Sunday, November 10, 2013

When, Why and How to Get a Nutrition Fact Label

Interview with Lev Berlin
Creator of ReciPal

Kathryn: Hi Lev! Like a lot of the folks we talk to, you have an interesting background with some twists and turns. How did you end up coming up with ReciPal?

Lev: For quite a while I was working as a management consultant here in New York, flying around helping banks solve problems and building fun analytics tools for them. I always had a bit of an entrepreneurial bent, so while consulting I got involved with my friends at SlantShack Jerky making beef jerky for fun. It kept growing and eventually we realized we needed to put nutrition facts on our labels. I ended up researching the process but couldn’t find any good solutions out there – we had 60 combinations of flavors, so pretty much everything was way too expensive. Being a nerd, I ended up finding the USDA ingredient database, building a fancy spreadsheet, and doing the nutrition analysis myself. Around the same time I was getting into programming websites. The light bulb went off in my head one night and I got to work building ReciPal to help food startups create nutrition labels.

Kathryn: So I imagine it’s come quite a way since the early days?

Lev: Ummm…yes. It was really basic initially. You couldn’t sign in and you couldn’t save a recipe. It was hardly even practical for my own purposes, but I was learning and having fun. Over time we added features, made it easier to use and eventually got it to the point where customers were willing to pay for it (and we felt comfortable charging).

Kathryn: What was missing from the other options available?

Lev: Well, the first thing most people think of when they need nutrition analysis is sending their product to a lab. Unfortunately, that is fairly expensive ($300-500) and also takes some time to send your product, perform the tests, and get everything back. We use a database analysis and even the database analysis websites I found were $150+ per label. There are some free options, but they are unfortunately what you’d expect from something free. I wanted to take the simplicity of database analysis and make it easy to use, reasonably priced, and highly customizable.
Kathryn: So who is the prototypical customer at ReciPal?

Lev: I wanted there to be a great resource for food startups to get nutrition labeling done because I spent far too much time on the process myself. So I definitely focused on early stage food startups and bakers. At this point we have all kinds of customers, from nutritionists, to co-packers, to food business consultants, to food startups themselves. We also offer a few complimentary labels to each user so that startups with just a few products don’t have to pay much, if anything at all. I’m cheap, so I would have loved that.

Kathryn: Is it just nutrition labeling, or are there other reasons food startups could use ReciPal?

Lev: By default, it ends up being a nice cloud-based recipe and ingredient manager. So, you can’t ever lose your recipes or forget the ratios. We’ve built in lots of quick tools like scaling a recipe to any size and turning a recipe into an ingredient so it can be used as a sub recipe. There’s also a simple but effective recipe costing feature that some of our users can’t live without – it really helps early entrepreneurs figure out how to price their products, which is easier said than done. We also handle ingredient lists. And there’s always more in the works!

Kathryn: Anything food startups should know about labeling that they may not already know?

Lev: Once you have a product you should really get nutrition facts on your packaging, even if you’re not so big that it’s required. It helps build a rapport with customers, will accelerate your entry into retail, and just feels honest. The other thing is that even though ReciPal was created to avoid expensive lab analysis, really big food companies usually use database analysis. It’s much faster, often more accurate, and it allows them to quickly iterate the recipe process with an eye for the nutritional aspect of the product, which is important for so many food companies that are focused on organic, healthy products.

Kathryn: Any tips for food startups from your days at SlantShack?

Lev: We got our start doing farm markets in New York City, so I highly recommend signing up for one in your area. They can generate a lot of buzz, they’re fun, and you can really engage with your customers while selling your product. We learned a ton just by talking to customers at markets. We got to see what flavors they liked and didn’t like, received immediate feedback on packaging, and learned their shopping behaviors (where, when, why they shop). All that helps you iterate on your product and marketing faster than you otherwise could selling online or in stores. Think of markets as a really cheap focus group where you can test something new every week.

Our other biggest not-so-secret sauce is having fun, so don’t forget that! 

Monday, October 28, 2013

What Larger Organizations Take For Granted

Interview with Ruthie Vishlitzky
Co-Founder Luca and Bosco, Ice Creams and Desserts

By Kathryn Gordon of Food Startup Help

Kathryn:  Hi Ruthie, I met you a few months ago in a CAPS ice cream theory class at ICE.  Since then, you’ve opened up at the Essex Street Market!

How did you get the idea to open an ice cream business?   And where does the name come from?

Ruthie:  My co founder, Catherine Oddenino, and I both had very different careers.  I was working in health and human services for local government while Catherine was in the corporate world in online media. We are both passionate food people with keen palates, so we started with the idea of making ice cream that was less sweet and playing with flavor combinations that were less readily available, and did a lot of experimentation on nights and weekends.  When we got such great feedback from people who are tremendously choosy eaters we knew we had something really worth pursuing. We both left our “day jobs” this spring and have been working to really grow and establish the business since then.

Luca is Catherine’s Maltese terrier, and Bosco is my chocolate Lab!

Kathryn:  When did you make your first ice cream?

Ruthie:  I made my first ice cream for the first time in October 2011. When we started we bought a bunch of recipe books and started experimenting, it didn’t take long before we were writing recipes instead of following them to create “our style” of ice cream. We’ve taken ice cream science courses like the one at Penn State that helped us understand a lot more of the food science around freezing temperatures and textures, but ultimately, that course approached ice cream as a very processed food. The Michael Laiskonis CAPS at ICE was great since it covered a lot of the science, but ultimately approached ice cream as a culinary creation. The CAPS course served as a great reminder of some of the core ice cream basics, but I definitely feel like all the course materials will be great to have as a reference when we look to tweak our recipes.

