On Wednesday night, I crossed the river again to head to the Brooklyn Brewery for an event organized by Brooklyn Based, a website and newsletter about the borough and its activities, called “Rolling in the Dough or No?”. Featuring several favorite and well-known local food entrepreneurs, the setting for the evening was a panel about what it is like to start a food business in the city and what might be some of the pitfalls, hurdles, and aspects that anyone who is interested in pursuing this should consider. There were also some tasty treats to try as well.
The panelists discussed a range of topics that wannabe food start-up types should consider. Some were fairly straightforward, like the required state and city certificates and licenses, and some were more personal, like the toll the time involved takes on family, spouse, and kids. I’ve followed a few of these folks for a while and have seen first-hand the dedication to their enterprises, but I’ve never heard all of the background about how they successfully reached the point at which they are now. Some of what they said was eye-opening and heart-breaking at the same time and made me more determined than ever that the active consumer component is a valuable role that I am happy to play, no matter how many folks tell me that I should do something with my baking skills.
Even though I am not a hands-on food entrepreneur in the same sense as these folks, I felt like these were good tidbits to follow, no matter what you do in life, especially if you are trying to change careers in this economy, like I am, or follow a more creative endeavor. Computers crash, potato pancakes fall apart when unmolded (like Sunday’s brunch), blog posts suddenly delete themselves (I can’t tell you how many times this has happened), and sometimes things just don’t work out the way you had planned them to do. It is important not to lose faith that you are heading in the right direction and that you can get there. Here is some of what I took away from the evening.
This was the kick off topic and took up the first part of the discussion. Each of the panelists laid out how they got the funds to start their business, which ranged from parental loans to re-mortgaging property to tapping into savings. The overall message was that at some point, even if you start on a shoestring, you will need money to keep your business going and to get it to the next stage of development, and it is a risk. You are betting that you will be able to make this work. Sometimes, you are gambling a lot on this venture and there is no guarantee, but those investments need to be made in order to keep going. Allison Robicelli shared how she and her husband had lost everything opening their dream business of a gourmet food shop in their neighborhood right before the stock market crashed. They had to start again, this time with the cupcakes that had gotten them recognized when they ran their shop. Kelly Geary said that a fee system was built into her Business Model from the start which then gave them the revenue base to create the goods that they sell.
The Business Part
Susan Povich spoke about the daily challenges of running a business including managing expenses and employees plus the emergency expenditures that arise. This is completely separate from the product end and is something that I hear about all the time as a reason that perfectly great-tasting food-oriented enterprises fail. The owners just don’t know how to manage the business part. Susan’s advice was to learn Excel really, really well and to do a Business Plan. “Talk to your B-School friends,” she said, “It is about crunching the numbers and not making a mistake.” Susan also recommended to sell lots of stuff, which can be obvious, but what she meant was really focus on how you construct your Business Model so that you bring in the revenue that will generate the amount of money that you need to keep your business alive. Anton added that selling in volume is one aspect of making this work. Allison also contributed that you need to know your customer and your geographic area so that you can help the customer make better choices to get them to buy your product.
Someone in the audience asked the panel to talk about a setback and how they overcame it. After a split second pause, where the panel tried to process the question, Allison offered that there are setbacks at some point every day of the week. The key is not to get buried by them and to say, “Right, o.k. How do we deal with this one and get through this?” This goes for the smaller as well as ginormous ones. You can’t stop moving forward. She advised that you also need a great support system in your personal life if you are going to go into this type of business. You need people who can pick you up when these things are sometimes a lot to handle.
Passion and Dedication
Although it might sound cliché, these are in some ways two of the most important ingredients, and they were mentioned time and again throughout the evening. As many of the panelists said, there are long days and short, sleepless nights involved in running an artisan food business. Being passionate about what you do and dedicated to what it takes to get it done are key drivers to success, as Anton Nocito pointed out. Allison added that having a mentor was very helpful to her and her business, not least of all because those people can also give you guidance as to how to wind your way through the maze of rules and regulations it takes to get set up to get your products to market. “Find good partners” was another piece of advice shared by Susan. Talk to people. Get recommendations and leads for where you can make and sell your products. This is a 24/7 lifestyle and you have to really, really want to do it with every fiber of your being.
Susan also talked to me separately about how her devotion to her company means that she also doesn’t take her hand off of the till of her social media networks. She is the brand, and she wants to communicate directly with the customers. I know that Allison, too, spends time personally updating their website and their Twitter stream. This is also what is appealing to a consumer, that there is a real person involved in the company. The thing that I enjoy the most about buying at local food fairs from the stalls is that the vendor is usually the creator, cook, bottle washer, and CEO/CFO/CAO/CTO all wrapped into one. This is why I feel that my dollars are well spent in supporting these local artisan food businesses, aside from the fact that everyone is nice, fun to talk to and be around. It makes me really look forward to market days, even if it takes me 4 or 5 subway trains to get there.
Thanks so much to everyone for their words of wisdom. I’m looking forward to seeing Anton Nocito from P&H Soda Co. (and his wife Erica Rothchild who does gorgeous hand-made cards) at New Amsterdam on Sunday. It was wonderful to meet Susan Povich of the Red Hook Lobster Pound. Not only were her Lobster Rolls completely delicious, but it was also nice to find out that we both grew up in the DC area at about the same time. Check out their trucks in Washington via Twitter @lobstertruckdc.
Allison Robicelli and I had a brief catch-up over one of those lobster rolls after the panel was over. She and her husband Matt are gearing up for lots of great things to come, not least of which is the upcoming Dekalb Market in Brooklyn for which they have launched a fund raiser on IndieGoGo to get up and running with their new space. There’s lots of great incentives to contribute to this effort, and they make amazing cupcakes to boot. I’m so incredibly sad that I had to miss the Chicken and Waffles pop-up earlier this week, but I was supposed to be in meetings uptown all day.
I enjoyed hearing from the other folks whom I don’t know at all as well and am looking forward to getting to know their products better. Kelly Geary of Sweet Deliverance NYC had fantastic tasting Sugared Blood Orange Peels which would have been perfect as a garnish for my Easter Brunch Chocolate Mousse. McClure’s Pickles look delicious, but as my readers know, I’m not much of a pickle person, so I apologize to Bob McClure. They also sell this beautiful-looking Bloody Mary Mix which could be on the menu for my next brunch. Chris Parachini from Brooklyn Grange/Roberta’s had some great thoughts from a restaurant point of view. Check out their site to learn more about the rooftop gardening movement as well as about the cool programs that they do.