on running a small food business

As a youngster, making chocolate covered cherries with my great grandma

As a youngster, making chocolate covered cherries with my great grandma

Chocolate covered cherries, all grown up

Chocolate covered cherries, all grown up

Since I was little, I have found ways to integrate creative expression into my daily life. Thanks to my family, this was encouraged in many ways: learning to knit and crochet in 4-H as a 3rd grader, candy making and baking with my grandparents, canning with my mom, the list goes on. I like to think that this eclectic and creative up-bringing has lead me to lead a life where I constantly coming up with new ideas and creative processes that I can hardly contain.

Running my own small food business has been a greatly rewarding venture. As I explore new confections and recipes, I am greeted with family stories of molasses cookies at the holidays or divinity that grandma always made. The process feeds both my creative side and my love for the exploration of traditions, community and culture. 

But it's not all peaches and cream. There are so many challenges to being the "little guys and gals" and operating on a small scale. Meanwhile, scaling up can lead to a loss in creativity in the process, becoming methodical and mindless instead (I think of this when wrapping thousands of caramels in a single day...). Additionally, navigating local food policy can at times be a nightmare! Most of the policies (not all, there are some great cottage foods laws in place, and for that, I am grateful!) are geared for the corporate producer. 

As Snowshoe Candy Co. has grown, I have gotten a closer look at other makers and their creative processes, and has had me asking both myself and others "why do we do this, when there are so many roadblocks?" Here is what I have found:

Why start a small food business?

  1. You have something great and want to share it!
    I my case, I have my grandpa's caramel recipe and the many positive memories that come with it. When I first started making them,and sharing them with friends, I would watch their faces light up and experience their joy at the sweet flavors of an intentionally crafted caramel. What more could you want! 

    After talking with Clayton, of The Grey Plume, about why he does what he does (working upwards and beyond 100 hours each week...) he commented on his passion for the craft and his belief in local foods. Then, I think of my friend Chad, of Cure Cooking. He has such a passion for the craft of curing meats and crafting good foods, and it shows in everything he makes.

  2. Be your own boss
    Having the flexibility to explore food in new ways is liberating. Allowing the flavors that present themselves, both seasonally and locally, opens the door to so many possibilities! 
     
  3. Create something that tells a story
    There is a funny thing being a farmer and a candy maker. I have a memory from a few years back, as I was transitioning from farming season to candy season and I ran into one of our regular farmer's market customers at the grocery store. My cart was loaded with corn syrup and a 25 pound sack of sugar. We greeted each other and after a bit of small talk she noticed my cart and remarked "Oh! I didn't think you did that." We both chuckled and went on our ways. It made me think a lot about what I was doing. From vegetables to sugar in a matter of months, did seem a little strange. But then I really thought about my caramels: I make a treat that special and savored, born from tradition. Each year, I find myself incorporating more locally sourced ingredients. My candies are not just candy, they are a story that is shared through a recipe. 

It's not always easy...

  1. So many policies, so little time
    Since the beginning of Snowshoe Candy Co., I have cooked in three different kitchens, in three separate counties, in two different states. Starting in Omaha, in Douglas County, I rented a kitchen space from a friend who owns a restaurant. In a conveniently close-to-home location, the kitchen served me well for year one. However, to have the proper permits I was paying nearly $400 per year on top of my hourly kitchen rental. As a small business, nearly all of my profits were redirected to affording the base costs of operation.

    With more exploration and conversation with the Health Department (who was extremely helpful and patient with me as I navigated through County policy), I discovered that while the State of Nebraska has certain base line policies, Douglas County has their own set of policies and permit fees that are drastically different from the rest of the state. A simple move to a kitchen in Washington County, one county to the north, cut my permit fees in half and then some. 

    Most recently, with our impending move to Crescent, Iowa, I began exploring the Iowa food policies. Here, I was delighted to find that there are a great set of cottage food laws. While Nebraska has some cottage food laws (you can bake cookies, jams and jellies out of the home, but for sale only at farmer's markets, which doesn't line up with candy season...), Iowa is lightyears ahead -- For instance, you can bake cookies out of the home with a permit (only $33/year) and can sell them at market, direct-to-consumer and wholesale, for up to $20,000 per year in sales! An inspector still inspects the kitchen and there are certain requirements for a suitable space, but the capacity for starting a small food business is greatly increased by reducing the barriers to entry. While I still make my candies in a commercial kitchen, the permit fee is based on my annual income, unlike the flat rate permit fees I paid in Nebraska. 

    Perhaps the most challenging thing about local food policies, is that they are so variable and it's often times hard to find a comprehensive guide to what governs your product. While you may think you are following the policies to your best capacity, there are many different departments that regulate food items (health department, labeling, inspections and appeals, etc.) and the code is scattered throughout. It is a constant learning curve.
     
  2. Sourcing high quality ingredients on a small scale
    When making food for home consumption, we often buy ingredients on a need-to-use basis. And lucky for us, there are some great companies and distributors out there, that provide high-quality, equitably sourced ingredients. For instance, and an ingredient that I use a lot of, let's consider corn syrup. Wholesome Sweeteners makes a non-GMO corn syrup that is a great alternative to generic corn syrup and can be used as you would any corn syrup. However, it is only available in 11.2 oz containers. For one batch of caramels I use 32 oz of corn syrup and would rather not throw out three plastic bottles in the process, not to mention the price. In my years of research, I have found one commercially available non-GMO corn syrup, but it is manufactured in California and to ship it to the Midwest would nearly double my ingredient costs! Yowza.
     
