Lockdown Economy Netherlands in a Confectionery Company with Floor van de Steen

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Deepti Sharma

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview, we meet Floor van de Steen, co-founder of Max’s Organic Mints, a mint producing business based in Haarlem. Floor discussed her motivations for starting Max’s Organic Mints with her father and how the company has grown since it was founded in 2016. Floor wanted to create a product that was sustainable to produce and consume, using 100% natural ingredients, designing recyclable tin packaging and using sheltered workshops as part of the production line. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Floor suffered the challenge of the retailers who stocked Max’s Mints closing down. To overcome this issue, she diversified the places where her product could be sold to include health food stores and supermarkets which were able to stay open throughout the lockdown period. Floor has also worked on diversifying her product range to offer more choice to consumers, developing a tin that can be placed on an office desk or countertop to meet the needs of consumers who are staying home more frequently during the pandemic. By continuing to emphasise the importance of shopping sustainably through their marketing strategy, Max’s Organic Mints is hopeful that the opening of more retailers at the end of the pandemic will boost their sales enable them to keep producing their ‘mints on a mission’!

Watch the video version of the interview.

Tell us a bit about Max’s Mints. When did you start it and how you’re doing as a company at the moment?

Floor: I founded Max’s organic mints with my father Peter back in 2017 because we basically wanted to give consumers a nudge towards more sustainable consumption; like helping them green up with something as small as a Mint. While developing Max’s organic Mints we tried to make a product that’s as sustainable as possible but at the same time is tasty and attractive enough to captivate those who don’t normally do sustainable groceries. That’s the reason we put our mints in tin cans which in my opinion looks quite attractive (shows the tin packaging). We’ve them in six flavours, so there’s something for everyone and every type of pallet. And then we make them as sustainable as possible- they’re organic; 100 % natural and gelatin-free (not a standard in mint). They’re being packaged by a sheltered employment type of situation. We try to make it a better product in each part of the production process and then sell it of course to make a difference.

That’s a great initiative and surely something different. Why did you choose mint while you were thinking of starting a sustainable company?

Floor: Well, I have a background in the organic food sector. I used to work at a sustainable retail chain in the Netherlands and then I started one together with my father Peter who has a background in confectionary, particularly gum. So, with his confectionary viewpoint and my sustainable food viewpoint, we went to the supermarkets together and took a look at the confectionary shelf. We wanted to see where the innovation is already happening with people trying to make better products and where we think there’s room for improvement. That led us to making Max’s Mint because we saw that at least in the Netherlands the mint-making brands have been around for the past 100 to 30 years; absolutely nothing wrong with them but we thought we could do better.

Please elaborate on the structure of Max’s Mint specifically: how many employees do you have and where’s your production line?

Floor: We’re still very small. Peter & I started the company together. He’s responsible for finance, the strategy we do together, I’m responsible for marketing & sales and we’ve Dominique who looks after operations & distribution to the customers. Besides, we always have one or two interns helping out with internationalisation or marketing or whatever needs momentary attention.

At Max’s Mint, we’ve several production partners. One is for the tin cans in China, they produce it there and ship it by boat to the Netherlands. About the mints, flavours are ours but we have them produced by a second party based here in the Netherlands. Also in the Netherlands, we’ve sheltered employment. Basically, we just manage relations with different units then bring it all together to have it assembled and ultimately land here in our warehouse.

At the start of the pandemic, almost a year ago when everything started to shut down, what were the effects on your production line; on your employees and how did Max’s Mints overcome these challenges?

Floor: What happened is that we had just hired Dominique, I think two weeks before Covid started. We were at a trade fair in Germany and had just received a message from our tin producer informing us about the virus and expressing doubt over the possibility of being able to make any more cans in the near future. All this is while we were in talks with big customers and it got us thinking about how we were going to solve that fix. We were thinking that we might have very big customers but no product to deliver. It was unseen, we just didn’t see this problem coming. It took a couple of weeks to realise that production wasn’t going to be a problem but the customers were.

