Since then, CEO Mike Adair and his Red’s team have been diligently searching for ways to up the ante on their already popular selection of burritos and breakfast sandwiches — by procuring the best talent, technology, equipment and ingredients available on the market.
From the beginning Mike has been committed to using only the highest-quality, all-natural ingredients available, including organic, non-genetically modified organism (GMO) produce and cage-, hormone- and antibiotic-free protein sources.
We sat down with Mike at Red’s headquarters in Franklin, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, where he discussed his company’s founding, its mission, vision, values, and how KBS’ The McEwen Building is the optimal location for his company.
Can you give us a little background on how Red’s came to be, and what was your inspiration for getting into the food business?
I had a former career in finance. Out of college, I worked for a money management firm but wanted to build a business of my own. I liked what I was doing although it didn’t offer the control I desired.
If the company made good decisions, it made my life really easy. If it made bad decisions, it made my life miserable. So, I fell in love with the idea of building a business and controlling my own destiny.
I gravitated toward consumer product goods. If we could produce a product that could positively impact people’s lives just a bit — that would be amazing. And, if we could put smiles on customers’ faces and make their lives a little bit easier, our team could sleep a little better at night knowing we were doing something good.
That was my original thesis.
As I was still mulling it all over one day, I took a walk and wandered into an animal shelter to find an amazing reddish mutt. We bonded the moment we met, so I adopted that dog immediately and named him Red.
Sometime later, I returned to business school and began conceptual work on my first entrepreneurial project.
My wife happened to make these incredible tacos and burritos, which became my inspiration. Her cooking evolved into what would become our first burrito recipe — and the company’s first product.
When it came to naming the endeavor, Red’s seemed like a fun way to go.
I never thought this project was going to become a real company. It was my first introduction to entrepreneurship, and we were playing with a lot of ideas at the time. But people loved the product. And they kept asking for more and more. I began to fall in love with the idea that there could be a great market for it. Frozen foods were at the beginning of a renaissance at this point.
For years, there was this negative perception about frozen food. There was still a hangover from the frozen TV dinner phenomenon that started in the 1950s.
When we began to develop the concept, a lot of people were realizing the freezer aisle was the closest thing you could possibly get to a fresh, homemade meal. Most frozen foods can go without preservatives, and produce can be processed directly from the fields with very little waste. If prepared with new technologies, such as air fryers and toaster ovens, the experience could be incredible.
What from your previous corporate experience did you want to do differently when you started Red’s?
We’ve never spent much on sales and marketing. We wanted to focus on operations and the quality of the product. I knew if we spent the vast majority of our time, energy and resources on the product, then we would win. Develop a product that people love and they’ll want more.
How much R&D did you do before deciding you had products people would enjoy?
I’ve learned that R&D is never-ending. There’s always an opportunity to make the product better through various aspects of the supply chain, ingredient and flavor profiles or an improved manufacturing process. For the first six or seven years, we didn’t do the manufacturing ourselves, and I really wanted control of every aspect.
We initially had to do R&D within the guardrails of existing manufacturers. We’ve done some very successful R&D over the years, but we’ve also failed at some things.
One of those “failures” was a really big burrito that ended up being a great product, but there really wasn’t a market for it. So, we downsized the product, both in volume and price point. Right now, we’re putting the final touches on a buffalo chicken burrito that has been through about 50 iterations.
Whether it’s developing a new product or improving on our existing portfolio, R&D is in our DNA. We’re always asking, “How can we do it better?” Once we have an item that sells well, we’re going to keep trying to improve it.
The same goes for suppliers. Even through all the recent supply chain shortages, we never compromised on quality. We’re always looking to upgrade to the best possible resources available.
There are new technologies being developed all the time. In fact, I’m on a continuous quest to find the perfect kettle to slow cook beans, but even if I think I found it, someone else might be improving it as we speak.
Red’s is a family business. How important is that to you — and to your employees?
We don’t really call it a family business per se. My wife is a nurse and my number one supporter. I do want everyone who works for Red’s to feel like it’s a family. It is, after all, a small, entrepreneurial business where there’s camaraderie, we can be nimble and we can create a familial culture. At Red’s, I’m cultivating an environment that gives people freedom and the autonomy to be successful. All ideas are welcome.
