Founder and CEO, Red’s All Natural
When I think about my peers, my professors, and the business leaders who visited our classes, I realize that these people were my education.
By Ashley Rabinovitch
No one ever expected Mike Adair T’09 to make a living selling burritos.
After completing a history degree at Boston College, he spent the next six years navigating the world of asset management sales. His aptitude for sales and unflagging work ethic led to five promotions in five years, but he never truly enjoyed the work itself. When his bosses made wise financial decisions, they made his life easier. When they made poor decisions, he had little recourse.
Looking back, he can see how a hunger for greater ownership over his work planted a seed of entrepreneurship in him.
I woke up one day and realized I wanted to start a business, he remembers.
I didn’t know the specifics, but I wanted to create a consumer product that would improve millions of lives, even just a little bit.
Adair was ready to dive into an entrepreneurial life without looking back, but a winning business idea remained elusive. He enrolled at Tuck with a plan to test ideas within a supportive community before launching a business after graduation.
In Hanover, his plan came to fruition. While he took advantage of the opportunity to build essential skills in areas like operations, marketing, and accounting, he found the greatest value in his entrepreneurship classes. A small group of students with entrepreneurial aspirations became his family within a family.
When I think about my peers, my professors, and the business leaders who visited our classes, I realize that these people were my education, says Adair. Over dinners, panels, and Q&As, he absorbed wisdom and advice like a sponge.
He finally landed on a business idea that fueled his imagination while eating dinner with his wife, Paige. An accomplished cook, Paige made unforgettable burritos. Eventually, Adair realized these burritos were too good not to share with the world. He conceived of a natural, healthy product that could be flash frozen and sold in grocery stores across America.
Initial market research did little to validate his idea. It was 2009, and the clean label, natural organic space was still in its infancy. From an outside perspective, launching a burrito brand seemed like a recipe for disaster. But Adair spotted an opportunity that eluded his skeptics. At the time, the heaviest hitter in the natural frozen food space only offered one small vegetarian burrito. Adair envisioned a heartier, meat-packed burrito that would appeal to omnivores like him, and by flash freezing this product, he could avoid additives and preservatives.
What many people don’t realize is that frozen food is the most efficient way to get the cleanest product possible, he says.
You have zero issues with shelf life or waste.
After he graduated, Red’s All Natural—named after Adair’s beloved dog, Red—hit the market with an 11-ounce burrito packed with chicken, steak, or turkey. The first year in business, he spent his time making deliveries to mom-and-pop grocery stores, running demos, and experimenting with pricing, promotions, and packaging.
The early years were full of hiccups. While Adair would eventually make a successful foray into breakfast sandwiches, he failed to make breakfast bowls or entrees take off. He also had to shrink the size of Red’s initial burritos from 11 to 7 ounces once it became evident that the price point was too high.
But he also did many things well. Right off the bat, he realized his business success hinged on becoming the
operations geek behind the scenes who focused heavily on supply chain and manufacturing. He also built a team of talented people who shared his passion for producing a product they loved. And he opted to construct his own 160,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that would ensure quality and maximize capacity.
After years of incremental growth, Red's got its big break in 2020.
During COVID, public perception about how delicious and healthy frozen food can be really started to change, Adair reflects.
It was a real inflection point for the natural frozen food market.
Adair and his team had spent the previous 10 years grinding and iterating their way to more than $25 million in annual sales in a market in which only one other natural frozen food company had ever grown past $30 to $40 million. After a decade of hustling, they were well-equipped to meet a spike in demand in a sustainable way.
Some days, when he has time to catch his breath, Adair takes a moment to look around at all he has built. Today, Red’s All Natural boasts $175 million in annual sales. Between its head office in Nashville and manufacturing facility in Sioux City, South Dakota, the team has expanded to 300 employees. Red’s churns out 400,000 burritos and breakfast sandwiches a day, all hand-rolled and made in small batches, to deliver to Costco, Kroger, and every other major grocery chain in the U.S. The company currently offers 15 varieties of burritos and seven types of breakfast sandwiches. The pace of growth is so rapid that aiming for $1 billion in annual sales no longer feels like a pipedream.
Adair was always destined for entrepreneurship, but he doesn’t believe he would have gotten nearly as far or as fast without the foundation he laid in Hanover.
More than anything, I’m grateful I had the freedom and support to discover my passion, he says.
I didn’t get here alone.
This story was originally published in print in the winter 2023 issue of Tuck Today magazine.
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