, I cut out seeds, I cut out grain, alcohol, caffeine, right. So I couldn't, I couldn't eat a lot it was it was highly, highly restrictive, and started to eat that way. And within a few weeks, noticed a massive turnaround, my symptoms started to to fade. They had, like I said, bloating and sharp pains, all that started to go away pretty rapidly, I noticed that I was starting to put weight back on, I felt like I was absorbing nutrition. So my energy levels increased. And so I felt like it was working. And so that gave me the confidence to keep going. Obviously, if I didn't see benefit, I probably would have had to go back to the medication because it is a dangerous disease and has to be managed. But it was working. And so I kept, you know, kept going, they told me it would take three years to fully heal my gut if I if I stayed true to this diet. And so I did that I went all in and stayed on it for three years, every year.. You ate just that for three years? Yeah, three years, like didn't cheat at all. And they told me they're like, if you cheat at all, you're gonna lose all your progress. Like even if you go out one night and have a beer that like that might reset the whole thing. So like, like, stay true, like, you gotta you gotta keep going, and be super, super disciplined. And so I did it. And at the end of year one, I had another cold I had to get have a colonoscopy every single year, which is not fun. But I did at the end of year one, and it showed that my inflammation levels had come down. I did it at the end of year two, and it showed that my inflammation levels had returned to a normal healthy level. And at the end of year three, it shows I had a biopsy done because they didn't see anything visibly, and they had a biopsy taken and my pathology came back showing that there was no signs of UC at all. And I'm not sure what you did, but you healed your ulcerative colitis. So whatever you did keep doing it. And we'll see you and we'll see you in 10 years. And that was it. And so ever since you know, I continue to follow a pre disciplined diet, because when you have an autoimmune condition, you can always awaken the monster, it's possible to come back. So you gotta like you still have to be pretty disciplined. But I'm at a point now where I can do more like I can, I can eat a slice of pizza, if I want to, right I can I can have a slice of bread or something. So I've, I've pretty much returned to a normal place. But I do try to maintain that diet as much as I can to ensure I don't push too far.

    Elizabeth Stein 17:39
    Wow, that's amazing. I mean, such a firm believer in food as medicine and not taking one doctor's answer to say you need to be on drugs and like really like asking questions and looking for alternatives, because in most cases, there is another solution out there, and it's food. And it's also my second question is going to be also just like lifestyle, because stress can play such a big factor into that. So I'm curious to hear how, what the timing of this was, when starting good culture and how how lifestyle could affected that and like how you kind of worked through those pieces of it?

    Jesse Merrill 18:20
    Yeah, well, I will say how it informed kind of the the mission behind good culture. And all this was happening, like I said, in year one of driving this brand creating this brand. When this happened, though, I was already you know, a big believer in food as medicine, it really put at the forefront. And I was like, Okay, this needs to be, you know, a major part of how we build this brand, right? It has to inform ingredient selection, sourcing, etc, we need to ensure that the ingredients that we're using for this product, don't create unnecessary inflammation. So that means no gums, right, like several companies will use gums, gums are inflammatory. That was something that I could absolutely not eat when I when I when I had you say so that it absolutely informed ingredient selection. It also drove me to really focus on the cultured food piece, the fermented food piece, because there's all sorts of beneficial bacteria that provide benefits to your microbiome. And if you have a healthy microbiome, then you should have overall wellness because all disease starts starts in the gut. And so there's definitely a direct correlation between gut health and overall wellness, you know, brain health, immunity, etc. And so that is a big part of, you know, in terms of how we show up as a brand in terms of how we think about product innovation, that is always at the forefront. So that personal healing story 100% You know, drove a lot of our thinking in terms of how we build build this brand. In terms of other lifestyle changes. I think it made me much more aware of the choices that I make on a day to day basis. In terms of what I need to do to show up as a you know, a strong leader, an energized leader, my can't just take that stuff for granted because it's really easy to get caught up in eating junk. and food and not sleeping well, and, you know, skipping meals and doing all these things, because you're so busy as you as you build a company, but I put so much importance behind those decisions now. So I ensure that I don't skip those things, right? Like I make sure that I, I push to get my six to eight hours of sleep, even if it means I'm going to bed late, I go to bed super late, because I'm someone that does stay up late naturally. Like, I don't like to go to bed until like, I don't know, midnight when, yeah, but so but I try to like I make sure like, I'll still get like, if I go to bed at like 12,12:30. You know, I'll sleep till like, 7, 7:15 where, you know, other people that I know are getting up at like, 4am to go for a run, I don't do that person, yes, I need to get my hours in. And then when I wake up, I make sure that I 100% get my exercise in, right. I don't ever skip that. So I generally go swimming in the morning, some kind of cardio, swimming, or running or cycling, but I really do like swimming and running probably the most. So I make sure that I get that in. And then I and then I meditate. Right? So mental health is a major, major part of it. You know, it's as you know, building Purely Elizabeth, there are lots of dark moments when you're building a company or brand and things are not going the way you want them to. And it's quite easy to get overwhelmed and to, you know, to to kind of take on more of a scarcity mindset. And meditation really helps with that. I think it helps to put things into perspective so that you're always seeing, you know, kind of the bigger the bigger picture.