  3. Pricing accessibly while finding a way to pay yourself...
    Pricing is probably my (and any other small producer's) least favorite part of the process and probably the least creative part as well. It is equally as hard in farming too. Many an interaction at the farmers market where people scoff at the price of our bunch of carrots. How can you capture the hours of labor, the cost of seeds, the exposure to weather and other environmental risks, when pricing a bunch of carrots? We as a culture have become dependent on a food market that is flooded with low prices. I studied economics in college and understand the basics of supply, demand and economies of scale, but I often wonder the true impact of low cost manufactured food, not just on our personal health, but on the health of our communities? Suddenly, we have taken away the relationship that is formed through food -- we are buying an anonymous bunch of carrots or bag of candy, with no face and no story. Personally, I have grown to want more from my food than that, and feel most nourished when my food is provided by a human rather than a shelf. I know that there are people behind the manufactured foods as well, but I wonder if they are feeling full from the process of creating those goods?

    And then, you have to think about paying yourself! Both my farmer friends and my foodie friends predominantly have off-farm jobs or other sources of income. I have a spreadsheet with columns and equations that help me to figure my prices and without it, I'd be at a loss. I think about it like some of my artist friends must think about pricing their art: where in the price do you factor in the years of art school or the life altering experience that inspired your piece? 

Oh, the possibilities!

  1. Creativity is essential
    In each of the kitchens I have had the opportunity to use, I have crossed paths with other chefs that have both inspired and influenced my craft. While in Douglas County, my friend Clayton, owner of The Grey Plume was a constant source of inspiration. His unique and creative approach to traditional flavors gave me new ideas on crafting caramel flavors. Provisions by the Grey Plume, a storefront and demonstration kitchen space, is filled with preserves and other locally sourced edibles. As I moved to Washington County, sharing a kitchen with Chad has similarly been inspiring in its own way. Before moving to Omaha, Chad and his wife Cynthia lived in Madagascar for 5 years. Here, he operated a similar business making and curing meats and cheeses. He also worked for Madacasse Chocolate, helping to craft chocolate bar flavors. And, he had access to a world of spices that are incomparable to anything commercially accessible. It is where we source our vanilla beans and several of our spices, including cloves and cinnamon. And let us not forget about Chad's bacon, which has made several appearances in my confections over the past year! Allowing these moves from kitchen to kitchen to help me grow rather than hold me back has resulted in some of my favorite new recipes!
     
  2. Showcase local flavors in ways that aren't possible for the "big guys"
    Fortunately, there is a good network of local producers throughout the region who care passionately about their craft. For instance, Grain Place Foods, in central Nebraska sources locally produced grains and mills them into flours, and have been doing so for several generations! And as the local foods movement grows, we have access to more and more ingredients locally. Enter FarmTable Delivery. FarmTable Delivery, founded by my friend Ellen, is a local distributor that sources ingredients from regional producers and makes them accessible on any scale. Often times they are bulk ingredients and priced at wholesale, making them very accessible for my small business. FarmTable and other area food hubs play an incredibly important role in connecting local farmers and producers to local businesses. As I incorporate more local ingredients (this year, we are sourcing our butter from WW Homestead Farms!) it is fun to taste the subtle changes in flavor that occur in each batch. 
     
  3. Local food is a movement not a fad
    One of the most important parts of the puzzle to owning a small food business is finding your niche. With a growing support for local foods and makers, we as a community are shifting the paradigm. Our food doesn't have to be anonymous, and I would argue it tastes better when it isn't. In the short history of Snowshoe Candy Co. I have found that by sharing my story, I have developed relationships with my customers that have grown into friendships.

    To live in a time where our community is asking for more from their food is truly incredible. The amount of support I have received from both friends, family, and strangers alike, has allowed me to explore my creative process in ways I never could have imagined. I feel fortunate every day (even when I am a little bit stressed by the nature of owning your own business), to have found my niche and to feel that support. 

On owning a small food business, it does not come without it's fair share of challenges, but is an experience that cannot be replaced. This experience of community connection fuels my creativity. It feels part of something bigger; bigger than a caramel and much bigger than my little food business. 

Morsels of advice:

  1. Ask questions and ask for help: I have received so much help throughout the process of becoming a business by asking questions and sharing my challenges! There is a lot of collective knowledge out there, and asking for help may be just the tool you need to unlock it.
  2. Start small (tiny even!): It is okay to start small and grow gradually. As you learn more about yourself and your niche, you can continue to make things that you want to be making, rather than something you feel like you have to make because you jumped in too soon. 
  3. Set goals: As you grow, and as I have grown, setting goals makes growth feel attainable. 
  4. You can do it and it may not be what you set out to make: Allow change! So important to allow your business to grow and change. A perfect example comes from a set of makers I recently met, Jackie and Micah of Coffee Diem Dry Goods. Jackie and Micah craft beautiful cutting boards, reclaimed wood coasters and bottle openers. When I asked them how they came to have "coffee" in their name, they told me that they had originally started their venture with the intention of having a coffee cart and made wooden items on the side. Quickly, they realized that the coffee business wouldn't be financially supportive and they enjoyed the wood working process. So they adapted, and are growing in new ways!