Usually when you want to do something that you love you end up doing a lot of things that you hate first.
If you told someone that you were interested in starting a business that requires gargantuan start-up cost, a rent lease that may go up 500% after you try to renew, has a ridiculous amount of competitors, lots of paperwork, requires you to work at least 12 hours on your feet, may kill any love life that you currently have and will take at least a year for you to make a profit. That person would probably look at you like crazy and ask why.
But if you told that very same person that you are opening a catering business or restaurant he or she would probably say “Wow. How exciting!! That is so cool!!” I know. It’s messed up. But the hard truth is that opening starting your own restaurant or catering company from either the ground up is intoxicating. I’ve done both. And it’s not easy.
There aren’t any rulebooks and guides on starting a food company. Sure there are suggestions, guides, and books but the paths are many and they can either lead to success or failure. Most people get into the food business because it’s either all they know how to do, they are driven by their passion, the venture seems exciting or all of the above. I grew up in the food industry. My Grandfather owned a restaurant. My Grandmother owned a garden, various fruit trees, loved pickling and making homemade ice cream. My Mother taught me how to cook at a very young age and made a large number of Creole style dishes. Down the line, I began working in restaurants and cooking exposed me to a few layers of the restaurant business but there was a lot more behind the curtain. There was a lot more that I needed to learn.
When I was around 12 years old I was told by a friend that I could work at a fancy boat club washing dishes for the owner. In my mind, this was easy money. No more raking leaves for my neighbors only to make some change or a few bucks. This was big time. I’d be making a good amount of cash and I wouldn’t have to ask my tight father for money. No more going Trick or Treating over Jesse Jackson’s house only to receive 4 fucking tootsie rolls (yes this actually happened). So what if my new job broke every child labor law known to man? In my eyes, I would be able to buy bags of snickers. Because really. What child craves fucking tootsie rolls when there are snickers and milky ways around? When I walked into the Kitchen of my new job it was like a hellish boarding school. My friends worked quietly and almost mouse-like in the kitchen. After I looking at my friends I focused on the sink. There was an obscene amount of dishes almost stacked to the ceiling. I had never seen that amount of dirty dishes in my life but I was willing to go to task. My friend instructed me to rinse while he washed. I peeked out into the dining room area and there I saw the half scraggly looking owner pouring a nice glass of lemonade for a gentleman in crisp khaki shorts and docker boat shoes.
The owner was quite pleasant to the man. I thought to myself. This is what rich people must do after a long day of double-crossing and making the stock market crash. They drink lemonade together, ride in boats and pay questionable amounts of money for shitty food. After an hour of washing dishes, the owner walked into the kitchen. The nice respectable gentleman that he appeared to be in the dining area was gone. His smile slowly turned upside down like the Grinch character who stole Christmas. This man looked different. This man was a lunatic.
He began raging about how we were taking too long washing the dishes and that’s when the pots and pan started flying against the wall as he sweared. As the owner raged one of my friends gave me a look and smirked. I knew that was my friend’s way of saying “Oh he’s just playin” Just playing? This lunatic threw pots and pans against the wall with children around. That my friend was full on pissed.
I collected my money, went home and never returned to that place. That event changed me. It taught me what not to do. It taught me how not to influence people and how not to build the character of a person.
Sure, I’d encounter other events as I got older. Like the time I got fired and then rehired from McDonald’s for calling my manager Grimace (a McDonaldsland character) and accusing her of eating all of the cheeseburgers in stock. She was brutal to the employees and sarcasm was my only comeback. Or, getting threatened to get thrown across the street if I didn’t quit messing around. Or getting fired in front of everyone for eating food while there was still a hot and yummy Burger King chicken tender in my mouth. Or having a fishmonger at a fish restaurant I worked in hit a catfish over the head with a huge mallet, then turned to me and say “now that’s how ya kill em”. The catfish wasn’t dead. Catfish are hard to kill. Think of them as the terminator of fish. Even when they die they have a nervous system like an Ox.
And my favorite. While I was staging at the famous Blackbird restaurant in Chicago being asked by the chef “do you cut onions like that at home?” when I replied yes, he responded “well you’re not at home, you’re at a restaurant. How can we serve customers when you’re chopping so slow? Let me show you how it’s done” And he then proceeded to show me how to effectively cut onions. Afterwards, he taught me how to make a basic French white wine sauce and cut artichokes effectively. He was patient, yet stern. Bullshit free. But able to joke. His crew was professional but territorial. I learned a lot in the short time I was there and it lasted a lifetime.
After working in restaurants for years I became fascinated with specialty foods. You know those high priced local or imported food items with the cute and cool packaging that contain high-quality ingredients. Specialty items usually cost more than conventional staple items due to the labor involved, packaging, ingredient cost and often food politics.
