Start it up: New Year, New Culinary Business
Have you always dreamed of creating your own culinary business? There’s a lot to consider - recipes, packaging, funding, selling. Here are a dozen tips on how to get your idea out of your head and onto store shelves (and in tummies) now.
1. Get an honest opinion (aka don’t just ask your mom)
Do others think your food is good? Do they think turning it into a business is smart? “Your family and friends are not going to tell you if you have a bad idea. Of course they love it. They love you,” says Bonafide Media and PR’s Jessie Cayabo. A marketing and PR professional who splits her time between Calgary and Edmonton, she has clients across North America.
When Cayabo was approached about working with a bakery in Edmonton a few years ago, she loved their bread but wanted a second opinion. She took a sample to a well-known chef, who said it was one of the best he’d ever tried. “An objective professional opinion of a third party, people outside your network, is one of the greatest resources you can have,” Cayabo says.
2. Check out the competition
“Is there a demand for what you want to do?” Cayabo says. If there’s no demand, what makes you think you can create one? The other side of that coin is that maybe there’s too much demand. How will you make your product stand out?
3. Reach out
• Government of Canada resources (canada.ca/en/services/business/start) include information for immigrant start-up visas, business registration and more.
• The ATB Entrepreneur Centre (atbentrepreneurcentre.com) offers free online resources including a business plan template and seminars.
• The Alberta Indian Investment Corporation (aiicbusiness.org) helps Indigenous entrepreneurs with business ideas.
• The Metis Entrepreneur Assistance Program (apeetogosan.com) has information, grants, and loans for Metis small-business owners.
• And Canadian Food Innovation Network (cfin-rcia.ca) offers funding to new food businesses too.
4. Don’t skimp on branding
A cheap logo from Fiverr may work for some but if you want to be taken seriously, pay for a branding package from a legitimate graphic design agency. “You get what you pay for,” Cayabo says. “Your brand is the visual representation of you, your story and your product — and maybe even your family. Your branding is your identity, and, ideally, you’re going to be married to it for years and years.
“And ideally you want a designer who is in it for the long haul in case you decide to expand your product line. You don’t want to keep looking for someone new.” She’s met wannabe clients who come to her saddled with branding they hate — and a basement full of ugly packaging. “Take samples and colours that you like, anything to help the designer who will be working on your brand. You need to give the designer some inspiration, so they have a starting point, an idea of what you want your brand to be.” And don’t let someone talk you paying thousands to slap your logo onto kajillions of ballpoint pens or fridge magnets or other stuff no one wants. “It’s basically going to end up in a charity bin or your basement,” Cayabo says. “Spend your money on creating a solid brand that can grow as your business does.”
Is there a demand for what you want to do?
5. Get real
“Become a legitimate food business. Get certified. Get your food handling permit, and work out of an inspected facility,” says Vanessa Rundell, entrepreneur and chef-owner of Preserved Foods Boutique. “Follow labelling laws. Incorporate your business. Do your due diligence, because you are liable.” Cayabo echoes her words. “Food handling is serious business,” she says. “People can die if you’re not doing it right.”
6. Figure out what a fair price is
“Price appropriately. That means knowing your food costs,” says Rundell. She says that in her case, that meant learning not just what a raw ingredient cost to buy — but what she was throwing away. A kilogram of onions, for instance, is no longer a kilogram, once they’ve been peeled. “I needed to learn to include my food waste percents when I was figuring out my prices.”
7. Figure out your COGS: cost of goods sold
“Your COGS will be so much higher once you’ve turned yourself into a legitimate business. You’ll need to pay for your annual fees for licensing and your inspections,” Rundell says. “Make sure you build those costs into your pricing.”
8. Pay yourself
“Your time matters, too. You can’t — and you shouldn’t — work for free. Add in an hourly wage for yourself,” Rundell says.
9. Don’t try to be the best at everything
“Be great at one thing. Don’t be OK at five things,” Rundell says. “It’s easy to get trapped into thinking you can do everything. But know your brand and what you do best.”
10. Think about where you want your product to be
…and if your branding matches what you already see in your stores. Your ink-jet printer stickers aren’t going to pass muster at your favourite trendy grocery store. “Retailers pick products for their shelves because those products are aligned with their brand,” Cayabo says. If a retailer turns you down, don’t be offended. “But that may be a clue to you to take a closer look at your brand. Why don’t all the cool places want your delicious product in their stores?”
You have to be patient as your business grows.
11. Promote your business
…but only if you can keep up with demand. “If you’re selling product, you have to be careful about over-promoting, because if you lose customer confidence if you can’t keep up with demand,” Cayabo says. Say, for instance, you have a thriving booth at a local farmers’ market. It’s so good, you decide to expand to a second market. “But suddenly, you don’t have enough product. You’re not there for a few months or you have a wait list,” Cayabo says. “A wait list is fine but there are limits. Eventually people will give up and buy someone else’s product.”
Think about Oprah Winfrey’s Favourite Things list. Before each year’s list is named, Oprah’s team checks each business to see if it can keep up with the demand that being on the list brings. “It’s easy to get excited about media coverage and attention but if you can’t fulfill orders and keep up with the demand, you’re better off declining because it’s just going to make you look bad,” Cayabo says. “People will be disappointed.”
12. Be patient
In 2022, Rundell celebrated Preserved’s fourth year and early this year, after months of planning, she’s launching new labels. Each will feature a QR code and, upon scanning, will take people to a video of the farm where the produce inside each jar has been grown — something she could only dream of sharing with customers in her early days in business.
“Being patient is hard for me, and it’s quite hard for most people,” Rundell says. “You put all this effort into starting a business, and you want to see the returns right away, but that’s not the way it works. You have to be patient as your business grows.”