Founder Christopher Algea has built a brand and a bulk business around his supply chain for quinoa.
Keen One Quinoa sprung from Algea’s class project at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business — and a bowl of ramen noodles. One afternoon, he looked at his ramen lunch and thought, “What if this could be healthier?”
That was the genesis for the project, and quinoa emerged as a target ingredient due to its high protein and neutral flavor. “What if you could make that more accessible?”
Picking up where the class left off, Algea launched the company in 2008. “Instead of buying a car with my graduation money of $20,000, I bought two tons of quinoa and started slowly figuring out the business,” he laughs.
Keen One was a side gig until Algea went full-time with it in 2012. A turning point came when he went to Bolivia and found a supplier who could supply par-cooked organic quinoa in late 2011.
Moving from hand-labeled pouches at farmers markets to the current catalog of microwaveable cups, the brand steadily gained traction at retail. But a pivot to wholesale was a catalyst. He now regularly brings in containers through the Panama Canal to the Port of Houston and sells quinoa through brokers to customers in food service and manufacturing.
In 2015, his supplier had an order stranded in port, and Algea helped him sell 20 tons of quinoa. “We realized our supply chain is our strongest asset,” he says. “It’s pretty much the same cost and effort to do one or two tons as it is to do 20.”
Sales eclipsed $1 million in 2018 after finding equal footing with cups and bulk wholesale quinoa. Keen One now imports about “six or seven containers, and the par-cooked is about a quarter of that, four to five tons right now, for the retail line,” says Algea.
American Outdoor Products (AOP) started co-packing Keen One’s products when it moved to cups in 2017. “I knew we couldn’t scale with this long, tedious process of making 400 units a day,” says Algea. “More or less, they [AOP] helped us bridge a gap there because we couldn’t get a line of credit at any bank. We just became partners in a sense.”
The cups are now available at about 500 retailers, including Whole Foods, King Soopers, and Safeway stores. To warehouse the bulk quinoa and cups, the company has been a tenant at Skyway Foods in Longmont since 2015.
The pandemic hit the company hard at first, but Algea says the company rebounded in 2021: “With overhead cuts, we were able to bring it back in the black and hope to continue that trajectory,” he says.
Challenges: Shipping. “The toughest part is to understand the port congestion and container demand is steadily going up,” says Algea. “That will continue to be a challenge for any importer and just any CPG company in general.”
Opportunities: Algea sees room to grow his bulk sales geographically. “In the last six months, I’ve made it very turnkey as far as looking at new regions for our bulk food distribution,” he says. “We’ve opened up Utah recently with a broker . . . and also I’m working with a broker in the Texas area as well. They haven’t picked it up, but it’s looking promising.”
E-commerce is a good fit for Keen One’s cups, says Algea. “Because our product’s so light and easy to ship, with an 18-month shelf life, it makes the most sense for us.”
Needs: A buyer. Algea is positioning Keen One Quinoa for an acquisition. “It’s been a 14-year journey here,” he says. “I’ve been structuring the company for a potential sale this year. . . . These things take time, so I might as well get the pulse on any interest in a company our size and what we’re doing.”