I loved visiting the specialty store and checking out the cool food items. Every time I visited a specialty store I would size up each product and think to myself “I can do that” Having no idea of the ridiculous labor that was involved. From maraschino cherries to beautiful sandwiches that used free-range meat to cookies that used a few ingredients. When I saw those items I always felt that they were doing it right. They didn’t make homogenous products. They made unique products that stood out. I felt that a lot of the specialty purveyors had the integrity to care about the ingredients that they used and have close relationships with the farmers or ingredient providers that they dealt with. When I ran a restaurant most of the items I got were from suppliers that I trusted. But this was a bit different. If I were to get into the specialty food business I would have to make a consistent product based off of my suppliers and play a major role in product packaging development.
So I decided to dive in and start a catering company that would grow into a specialty foods provider as well. Luckily, there are always people willing to taste your food experiments. I was already pretty good at candy making so my first step was perfecting a Brazillian Rum Caramel corn recipe that I was toying around with. Afterwards, I started going crazy with inventing flavors like apple pie caramel corn with pie crust, rocky road Ice cream caramel corn, vanilla chocolate cherry, spicy chipotle cheddar, Honey truffle ect. Some of them successful, some not so successful and some became my signature dessert. Afterwards, I started working on my savory products. Turkey sandwich and vegetarian wraps. Using what I felt were the best bakers in the industry I had a good source of bread. Being a professional cook is not all about cooking but finding the right sources. And having the ability to find a good purveyor is priceless. It takes networking, some common sense and getting to know your source. Lastly, it just feels right but it takes some investigation.
Most people who work in a shared kitchen follow a sort of anarchism. They are territorial, most are friendly but there are lots of egos floating around.
When preparing the turkey I knew that there was a significant difference in taste between truly free-range turkey and the Frankenturkey that you buy at the grocery store. Most of the instructions on the packaging of a store bought turkey instructs you to overcook it and compensate for the dryness by injecting it with some sort of saline solution. If you use the right turkey and it’s cooked appropriately you shouldn’t need to inject brine into it in order to make it juicy.
Before I chose a farmer who delivered, I would drive hours away to a farm that I trusted in Michigan. This is what I mean by putting in the work to get the right purveyor. My example is a bit extreme but you get the point.
I would pick up the turkey, drive my ass back to the city and take a day to prepare the turkey with honey and rosemary. It was definitely painstaking but worth it. When my first provider ran out of turkey I would go out to my second farmer where he would meet me in the city to and give me some great free range turkeys. I felt like a secret agent when we made our exchange. He was proud of the birds he provided and he had a great farm.
Soon I was selling sandwiches and snacks from out of my house to different businesses, people in various neighborhoods, co-workers, close friends, and family. People couldn’t get over it. How could a boring turkey sandwich and snacks taste so different? What black magic was I conjuring up in order to create such a thing? But there was no magic. When people would ask me how did I do it I would change the question to “Maybe we’ve lost our way when it comes to creating good tasting food because we’re focused on the bottom line?” I mean, how can you taste good mayonnaise, cheese or vegetables when the very thing they are has been altered in order to become bigger, provide a greater shelf life and increase profit. When items are treated this way they become bland and taste goes out the window only to be dominated by profit.
When you make specialty foods you cook at a loss because usually, you are making a product that won’t have a long shelf life since preservatives are not used. You are creating a product that goes against the current system in which common food products are made. Which means a big restaurant supply truck is not stopping by your kitchen to provide you most of the ingredients that you need. If you were creating standard food items then that wouldn’t be the case. But when you’re creating specialty food you have to do way more running around just to select the supplier you need.
So there are a dizzying array or supplies and inventory that you must order, organize and maintain in order to make sure that they arrive in a timely manner and that you have enough.
Again those high-quality ingredients cost a lot. So if you see a specialty product item that seems a bit pricey, you are more than likely paying for:
• Local manufacturing machine cost
• A decent wage for the employees who make the product
• Quality ingredients and or material
• Some schmuck who doesn’t know how to calculate price correctly so they blindly mark up the price in order to cover losses
I remember creating a honey and rosemary turkey sandwich with dill aioli on a tomato focaccia bread. Since the bread, turkey, and aioli contained no preservatives the sandwich needed to be sold and eaten in a day or it would go bad. That’s the risk. Even my caramel corn didn’t last long because it didn’t contain preservatives. I had to come up with creative ways of packing my product in order for it to last long. I was even more challenged when I decided to make a rum or whiskey caramel corn with uncured bacon. The bacon needed to be crispy, dehydrated and carefully candied in order for it to last. The packaging had to help seal in the flavor. One of the manufacturers that talked to at Snyders was a Godsend because he gave me some great tips on how to use the right packaging.
