When it’s said out loud, Jessica Young’s mission sounds pretty easy: to be part of a better food landscape. ‘But looking more closely at everyday food systems,’ she says, ‘you quickly realise there’s a ton of work to be done.’
In late 2018, she started Bubble, an online food marketplace with a few hundred clean-label snacks and pantry staples. Two years on, the platform hosts several thousand products made by more than 250 brands. Another 400 are on the waiting list to join. Bubble has been called many complimentary things, such as ‘the Farfetch of health food’, and been likened to Etsy and other online giants. ‘It’s awesome to be compared to such huge companies,’ she says.
Jessica, who is 32, has strict standards for products accepted to her site. Prospective vendors must ace the Bubble Approval Process, a rigorous set of rules constructed by top chefs, nutritionists and doctors from around the world. Products cannot contain refined or artificial sugars, preservatives, gums, artificial dyes, trans fats or hydrogenated oils. Only once these boxes have been ticked do considerations turn towards taste. Every item is tested by Jessica and her team of food obsessives – a slightly trickier but no less enjoyable task now they are all working remotely. ‘Slack channels have replaced the usual Friday afternoon sampling sessions we used to have in the office,’ she says.
Jessica already had lots of experience working in food and drink before launching Bubble. She studied at New York City’s International Culinary Center and worked in professional kitchens. Then she turned her focus to fast-moving consumer goods (products that are sold quickly and at a relatively low cost, like packaged foods, drinks and sweets) with a stint at snack brand Hu Kitchen.
Later, she joined organic frozen-meal delivery service Daily Harvest as its head of product and operations. During her time at this fast-growing company, and as a mentor on the Chobani Incubator programme, she saw plenty of food innovation but little expertise on the distribution, marketing or direct-to-consumer fronts. Many small businesses were investing a lot of time and money in pursuits that didn’t work for their concept. ‘Airbnb can aggregate the rental market, Chewy in the pet food space, Sephora with beauty, but when it came to health food I was like: why is nobody creating a platform for the brands, as well as for the consumers to meet those brands? It’s one of the fastest-growing, most interesting concepts; why, then, doesn’t something already exist?’
Jessica says she’s relieved Bubble took off before Covid-19 arrived, as business boomed when stay-at-home orders were given. Her team doubled down on customer care and vendor support rather than pursuing new projects, seeing sales shift from trendy items like vitamins and snacks to more non-perishable essentials such as pasta, beans, sauces and pantry staples. At the same time, Bubble also launched a small selection of clean pet food brands.
The company’s staff of six will soon become eight and Jessica is making her most senior hire: Daily Harvest alumnus Savraj Singh will join as chief technology officer. His number one priority is to shave down that hefty waiting list by onboarding brands and getting them up to speed much faster. ‘The site’s pretty bare bones – it’s what we launched with – so we have a new suite of features coming out, providing more tools for brands to understand insights and sales,’ explains Jessica.
Bubble’s in-house label currently features Hella, a popular vegan hazelnut spread with a fraction of Nutella’s sugar content. Plans to extend the line are well underway.
‘We don’t ever want just one big food brand dominating and creating a few products that everybody eats. The world would be a boring place,’ says Jessica. ‘Our goal is to offer full grocery and be this aggregator of an independent food system across the US that is built on quality.’