by Carlos C. Olaechea
Every month, Beacon Hill Partners sponsors a Startup Stir event that brings in different professionals to offer advice to individuals considering starting their own business. On Thursday, September 18th, the evening was all about food as a panel of seasoned professionals offered their insights on starting a food business at Workbar in Cambridge. Those in attendance were given some time to mix and mingle, as well as sample some of the panelists’ own products, include ZOOS Greek Iced Tea, Downeast Cider House’s unique brews, Tribe Mediterranean Food’s new hummus and pita chip snack pack, and addictive donut holes from Union Square Donuts.
At 6:30 PM everyone took their seats, and the panelists took center stage and offered stories as to how they all started their businesses, the sometimes-bumpy roads that had to be taken, and how they managed to achieve success.
Josh Danhoff, of Union Square Donuts, offered that one of the most valuable tools available to budding food businesses in Boston are kitchen incubators that allow startups to rent licensed kitchen space to prepare their foods. They are one of the best, most risk-free ways to test out a product. Union Square Donuts started out this way before moving to their own location, and after much success were able to get a newer, larger location that will be open in October.
Ross Brockman, of Downeast Cider House, had started his company with friends from college right after graduating and notes that the regulation and licensing processes can be grueling. Sometimes it is necessary for business startups to bluff, stretch the truth, and skirt the rules in order to make it through that hurdle. Nevertheless, it is what he deems a naïve excitement for launching your product that gets you through it.
Christina Tsoupiras’s own experience in launching ZOOS Greek Iced Tea parallels Brockman’s in that she started marketing her product across social media before she even had any product to sell. Half of the battle, according to her, is establishing a lifestyle brand, and sometimes it’s best to “fake it ‘til you make it.” Her iced teas are now featured in over 100 retailers. She continues that it is beneficial to team up with people who have complimentary personality traits – if you are creative, it is best to have someone practical on your team.
Jim Mitchell was perhaps the panelist with the most experience at starting food businesses in the Boston area. He maintains that “success is a cognizable commodity,” and that “it’s not a mystery.” When he helped start Steve’s Ice Cream in Davis Square, they had placed the ice cream makers at the front of the store by the windows so that passersby would be attracted by the drama of the beaters dripping with freshly churned ice cream. Upon opening Bertucci’s, which is now one of the most popular casual Italian chains in the Boston area, he applied the same concept that made Steve’s a success, placing the pizza ovens by the windows. By the time he opened Fire + Ice, he had figured out that what had made his restaurants successful was that touch of the dramatic. It is important for business owners to find that successful model either in their own businesses or in those of their competitors.
Keeping an eye on your competition was something that Adam Carr was very familiar with. As president and CEO Tribe Mediterranean Foods, best known for its hummus, his focus is always on Sabra, which controls roughly 60% of the market. He keeps packages of all of his competitors’ products in his office so that he never forgets that his isn’t the only product out there, and by looking at different brands, he can apply models that work, as well as improve upon models that don’t.
Overall, the panel was an excellent opportunity to pick at the brains of people who have been there and done that and offered choice insight into what it takes for someone to start their own food business not only in Boston, but anywhere. The most encouraging message of the evening was not only the fact that it is possible for a food business idea to have success, but that there is also a world of help and support in this town to get you on that path.