After selling enough products I was ready to move to the big time and make my business legal. I updated my business plan, passed the Mental Hygiene Health sanitary test ( I’ve taken both for both Chicago and New York), got a business license, leased a commercial kitchen, got inspected by the Department of Agriculture and by the Department of Health, Filled out multiple tax forms and payed stupid amounts of money for start-up cost.
If you have bags and bags of money you can lease out or build your own commercial kitchen for production. But most people (including myself) are forced to share a kitchen with a few other people when starting out.
Most people who work in a shared kitchen follow a sort of anarchism. They are territorial, most are friendly but there are lots of egos floating around. You need to be tough quick and protective of your area, supplies, and employees. I’ve seen equipment come up missing, ingredients that were thrown out without permission and very heated arguments. It’s like taking a bunch of restaurant owners and putting them all in one room. Everyone thinks that they are the best at what they do and it takes a lot to navigate through the sea of egos.
Shared commercial kitchens are also where you’ll learn more about the food industry. The do’s and don’ts. How to navigate through the bureaucracy, and getting your products on the shelf. You’ll see a lot of people fail and only a few successes. You’ll have to humble yourself and learn how to shut up. The way you organize everything, who you hire, how you create your crew and how you assemble your product could be the life and death of your business. Once one of my employees packaged a large number of my snack products upside down. I had to rip through all of my packaged items and repackage each one. Another time we ran out of product and we had to serve at least 200 people vegetarian wraps for an event. Multiple times someone “borrowed” a few ingredients from my kichen without telling me during crunch time. So you have to be ready for any and everything that could happen.
Commercial Kitchens are massive. Think at least three times the size of a restaurant kitchen. With huge ovens, multiple burners, walk-in freezers, refrigerators, cooling rooms, candy rooms and inventory space. Every piece of space is efficiently utilized and could intimidate even the most seasoned professional. Step into someone’s space and prepare to get yelled out or politely “moved” out of the way. It’s no wonder why so many different personalities are drawn to a business like this. There is a realness to it. A comradery between workers. A magic that happens that’s hard to explain. Mastering the chaos of a commercial kitchen in order to create your product gives you a feeling of accomplishment and joy, and walking into a grocery store and seeing your product on the shelf makes you feel that it was worth it.
When I created packaging for my product I was there every step of the way. It took me about a year to save the money.
I decided to uses a kickstarter/ indigogo campaign when I started but then realized it would be easier to just take the time to save the money myself. I then connected with a great designer in Sweden where we proceeded to go over various design concepts.
I wanted to make sure that I was giving back to the community so I mostly talked to the staff at the unemployment office in underserved communities. Sometimes it would take me an extremely long time to speak with a real person because my calls were always forwarded or I was placed on hold for a long time. I always thought to myself that if I’m an employer and I have to go through all of this red tape to hire someone. What must it be like for a person looking for a job? It had to be frustrating.
Word got out and I was able to hire some great workers.
I have a few rules in hiring staff. I strongly believe that you can’t teach someone home training, how to be polite or good manners. You can teach them how to fake it but that usually doesn’t last and the real person reveals him or herself. It has to be in them. It’s something that they learn growing up. If someone has a shitty attitude and they’re rude there’s nothing that I can do about it if they aren’t open to change. But I can teach a person who knows how to be polite, how to cook, prepare food and service customers because they get it. Some people don’t understand that their attitude is as important as the food that they cook. Once I had an employee who constantly disrupted other workers. She broke the flow. And when you break the flow some of your best workers aren’t working at a 100%. They become babysitters. I had to intervene promptly and swiftly. After talking to her I realized that she wasn’t trying to be an ass, she just didn’t know how to deal with other people. It always amazes me when I see people in the front of the house who shouldn’t be there. People who don’t know how to deal with other people. People who can’t take the pressure. When I see this, I never just blame them. I blame the owner.
Making a decision that is right for you to excel.
I once had a well known big box grocery store tell me that my Caramel Cachaca Crunch and Honey Truffle popcorn was great but they thought it would do better in the cheese section of their store. They suggested that I use boxes instead of bags to package my product. Easy enough, right? I only had a bag manufacturer because when I first started my business, I spent endless hours online and on the phone going over prices, shipping and labor laws with packaging and printing companies in China. I was told by others who were in the food business that getting packaging made overseas “was the way to go” and out of my own naiveté, I listened, instead of finding my own route.
I wasn’t comfortable with that decision and I decided to go my own route. I started talking to small business owners whose business model and ethics (using local and sustainable quality ingredients and utilizing local manufacturing resources in their area whenever possible.) were aligned with my own. These business owners worked hard, they were proud of their labor and it showed. I wanted to carry that pride and stand by something that I believed in.
It just made more sense for me to spend a few more extra dollars and purchase packaging from companies in the US. My decision helped me follow my rule of utilizing local manufacturing resources in my area, helped set me apart from big box store products and aligned with my ethical viewpoint of running a sustainable business.
