Indie Inspiration: Four Food Entrepreneurs Share Their Stories
Stories of good food arriving in unconventional places often come from humble beginnings. From organic mac and cheese, to organic fast food in underserved neighborhoods, each product starts with a need, and that need is often (though not always) matched with earning potential. Feed the world first, each entrepreneur mutters late into working nights, feed myself last.
This is the trick that Food business owners know, and beginners must learn. Feed the need, and your product will sell.
Four inspirational business owners, from organic produce, to vegan soup, to Indian condiments, shared their insights with us on how to start your own bakery, catering service, food product or farm stand. This is what they learned.
Meet the players:
Add Renee Gunter to the list of South LA activists looking to change the hearts and stomachs of her community. Started with $300 and Renee’s cool vintage truck, Daily Organics brings fresh produce to South L.A. where healthy organic fruits and veggies are impossible to find. She wants young food business owners to “follow their hearts.”
Shawn Walker smith owns the Oakland based TART a local made-to-order bakery that serves up awesome treats to neighborhood folks. Shawn left his job to go back to culinary school to get a degree in baking and Patisserie, and opened Tart! He dreams of turning it into a late night bistro for his community. According to Shawn, young food entrepreneurs thinking of starting a business should just “Do it!”
Cynthia Toliver began cooking soup at a friends cafe when she decided to risk it all and set out on her own. By networking and creating a community of mentors and help, Cynthia has kick-started her own catering company and soup delivery business in Oakland. Her advice to young startups is to “Surround yourself with as many resources and mentors as possible.”
Bandar Foods Owners Dan Garblik and Lalit Kalani started making monkey sauce to satisfy their craving for an easy-squeeze indian condiment as tasty and convenient as sriracha. Based on Lalit’s family recipes Monkey sauce is now available for purchase in natural and organic food stores around the country! Lilit’s warns prospective food business entrepreneurs to know what they’re getting into: “Building a business is hard… Know what your intrinsic motivations are and what you are looking to get out of it.”
Why did you start your business?
Renee Gunter: I started it because there was a need, not just in south LA. where there aren’t enough healthy food options. I resented having to drive to Culver City or West Hollywood or The Valley just to do my grocery shopping. My initial reason for starting Daily Organics was because I noticed there was a void in my neighborhood. I felt that if I couldn’t find it, than I would create it.
Shawn Walker Smith: I started this business out of my love for baking and also because I looked around for jobs and did not see anything quite like what I wanted. So after going back to culinary school where I gained my degree in Baking and Patisserie, I jumped right in.
Cynthia Toliver: I love working for myself. I grew up around people who did that. I love the idea of keeping money in the community and using local resources whenever possible. I started this particular business because I was making soup for a friends cafe for a while, and I got a nice write up in a local paper about it. So I said, well, maybe I should do this more.
Lalit Kalani: Having spent half my life here in the US and half in India where I grew up, I believe that food is one of the strongest representations of a culture. We didn’t think Indian food was represented as well as it could be, therefore we did not have an alternative but to bring some innovative products to the market.
What do you wish you had known when you were first starting out?
Renee Gunter: You can’t expect that everybody’s going to like you and you better hope that they don’t because then something’s wrong.
Shawn Walker Smith: The first is that you really don’t have to know “everything”, so being open to and asking for help and information is a good thing. That being said, some things really have to be learned through experience.
Cynthia Toliver: One of the things I hadn’t realized, was that it’s really hard to find people to help. It is hard to find people who can work in a kitchen and still live in the area. They can’t afford the rent, and those who can afford the rent are not trying to work in a kitchen
Lalit Kalani: Even though the food industry is very competitive, it is very collegiate and people are willing to help. Make sure you talk to a lot of entrepreneurs and ask questions. Learn as much as you can early on. It will help you prepare you to face some of the challenges to come.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced getting your business off the ground?
Renee Gunter: If you buy an apple that’s 35c you can’t sell it for much more. We’re talking about fifty percent or whatever markup on an apple, you can’t sell a three dollar apple. I’m talking all of the risk, I’m taking all of the hits. I just have to be gracious and patient, and some folks aren’t going to like what I do. For whatever reason.
Shawn Walker Smith: The biggest challenges have been cash flow and time management. Having enough funds so that you can purchase materials or ingredients, then make that order, so that you can get paid for it and start the cycle all over again.
In managing your time, when it is just you, it is important to be “obsessively protective” about where you put your time. I’m still working on that one.
Cynthia Toliver: I thought that you go into business, you make money, you reinvest it, you make more money, you reinvest it you make more money. But you really need to just invest. You can’t just take the money that you make and put it back in your business and think that that will help it grow. If you’re going piecemeal it’s very hard.
Lalit Kalani: Putting together our supply chain has been one of our major challenges,especially initially when Dan and I were very new to the CPG (consumer packaged goods) space with limited experience. We had to figure out the process, work with multiple manufacturers, and source raw materials. It was a very steep learning curve and we are still learning and trying to improve.
Any advice for people who are thinking about starting their own food business?
