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

November 21, 2016

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

Here’s the final instalment 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.

Preparing for the Big Leagues

There are quite a few meaningful and more manageable food venues to begin selling your product in than with a traditional grocery retailer. To test the waters and validate your concept’s potential, before breaking the bank and your back on investments linked to gearing up for larger production runs, consider offering a single, medium-sized, regional retail chain a short-term exclusivity. For a start-up food enterprise, aside from the perhaps more common B-to-C on-line store opportunities, consider cutting your teeth at local farmers’ markets and food fairs. My personal favourite is the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto (evergreen.ca). To boot, the larger the retailer, the longer it will take to get a return phone call or email, let alone a meeting to pitch your product. Without a buyer relationship to lean on, you might end up watching the snow fall in December and then melt away in April before you get an ambiguous, one sentence voicemail or email reply.

A few years ago I had the privilege to work with Covenant House Toronto—an incredible organization that provides much needed 24/7 crisis care to homeless youth, aged 16 to 24—on a food-driven social enterprise concept. The catalyst for the program was The Covenant House’s successful and well established ‘Cooking for Life’ program which teaches their kids the necessary culinary skills required to build a career in the food service industry. The program operated out of an onsite training kitchen armed with essential restaurant equipment. The social enterprise initiative was centered on utilizing the kitchen facility to support a food business that would manufacture a few choice homemade hot sauces that the kids had created. TAXI, the well-respected Toronto marketing agency that also happened to have fashioned our Crazy Uncle® cocktail brand, had created an exciting brand for the project that conveyed the mission’s powerful message and unique point of difference.

As the project evolved, and particularly because I was the only participant with grocery industry experience, I felt a mounting sense of obligation to ensure that a foray into grocery wasn’t viewed through rose-coloured glasses. Deep down I knew that, despite our product’s admirable and influential social cause, we’d be primarily measured by our product’s quality and efficacy, our ability to fill a category need, our packaging design impact, and ultimately, our ability to fulfill orders and generate a profit.

As much as I love a wickedly good hot sauce, there isn’t a shortage of mind and mouth blowing options in the market. And, despite instantly falling in love with TAXI’s clever brand name, narrative and design approach, I felt that grocers would be quick to accept a first order because of the charitable intent, but then hang us out to dry once the sales fell short. What type of destructive message would that send to the kids?

Instead, we decided to set up shop at local farmers’ markets and food fairs. The scaled-down approach would allow the team the opportunity to engage with consumers first hand. It would allow them to learn and to tweak their recipes, packaging format, packaging design, and pricing before investing to print large minimum runs of labels and running too much inventory—you tend to think and operate differently with the pressure of having to stare at a warehouse full of impatient product. I was also banking on the farmer’s market experience to temper the team’s lofty sales volume ambitions.

Given that we hadn’t performed proper shelf life tests, these smaller venues would also allow us to understand how our recipe aged and reacted over time: Would the colour and flavour hold up, or would it brown and the flavour impact fade after only a couple of months? In the end, if your mission proves to be too complicated and costly to bring to grocery, or if consumers just don’t respond as you had hoped, you’ll know before you’ve bet the farm.

Let it Simmer ~

  1. Where can you start selling your product to gain momentum, to learn more and to iron out any kinks before you step up to the big leagues?
  1. Is your business model scalable? How fast can you go from zero to a hundred if a large retail chain throws a purchase order in your lap?

In the end, walking food shows, investing in a proper packaging design, listening to consumer feedback, investigating supply partners, and setting up shop in a local market will not only help you cultivate your business safely and organically, it’ll aid you in writing a compelling story and in mastering your one-minute-sales-pitch. You’ll build a convincing case for the larger retail chains who will then be more apt to hold your hand and to collaborate when you bring them concrete in-market results. This scalable approach isn’t only for newbie start-up companies. It’s how we’ve carefully approached many of our more questionable product launches in the effort to learn before leaping, to avoid wasting money, and to keep the fire stoked when we’re just not entirely sure how things will go on the big stage. Go on now, grab that fork and poke the yolk. 


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