Hälsa Foods, the purveyor of oat-based milk products, is among the many small businesses across America that faced a reckoning this year as coronavirus-related shutdowns destroyed the manufacturing and distribution processes it had worked hard to secure. Although it was almost wiped out of existence by the onset of the pandemic, Hälsa seems to have turned a corner, said company co-founder and CEO, Mika Manninen.
Hälsa Foods, according to the CEO, had massive plans at the top of the year that included expanding into nearly 4,000 stores. After shutdowns hit several industries integral to its production and distribution chains, it "suffered greatly and lost, at one point, 90 percent of our business," Manninen said.
The business has since climbed back but getting on track again was no easy task. According to the CEO, the process was like watching "an infomercial from hell. Just when you thought you went over one hurdle — but wait! There's more."
"All the big retailers literally just put everything on hold and just started catering for the very large companies," he said.
When stay-at-home orders began, "our distributors would not pick up our product and deliver," he added.
Manninen found that the survival of the business depended on in-person, hands-on work. "Unfortunately I'm afraid that Zooming from home is not going to do it."
During the year, Hälsa lost its product co-packer to larger businesses and had to locate and train a new company in three months' time, a process that typically takes up to 10 months for these types of products, the CEO explained.
As the head of the company, Manninen said it was his responsibility to carry out training in-person, even with COVID-19 travel restrictions in place, to protect workers from contracting the virus.
"I actually ended up this year, 227 nights in a hotel. I have traveled extensively the past 20 years, but I've never had a year like this," he said.
The company has since moved forward with some of its expansion plans, with products now available in Maine and Massachusetts. While the company's current bread-and-butter lies in its Oatgurt brand, Manninen said it has the capacity to create new products and will be rolling out more, which of greater importance as larger industry leaders roll out competing products.
"I think that's what's going to separate, for example, someone like us: we are organic, not one single added ingredient," he proclaimed. "We are the oat-based 2.0."