Even the Biggest Banana Bread Fanatics are Obsessed With This Gluten-Free, Miniature Loaf Line
By: Jamie Schneider
Before GoNanas, Annie Slabotsky wanted to major in computer science. Her co-founder, Morgan Lerner, had a similar change of heart when she realized her love for food and entrepreneurial creativity overpowered her desire to graduate pre-med. The two co-founders/best friends/roommates (how’s that for a work-life balance?) laugh about it now, as we sit in the cozy space of Argus Farm Stop— one of the seventeen Ann Arbor retailers where their famous Crackly Banana Bread taunts me from beside the register.
GoNanas, a gluten-free and vegan banana bread line, is the midpoint between a nutritious, on-the-go snack and a cheeky treat. There’s no need to sacrifice a healthy lifestyle for a warm, gooey dessert that’s just downright delicious. Whether you’re Celiac, vegan, or just looking for a sweet treat that’ll impress your friends (the chocolate chip makes a great french toast for a frigid Sunday morning), check out Lerner and Slabotsky’s tips below for how you can incorporate wellness into a busy, college routine, as well as the best ways to turn a passion project into a growing business.
JS: What was your biggest inspiration for starting GoNanas?
AS: Morgan and I were both in Spoon [a food-centered publication at the University of Michigan] together, and we always used to walk to the meetings because we were neighbors in Couzens, and we both had this passion for baking and food. One day I invited her to come home with me to bake, because I live in Bloomfield Hills,which is a short drive away. And in the car we were just talking about how we both had this familial love for banana bread, and my cousin actually mentioned how it would be a good idea to start a company. And Morgan was like, "Oh my god, we should! Let's make a healthy banana bread!"
ML: She always goes home and bakes and give us bags of what she baked for different holidays, and banana bread was the thing that was always in there. It was classic banana bread. And my Mimi had a recipe too, so we both had this familial traditional recipe, but then we were also super passionate about health. Then when we baked at her place, kind of messed around and came up with this recipe using Pinterest and other things. We totally messed it up, but then tasted the inside, and it was really good [Laughs].
JS: How did you mess it up?
ML: Totally burned it. Charred. I didn't know the oven was on 500 degrees or something, I couldn't tell. It was totally burnt. But the inside was fine! And then we had a 45 minute drive back [to campus], so we were just brainstorming and came up with a name. Bananas and Bliss was it. And Michigan has so many resources to actually start a business, so it was easy to start one. There's tons of clubs and people who have done it, too.
JS: Did you ever think you would be working in the startup space when you entered college?
ML: I was pre-med. That's really why I went to Michigan. And then because of Spoon, three months in, I was like, "I cannot do this." [Laughs]. I like people, and I had a role in growing that organization, which I really liked. So no, definitely not. Even starting the business was so random, it just happened. It wasn't like any of us were set on it. We literally went home to back, and three hours later...
AS: And I wanted to be a Computer Science major and code for Google. And I hated it. [Laughs].
JS: What have been some of the hurdles you have faced?
AS: I think the biggest one for us is hiring people. Because we're such a small business, it's a startup, and it's one day a week. And we're 21-year-old girls. Finding people that are hardworking and passionate about the process is pretty difficult when we're so limited for what we can offer them in terms of work. It's a really long shift one day a week. And then also, there's no one to tell you what to do. It's not like an assignment, where there's a right answer, and this is how you need to go about it. So we kind of have to ask a bunch of people questions, try and figure out what the next steps are, and kind of trust our guts. It's been a process.
ML: I would say the hardest things, beyond hiring and the HR processes, is that managing the people is much harder. Now that we've stepped away from the production process and we're not there, [it's harder to] ensure quality control, and manage these people, and have a set of standards, and hold people accountable to that, and have a positive work environment. All of these things are way harder than we thought, and it's a consistent work in progress. In general, because we're running this, we have to take on a lot of responsibility when things fall through the cracks. It's just unexpected, so you never know when you'll be needed. It's not like school, where you can take a few hours and get everything done. It's a consistent, up-and-down journey where you wear all the hats.
