Making It: Food Entrepreneurs Turn Their Craft into a Career

 

After Kris Swanberg lost her job as a high school teacher in 2008, she spent the summer, as many of us might have, drowning her sorrows in ice cream. Except that she wasn’t just eating ice cream—she was making it, pint after pint, in a KitchenAid ice-cream maker she had received as a wedding gift.
 

Word soon spread among Swanberg’s friends and neighbors, and within a matter of months she was selling small batches of her ice cream to a local grocer. Two years later her product, Nice Cream, is available in 20 Chicago-area locations.
 

Though Swanberg’s story is singular in many ways, her decision to become a small-scale food producer is not. The recession and a surge of national interest in cooking and culinary crafting have prompted more and more people to start their own food businesses, according to Louise Kramer of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.
 

But exactly how do amateur food artisans take their passion from hobby to career? We interviewed three business owners to find out.

 

Nice Cream, Chicago
Kris Swanberg never set out to run a food business. When the owners of her local grocery store first asked to buy her ice cream, Swanberg turned them down. “I didn’t know anything about running a business or even making ice cream,” she said. “I’d never been trained professionally. I thought, Who’s going to want to eat my ice cream?” When Swanberg sold out of the 25 pints she’d brought to an Obama fundraiser, that question was answered. She applied for a license, rented kitchen time in a nearby cafe, and hired a local designer to create packaging.
 

After getting a write-up in Daily Candy, Nice Cream was picked up by a second store. Swanberg quit her job as a substitute teacher and moved into a larger commercial kitchen. Today she and her crew (including one full-time employee and a culinary intern) pump out 500 pints of ice cream a week, all of which is sold in local stores. Though she describes the company as “minimally” profitable, Swanberg is happy with how the business has evolved.
 

“I’m hesitant to make us too big because we buy locally,” Swanberg said, explaining that she tries to source all of her ingredients, like brownies and stout, from other small, nearby producers. “My plan for growth is to be in as many places in Chicago and the suburbs as will take us and are the right fit for us.”     
 

Grandma Chonga’s Salsa, Hillsboro, Oregon
Kipperlyn Sinclair also had very modest goals when she began jarring and selling her homemade salsa near her home in Hillsboro, Oregon, in 2007. She had been getting rave reviews for her grandmother’s salsa recipe for years and decided to test the demand at her local farmers’ market.
 

“Our first day at the market we only brought four cases and they sold out,” she recalled, “so we doubled that up and they kept selling.” Sinclair’s salsa soon developed a loyal local following, and nine months after she started selling in the farmers’ market, Grandma Chonga’s Salsa was on the shelves at her local Whole Foods.
 

The past two years have been full of extremely hard work. Sinclair’s mother and aunt moved from California to help her fill orders, and her husband, who also has a full-time job at Intel, helps with office work. Their 18-year-old son often assists with in-store demonstrations and making deliveries.
 

With business growing at an astounding pace—the company took in over $55,000 in gross sales in 2010, up from $8,000 in 2009—the workload can be daunting. “By the end of next year we’ll either have to have more family move here or hire extra help,” Sinclair joked.
 

Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi, NYC
Lauryn Chun’s food business, Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi, was also inspired by a family recipe—and the loss of a job. Whenever Chun visited the West Coast, her mother, who owns a Korean restaurant in Garden Grove, California, would send her home with homemade kimchi, the spicy, fermented staple of Korean cuisine. Back in New York, “I would share it with my friends,” Chun recalled, “and they would say that they’d never tasted anything like it—it was that good.”
 

But it wasn’t until she was laid off from a consulting firm three years ago that Chun began thinking about kimchi in a whole new way. A lifelong foodie, she realized that she wanted to make something of her own. “I felt like Korean food was gaining momentum,” she said, “and I really thought there was an audience out there.”
 

Chun rented space in a community kitchen and started making kimchi the way her mother had taught her. She worked with a graphic designer to create sleek, upscale packaging and began doing in-store demos at Essex Market near her home on the Lower East Side. Within months she had landed her first big account: a spot on the shelves at Dean & DeLuca, which she earned after sending the store’s buyer a sample and following up with phone calls and a visit to his office.
 

Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi is now available in more than 15 locations on the East and West Coasts, and Chun feels she’s just getting started. “I really hope that kimchi can take on a whole new reputation,” she said. “It’s a handcrafted tradition alongside cheeses and wines. It should be at your specialty food stores.”


 

Small Profits, Big Pay-offs
The good news for these foodie-preneurs and other would-be artisans is that demand for their products is up. According to Kramer, 63 percent of American consumers purchased specialty food in 2010, a big jump from 46 percent in 2009.
 

But for small-scale producers, even those with an established market, significant profitability is hard to come by and often requires production at such high volume that the company risks losing some of the handcrafted qualities that made it so unique and appealing to consumers in the first place.
 

On the other hand, many small-scale producers take such pride in their work and feel so rewarded by the process of building their own business that their definition of success is relatively humble: they seek only to make a modest living while delivering a quality product to as wide an audience as possible.
 

The upshot? Starting your own business requires an incredible amount of work and it most likely won’t make you rich—but it just might make you happy. 

We asked these three business owners and Denise Breyley, a “forager” at Whole Foods whose job it is to discover small-scale producers, for tips on starting a specialty food company:


 

Be realistic. “Financially you have to be prepared not to make any money for some time,” warned Chun, “but as long as you have some business sense and put passion into your product, it’s a great way to get involved in the food system and really better other people’s lives.”

 


Do your homework. “Take a look in the market and see how you think your product would stack up against other products that are out there,” said Breyley. “There are a million barbecue sauces and a million jams, so you have to identify something that’s unique about your product to help it stand out.”

 


Be yourself. “I think I’ve succeeded because I’ve never tried to be sales-y or business-y, because that’s just not my personality,” said Swanberg. “I think when you’re dealing with small companies and real people, it’s best to act authentic.”


 

Find a work-life balance. “You need to know how much of your personal time you can give up, because the business definitely takes on a life of its own,” suggested Sinclair.


 

Start small, and make sure you have the infrastructure in place as you grow. “One of the big concerns when you’re looking at expanding into a bigger retail outlet like Whole Foods,” Breyley explained, “is that you need to make sure you’re going to have the production to support sales.”

 


Be passionate about what you do. “If you’re thinking about doing something, do it. Really go for it and give it a shot,” said Chun.


 

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2011 issue of JBF Notes, the James Beard Foundation member newsletter. Don't miss out on future articles; become a member today!

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