Working for someone else often comes with stability and security. Yet as a management consultant, Kate Flynn was slipping further away from her core desire: time with family and friends. She also found the work unfulfilling and often logged long hours.
In 2017 she drove a few hours south of her San Francisco office to Esalen Institute, a retreat center in Big Sur. Redwoods towered above her and the Pacific Ocean coastline’s soaring cliffs were a balm to her frenetic mind.
It’s also where Flynn heard, for the first time, what she needed for a happier, calmer life. At the end of a guided yoga and meditation class, the instructor asked participants to walk to the end of the bridge, gaze at the waterfall and exhale out everything that doesn’t serve you. For Flynn, it was the job. After that, she quit her job in San Francisco, moved to Santa Barbara and became an accidental entrepreneur, launching Sun & Swell Foods, a line of healthy and organic snacks.
“It’s really common to come out of an experience like that [retreat] and be amped but not pull the trigger,” Flynn says. “I never thought I would be a founder or an entrepreneur. I didn’t believe in myself. I liked the stability of a corporate job. I never thought I would leave the corporate world.”
Despite years of experience helping grocery stores and retailers with their consumer strategies, the Harvard Business School grad never considered running her own company. But in a recent quest to eat healthier, she’d noticed a deep hole in the marketplace.
“I was eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet and found it impossible to find snacks,” she says. “I was experimenting with making my own products at home and thought, Gee, these should go to market.”
What if she launched a company focused on healthy, organic snacks and pantry staples?
Sun & Swell Foods launched in 2017 with date and cashew bites. In 2020 the line expanded to include pantry staples, things like quinoa, rolled oats, brown rice, spices and seasonings, and coffee and tea. The majority of the products—such as dried peaches, figs and pears—come from family farms.
“Our goal is to allow you to stock your pantry with healthy foods,” Flynn says. They are distributed nationally at fitness studios, coffee shops and Whole Foods Market stores.
Two years ago, Flynn deepened the Sun & Swell Foods mission beyond healthy eating. What about also treating the planet with love? Adding single-use packaging to landfills didn’t jive with this. She rolled out compostable packaging as an industry first. It failed in the marketplace. The longer bags were on shelves, the more they wrinkled and the coloring faded, which made them unattractive to potential buyers.
“As consumers, we aren’t trained to look for that and know it’s eco-friendly,” she says. Now compostable packaging is sold only through Sun & Swell online orders because it takes less time to get to the consumer.
Customers can also purchase a return mailer for $10 that’s entirely compostable. Holding up to 40 bags and enclosed with a prepaid return label, these can be returned back to the company for proper composting.
In February, Sun & Swell launched its brand refresh, including a new website. Throughout the company’s growth, it’s been important for Flynn to build a brand with built-in authenticity. She points to Patagonia as one example of an eco-minded company: “They don’t sway from that and they stick with it.”
Using compostable tape and boxes to package up orders and opting for carbon-neutral shipping helps close the loop. Sun & Swell Foods is also a certified B-Corp business, which testifies to its minimal environmental impact.
Flynn’s husband, Bryan, handles sales and operations (following a career working with Silicon Valley startups and tech companies) while she sticks with what she knows best: branding and marketing.
“That’s where we naturally gravitate to,” Flynn says, about their thoughtful division of roles. “We also collaborate well together, but we’ve had to make it clear that at the end of the day it’s one of our decisions.”
Although more time with family and friends is now possible and weekends are for their two children, a toddler and a newborn, Flynn is still busy. “I honestly think I’m spending as much time on the business as my last job,” she says. “But I’m doing something that’s fulfilling.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos by Ali Beck and Sun & Swell Foods.