One-On-One: A BizWest interview with Cynthia Tice and Jane Miller of Lily’s Sweets

Each month, BizWest asks a business leader to participate in a question and answer feature to help shed light on a business topic, an industry or add insight to a field of endeavor. This month, Cynthia Tice, founder of Lily’s Sweets, and the company’s CEO, Jane Miller, respond to questions from BizWest Editor Ken Amundson.

BizWest: Tell me about how Lily’s Sweets got its start.

Cynthia Tice: Lily’s Sweets is the convergence of my 40-year career in natural foods, my knowledge and use of stevia, and my love of chocolate. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been part of the natural products industry for more than 40 years, starting when I opened one of the first natural products stores in Philadelphia in the late 1970s. After owning and operating that store for 20 years, I continued my career by consulting with supermarket retailers who wanted to bring natural sets into their stores, as well as brands who hoped to launch natural products. That combined experience gave me the opportunity to witness emerging trends. As a sugar avoider, I had long been a user of stevia, and in 2008, when stevia was affirmed as a food ingredient and added to the FDA’s GRAS list, I started to think about how stevia could best be used as a sweetener in food recipes. As chocolate has long been my favorite food, I was inspired to experiment with stevia to make a chocolate with no added sugar. I wanted to create chocolate that I could enjoy daily, and not just a little bit, but a generous serving! It took over two years to formulate, and during that time, I tasted some of the worst chocolate of my life. But, I finally came up with a recipe that worked, and in 2012 Lily’s launched nationally in Whole Foods.

BizWest: How important has it been to your success to be sugar free, gluten free, Fair Trade Certified?

Tice: First and foremost, I made Lily’s so I would be able to eat it, plain and simple. As a veteran of the natural products industry, and likely one of the most discerning customers, I was quite thoughtful about every ingredient going into our chocolate making sure there was no compromise in terms of the way the ingredients were produced. For example, we purposefully chose to botanically sweeten our products with stevia because it comes from nature, and works amazingly well in chocolate recipes, especially when also combined with erythritol. Sourcing non-GMO ingredients was without compromise. Again, my mission was to create a chocolate with no added sugar, that tasted delicious, and that I felt proud to eat and sell. In addition, because I, like many of today’s consumers, value transparency, I took the additional step of using third party certifiers to provide added assurance. That includes using Fairtrade certified chocolate, securing GFCO Gluten Free Certification, and using non-GMO ingredients exclusively (many of our products are also Non-GMO Project verified).

Jane Miller: Cynthia is certainly not alone in her desire to limit sugar and enjoy a sweet treat that tastes delicious. Lily’s growth can be attributed in part to increased consumer interest in sugar reduction. In a recent segmentation study we learned that 82 percent of the general population, or 4 out of every 5 U.S. adults, claim to be limiting sugar in their diets this year. In addition, 36 percent claim to be doing so more than last year, and 46 percent expect to increase this behavior next year. Cynthia’s combined experience and vision delivered an answer to shoppers’ hopes to reduce sugar without having to give up chocolate. On a more micro level, trends like keto diet, paleo diet, or a need to eat lower-glycemic foods, for diabetics and others, for example, are making Lily’s Sweets a go-to option.

BizWest: What was the secret to your move from local/regional markets to national distribution?  Was there a defining moment when that became possible?

Tice: My long-time experience as a retailer and a consultant to both retailers and brands helped provide a unique opportunity for Lily’s based on the relationships I had built over many years. In launching Lily’s, I focused on Whole Foods as my initial target retailer. It was the perfect partner in that it had national distribution, provided options for special diets and was obviously highly visible and prestigious. We presented to Whole Foods in August 2011, and by March 2012 hit shelves globally at Whole Foods, a truly special opportunity.

Expansion from the natural channel retailers to conventional grocers occurred after the first couple of years. By 2014, Lily’s was well entrenched in the natural channel and sales were very strong with velocity outperforming distribution gains. That provided us with a good story to tell buyers in new channels. In addition, sugar consumption was being increasingly vilified, with the World Health Organization providing new guidelines in late 2014 that recommended dropping total sugar intake from 10 percent of your daily calorie intake to 5 percent.  Consumers and retailers were looking for solutions to curb sugar intake, and Lily’s is a great solution. You don’t miss the sugar!

