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Poking the Yolk: How to transform your food product concept (Part I of IV)

August 16, 2016

From home kitchen recipe to grocery shelf moneymaker:

How to transform your food product concept

By Bruno J. Codispoti, Founding Partner, BrandFusion; Co-Founder at Crazy Uncle Cocktails

    Here’s the first installment in a four-part series featuring material from my book Food Fight Inc.: An Entrepreneur’s Journey and Subsequent Lessons on Trying to Make Money in the Grocery Business, scheduled for release in early 2017.

    It’s time to gently poke the fragile membrane to let all that trapped goodness come oozing out. Onward! That’s what I’d say to all of the hopeful food entrepreneurs deliberating over whether it’s time to make their move into the wonderful world of grocery retail. I’m picturing the conga line of foodies and wannabe (consumer packaged goods) moguls that I’ve had the pleasure of sitting across from, armed with their tasting sample in one hand and a skeletal business plan in the other. From the muesli-multigrain pancake mix maiden to the navy bean-based-butter-tart baron, I can still clearly see their expressions of determination mixed with a crumb of trepidation.

    After dispensing with pleasantries, the barrage of routine and foundational industry questions begin to roll in. Questions like: Where and how do I begin? Do you think that my product has what it takes? How much money can I make? How much money will I need to bankroll the launch, and how long will it typically take to make my investment back? What should I expect to be on the hook for if it doesn’t work? With whom can I speak to commercialize my recipe and have it mass-produced?

    These questions, steeped in both enthusiasm and suspicion, are about the path and probability of transforming a leisurely cooking pursuit into a moneymaking food enterprise. Despite the unlikely probability of a positive from-play-to-profit transformation, I make it a personal goal to never smother or douse someone’s craving for wanting something more. I’m sure that, before they’ve come in to chat, they have had to endure their fair share of killjoys.

    The logical solution to quenching a thirst is to drink something, and take it all in. So, in my view, moving to action is always the best prescription. Move wisely and move slowly with a calculated risk and an acknowledgement that the likelihood of failure is lurking around the corner. Remember, scalability is vital. Start small, start local and move to poke the yolk and break the membrane to get the process rolling.

    One of two scenarios will ensue: either you’ll find that the mission is going to take much more time, investment and nerve than you have to offer; or, you’ll eventually trip and stumble into a manageable rhythm and make it to the finish line. Regrettably, the former scenario is the more prevalent outcome. However, even if the launch is disastrous, I’ll bet the person who moves to exercise the following steps will be more satisfied, and will have achieved proper closure with how they arrived at the outcome compared with the person who places their concept on the back burner and ends up living with “what if?” regrets.

    Okay, let’s run through a few useful and inexpensive tricks of the trade to get you out of the kitchen and into The Hunger Games. But first things first. It should go without saying: Have you recently conducted a comprehensive store audit within each of your targeted retail customers? Have you searched deep online to see if any similar products have recently popped up? If it has been more than two months since you’ve strolled down the grocery aisles to check out your competition, get into your car and double back to ensure that the coast is still clear. I can’t tell you how many times Murphy’s Law will spoil the broth when you turn your back for a split second. If I had a cucumber for each time we had a cool food concept, took too long to launch it, only to discover that another company marginally beat us in the race to the shelf, I’d have a full barrel of pickles by now.

     Assuming that the cluttered grocery landscape still appears fertile and hospitable after conducting your store audits and extensive web-searching, there are a number of relatively inexpensive steps that you can take to start preheating the oven:

     Food Shows: visit Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s website (agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/trade-events/canada), or Food Reference’s website (foodreference.com/html/us-food-festivals.html) in the US, for a comprehensive list of both consumer and trade events in your local area and abroad. Most of the shows are open to the general public for a nominal on-site entry fee. Aside from aisle after red-carpeted aisle packed with a wealth of free tasting samples, it’s hands down the best venue to get a quick and conveniently itemized snap shot of new players, new product trends, enthusiastic supply partners and likeminded food entrepreneurs. You’ll be able to rub elbows with more food industry folk in a chatty mood that can help you with your business in one afternoon, than you could travelling the country for months.

    On any other day, it would be next to impossible to get a return phone call from that artisan contract packer in New Orleans that produces the killer Andouille sausage you want for your frozen gumbo entrée line. But at the show, you get to chat up the company’s President and exchange stories, pork recipes and business cards so that when you ring him up a few weeks later, he’ll probably call you back. You also get to toss a couple of fresh sausage links into your free tote bag so that you can try them in your recipe over the weekend.

    Trade shows can also serve as a sobering eye-opener. You’ll quickly notice how many new and remarkably interesting and attractive products are introduced; products that sadly won’t graduate into grocery stores, or at least, won’t stay there long enough for you to see and taste again. Perhaps more discouragingly, you’ll also smell an air of desperation wafting out from behind the rows of vendor booths that haven’t been able to draw interest from the hungry crowds.

    Midway through a trade show walk, I’ll take a rest across from a struggling booth to sip a free espresso sample while I try to appreciate the long road that’s led them there. After having invested, and put faith in similar food events from Halifax to Vancouver, and from Florida to California, I can empathize with their situation. I’ll ask myself questions like: Has their journey thus far been relatively stress-free? Or did they have to borrow start-up money from a relative or mortgage their home to finance the first production run?

    Taking a closer look at their product, I’m asking myself why the heck they decided to go with a clear pressure sensitive label over a shrink-sleeve collar that could’ve helped to hide the offensive liquid separation in the bottle? I’m wondering if they’ve seen the uncannily similar beverage that’s on display in the crowded booth a few aisles over. I’m hoping they sell enough cases and bank enough margin to be able to continue to fund the never ending battle that lies ahead.

    Having said all this, please don’t feel dejected. Instead, soak it all in because it might be you on the other side of the black-skirted foldable table next year. One of the most valuable items that you can grab at a food show, aside from the free prosciutto di Parma, is a show guide, which will have a complete list of exhibitor company profiles and their detailed contact information. It’s typically crammed with contract packers and packaging suppliers.

   Looking for something cheese related? From international artisanal cheese makers to extruded cheesie snack  contract packers to spray-cheese-in-can companies, you’ll find them in the book. If you decide to only hit one event, The Fancy Food Show (specialtyfood.com) is a safe, fun and tasty bet. There’s one in San Francisco during the winter, and another in New York City during the summer. For the mother of all food events, jump on a plane to Cologne, Germany at the end of January to visit the ISM show (ism-cologne.com).

Let it Simmer ~

  1. Have you recently conducted a detailed store audit to ensure that another company hasn’t begun to eat your lunch?
  2. Have you visited a food trade show? If so, were you able to connect with any contract packers, distributors or brokers relevant to your mission? Did you find any product concepts similar to your own? If so, what’s your takeaway on their brand, packaging, messaging, ingredients and retail price point? How does your product compare?

    Unless you’re an Adobe Illustrator design pro, investing in a praiseworthy package design is an investment I suggest that you may want to consider loosening up your purse strings for. To be continued in Part II: The Importance of Packaging Design and Genuine Consumer Input.


Article written by Bruno J. Codispoti. Bruno is the Founding Partner, BrandFusion, as well as the Co-Founder at Crazy Uncle Cocktails.