My plan isn’t to hand down this business to my kids necessarily. I want them to find out what they want to do, make their own mistakes, and find their passion. Red’s is my passion, but I feel I would be robbing them if I steered them toward joining the company.
Your tagline is “delicious, convenient, clean label,” and your website defines clean-label as fewer, better ingredients for food that’s better tasting and better for you. How do you stay true to that commitment?
When we were smaller, it was a lot easier, but as we’ve grown, we’re realizing that we need to be on the forefront of developing our supply chain because — if you think about the scale of frozen food or food for the most part — it’s not yet scaled with “clean-label, non-processed, natural, organic, non-GMO” options. The supply chain is set up to deliver product for processed foods, so we’re constantly working with suppliers to develop these options.
We’ve committed to partnering with suppliers on a massive scale that will have more farmers raising animal protein that’s cage-, antibiotic- and hormone- free. Much of this is still in its infancy. But we’re big enough now where we’re helping to drive that supply chain because we have the market for it. And it needs to be good enough and big enough for us to continue to scale. From our perspective, the consumer wants our product, but the supply chain isn’t developed enough to deliver fully yet. To us, that’s unfair, and the world needs to catch up. We’re doing our part to push that change.
We use organic whenever possible, but there are certain areas of the organic supply chain that are underdeveloped, but others are very mature. Non-GMO is another challenge. Currently 90% of corn is GMO, so we have a finite amount of corn we can buy. I want anyone — not just food scientists — to be able to read one of our labels and understand what’s in it. I want it to be as short and clean as possible, so that if I can understand it, then most other people will be able to understand it, too.
Your headquarters are in The McEwen Building in Franklin, Tennessee — a KBS building. How does the location and its amenities support your company’s mission, vision and values?
We wanted an approachable, warm, inviting environment. I believe our office reflects that; it looks and feels like our culture.
One of the great aspects of The McEwen Building is that it’s located in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tennessee. It’s a growing location with terrific amenities. It’s super convenient and so clean. We can walk to so many different places, like restaurants, coffee houses, gyms — it has all the factors a business like ours is looking for.
There are showers in the building downstairs, so if you use one of the nearby gyms, you can come back and shower, which is such a convenience.
There’s also a restaurant in the building. Our people can go get a slice of pizza or beer, which we do very regularly. It’s great for team building, to hang out a bit, and talk in a different environment. They’ve got a great food and beer selection. As a beer snob, that’s important to me. The rest of the tenants seem great. Everyone seems nice, so it’s checked off all the right boxes.
We also use the courtyard, where we have coffee, catch up, and even have meetings. For instance, today is an absolutely gorgeous day, which means we’ll be spending a lot of time outside. After 13 years, we’re finally growing up, and our office is a reflection of that.
Does having a UL-Certified Healthy Building with outdoor areas, amenities and everything else help you attract and retain team members at the talent level and values you share?
One hundred percent. We’re in the natural organic food business, so the more our office can align with those values, the more it helps from a culture and team-building perspective. We always want to emulate what our products and company are about. We will keep this focus as we continue to grow. This building has been a great fit for us.
Do you have testing facilities in the office?
We have a kitchen with several air fryers and microwaves, so we do a lot of testing here. Our main testing kitchen is located in North Sioux City, South Dakota, which is literally on the border of Iowa and Nebraska, where they all touch. That’s where our head chef and food scientists are located with other operations people. Key personnel go there every four to six weeks, but when we’re not there, they send all the innovation here for us to test.
How do you see the company growing in the next several years?
We’re very ambitious. We’re expanding our South Dakota plant extensively and spending a tremendous amount of time, energy and money on equipment to improve our processes and products.
We fully anticipate expanding here, and KBS has been very open about working with us and sharing the availability of space. From a revenue standpoint, we expect to triple our footprint in three years or so. Moving forward, Red’s is one hundred percent committed to seek out properties — like The McEwen Building — that share our commitment to clean-label standards.
Lastly, is the company’s namesake, Red, still with us?
While he’s been gone four years now, Red remains in our hearts. He and I had a special bond. Red left us all with great memories, and we miss him. He was literally an underdog when we met, and the joy he gifted me still inspires.
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