Sugarland, TX—For four out of the past five years, natural products retailers awarded Bluebonnet Nutrition the top honor in the WholeFoods Natural Choice Awards: Best Full Supplement Line. And in the one year that Bluebonnet didn’t win? The company claimed the runner-up spot. What makes the brand, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, so successful? A focus on family, the independent retailer, and quality products.
Owned and operated by three generations of the Barrows family, Bluebonnet Nutrition was formed in 1991. The seed for Bluebonnet was planted by Gary Barrows, then a sales rep for supplement brands and now President of Bluebonnet. Gary’s mother, Joyce Barrows, inspired her son to act on his vision, and as the company grew, more family members came on board full time.
“As a family-owned business, we share many of the same values and qualities as our natural food retailers,” says Gary. “We have always had a strong commitment from all family members, the business is very complex and requires a variety of skill sets. Our family has also made a strong commitment to provide a healthy work environment for all employees to thrive and grow. Many of our employees have been here for several decades.”
From the start, the brand focused on natural product retailers, with a loyalty to smaller independents. “Like most independent natural food retailers, we are family-owned, so retailers relate to us,” says Bob Barrows, Jr., Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “Most of our competitors have been purchased by large CPG companies or private equity firms. We value our relationship/partnership with natural food retailers and see our success as mutually intertwined. We cater to the specific needs of the natural food retailer by providing wholesome solutions that work for their health-conscious consumers.”
Bluebonnet also prioritizes building retailer and consumer confidence and trust through full transparency, including certifications. “Instead of saying ‘quality and natural,’ which are often overused terms, we demonstrate ‘quality and natural’ through certifications,” says Gary. “We were one of the first brands to certify our products for kosher, non-GMO, USDA Organic, etc…leading the industry on this front for others to follow. Certifications = Transparency = Increased Consumer Confidence/Trust.”
Bluebonnet’s milestone anniversary comes as the world is still dealing with COVID-19. The company is dedicated to supporting employees, retailers, and consumers, and has been proactive in a number of ways, including providing the sales team guidance on how to best service their accounts from home, so stores would continue receive high-quality service, even when that service is handled remotely. Additional efforts included implementing a new order status and tracking system so retailers can track orders and better manage and plan store inventories.
Bluebonnet Nutrition’s 30-year history was especially beneficial as supply chain challenges set in. “We did everything we could to leverage our long-term, deep-seeded relationships with growers and suppliers to secure our supply chain and increase our batch sizes, especially on our immune-boosting products that are flying off our retailers’ shelves, so that we could meet consumer demand,” says Gary. “We have continued to keep over 90% of our line (of over 630 products) in-stock during these trying times even though the industry is experiencing very challenging supply chain disruptions.”
Staying focused on implementing retailer education/training programs has been another key, says Bob, pointing to efforts such as the NutriLearn retailer training program with Carl Germano, CNS, CDN; efforts to build consumer awareness of the brand and traffic into stores by advertising in consumer publications; and an ongoing social media push on FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as a presence on YouTube, which houses the brand’s product videos. And in the works: “We will be going live soon with our new interactive website delivering a fast and easy-to-navigate brand experience for both retailers and consumers filled with informative content and engaging product videos.”
The company is also staying on the cutting edge by adding new QR/ELI codes to product labels and store shelf tags so consumers and retailers can access the Bluebonnet website to get product information quickly and easily from anywhere in the world, at any time, and on any device.
Walking Down Memory Lane
The industry has changed quite a bit in the past 30 years. What changes do Gary and Bob See as the most positive?
- The passage of DSHEA in 1994.
- The passage of the cGMPs in 2007.
- Leaps in botanical/nutraceutical research.
- Increased consumer demand for transparency and clean labeling.
- Higher consumer awareness and trust in supplements.
“We have been blessed to meet so many great people over the years in our industry,” Gary and Bon share. “Meeting some of the early pioneers like herbalist Hanna Kroeger, Jim Beck, and Tom Murdock stand out. Also, walking into the oldest health food store in America: Larrabee Herbs in Elmwood Park, Illinois. The store was established in 1872.”
Gary, Bob and the whole Bluebonnet team have learned a lot over the decades. A bit of inspirational advice to help inspire other family-owned and small businesses: “Follow your dreams, never give up or be afraid to take a calculated risk. Accept failures, learn from them and utilize this knowledge to make successful decisions in the future. Learn from each other and use each other’s strengths to build a well-rounded organization.”
There’s more to come for Bluebonnet Nutrition. A look at a few of the highlights:
- Manufacturing capacity will increase in 2021, as the company breaks ground on an additional 150,000 sq-ft hi-tech manufacturing expansion.
- R&D has new products slated to launch over the next several years, growing the offering of innovation formulations that already includes ONE whole food-based multiples;
Intimate Essentials line of sexual health and fertility supplements for men and women; Beautiful Ally line of age-defying beauty supplements; and Targeted Choice whole food-based structure-function formulas.
- Bluebonnet, which has been expanding into international markets over the past 15 years, will continue to expand over the next five years.
Fresh for 2021, the company also has unveiled a new tagline: Bluebonnet & You, Best Together. “We have shared a mission with our valued natural food retailers in helping health-conscious consumers fill nutritional gaps in their daily diet and stay healthy so they can lead their best and most vibrant lives,” says Gary. “We know this can only happen if we work together, so in the next 30 years, we are confident the best days are still yet to come.”