Lil Bucks is on a mission to elevate the demand for sprouted buckwheat and make the ingredient America’s new favorite superfood. I discovered the brand in July 2020 when I saw founder and Chicago-native Emily Griffith compete as a semifinalist on NOSH’s Pitch Slam 8. I was impressed with her pitch — despite the limitations a virtual setting presents, Emily’s poise and conviction in buckwheat leapt off the screen. I was grateful she agreed to chat with me (via Zoom) about Lil Bucks’ values, silver linings of the pandemic, and what’s next for the brand.
Planting the Seed
While living in Australia in 2017, Emily enjoyed a life-changing acai bowl with incredible taste and texture. She realized her smoothie bowl had a secret ingredient: sprouted buckwheat. While sprouted buckwheat was already a mainstay down under, the ingredient hadn’t gained popularity in the US.
Inspired to bring the superfood to America, Emily launched Lil Bucks in April 2018 at a fitness festival in Chicago. Since then, Lil Bucks has released two product offerings: its original Lil Bucks sprouted buckwheat seeds and Clusterbucks, its line of adaptogenic, functional buckwheat snack clusters.
Just two and a half years into the business, Lil Bucks has landed at stores that every CPG startup founder dreams of, including Whole Foods Market and Erewhon Market — underscoring the little seed’s big potential.
Lil Bucks’ significant traction should come as no surprise, however, given that the brand hits on a number of key trends. First, as a seed, buckwheat is naturally grain-free and free from animal products, making it suitable for those who follow plant-based, paleo or gluten-free diets.
Secondly, with its line of Clusterbucks, Lil Bucks has the opportunity to capture a share of the functional foods market, which is expected to grow 7.9% annually and reach $276 billion by 2025. Clusterbucks, which features adaptogenic ingredients like reishi and turmeric, provides a boost to immunity and mood via snackable moments throughout the day. The product not only delivers on taste, texture and nutrition but also the consumer demand for functional benefits.
Additionally, Lil Bucks’ original line of sprouted buckwheat is innovating in the cold cereal/granola category. Lil Bucks has just 2-3g of sugar per serving and uses ingredients customers can actually pronounce, bucking the category trend of 6-16g of sugar per serving and questionable, long lists of ingredients. The versatile crunchy seed, which comes in Original, Cacao, Matcha and Cinnamon flavors, can be used to top smoothie bowls, salads, and oatmeal or enjoyed as a cereal with your favorite milk.
Lil Bucks’ journey hasn't been without its challenges, however, especially when COVID-19 hit earlier this year. The good news? In March, Lil Bucks launched across Erewhon Market stores in Los Angeles and Whole Foods Market in the Midwest. The bad news? Lil Bucks could no longer deploy its original retail rollout strategy. At that time, in an effort to keep up with panic-buyers and comply with COVID guidelines, grocery stores deprioritized traditional retail levers like product demos and promos. Although Lil Bucks’ bright packaging helped it jump off the shelf, Emily notes that in-person demos had been key to unlocking sales up to that point.
“That’s how we would hook ‘em. They’d try the crunch and it’s game over! It’s unlike anything else.”
Lil Bucks was forced to get creative, testing out nontraditional marketing tactics. That’s precisely when Emily’s background in digital marketing became an invaluable resource to the business, boosting Lil Bucks’ growth both within retailers and across e-commerce channels. From February to March, Lil Bucks quadrupled its e-commerce revenue and it's still rising. Another silver lining? The data Lil Bucks gathered from its retail partners this spring unlocked key insights — without any traditional marketing or in-person events, and store traffic being down lowering the likelihood of discovery, the brand saw strong velocity numbers from both product lines in two key regions.
Rooted in Values
As the only buckwheat brand on the market, Lil Bucks has captured a first-mover advantage in the cereal and snack aisles. But to truly steal share from the giant industry incumbents, Emily has gone against the grain, defying the traditional CPG playbook.
“We’re frustrated with Big Food and how they cut corners. These companies will clean up trash from the beach one day a year and applaud themselves, but if they actually have to change something core to their business for the better of the planet or animal welfare, they won’t do it.”
Instead, she employs Lil Bucks’ value hierarchy to guide the strategic direction of the brand. One example: Emily has personally developed relationships with each of her ingredient suppliers — a painstaking practice that’s essentially unheard of in the industry, but is critical to ensuring ethical and sustainable sourcing. More recently, Lil Bucks made the switch from plastic neutral pouches to completely recyclable pouches (launching in January 2021). Although Lil Bucks’ margins would have been higher by sticking to plastic packaging, incorporating sustainable practices throughout the supply chain is core to Lil Bucks’ mission, making it a clear decision.
Poised for Growth
Lil Bucks is currently raising a $600,000 seed round to support expansion in national retail channels. Emily is also participating in Chicago Booth Angels Network’s pitch event this month. Next year, expect two new flavors of Clusterbucks to hit shelves.
Right now, you can find Lil Bucks at Whole Foods Market in the Midwest, Foxtrot and Pete’s Fresh Market in Chicago, Erewhon Market in Los Angeles, and online through Amazon, Bubble Goods and Lil Bucks’ website.