By Melissa Repko The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) For entrepreneurs, trying to get a product on store shelves has plenty of ups and downs. Between recipes, branding and manufacturing, finding success is no easy task. The following article takes a look at four entrepreneurs who are facing the challenges head on.
The Dallas Morning News
Each week, Texas gourmet grocer Central Market receives hundreds of products, from new energy bars and frozen cinnamon rolls to nut butters. They come from home cooks who think they have a winning recipe, foodies who believe they have spotted the next trend and bakers who have stands at farmers markets.
The flood of packages at Central Market and other major grocers illustrates how food entrepreneurship has gained popularity as customers crave foods with local ties, responsible business practices or interesting origin stories.
But Chris Bostad, Central Market's director of perishables and non-perishables, said what he and his buyers pick to put on store shelves comes down to one quality: how it tastes. The store uses blind taste tests and asks staff members for reviews.
"It can be a great story, but if the product doesn't deliver, it doesn't matter," he said.
For Texas entrepreneurs, trying to get their product on store shelves has many ups and downs. They must perfect their recipes, pick a unique name and brand, find a manufacturer or commercial kitchen and persuade a store to give them a chance.
The world of food comes with different health, safety and logistical challenges than other kinds of startups, said William Rosenzweig, the dean and executive director of the Culinary Institute of America's Food Business School near Napa, Calif. Food companies must cope with slim margins, stand out from similar products and scale up without losing their soul, he said. And when they need to increase supply, they typically have to grow produce or raise animals -- things that can't happen overnight.
The growing number of food entrepreneurs inspired the CIA, one of the country's most well-known culinary schools, to start a program last year to train the next generation of food company founders.
Rosenzweig has first-hand experience in the food industry as founding CEO of the Republic of Tea, which is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before he started the tea company, he went to a food show hoping to gather research for his product. He was surprised to discover more than 100 tea brands there. He realized he had to figure out how to give customers a striking tea experience.
Food entrepreneurs rarely strike gold like yogurt company Chobani or flavored water company Vitaminwater, he said, but they can grow steadily by tapping into emerging food trends, such as using all-natural ingredients, offering easy ways to control portions and using sustainable, environmentally-friendly production and packaging.
"It takes 15 years to become an overnight success in food, so you have to be geared up to create long-term value," he said. "You're dealing with the ephemeral quality of food. Everybody is an eater, so everybody thinks they're an expert."
We spoke to four food entrepreneurs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area about what inspired them to start a company -- and what they've learned along the way.
Case study #1: When to expand It all began with a Food Network show and a mixing bowl.
Michael French watched a chef make nuts on an episode of "The Best Thing I Ever Ate," and French, who works on the side as a private chef, thought to himself, 'He's leaving something out.'
French decided to make his own version. He tested recipes in his Carrollton kitchen -- mixing nuts with sugar, vanilla, caramel and cayenne pepper. He handed out jars to friends, neighbors and family members for feedback. And after a late night paging through a dictionary, a company and family project was born -- Frenchie's Fabulous Nut Company. For Michael French and his wife, Janie, the nut company has become a time-consuming side project that they hope to scale into a thriving brand and profitable business.
About four years after Michael French made his first batch of nuts, he's written a large check and handed over his recipe to a Chicago manufacturer. The manufacturer will make 22,800 bags of the nuts in the first run of the product. Then, a distributor will include it in a catalog skimmed by grocery buyers across the country.
The nuts are already sold at local farmer's markets and in seven Total Wine stores, but this year will be a big one: He plans to quit his job and focus on Frenchie's Fabulous Nut Company full-time.
The sweet and spicy nuts made the made the top 25 in H-E-B's Primo Picks Quest for the Texas Best in 2014. For the Frenches, the contest was a turning point.
They were approached by buyers who told them the night before the judging, "No matter what happens tomorrow. We want your product on our shelves."
"That was validation for us that we couldn't let this product go," Michael French said.
The contest got them in the door of San Antonio-based H-E-B, which carried the nuts in some of its stores. It also helped get them into Total Wine. The nuts sell for $18 for a small and $24 for a large.
Finding a manufacturer that could make the nuts in bulk was a challenge. The Frenches couldn't find a factory that would work with nuts, a potential allergen, and also a wet ingredient like caramel. They eventually found a place in Chicago and went back and forth with trial batches that were shipped overnight.
Working two jobs, raising kids and staying up late making nuts has been "like being shot out of a cannon," Michael French said. Every member of the family has gotten food handling certifications to help out. Janie French, who works in commercial real estate, handles marketing and billing for the company. And their 16-year-old and 26-year-old sons help with cooking and packaging.
The couple has spent about $40,000 to start the company.
Michael French has continued to experiment in the kitchen. He's made hatch chile peanuts, dark chocolate-drizzled walnuts and cashews mixed with pork belly.
"People are really excited about new and different things," he said. "They don't want Lay's anymore."
Case study #2: How to scale When Callie McDole was growing up in Jackson, Miss., she watched customers come to her family's restaurant and douse crackers with her dad's special sauce. Since college, she's thought about selling bottles of the remoulade and Thousand Island-like sauce to people, even those who hadn't gotten a taste at her family's restaurant, the Mayflower Cafe in Jackson.
McDole started working on the sauce when her daughter was growing up. She first had to figure out the ingredient measurements. Her father made the recipe by heart. She made a trial batch at her daughter's University Park elementary school and made other batches in the kitchen of her Greek Orthodox church.
In 2005 and 2006, she started working with a manufacturer. Then, she faced her next hurdle -- figuring out how to make big batches of the sauce and still have it taste like her dad's.
"It's hard to duplicate a recipe when my dad and brother make it in five to seven gallon batches, and we make it in 200 gallon batches," she said.
A fortuitous introduction helped connect McDole and her father's Southern-inspired dressing, Papou's Comeback Sauce, to customers. One of her friends introduced her to a man she was dating, Shannon Wynne, the Dallas restaurateur behind The Flying Fish. The seafood restaurant has locations in Texas, Tennessee and Arkansas. Wynne tried the sauce and wanted it to be in his restaurant. Since 2006, the comeback sauce has been served on top of its fish tacos and as a dipping sauce for appetizers like fried calamari, bacon-wrapped poppers and fried pickles. (Her friend, Kimberly, went on to marry Wynne.)