5 Great Food Biz Lessons from the Pros

Susie Wyshak, Guest Writer
January 9, 2015

This week’s article is written by author Susie Wyshak, who led a recent CUESA discussion titled Good Food, Great Business, named after her recently published book.

When you talk to the food crafters at the farmers market, you may find out how they make their products or where they source their ingredients, but do you ever ask them what it took to build a sustainable food business?

My book Good Food, Great Business: How to Take Your Artisan Food Idea From Concept to Marketplace (Chronicle Books) features wisdom from a number of successful Ferry Plaza Farmers Market sellers, so it was only natural to launch the book by hosting a lively discussion at the farmers market with some of them.

VIDEO: Watch the full talk (47 minutes) or highlights (10 minutes).

We heard how Janet Brown and Marty Jacobson of Allstar Organics expanded their farm operations to craft seasoning salts, sugars, and hydrosols; how Michelle Pusateri of Nana Joes Granola created a niche with her seasonally inspired, gluten-free granolas; and how Minh Tsai of Hodo Soy Beanery brought his vision of delicious organic tofu to the masses. The lessons they learned along the way apply to just about any food business—and to life in general.

Lesson 1: When life hands you roses, make something wonderful.

Many entrepreneurs take the plunge into starting their own business with little more than a deep curiosity and a personal desire to create something wonderful. Janet Brown planted a rose garden with a plan to sell bouquets, but her arrangements were too eccentric for picky florists. Did she abandon her rose garden? No. Instead she followed a friend’s suggestion and started making rose water, which led to Allstar’s lineup of hydrosols and eventually salts and sugars. These products brought a unique value-added dimension to the farm’s offerings.

A hankering for energizing vegan food led Nopalito pastry chef/surfer girl Michelle Pusateri to start making granola—the perfect combo of fat, fiber, and protein. She dove right in and started designing her own recipes, overwhelming her boyfriend with granola sampling sessions until he insisted she start selling her batches. She did, and Nana Joes was born. She knew nothing about packaging her granola, but she started figuring out the logistics, developing blends using ingredients from local farms, and approaching buyers at small markets. “You can’t be scared,” Michelle told us. “You have to firmly believe in everything you’re doing with your product.”

The takeaway: Don’t overthink. Just start, research, and iterate.

Lesson 2: Do something difficult or different.

The more complex a food-making process, the greater the competitive advantage because it’s harder for others to break into the business and harder to DIY at home. For example, making tofu, a refrigerated product with a short shelf life, is more difficult than making a shelf-stable product. “I think there is something to be said about doing something very difficult that nobody else has thought of,” said Minh Tsai at Hodo Soy, who first developed his tofu as a “weekend warrior hobby.” Since then, Hodo Soy has grown into a small plant in Oakland. Recently, Hodo has found a way of using a sous-vide technique to extend the shelf life and improve the texture, which opens a new world of distribution possibilities across the U.S.

At Nana Joes, Michelle limits her batches of granola to small runs to keep the ingredients fresh and seasonal, which is more difficult and expensive than cranking out mass-produced granola. For each limited-edition “Chef’s Blend,” she invests time collaborating with chefs like Brandon Jew and farmers market growers. Making small-batch granola is labor intensive, and Michele hopes to make the process more efficient while still holding onto her artisanal integrity.

The takeaway: Finding your niche means doing what others haven’t dared to do before or putting a fresh spin on a familiar product.

Lesson 3: Grow bravely with innovative, like-minded partners.

The advent of online food networks and social media makes it easier than ever for small food producers to connect with like-minded partners and suppliers. Hodo Soy sources beans from an organic soy cooperative in the Midwest, paying about three times more than the price of conventional soybeans because they want to ensure that their beans are sustainably grown and free of GMOs. Hodo’s tofu attracted the attention of the national chain Chipotle, and now it’s featured in Chipotle’s vegan Sofritas.

When Allstar Organics first started to sell their farm-grown herbal sugars and salts, Cowgirl Creamery shocked them by placing a huge order that they weren’t sure they could fill. Then the “Today Show” called to feature Allstar’s products. Janet was afraid they weren’t ready for national attention, but she couldn’t turn down the opportunity. She said yes, which forced them to create a website. “We got 500 orders in 24 hours,” she reported.

The takeaway: Collaborate with successful partners for a happier, healthier bottom line.

Lesson 4: Make decisions based on strategic goals.

Hodo Soy invests in their employees by training and paying them well. They recruit people who are smart and willing to work hard, even if they may not have prior food experience. “It’s one thing to build a business, and it’s another thing to get the right people to help you grow,” said Minh. “If I do my job well, I’ll work myself out of a job,” he continued, with a laugh.

Michelle landed her Dogpatch kitchen in the American Industrial Center thanks to a tip from Todd Masonis of Dandelion Chocolate. Although it was risky, she signed a lease on a space that would allow for five to 10 years of growth. That location also connected her with a support network of fellow food makers—Kika’s Treats, Ledbetter, Bread Srsly, and others—who now work together to deliver each other’s products.

The takeaway: Know where you want to go, say “yes,” and make it work!

Lesson 5: Find your role models.

A great first step is to chat with your favorite vendors who are doing something similar to what piques your interest. Minh named several role models, who are also food pioneers at the Ferry Plaza focused on sustainable business—preserves maven June Taylor, Steve Sullivan of Acme Bread Company, and Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery.

Janet became my new role model when she distilled the irony of our human condition, just as well as she distills Allstar’s hydrosols: “The human process seems to be that we learn by making mistakes. Then when we start a business, we don’t want to make any mistakes.”

The takeaway: Ask lots of questions and learn from your friends.

Want to build a great food business?

You’ll find lots more stories and tips from successful food entrepreneurs in Good Food, Great Business. My online FoodStarter Academy e-course helps you plan while reading the book, with help from the experts.

Visit Susie Wyshak at her blog, FoodStarter.

Panel photo by Laiko Bahrs.

Topics: ,