PICTURED: Bryan and Kate Flynn with daughter Leila. Photo by Ali Beck
Sun & Swell: A Zero Waste Organic Grocery Store
2686 Johnson Drive, Suite B, Ventura
Are you from Ventura County originally?
I spent my childhood in Ohio, then moved to North Carolina for high school.
When did you move to California?
I moved to California from North Carolina to attend University of California, Santa Barbara. After graduating from UCSB, I bounced around a bit — I moved to Newport Beach after college for my first job, then I moved to the East Coast to get my master’s at Harvard Business School, then I moved to San Francisco for work for several years.
In 2016, I returned to Santa Barbara, which is where my family and I live now . . . and we don’t plan on leaving anytime soon!
What were you doing before you started Sun & Swell?
Prior to starting Sun & Swell, I did brand strategy consulting in the retail and consumer products space. I worked with companies on things like consumer research, market research and growth strategy planning.
When did you open Sun & Swell, and what inspired you to do so?
I launched Sun & Swell with my husband, Bryan, in 2017 with a mission to make healthy and sustainable eating more accessible. Leading up to this, I had switched to a more natural, holistic lifestyle, including eating only “whole foods.” I realized that eating a whole food diet made me feel better, both physically and mentally. However, when I looked around for packaged foods to accommodate this new eating method, there weren’t any options available. Most packaged foods are made with artificial ingredients and loaded with added sugars, preservatives and flavors. This realization sparked an idea, and Sun & Swell Foods was born. About a year in with Sun & Swell, I became more aware that we were solving one problem — health — but contributing to single-use plastics, and this was when we started the journey to transition to 100% compostable packaging.
How many employees do you currently have?
Outside of myself and Bryan, we have one full-time employee and eight part-time employees. Half of our employees help with day-to-day operations by running our production facility, warehouse and retail store. The other half helps us with everything else it takes to run our business — like marketing, product sourcing and customer service.
Tell us a little bit about your compostable packing. What is it, and where do you get it from?
Sun & Swell is the first food company in the United States to offer a wide array of healthy foods in 100% compostable, plastic-free packaging. I began researching compostable packaging for food, and in March 2019, our first round of compostable packaging showed up. We went through a lot of challenges but remained committed to transitioning to compostable distribution and figuring out a way to make it work. Today, our entire line of pantry staples is sold in 100% compostable packaging. We also recently launched a “send back” program that is unique and truly revolutionary in the industry. It allows you to send back your Sun & Swell compostable bags so we can properly compost them for you if you can’t compost them yourself. We are partnering with a local organization, White Buffalo Land Trust, to compost the bags, and you can also drop off your bags at our new storefront.
In terms of materials, all of our compostable bags are plant based. We use a few different suppliers and each of their materials are slightly different, but the ones we are currently using are made from wood pulp.
How do you source your products?
When sourcing ingredients, our team buys organic ingredients as close to the source and farm as possible, seeking out small family farms. Recognizing the food industry’s role in the climate crisis, we try to source as many of our ingredients as possible from organic, local California farmers.
What makes Sun & Swell different from, say, Whole Foods or Lassen’s?
We’re plastic-free! And we primarily sell Sun & Swell branded products (as opposed to wholesaling other brands).
Why did you decide to open a brick-and-mortar store?
Three reasons: 1) We wanted to better serve our local community and be able to connect with customers face-to-face; 2) 90% of grocery shopping is still done through brick-and-mortar stores, so we realized to be able to reach most people in our local community, we had to have a physical storefront; and 3) We want to use it as a pilot to see what works, what doesn’t work, and ultimately inform whether we launch more stores in the future.
What kind of complications did the pandemic create, and how did you overcome them?
Prior to the pandemic, our business model was a little different. We were always focused on selling healthy foods in sustainable packaging, but before COVID, we only sold a small collection of foods (a line of grab-and-go snacks) and we mainly sold our snacks through places like corporate offices, coffee shops, fitness studios… When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we lost 75% of our revenue as many businesses that were selling Sun & Swell products closed temporarily. While this was a setback, it also gave us a moment to pause and adjust our business model so we could not just get through the pandemic, but to come out stronger. In the spring of 2020, we expanded our product assortment to include an entire lineup of pantry staples, and we started shifting to a direct-to-consumer model — mainly selling online, and ultimately in our new store. This transition due to the pandemic allowed us to rebuild the business from the ground up around zero-waste (compostable) packaging.
What’s a typical day like for you?
6-9 a.m.: Spend time with my daughter, Leila. Exercise.
9 a.m.-3 p.m.: “Office” time. One to two days a week, this means going to our store and production facility to meet with the team, etc. The rest of the week, this means “computer time” at our co-working space, where I spend most of my time meeting with my remote team members over Zoom, and working on marketing, product development and sourcing.
3-7 p.m.: Leila time. She loves being outside, so we usually use the afternoon to go on a long walk in the afternoon.
7-9 p.m.: Emails, wrap up anything else for work.
What do you find most challenging about your work? What’s most rewarding?
Most challenging: taking time away from work! I work with my husband, and we’re both so passionate about what we’re building. So we want to talk about work all the time — at dinner, in the car, on the weekends. I’ve found that I have to intentionally set strong boundaries to ensure we don’t let work fill every ounce of free time we have!
Most rewarding: realizing I’m actually making a positive impact on this world, and leaving behind a better world for our daughter.
Where do you see things going with your business in the near future? How about in the next 5-10 years?
Our dream is to make a major dent in reducing single-use plastic in grocery, so our goal is to continue to grow, and help more and more households transition away from plastic. We aspire to be like Patagonia — a company that’s a household name but known for being a do-good business that makes a positive impact on the world.
Anything else you might want to share about Sun & Swell?
We’re also a Certified B-Corporation and members of 1% for the Planet — meaning we donate 1% of our revenue to environmental nonprofits. We choose to donate to two local organizations doing amazing things for our planet — White Buffalo Land Trust (which focuses on regenerative farming) and the Channel Island Marine Wildlife Institute (which rescues and rehabilitates ocean mammals).
You can visit our website to learn more about our company, and see our entire product assortment at www.sunandswellfoods.com. If you aren’t able to visit our physical storefront, we also ship for free on orders over $40!
— Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer