Ian Pasquarelli has seen it all. He's developed CPG brands for some of the largest companies in the world (no, he can't say which ones!). He's helped food businesses large and small, both as a part of Cooperative Extension and an independent industry consultant. He's seen food brands fail and succeed, and he's helped them launch, grow and scale. While he's based in the Boston area, his advice and best practices for small makers is universal. And if you'd like to work with Ian, he can be reached via his website!
Read on for his valuable take on small food entrepreneurship.
FB: Your whole career has been supporting food entrepreneurs. Have there been any success stories of entrepreneurs that you've helped that have stuck out?
IP: Certainly. I first started working with food businesses in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of my favorite stories is my good friend, Susan: she launched a gluten-free bread business, called Orange Dot Baking Co. The first day she came into my office and said “Hey, I have this idea. My son is celiac, and I've been making these gluten free breads for years. I want to start selling them.” Long story short, she's in 40 stores now and considering her 3rd expansion. She's done so much of it on her own, and I've been along for the ride. It's been really great to help her achieve her goals.
FB: Is there a common characteristic of businesses that haven't succeeded?
IP: There are many different ways to fail a business and it happens all the time. But often a common thread is that you see people fear the regulatory side of things. I've worked with health departments and departments of agriculture for years and they don't want to see anyone fail, they want to help you succeed. If you don't ask them questions, if you don't go to them first honestly, they can't help you succeed. They just want to make sure that you're doing it safely. If you're secretive, or dishonest, they can't feel good about what you do. People don't understand how much gray area there is on the regulatory side - a lot of things are interpretive. If you're not working with the groups that can help you succeed, it's going to be a lot tougher.
FB: You come from a Cooperative Extension background. Can you give the Extension pitch?
IP: Cooperative Extension is one of the most versatile and helpful, often free, resources available in almost every state. And nobody knows about it. It's a wealth of knowledge based in science, research and data. It's all trustworthy and it's so purposeful for sustainable farming and successful businesses. So often it goes untapped!
FB: Are there any other resources for an entrepreneur that doesn't know anything about food safety because they're coming from another industry?
IP: Absolutely. Food safety is of the biggest concerns that people don't really know anything about if they haven't been in the industry, and yet it's the backbone of what makes you successful. It only takes one incident to severely damage a food business. We all saw what happened to Chipotle. Think back to the Chi Chi's outbreak - they don't even have restaurants in the United States anymore. It can destroy a brand. In terms of resources, Servsafe is the standard. Every region is different in terms of what's available to you, but I taught food safety at Extension and that can be a great resource. We covered everything from food production to on-farm safety.
FB: What's your opinion of Whole Foods? Are they still worth working with?
IP: With the Amazon acquisition, the main difficulty is that there's more hoops now. For a lot of food businesses, Whole Foods was the holy grail and the end goal, but now there are other options. With e-commerce and direct-to-consumer, there's a whole other avenue. I think the main thing brands should be aware of is the preparations needed in food safety and being able to pass third-party audits. What used to be internal at Whole Foods is now often being outsourced to third-party auditing companies, which can be more strict and stressful to producers.
FB: And who does a small business work with when they're preparing for one of those audits?
IP: Me! Independent consultants, or directly with the local health and agriculture departments, speaking with local experts. And free resources like Extension.
FB: What are some of the levers that help scale a business?
IP: It's very dependent on scale and category. In general, it's taking a step back, getting an outside perspective, and not being afraid to reach out to others in your industry. You may think that someone is your competitor, but a rising tide lifts all ships. The food community is collaborative. Why does it hurt to shoot someone an email and say, “I'm having a challenge. Can you talk to me about it?” And most of the time, they'll reply and say, “We did this, so make sure you avoid it.” Worst-case scenario, they say no.
FB: How does an entrepreneur who's never done market research before begin?
IP: Go to a grocery store. Try to find every single product in every single store you'd want to be sold. What does it taste like? What is it made of? What's the aroma, what's the crunch and texture? Anything you can find for competitive analysis, go for it. Buy it online, search it in Google. All of these things are tools. If you don't know what's out there, you can't know what to develop against or alongside. I can't tell you how many times I've done that.
FB: Is there a type of person who makes a really good food entrepreneur?
IP: Entrepreneurship is a mindset, not a person. It's somebody who's willing to try, fail, learn, and try again. There are tools to thinking entrepreneurially. And there are things you learn - like reaching out to competitors. If you don't ask things of people, you won't get anything back. And don't try to do everything yourself! Reach out, ask questions, ask for feedback. Even if you don't get something out of someone that you wanted, ask for a connection to someone else. And follow up and say thank you when you're done.
Finally, fail and fail fast. People can get really attached - whether it's a recipe or a look or a flavor - when it's the thing that's holding you back. You have to listen, and be okay with letting go. It can be the toughest decision, but it can save you a bunch of time, money, and effort in the end.
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