042 – Business of Food Conference LIVE!
Best Food Business Advice. What if you got almost 100 local food business folks together to learn and share how to be more successful and avoid common pitfalls? You’d have the Business of Food Conference held June 20th at the Omni. I was thrilled to be named a Community Partner and spent the day recording interviews, gathering valuable tips and information to strengthen our food community.
The result is five terrific short interviews, each one offering a different viewpoint from a unique area of our local food scene.
First up is Melissa Meece, owner of Firefly Restaurant and Arcade, a living tribute to its founder Mark Weber, who passed away from cancer in January 2015. His girlfriend Melissa inherited the restaurant and carries on his legacy and wish to create a community space around food, games, and fun. Through craft beers, ping pong, skeeball, pinball, board games and a great menu of family friendly favorites, Firefly does this and so much more. And the tips Melissa had for encouraging other food businesses to share their story and their history with customers are ones you don’t want to miss. I’d love to have her on a future podcast – Firefly is a great space, and Mark’s spirit lives on in the smiles of its patrons.
Next up is Cass Cannon, owner of Peg’s Salt. Not your ordinary table salt, Peg’s is a special seasoning salt using kosher flake and 25 different spices. A secret family recipe created by her mother Peg. I use it on pasta but you could literally throw it on any food to make it taste just a bit better. Peg’s Salt can be found in over 40 stores throughout the region including Whole Foods, Greenwood Grocery, Great Value in Crozet, and Ellwood Thompson in Richmond. I loved hearing the story of how this public relations expert took an old family recipe and her love for marketing to create a successful artisanal food business. You will too. A terrific lady and someone I hope to talk with again.
Third we have Eric Breckoff, Program Head and Associate Professor of Culinary Arts for PVCC at the Jefferson School. In this role, Eric teaches, supervises other faculty, and performs important administrative duties like managing purchasing and the budget. Important for a program like PVCC, which currently has 15 students who have recently completed their that 2-year program and 14 young chefs enrolled in their first year. PVCC’s Culinary Arts program includes five semesters and covers every aspect of food business and the culinary arts. Sure there are classes in knife skills and sautéeing, but also nuts-and-bolts courses in cost control, purchasing, menu planning, nutrition, and food safety and sanitation. I loved hearing about the behind the scenes aspects of running a restaurant. The unglamorous aspects you rarely hear about, but are just as important as running a successful business. Because as Eric so rightly stated, without them the whole ship sinks.
Arley Arrington of Arley Cakes is a former artist who translated her passion for the visual into beautiful edible creations. Have you seen her Instagram? Wow! Gorgeous stuff! She should teach next year’s breakout session on food photography! I first tasted Arley’s creations at Brookville Restaurant, where Arley has waitressed on and off for the past five years and where Chef Harrison Keevil suggested one day, “Hey, why don’t you come in next Tuesday night and bake a pie?” Thus a food business was born. Recently Arley has branched out into wedding cake territory. How did she learn the fine craft of icing roses and tiered cake skyscrapers? Why are visual aesthetics so important to her and her new food business? Listen to find out. Her thoughtful responses are so reflective of the supportive food community in Charlottesville that I continue to discover and be constantly amazed by. We truly live in a special place folks. And I’m eager to have Arley on sometime for a much longer conversation.
Lastly, but by no means leastly, we have Marty Butts of Small Potatoes, who specializes in food business consulting. Marty was a featured speaker at the conference, and my personal favorite. The minute he opened his mouth at his first breakout session, I knew I had to speak with him. In our conversation we talk about the pluses and minuses around Yelp, but more importantly, how he teaches his Foodshed Model to help businesses learn what exactly is “local” and what isn’t. Which is unique to each area of our country. And infinitely complex.
Marty discovered his passion when he looked around his community of Syracuse, New York and saw many food producers who had difficulty expanding beyond their immediate region. By stepping in to help, sometimes acting as a sales representative, other times acting as a marketing guru, he helped these producers succeed in an ever-changing market. This led to a career in consulting and education, traveling the country to speak at events about the complex world of local, organic, sustainable.
Marty’s mission is to help small food businesses grow. His past experiences working as a buyer and merchandiser in food co-ops and grocery stores has also helped him spread knowledge where it needs to go. The Johnny Appleseed of local, organic, sustainable if you will. Helping get people engaged with local food in emerging small-scale food producing markets like Charlottesville, Virginia.
Is local 100 miles or 300 miles? When you see buzzwords like additive-free, organic, all-natural, what should you expect? What does each term mean exactly? It can get very specific but Marty helped navigate this complex arena. Connection, community, inclusiveness, transparency, strong relationships. All are important core values in small food businesses. How do you grow locally, regionally, nationally? Transparency especially is becoming increasingly important. Just ask any farm to table restaurant in Tampa. Or the folks at Chipotle.
Is a sense of place important? What aspects of a community make its food scene unique? Should you build your brand according to a sense of place? Build it around where you’re from because that creates a unique identity? And does this uniqueness help or hurt as you attempt to expand? What does Marty think is a good example of that? And which business does exactly that and is the one he noticed first upon arriving in Charlottesville? Listen to find out!
Food has cultural impact. As he says so well, chefs and farmers are treated like rock stars these days, helping to define the culture of a community while at the same time being one of the building blocks of local economy. Which is very powerful. And very cool.
Marty is such an amazing speaker, knowledgeable and interesting and quick. I did the ugly laugh more than once. I absolutely loved our conversation and I know you will too, as well as all of the other great local folks I talked with during this year’s Business of Food Conference. Enjoy!
Important Tips for Food Business Owners That Came Up During Our Conversations:
- It’s important to keep open communication, both between an employer and employee and between an owner and their customer.
- Use video on your homepage to tell the story of your business
- Do you have a mission statement? What are your business’s core values? Before you do anything else with your business, do this.
- Human resources law which is an important, but often overlooked aspect of a food business. In the hiring process, what questions can you ask and not ask? In the old days restaurant kitchens were the Wild West, but these days a wrong word or action can derail a business. How do you stay ethically and legally compliant?
- What technology, social media, or apps do these folks use to make running their business easier?
- Are folks moving away from Facebook toward visual social media like Instagram and Pinterest? Being able to take a great picture of your product is becoming more and more important every day. And not always possible under dim restaurant lights.
- Packaging is so important and often overlooked. If your bottle of barbecue sauce is too tall to fit within a store set it might be relegated somewhere to the back. Or the buyer may not purchase it at all. Making sure your product displays well, and is the right amount size-wise, is just as important as your branding.
- Even if you’ve been in business a while, there is always more to learn. Things like taxes, accounting, finances, and regulations change all the time which is why conferences like this are so valuable. Get away from your business sometimes to learn and network!
SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:
- The Charlottesville 29 Restaurant Auctions – Every dollar you bid goes toward four meals for our area’s hungry. Auctions close DAILY starting yesterday so bid early and often for the chance to win a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience!
- Central Virginia Small Business Development Center – Need help with your small business? SBDC offers one-on-one counseling for free and many events and courses, often free or for just a small fee.
- The Sporkful Podcast – Is the burrito a sandwich or not? This fun podcast asks and answers the important questions.
This episode is sponsored by In A Flash Laser Engraving.
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