    Elizabeth Stein 21:26
    What kind of meditation do you do?

    Jesse Merrill 21:30
    Do I actually do different like I'm big on following apps like headspace app I did for a while. I had to I don't know if you've heard of this product called sensate where it actually like, vibrates on you. Yeah. So it's supposed to drive relaxation, the vibration on your chest is supposed to create a relaxed, relaxed, relaxed state, deep relaxed state. And you do that while you're also like visualizing. And so I do that in the evenings. And then I also generally will, will follow apps or sometimes I'll just, you know, go into my little meditation room, which is my closet. Yeah, I have multiple kids who, you know, kind of get in the way if I don't do that. And so I will go into my closet and sit in that room and just do breathing exercises and visualization. And, you know, and it just puts me at ease. Again, it helps me to kind of like, reset and look at the bigger picture and kind of appreciate everything that's happening.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:24
    Yeah, I think, as you said, it's so critical. I mean, it's so critical for everybody to be doing that. But I think particularly building your business and company, it's so many moments of highs and lows, that it's hard to stay the most even keeled as possible, and figuring out what works the best for you to be able to do that.

    Jesse Merrill 22:46
    Yes, you have. You have to find your balance somehow.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:50
    If balance exists.

    Jesse Merrill 22:52
    Right, yeah, just Yeah. Try and try not to live in the extremes.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:55
    Yeah, exactly. So let's get back into sourcing and sustainability. And I think it's, you know, obviously it was really difficult and hard for you personally, having this diagnosis, but hearing it it's like the silver lining was that it really informed your entire company and gave you such a probably specific I mean, you wouldn't have even been able to sample the product if it didn't adhere to all your needs. Still, you were very particular about it. And I know still very particular about sourcing and sustainability ingredients would love just to dive deeper into what that looks like today and and where you're headed with it.

    Jesse Merrill 23:41
    Yep, no, absolutely. So typically, when I tell my creation story, I always say there's like two things that really drove inspiration above and beyond the business thesis. And number one was my healing story. The second one was supply chain, and, you know, milk supply overall. And I didn't know a lot about dairy coming into the space, as I told you, I was I was a tea guy. And so when I got into the space, I learned that 90% of us dairy cows were confined, and that completely broke my heart and realized that the food system was broken. And that change needed to happen. So when I launched good culture, we launched as an organic only company because if you know when with organic products that ensures that animals spend a certain number of days on pasture. But as we scaled it was not possible to to go with an organic proposition and across all channels because the pricing was prohibitive for for several shoppers and we needed to scale and democratize you know, the kind of the mission more broadly. So we created a line of products that were pasture raised. And we did that for some time with one small co Packer that we had in Wisconsin, and it was great. We had an organic line we had a pasture raised line. As we scaled beyond that we started to look at other facilities, other milk sheds, you know other other co-ops etc and realized that, that pasteurized milk supply didn't exist in a big way. And that it would become increasingly more difficult to to source pasteurized milk for our products. And that was obviously a big a big challenge for us. And what we needed to do was effectively create a new milk supply in order to do that, and that is something that we are currently working on. So we partnered with the largest dairy co op in the country, DFA. And we are working with them on a program called path to pasture, where we are a where we are actually converting conventional farms to regenerative farms with a focus on planned grazing, and pasture. And so that is a work in progress, it doesn't happen overnight, it creates a lot of work to drive, you have to build an entirely new food supply is quite challenging. But if we do this right, we will be in a place you know, once we kind of achieve our Fulbright solution, we will have created major food system change. And so that for us is also you know, a major Northstar and a huge, huge part of our mission, we're a certified B Corporation, where 1% for the planet company 1% of net sales from our organic products go towards this effort to help convert confined animals to to regenerative farms. So yeah, it's a it's a big part of who we are, what we stand for, it's a big, it's, you know, rolls up perfectly to our to our brand mission or why statement, and really, really drives us. So we're absolutely walking the walk there. And we'll continue to to, to lean in until we have that solution in place.

    Elizabeth Stein 26:31
    That's so exciting. We're starting to actually get into buying regen oats, oil and sugar and actually embarking on a pretty interesting research project to understand nutrient level in the soil when it's farmed regeneratively, like what actually happens and to have that data but curious to hear for you what that path will look like to convert, like how long of a journey is that going to be? And just any other details on region that you found that are like super interesting on this process? Because i i and our commute, I think find it fascinating. And I searched the future of the world

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