My “Production” week
I start with strong coffee and create a task list of the day. Mondays is when I check my inventory. What items are running low, packaging, what items I need to order, ect. I check the schedule of my three employees. Usually one of them can’t come so I have to beg my girlfriend to help (remember how I mentioned that this business strains a relationship)
By 4 p.m. I’m in the kitchen prepping along with the rest of the staff while the caterer next to us keeps walking into my area and turning my music down (I use music and coffee to keep everyone up). We get into an argument. I tell her that I don’t come in her area to turn down her shitty music. This happens daily. Although we hate each other musical tastes we respect each other as cooks.
I decide to utilize a great system that my line cook put in place.
By 10:30 pm we are packaging all of our products. Weighing, heat sealing and checking labels
By 1:00 am we are breaking down boxes, cleaning, doing dishes and I’m back on inventory.
2:00 a.m. I realize I need more inventory so I’m making more sandwiches and packaging more caramel products. Afterwards, I make sure the kitchen is cleaned and the dishes are put away.
3:00 a.m. Hit the bar with my girlfriend and drink until 4 a.m.
Tuesday thru Thursday – Repeat Monday
Visit the Farmers Market. Improve a recipe. Improve my system. Do Paperwork. Visit city hall and go to a food fair.
4:00 p.m. Recieve a call from a law office and they place an order of 900 bags of snacks
4:05 p.m. Panic. Order more inventory check employee schedules.
6:00 p.m. Find out that vanilla prices in Madagascar have gone up. This may alter the price of my snack product.
6:30 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. Prep, Cook, package, Clean 2:30 a.m. make the wrong decision to go to a bar even though I need to be up by 10:00 a.m. to do a tasting on Saturday.
- Allow people to taste my product while slightly hungover.
- Allow people to criticize me
- Allow people to tell me how they love my product and how it can improve
- Allow people to come back for 4 or 5 samples without having any intention of buying a box. I’m flattered and pissed at the same time
- Feeling relieved when people purchase a box
Stop at specialty grocery stores, contact distributors to get products placed and prepare to mail potential grocery stores and distributors product Monday.
I know It’s a lot. And it absorbed a lot of my life.
I personally feel that when you focus on one thing constantly you risk the chance of your ideas becoming stale. I felt that it was important for me to get out of my element and get inspired by people, places and things outside of my field. Way too often when entrepreneurs get stuck on a goal (without adjustment) and they forget the simple joys that come with life which sometimes are the things that help inspire. I speak from the personal experience being an ex-workaholic. After my food stint, I moved to Paris. Think of it as a work vacation that allowed me to clear my mind. Although I wrote about food while I was there, most of the time I put my laptop away, drank wine, enjoyed the farmer’s markets and cooked.
When you focus too much on one thing it can throw you off and you get this tunnel vision view of your goal. Nothing else matters and it can become unhealthy and affect the people around you. Especially the ones that you love. Running a catering company single-handedly is not for the faint of heart.
After years of consulting and improving catering dishes, it can force even the most dedicated person to come up for air. So you have to have a good work-life balance.
When you get to a point in your life where one minute you’re on the phone talking to a farmer about how he treats his vanilla beans in Madagascar, Africa and the next minute you’re talking to a farmer in California about organic rice syrup. You feel good about it but you’re also burned out.
The more you learn about the business that you’re going into the more trials and tribulations you may encounter. And you have to be ready for it. The tough thing is that no one will really know what you’re going through. So you have to be vocal about it. Not overbearing but vocal enough so that your peers will know that you are busy and can offer support.
When I started a catering company I had no idea of what I was doing. I felt that I had an excellent product idea, the vision to see it through and the drive to implement it.
Luckily I was able to have some success with it even though I went into it naïvely. I didn’t think about how my life could change or how my love life would suffer due to the late hours and the unrealistic dedication that I expected from her. We’re friends now but it was tough. And it’s something that people should think about before getting into the industry. You should always ask yourself. How will this business affect me? There are some great aspects of working in the food industry but just like anything else it’s good to prep yourself and ask realistic questions in order for your business to succeed and be scalable.
Also, make sure that you align your self with positive people that you can learn from or people in the industry. I’ve worked at several restaurants for free just so that I could ask questions about the business. Or learn from someone who can motivate or be an inspiration.
There was once a guy that I kept trying to connect with due to his experience in the food industry. He was pretty popular. I kept getting the “We’ll let him contact you if he’s interested. A few weeks later I received a phone call and It was the guy that I had been trying to catch up with. Although he didn’t want to invest in my new venture he was warm, friendly and gave me words of motivation. That guy was Jerry was Jerry Greenfield from Ben and Jerry’s. And he gave me the encouragement to push through some dark times.
All in all, owning a food company is not for the faint of heart. Actually, you have to be a little crazy to do it. But with a little perseverance, you can definitely succeed at it.