Continuing Education

The Road You Take: How to Start a Small Food Business

Upon entering college How to Start a Small Food Business instructor Jennifer Lewis took a look down the road ahead Imageand didn’t see herself as a successful and published culinary entrepreneur. “While I was enrolled as an undergraduate student at Boston University I realized that I loved cooking but, thanks to a swimming scholarship that was funding my education, I opted to finish up my undergraduate degree before enrolling in culinary school where I focused on pastry arts,” she recalls. “I then worked in several restaurants and bakeries before ending up as a pastry chef for a luxury hotel in Vail, Colorado for several years.  I loved the work (and the skiing!).”

Ultimately, Lewis opted to return to school to study business and it was while getting her MBA at Northwestern she became inspired by the possibility of starting her own food business. “(I)…spent my second year of business school developing the business plan and testing the concept,” she says. “I initially sent samples of the product to several retailers and after Neiman Marcus got back to me saying that they wanted to carry the product, I felt confident to move ahead.”

Lewis says she was inspired to take her knowledge and experience and share it with others because she’d grown tired of how closed she found the food industry community. “It's so hard, if not impossible, to get the information you need to be successful as a food entrepreneur,” she says.  “You have to know someone or be willing to pay someone thousands of dollars to share their information.  That never sat well with me so I opted to take what I've learned—and information and experiences from thousands of other food producers that I'm in contact with— and try to make the information more accessible.”

Lewis says learning the laws and legalities governing the food industry were some of the most daunting lessons for her as a new entrepreneur, and though she doesn’t see herself as an authority on food industry law, she’s worked long and hard to be well-versed in the subject. “I think the hardest thing that food entrepreneurs run up against, as Imageopposed to other types of new businesses, is the legal rules and regulations specific to the food industry. For instance, are you overseen by the USDA, the FDA, or your local county health department? Do you need nutritional labels, do you need to include your ingredients, etc., etc., etc? These are all very real impediments to food entrepreneurs and things we talk about in class.”

On the personal front, Lewis says one of the biggest lessons taught to her nearly landed a detrimental blow to her company. “Just because I knew the 'legal' classifications around when a product can be called organic and when it can't, (doesn’t mean) everyone else does.” Early on, she’s hired a PR firm to do some promotions, part of which involved distributing a press release that stated her product was organic. “While I used organic ingredients in my products, I had not gone through the (FDA) certification process to be able to call my product organic,” she recalls.  “That mistake could have cost my company upwards of $10,000 in fines. Thankfully we were able to retract the press release quickly without any damage other than a few more grey hairs.  That taught me that when hiring other firms and/or contractors to help in the food industry, you have to be crystal clear and communication is the most important thing.”

So how does one distinguish a small food business from a larger one? “Legally a small food business is defined by the FDA as one that sells less than 100,000 units in the US and has gross sales of less than $500,000,” says Lewis. “I typically refer to small food businesses as those that have less than $1M in gross sales. Though the $1M number sounds large, usually these businesses are still running incredibly lean and working incredibly hard to make sure every single dollar counts.  These companies usually don't have a large advertising budget, so marketing is a major concern and having enough time to get everything done with a limited staff is another issue.”

Lewis says when she enters the classroom, the things she looks forward to most are her students’ questions. “And it's not just the questions that I can answer, but it's also listening to the answers that other students share as well,” she says. “Everyone is coming to the class with different work and life backgrounds and by sharing their experiences and Imagewhat they've seen work/not work, it gives all of us food for thought.  Also, having been in the industry for 20+ years now, the questions students bring help me look at the industry with fresh eyes and see where there may be questions that, to me, seem obvious.”

As the class meets from 9:00am to 4:00pm the first day and 9:00am to 12:00pm on the second, Lewis has the luxury of slowing down and taking her time with the classroom discussion. “Starting a food business can be a lot of work but there are also a lot of options available to people these days,” she says.  “(In class) we talk about how you can start up a legal food business in your home if you aren't interested in or can't devote yourself full time to the business. We talk about some of the logistics around food trucks, and we talk about the logistics around creating a product that will sell on supermarket shelves.”

With any number of different avenues for the small food entrepreneur to follow, Lewis is confident her students will leave with the information to lead them down the road to being successful business owners.

Learn more about How to Start a Small Food Business.

 Photo credit #3: Adam Fink_cc_2.0