JS: What does wholesome mean to you?
AS: For me, it's getting a good night's sleep every night. Meditating. Working out. Eating not only things that are good for you, but also indulging in your cravings. If you need a chocolate chip cookie, have one. Don't restrict yourself. It's all about balance and really taking some time to listen to your body and honoring what it's asking you to do, in any capacity.
ML: I think there are a lot of old ways of viewing wellness that are very black and white. Like, eat nutritiously and do this, and you'll feel this way. But that doesn't work for me. I've tried to take the more intuitive approach, which is a work in progress because it's literally just listening to yourself, which can be hard to do. I try to avoid the rules and just do what I need. A lot of times it is eating healthy and going to bed early, but if that also means eating sweets and going out, that's going to make me happy. Doing the opposite will just make it worse, because that's the restrictive part of living. You should eat nutritiously and fuel yourself well, but you want it to taste good or else it's like, why would you eat it? There are a lot of healthy products out there that taste like cardboard, so we're trying to fix that.
JS: What has been your favorite response you've gotten from a customer?
AS: The day after Thanksgiving break, I get this unknown number calling me. I assume it's spam, but I pick it up, and it's this older woman. Her niece or nephew brought home some banana bread for her, and she was gluten-free, and all she had to say was praise. She was like, "I'm gluten-free, and every dessert I've ever tried sucks. Your product is so amazing, when can I get it, how can I order it?" It's so much hard work and there's some stress. We're passionate about it, so we love it, but it's hard. So getting these calls is just so rewarding.
ML: When you get that type of response, we're like, "Wow, we're onto something." Because we can think it's amazing, but until you see it in other people and just generally how it makes people happy really validates what we're doing. That was my favorite guy.
JS: Thinking forward, what's your goal for GoNanas for the next couple of years?
ML: Our goal by August is to get 1,000 orders of bread per week, and we're hopeful to get 100 stores. This summer we're going to work full-time for a few months and see where we can take it.
ML: We had a pop-up bar at Wilma’s, which was super successful. We're going to have another one on March 16th, as of right now. We're also going to be a special on the Wima’s menu the weekend of February 15th (runs February 15 - February 17). It's a french toast, and if it does well it'll be on the menu regularly. But for a day-to-day treat, just heat that thing up and it tastes fresh out of the oven.
JS: What are you most excited for coming up in the near future?
AS: I'd say the special on the Wilma's menu for [the] Valentine's Day [weekend].
ML: I just love events, and I love bringing our product to life. The pop-up, for me personally, was the best day of this business so far. It was just exciting, especially because we sell to retailers, and we don't get to see a lot of the interactions when customers buy our product. Even doing demos is fun, because you get to see that, but to bring it to life and to see people in line that I had no idea who they were-- my friends came, but that was a small portion of who came.
AS: The line was out the door.
ML: It was kind of like, "Woah, this is real." And I love events, so that's my favorite thing. I'm also super excited about getting new stores and growing, because every time we get a store it's really exciting. It's happening faster these days, which I think is fun.
JS: What advice would you give to students who are trying to start their own business in college?
AS: Try. Stop planning so much, stop saying what could go wrong. Start small, and go for it, and ask a lot of questions. Don't be afraid to ask questions. People are so much nicer than you think, people are so much more willing to help than you think they would be. And it's literally the best time to fail right now. If it succeeds, great. And if it doesn't, you're just a college kid and you have the rest of your life.
ML: You really have nothing to lose. That's why my parents were just like, "Just go for it. You have nothing to lose." You also don't need a perfect idea, or you don't need to wait for some big thing to hit you. It could be something that the market needs. I think it's better when you have the passion and interest in it, but it can also just be something that you think the market needs, and you believe in that. It's so easy to start something at this university that if you have an idea or an inkling to do it, then do it.
AS: I would also say to always have someone you're doing it with. I remember not just the day that we baked this bread, but also when we committed and were like, "Okay, we're going to do this." Morgan is half the reason that this is the best experience. Not only am I doing something passionate that I love and believe in, but I'm doing it with my best friend. What could be better?