Planted Foods founder Ashley Kirk finds healing through plant-based lifestyle and startup.
When you think of the Bay Area, for many, Silicon Valley automatically comes to mind—the birthplace of startup culture. Sightings of millennials and techies alike buzzing around on motorized bikes to and from Palo Alto. But the Bay Area is also home to a growing entrepreneur community that spans diverse industries from art, health and wellness to food.
From Corporate Success to Entrepreneurship in the Vegan World
Ashley Kirk, an Oakland native, was at the height of her professional career working with Fortune 500 companies and C-level executives in 2012. “It was something I felt I was really good at. I connected well with working with companies and understanding the various types of businesses and industries. I found myself moving up really quickly in my career. By the time I was 26, I had gotten a huge promotion, I purchased real estate and was doing all these really amazing things,” says Kirk. Her early success is something many of Kirk’s peers have on their 15-year plan. To say Kirk is ambitious is an understatement. The 30-year-old supported herself while pursuing her undergraduate studies at San Jose State University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration.
From the outside looking in, Kirk was successful and at the height of her career. The only problem was that all of these accomplishments and milestones came at a steep price—her health.
Kirk states she “felt stuck” and “stressed out” over the pressures from her new role. Working a high-powered corporate job in close proximity with Fortune 500 companies and top executives was “a lot different than working with smaller [companies] or mom-and-pop run [businesses]. “I wasn’t quite ready for that at 26, even though I thought that I was. It just became really demanding,” admits Kirk.
“I’d gained weight, had chronic headaches, anxiety and felt unhappy,” says Kirk. She regularly worked 10-hour days with no clear guidance from her superiors and often was the only woman and African American person in the room. All of that made it difficult to strike a healthy work-life balance. Navigating such high-stress spaces left Kirk exhausted mentally and physically. Health challenges eventually grounded plans to continue in her field as a sought-after operations business consultant. She began to realize her work environment was no longer in alignment with her goals to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Time for a Change
Kirk began to change her life by first transitioning to a pescatarian lifestyle, followed by experimenting with vegetarianism before eventually becoming a vegan. Each change was facilitated by Kirk’s thorough research and consistently seeing results from consuming whole foods that left her with more energy and better equipped mentally to deal with her busy schedule. She began making all of her meals from scratch, sharing her newfound love of cooking and healthy eating with family and friends. After tasting a meal, an aunt encouraged Kirk to sell her food which sparked the idea and soon Planted Food was born in 2018.
Kirk officially launched the Planted Foods’ website this past May and has not looked back since. In the recent past, Kirk won a Steve Harvey Pitch Competition prize and admits this added tremendous validity to Planted Foods’ mission in changing the vegan food landscape.
To date, she makes two products: Planted Foods Chickpea Tuna Original and Vegan Nacho Sauce. The Chickpea Tuna Original, made with chickpeas and a blend of gourmet spices, is a healthy alternative for those who want a dairy-free option to this popular lunch item. The Vegan Nacho Sauce is made with a blend of raw cashew nuts, onion, potatoes, garlic powder, Himalayan sea salt and spices. Kirk’s products elevate meals with healthy, all-natural ingredients and easy meal prepping.
Navigating the Vegan Startup World
Managing every aspect of her business, including product production in a leased commercial kitchen, Kirk says she is happy participating in pop-up events and selling online as she grows the company, ruling out a brick and mortar location or quick expansion for now. “It takes time to get customers and it takes a lot of time and money. The best strategy to be able to grow my company is to focus on the local customers that I currently have, focusing on building the awareness there before I try to get customers in other parts of the United States. You end up spending a lot of money on nothing. You don’t get the return on investment on those things,” says Kirk.
In terms of her team, the solopreneur hires contractors on an as-needed basis to keep costs down, a way to manage sustainable growth as she continues to learn. “The reason why I want to do everything myself is because I need to understand every part of my company inside and out. When it gets to the point where I am hiring someone, I know what they’re supposed to be doing and I know whether they’re doing what needs to be done,” Kirk shares.
Thus far, her business acumen and strategic planning are paying off as she counts former NBA player John Salley among her growing clientele.
To keep the momentum going, Kirk is on a mission to make healthy food more accessible in her community, which includes having a larger presence at pop-ups throughout the Bay Area. “I want to change people’s lives,” says Kirk. Future plans include working with local school districts to provide healthy food options for kids. This plan also extends to companies, especially tech, looking to provide “go-to” healthy meals for busy professionals. Long term, she wants Planted Foods to bring job opportunities to communities where gainful employment is hard to come by.
Kirk is very strategic in making sure Planted Foods’ legacy is tied to genuine brand awareness. Poised to take on whatever opportunities come her way, she says, “I want to build a brand that’s honest and can be trusted by consumers—a fair company.”