Licensing, packaging, knowing your niche: Columbia culinary businesses share tips

Entrepreneurs who have built food and beverage businesses shared lessons they have learned through the course of their careers at Culinary Jumpstart, an event hosted Thursday by the Columbia Entrepreneurship Alliance. The virtual session included presentations from individuals who have either started culinary businesses themselves or work with organizations that help individuals do so.

Rebecca Miller of Peggy Jean’s Pies, located on the south side of Columbia, led off the event. Miller works with her mother to make handcrafted pies of all varieties. She adheres to the mindset that if it is made in a pie shell, her business will create it.

Miller has identified made-from-scratch pies as her niche, so when customers request items outside of this area, she graciously declines.

“When you want to keep pleasing your customers, it is a really slippery slope because people are like, ‘Why not this? Why not that?'” Miller said.

Watch more: See all the Culinary Jumpstart presentations

Miller continues to occupy a physical storefront, as well as offer delivery, when some businesses like hers opt to sell their products only in grocery stores. Though a physical presence may not be ideal for every business, Miller feels that hers is enhanced through that storefront.

“To me, (Peggy Jean’s Pies) is like a person,” Miller said. “She is almost like my third child, and I think she needs a place where you can come in. She has a vibe, a feel. She fits with what we are trying to build, our aesthetic.”

The importance of packaging and persistence

For Jesse Walters, founding Columbia coffee roastery Camacho Coffee stemmed from his efforts to find coffee his wife, Megan, could drink. After Megan had adverse reactions to other coffees, Walters started roasting his own beans to find a blend palatable to her.

Soon his friends and colleagues had tried the blend and wanted to know where they could purchase more. After a grocery store contacted him to carry his coffee, Walters jumped headlong into the business and has never looked back.

Over the past four years, Walters has seen the importance that packaging plays in a product’s success. Early on, he chose the most cost-efficient packaging, only to learn that its quality was inferior to that of competing brands.

“Look at your competitors in the industry and see what kind of packaging they are using,” Walters said. “There’s a reason they are using that packaging, because they probably went through the same mistake that I did, or something similar.”

Walters worked to distribute his coffee to multiple wholesalers, as well as to land it on the shelves of local grocery stores. That taught Walters the value of honing a solid sales pitch and having perseverance.

“It’s sales,” Waters said. “You’ve got to be persistent. Even if they say no now, it doesn’t mean no in the future.”

Navigating licensing

Many in the Columbia area may have seen Bryan Maness’ business wheeling around town over the past eight years. He founded the Ozark Mountain Biscuit Truck in 2013, and he is also the manager of Como Cooks, a shared commercial kitchen in the heart of Columbia.

In both roles, Maness has navigated licensing and inspections. He learned that operators of mobile food businesses are required to have a stationary commissary kitchen outside of their residence. That, too, is subject to inspection.

“If you don’t have your own leased commissary kitchen, you will be required to sign a commissary agreement with another approved kitchen facility,” Maness said.

Throughout the process of opening his business, he poured over local rules and regulations. He recommends others looking to open similar businesses do the same, as there can be surprising statutes in place.

“I did some research and realized that there was a law from the 1950s that forbid selling food from the trunk of the car onto the sidewalk,” Maness said. “Therefore, mobile food vending was illegal.”

He was able to resolve that issue and operate his food truck. However, his takeaway from the situation was to always be aware of the rules and regulations in a locality.

Hiring and firing

Since the bar and restaurant Room 38 opened in 2008, co-owner Billy Giordano has gotten plenty of hands-on experience with recruiting and hiring staff members and letting go those who didn’t work out as employees.

Based on his experiences running the restaurant, Giordano co-founded StaffedUp, a startup that makes recruiting and hiring software. The software is designed to enable efficient talent acquisition through a better understanding of the hiring lifecycle. That cycle starts with the culture of a business, Giordano said.

“You want to create an attractive culture, something that people are excited to work for,” he said.

“You want to create a marketing opportunity to attract new talent so that you are getting the best of the best.”

Though Room 38 is not always hiring, Giordano stressed the importance of always accepting applications in order to build a talent pool. However, engaging with applicants is even more important. He advises employers to communicate with talented applicants and tell them if a position they have applied for is not available, but that they will be considered when it is.

“This gives you a lot more transparency with the applicant to let them know where you stand in the process and that you are a good employer who values their application,” Giordano said.

Once an employer has decided to hire someone, the communication must continue, he said, including notifying a new employee of rules and expectations.

Clear communication is also important in firing, Giordano said. Handling terminations tactfully can be the difference between a peaceful exit and a costly unemployment claim or lawsuit.

“When you are going to fire someone, you want to make sure you have your reasons lined out, you’re organized, and you’re ready to have that conversation,” Giordano said. “Some people are going to see this as an opportunity to save their job, and if you’re open to that opportunity, then obviously make sure it is on the backburner. But when it comes down to it, if you know this is the right decision for your company, make sure you reference that and stick to your guns.”

Above all, he said, the situation should be handled respectfully.

“You want to be as gracious as possible to continue the relationship,” Giordano said. “There’s someone who knows more about your business than most people in the world, and you want to make sure that they shed a positive light on our business.”

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