Renee Gunter: Follow your heart. If your intentions are in the highest good, If your intentions are really about being the change, then you are already successful. There are formulas out there that say you have to have this and you have to have that, but if you have all those tools and you don’t have passion and you don’t have love for what you’re doing, you will not be happy.
Shawn Walker Smith: First off, DO IT! Second, do your research. Once you have a concept of what you want to do, get as many “ducks in a row” as you can before beginning production.
Don’t forget to research local resources on the web and reach out to folks who are doing something like what you want to do. We’re very fortunate to have such a vibrant and diverse community of food artisans and producers here in Oakland. I’ve found a really supportive community of folks each time I’ve need advice or assistance.
Cynthia Toliver: Surround yourself with as many resources and mentors as possible. That really helps. There are a lot of different groups that I’ve joined. All those groups have given me great resources that I can use. It actually helps your business the more people you know. You always find things out that you wouldn’t know if you hadn’t gone to that particular meeting or met with those particular women or took that particular class. Just keep yourself busy by learning don’t just get caught up in trying to sell your stuff.
Lalit Kalani: Ask yourself what is really driving you to start your own business. What are your intrinsic motivations and what you are looking to get out of it. building a company is hard, and filled with challenges – and you need to be prepared to answer that question for yourself.
Being an entrepreneur is really hard. That is something that I read everywhere, but no one really prepared me for it. I wish other entrepreneurs spoke directly to how hard this lifestyle can be, as we often just hear the good parts about it.
What is your favorite thing about owning your own food business? What makes it all worth it?
Renee Gunter: I did this because I was hungry and I thought I couldn’t possibly be the only one, and I see that I’m not. What you learn and what I’ve learned each step of the way makes me stronger and more resolved to do what I’m doing. Not the money, not yet.
Shawn Walker Smith: For me, the best thing about having a food business is that moment when someone eats something that you have created and has a really positive response to it. The enjoyment that someone experiences from something that I have created makes it all worthwhile.
Cynthia Toliver: My favorite thing is the independence. I realized that I can make a living by doing something that I personally create out of thin air. That you can get financial remuneration for what you create, that someone’s willing to pay you for that and you can do that on an ongoing basis, gives me a sense of empowerment. I like that.
Lalit Kalani: Seeing the product on the shelf, even today, gives me goosebumps. Seeing people from all cultures enjoy these Indian flavors that I grew up with is an amazing feeling. There has not been another position in my life that I am constantly learning. Everyday is different, and that is what continues to excite me. We still have a long way to go.
If you knew then what you know now, would you have opened your own business?
Renee Gunter: Absolutely I would have done it. If I had a benevolent benefactor that said “I like your idea, Renee,” and gave me some seed money that would have perhaps been easier. But I have no regrets about how I’ve started Daily Organics because in fact it is organic. I’m just doing what feels right, not what is fiscally right necessarily.
Shawn Walker Smith: Trust me, ignorance truly is bliss. But honestly, knowing then what I know now, I would still do it. It is ridiculously hard work at times, but the rewards of doing something that you’re passionate about, and something that really “feeds your soul” is terrifically worthwhile.
Cynthia Toliver: Yes. I think it’s really important to try your best to keep money in your community. So as a small business person hiring locally buying locally as much as you can and using your other local business people as resources I think it’s really important that you do that. Really it’s just a community.
Lalit Kalani: Invest in the brand from very early on. Make sure the product packaging looks great and people feel an emotional connection to the product they’re using.
Do you have plans to open another one? How will you do it differently if you do it again?
Renee Gunter: It just depends on what kind of support I get. This is not for me. This is for us. If there’s another neighborhood that says, “Wow, Renee, that is awesome we would love to have a Daily Organics store in our neighborhood. Well there it is. I’m not going to just show up. That’s dumb. I already did that. You have to give people what they want. And if what they want is not in alignment with what you have to offer and there’s no meeting of the mind then you have to go in a different direction.
Shawn Walker Smith: My business is still at beginning of its journey. The future goal is to open a dessert centered, late night bistro/café. It’s something I really want to create for the city and the awesome folks who call it home.
In terms of doing things differently, I hope my experiences will inform my decisions a bit better so that I am more strategic in where I am putting my energy. That and sleep… Lots more sleep!
Cynthia Toliver: For food in particular, It’s really labor intensive. Food in general but soup in particular. I think people who are bringing things that are prepackaged like baked good items, or candies or things like that they can pack up and take in have it much easier. I like soup and I fell into it, but if I were opening a food business I would look at it more critically. Try to figure out what is less labor intensive.
Lalit Kalani: Maybe some day we will have another business, but for now, we are 200% focused on this venture and want to see it through. Nothing is more satisfying than to see your idea through!
C. L. Brenton is a novelist and writer based in Los Angeles. Her work spans anything from poetry to workout advice, hard news to weddings. She lives in a tiny white cottage in West LA with her handsome fiancee and their three roommates; two cats who sit on everything C. L. writes, and a dog who squirrels away socks. Find more work at www.clbrenton.com