BizWest: Where do you source your ingredients? Where do you produce your chocolates?

Miller: All of our ingredients are non-GMO and of the highest quality. Our products are also made with Fairtrade certified chocolate and have gluten free and Kosher certifications. We have a network of manufacturing partners across the U.S. that are focused on delivering the Lily’s promise of no added sugar and amazing taste.

BizWest: How many employees do you have locally? Company wide?

Tice: I always believed that Lily’s would be a success, but how well botanically-sweetened, non-GMO chocolate resonated with people, and how quickly the company grew, was beyond what I expected. By 2017, I realized we’d have to expand beyond our team of four (two people being my children). I wanted to give the brand the opportunity to reach its full potential. With the business in such a strong position, I was able to be just as thoughtful selecting an investor and management team as I was about my original product formulations. I selected VMG based on its history of working with natural brands. I believed that it would continue both my business practices, and ingredient standards, which are of paramount importance to me.  I am so happy to report that I was correct. I could not be happier with my partnership with VMG and Jane! 

Miller: It’s incredible to think about the success Cynthia realized as she grew Lily’s with a team of only four people! Establishing the Lily’s headquarters in Boulder allowed us the opportunity to tap into the experienced natural products industry talent in this market. In the past 18 months, we’ve grown the local Boulder team to 23 people with another nine people based regionally.

BizWest: What’s next for Lily’s Sweets?

Miller: Combining Cynthia’s expertise and passion, a product with a proven track record, and the 200+ years of natural products experience on our hand-selected team, Lily’s is perfectly positioned to become the next big thing! We’re on a mission to deliver delicious, no-sugar added chocolate and confections that people obsess over. Treats with less sugar that can be everyday indulgences so people are inspired to live a sweeter life without the sugar.

In the next year, you can expect to see continued innovation from the Lily’s team. We recently announced that come January Lily’s will offer nine new SKUs including Chocolate and Milk Chocolate Style Caramels; Dark Chocolate and Milk Chocolate Style Caramel Popcorn; a new two-pack format of Milk Chocolate Style and Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups; and three new Chocolate Bars. Additionally, we expect to see continued retail, alternative channel and ecommerce distribution, so that Lily’s will be available in 20,000 stores by the beginning of 2020. Lastly, as we continue to grow a fanatical fan base, you can expect us to continue to roll out engaging marketing campaigns.

We are bullish about the future of Lily’s, feeling confident we’ll be able to continue our triple-digit growth in MULO and double-digit growth in the natural channel. Our entire team is honored to continue living the vision Cynthia brought to life back in 2012; this is certainly the most fun I’ve ever had in my career.

Each month, BizWest asks a business leader to participate in a question and answer feature to help shed light on a business topic, an industry or add insight to a field of endeavor. This month, Cynthia Tice, founder of Lily’s Sweets, and the company’s CEO, Jane Miller, respond to questions from BizWest Editor Ken Amundson.

BizWest: Tell me about how Lily’s Sweets got its start.

Cynthia Tice: Lily’s Sweets is the convergence of my 40-year career in natural foods, my knowledge and use of stevia, and my love of chocolate. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been part of the natural products industry for more than 40 years, starting when I opened one of the first natural products stores in Philadelphia in the late 1970s. After owning and operating that store for 20 years, I continued my career by consulting with supermarket retailers who wanted to bring natural sets into their stores, as well as brands who hoped to launch natural products. That combined experience gave me the opportunity to witness emerging trends. As a sugar avoider, I had long been a user of stevia, and in 2008, when stevia was affirmed as a food ingredient and added to the FDA’s GRAS list, I started to think about how stevia could best be used as a sweetener in food recipes. As chocolate has long been my favorite food, I was inspired to experiment with stevia to make a chocolate with no added sugar.…