In the early 2010s, Amin Bahari and his twin brother, Amir, were high school students struggling with their weight, and looking to jump-start their fitness journey. They knew it would require a lifestyle change, but there was one thing holding them back: sweets.
“We grew up in a family with diabetes and obesity, and we were on the verge of it ourselves,” Amin said. “At one point, I weighed 340 pounds and my brother was extremely overweight himself. That wasn’t the life we wanted to live.”
Knowing they needed to make a commitment to their health, the brothers focused on a high-protein, keto diet that helped them change their lifestyle, and became the seed that spawned their entrepreneurship journey. “We went on our weight loss journey and [in] about a year, I lost 140 pounds, and my brother lost about 100 pounds—almost 250 pounds combined,” Amin said. They continued to maintain that lifestyle into college.
Choosing to stay in their hometown, the twins enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. Like most college students, keeping a healthy diet on a small budget remained a challenge for the Bahari brothers. Eventually, a few late-night trips to satisfy midnight cravings sparked an idea.
“At night, being college students [on a] college budget, we always found ourselves at the local donut shop, like three or four times a week,” Amin said. “It was the only thing open that was affordable for college students.”
The twins, who were working as student managers of equipment with the Longhorn football program at the time, wondered how they could fill the need for students like them who enjoyed a sweet snack, but wanted to maintain a healthier lifestyle. “It just didn’t make sense to us,” Amin said. “These guys who were training for the NFL, to be elite athletes, were just scarfing down dozens of donuts […]That’s where the idea sparked. We thought, ‘What if these donuts could be part of an athlete’s meal plan?’ […]And my brother just got to work in our apartment kitchen.”
Research, develop, donut
In 2017, Amin and Amir, along with Longhorn football players Timothy Cole, Jr., and Caleb Bluiett, founded Elite Sweets and immersed themselves in learning the ins and outs of starting a small business. Facing a ton of uncertainty, the cofounders tried to figure out the best path forward by mastering each step, from funding their business to scaling production, while promoting their donuts along the way.
“A lot of people [when they start a business] rush it or want that overnight success,” Amin shared. “It didn’t happen overnight […]This has been five years of work.”
One of the Bahari brothers’ key strengths was their online presence and social media, so that’s where they began. “We didn’t have money when we first started, we were broke college students just trying to make something happen,” Amin said. “We built our own website and that’s the key takeaway for us—being online. There is no barrier to entry. It’s just launching, the people like the product, hopefully it takes off. And so that was our mindset.”
Going online early helped Elite Sweets get immediate feedback, which the two brothers incorporated to better refine their recipe. “That’s the beautiful thing about starting online, you can get feedback and really tweak your product,” Amin said.
The Baharis also knew they wanted to sell on Amazon, but first went through multiple reformulations of their donut recipe and increased production capacity to prepare for the demand Amazon could bring. That decision became key in setting up Elite Sweet’s long-term success.
“It was a huge priority to dial in the product” Amin said, “because when we first started, it really wasn’t that good.” Each reformulation of Elite Sweets’ donuts helps paint the picture for how Elite Sweets was growing. First, the brothers moved home and used their parents’ kitchen. Then they hired UT Austin PhD Pharmacy students who understood chemistry, nutrition, and health. Next, they were fortunate enough to work with a master baker and food scientist who had worked with and founded other successful food companies. With each updated recipe, they also moved into new facilities that could support making larger quantities of donuts.
When we first started, we were making 5,000 donuts at a time. Now we’re making like 100,000 donuts a month.
This focus on step-by-step growth allowed Elite Sweets to gain valuable insight as they incrementally grew their business. The brothers started in their home city, and eventually worked their way to statewide distribution. As the business continued to grow and they learned how to increase production, it eventually set them up to succeed when they went nationwide with Amazon. “We started off local just going to gyms, coffee shops, you know, selling it online, just in Austin,” Amin said. “When we first started, we were making 5,000 donuts at a time. Now we’re making like 100,000 a month. [At first], we could ship in Texas and in a couple months, we could ship nationwide.”
Funding and scaling to Amazon
Participating in pitch competitions and accelerators (programs that give startups access to mentorship, investors, and capital) has been instrumental in helping Elite Sweets secure capital.
“I think being in Austin, it’s a real startup community. It’s kind of been our calling, just running into the right people at the right time, really putting ourselves in positions to get lucky,” Amin said.
The Baharis ended up meeting someone who helped them get into a pitch competition at South by Southwest, an annual multimedia festival and conference in Austin. They pitched their business, won the semi-finals, then the finals, and received $360,000 to fund their business.
“If it wasn’t for pitch competitions or accelerators, I hate to say it, but maybe I’d be working a full-time job right now,” Amin said. “We were relentless in finding funding opportunities. A lot of people make excuses and say, ‘They’re not giving money. I can’t get money. I don’t know investors.’ We don’t make excuses—we make a way.”
Since then, the team has participated in four other accelerators, securing additional capital each time. For college students who started a business with $1,000 in savings, the work they have put into earning capital has helped them scale all aspects of their business. Once they had capital, they started to think more about Amazon.
“Selling in Amazon’s store was a huge opportunity,” Amin said. “It’s something we took really seriously because of the opportunity to serve more customers. We took the steps to reformulate our product, hire the right team, and improve our operations because we wanted to make sure we could support Amazon’s scale. The access that Amazon provides to a potential consumer base is invaluable, and we made sure that we crossed all our t’s and dotted our i’s before we began selling in Amazon’s store. Now, Elite Sweets is one of the top-selling donuts in Amazon’s store.”
The sweet, shelf-stable, life
Elite Sweets is looking at additional ways to continue growing their business. Up first is delivering donuts the old-fashioned way: through a storefront. Not just any store, though. Elite Sweets is working to roll out their products in Amazon Go stores. Amazon Go is a new kind of store featuring the world’s most advanced shopping technology, a checkout-free experience that automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. “We’re working on rolling out in the Amazon Go stores. It’s already in the warehouses. We’re excited about that,” Amin said.
Also coming up in 2022? Another reformulation. Since launching on Amazon, Elite Sweets has been using FBM (Fulfilled by Merchant) because their donuts are stored frozen. Starting in the fourth quarter of 2022, Elite Sweets will introduce their first shelf-stable product which will allow them to begin using FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon). “We’ll be able to get the Prime badge and that’s going to be a huge lift for our product, since we aren’t even Prime right now,” Amin said.
For anyone looking to start a business, Elite Sweets and the Bahari brothers are a reminder that becoming a small business owner doesn’t have to follow a traditional path. All it takes is getting started. “That’s been our mentality since day one,” Amin said."Do whatever needs to be done to get the job done. I think that’s a beautiful thing with entrepreneurship, you can get it done any kind of way. It’s just a matter of getting the job done and executing.”