Talking about how we overcame it, I think if you look at our products and customers then you’ll see that we don’t sell to the end consumer. Rather we sell to retailers; here in the Netherlands specifically to the organic retailers like Eco-plaza, marked, etc. And we were trying to make a shift towards the more on-the-go type of locations such as train stations, gas stations, etc because I believe the biggest impact can be made there. But these were the obvious locations to be closed down. So we had to shift our plans. Last year it was important for us to reconsider which types of channels would then be suitable to try and offer our mints to. That led us to start with the health food stores, Barrett is one of them. Then we tried to see if we could find other organic retailers out of the Netherlands. The supermarkets were still open so we started with a big supermarket in Germany by the end of last year. Also, we had to put some of our plans on hold, but luckily other plans did go through. We’ve high hopes for this year that the on-the-go sector might still be an option for us.

Fingers crossed! It’s interesting to see how you took in the situation and were flexible enough to change to other open channels for selling your mints. It makes for valuable advice for somebody presently selling similar products. Max’s Mints being sustainable might be a slightly luxury product and pandemic took away jobs, led to less disposable income. Did you change your marketing strategy to help people understand the importance of buying sustainably even in these times?

Floor: First of all I’ve also been on pregnancy leave during the last year or so. And marketing is my thing so it has been on sort of a backfoot. I think we can see consumption headed in two directions: indeed, on one hand, a lot of people have less disposable income but on the other hand, I also think that people are more and more aware of what they’re eating i.e., it’s important how it has been made because the whole pandemic arose basically out of food. I’ve heard many people saying that they’re becoming more & more aware of their footprint on the earth and how we’re responsible for the things happening around us. We always try to explain how Max’s Mints makes a difference. Using us means lesser piling up of single-use plastics in our seas. But it’s also a difficult story to tell because we’ve such a little product with very little space to tell the story. Buying mints is very impulse-driven, one buys them if spotted at a cashier or someplace else. It’s different from buying a dress or something which you lookup online or you check out characteristics for. So, that’s a challenge for us to get across why Max’s Mints is a better product.

It’s a challenge for the future. Tell us a bit about how your business is doing currently when we’re hopefully getting to the end of the second or third lockdown.

Floor: Quite good! Last year we lost some customers, particularly the ones in cafes, for e.g. Starbucks in Poland closed down and their focus will kind of shift once they reopen. But like I just told you we went into speciality retail like health food stores. Also last year we worked to expand our assortment to have a product in store for every type of situation. Now we’ve mints to put in your bag- a tin can that just fits your bag, one that fits the pocket and a bigger one to put on your desk. And now that the pandemic is slowly — I don’t want to be overly positive — retreating, we’ll be working again with the customers who want to make a fresh start with a sustainable assortment.

Thanks for sharing insights with us on how you diversified your strategy and your product as well, also for speaking about marketing as an important tool to spread the story of sustainability through your product. With a small business, there are always things that you might need help with. What’d they been for Max’s Mints in the current climate?

Floor: As a small company we need to have help with anything and everything but at the same time we’re very self-sufficient because we’re small and flexible. It’s easy to make changes. But what’s most difficult for us is to enter a market with a new product because all the retailers are looking at each other to see who’ll be the first or who dares to make a new step. Our product is usually placed at cashiers but space is limited there and the rotations are very high. With an unknown product, it’s very uncertain in terms of the rotations and the sales retailer will have. It’d help to have daring retailers, who want to make a change and are willing to take the first step. Personally, I need help with trying to explain why this is important and get across the message of working together- Why not be the change to help customers clean up? So basically I need help with the actual sales; I’m not a salesperson, I’m a co-founder who is passionate about her product and that might or might not be enough. We’ll see about that.

One of the things that we’re doing here at Lockdown Economy is to help small businesses network and find the help that they need. Floor will be very grateful for any tips from a sales expert. I find myself very keen to try the ginger mints. Where can we buy them at the moment?

Floor: Here in the Netherlands you can get them at Eco Plaza or Holland & Barrett or several small cafes spread across the country.

Floor some final words from you.

Floor: I hope people would like to green up with our mints.

About the Guest

From a background in sustainable foods, Floor developed Max’s Organic Mints in 2016 by combining her knowledge with her father’s background in confectionery. Max’s Mints are mints on a mission. They are made out of organic, vegan and 100% natural ingredients. The infinitely recyclable cans are being packaged by a social workplace. In this way they aim to make the customer happy with a mint that is not just fun and full of flavour, but also produced in a future-proof way.

Max’s Mints are available in 6 flavours: Menthol, Spearmint, Lemon, Ginger, Liquorice & Coffee.

https://www.maxsmints.com/

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.