Kathryn:  What are your current business goals?

Ruthie:  We just opened our first retail location at Essex Street Market, which helps us grow our brand, but we’re still currently producing out of an incubator space. That’s been a great learning experience but definitely impacts and limits what we can do given the fact that we have limited storage and rent the kitchen by the hour. So we’re looking to move into our own kitchen in early 2014 and establish a wholesale business to restaurants, as well as selling pints wholesale to markets/stores.

Kathryn:  How do you come up with flavors?

Ruthie:  We love to explore flavors, and are frequently inspired by different experiences, meals, travels, and seasons to create different flavors! If anything, we often have to reel ourselves in, since we always need to balance serving up the basics as well as showing people successful though unexpected flavors. Our ice cream is significantly less sweet than others, and we use more milk than cream (so it’s not super high in butterfat).  That helps enhance our flavors.

Through the store we learned that we always have to carry more straightforward flavors like chocolate and vanilla, but we’ve been really surprised by our customers’ favorable reactions and also plan to always carry more unusual flavors like honey lavender, Drunk & Salty Caramel with bourbon, and Whiskey Fudge Rebellion.  We both take great joy in watching our customers’ reactions as they taste a sample of a flavor they were slightly skeptical about – & order Goat Cheese and Rosemary Olive Oil!.

Kathryn:  Do you have a business plan? 

Ruthie:   We have an ever-evolving business plan that we keep updating and editing as we learn our business realities or realize new opportunities.  We’re a good example of a business that tries to take advantage of a lot of resources that are already out there. We’ve gone to tons of free workshops, we applied and got into the incubator program at Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK) which has given us a lot of support and guidance, and we’ve taken advantage of opportunities working with the City of New York through the Economic Development Corporation which is how we got our space at Essex Street Market with lower rents than usual since it’s operated by the City (we otherwise wouldn’t be in the position to have a location in the Lower East Side).

Our financing so far has ranged from self-funding, credit cards, friends and family loans, small business micro loan and even a Kickstarter crowd sourcing campaign (this is how we raised money to purchase our Emory Thompson batch freezer). Funding is definitely a huge ongoing challenge; especially since ice cream equipment is so incredibly expensive and it’s hard to get financing when you’re a startup.

Kathryn:  Where are you doing your production?

Ruthie:    We’re currently producing our ice cream at the HBK incubator kitchen.  At first we used to use dry ice when needing to transport it from place to place, but that has its own issues since then it hardens the ice cream too much, and we had to learn how to properly temper it to feed it to folks.

We recently bought our own hardening cabinet/freezer so that we can now have a dedicated space for our ice cream (we pay HBK rent for it to sit in their space)! It’s such a relief to now know that no one is opening and closing our freezer (and hence slowly but surely degrading our product).  Our freezer is so cold (as low as -30 degrees) that the ice cream now makes it from East Harlem to the Lower East Side and is still cold enough to be too hard to scoop on arrival! So no more need for dry ice for local transport and that’s a huge savings on time and money.

Kathryn:  What key lessons have you learned?

Ruthie:   I think as an entrepreneur you always have to keep learning and adapting to your realities and opportunities. We always try to make the most out of every situation, whether it’s learning from our mistakes/lessons or forming new relationships that could be helpful for the future.

I think some of my personal surprises/unexpected lessons have been:

1)   As someone who was in mid-level management before this business, I definitely took for granted the basic infrastructure in a working organization. As an entrepreneur you have to get involved in a host of tedious and uninteresting topics from payroll, insurance, to your POS system and email addresses. It’s not like prior jobs where there was an IT guy to setup my email, and an office manager to get all my supplies from, someone else to schedule things etc.  As an entrepreneur you have to create all of that stuff that those ins larger organizations take for granted… So much entrepreneurship is unfortunately not about ice cream or food, and consumes a ridiculous amount of time.
2)   We really thought we could make a lot of money by participating in events like Smorgasburg or New Amsterdam Market. We initially projected it as a revenue stream in our financial projections, but after a few times at it, we realized that really it’s more of an expense (or break even), but for us is just really good for the marketing/buzz. It was super rewarding getting people’s feedback on our product before we had our space at Essex Street Market. But we learned that there are definitely things that were very different in reality than in concept.
3)   Our last reality check was learning that a commercial kitchen, and especially producing a food in a large quantity, is extremely different than cooking in your home kitchen (which is where it all started for us).

We have definitely come a long way in the last couple of years from making ice cream at home, to moving all of our production to a commercial kitchen.

Kathryn:  Thanks Ruthie!  Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Ruthie:   Really the most important thing to us is that we get to make people happy on a daily basis.  Seeing that look of surprise and delight on people’s faces when they try a new flavor, or watching a kid gets that perfect scoop with sprinkles is the kind of immediate reward and gratification that either of us rarely got while sitting in front of a computer every day.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Reimbursable Employee Training

Interview with Pedro Suarez
NYC Business Solutions

By Kathryn Gordon

Food Startup Help recently met Pedro when he attended one of our “How to Start a Successful Bakery Related Business” classes at ICE (Institute of Culinary Education), and we followed up by turning the tables and interviewing him!

Kathryn:  Pedro, what is the mandate of NYC Business Solutions?

Pedro:  We serve NY State businesses, and specifically help small businesses operate and expand in NYC. 

Kathryn:  What’s your specific focus within the organization? 

Pedro:  I primarily work with restaurants.  I analyze the needs of their market, and work with business owners to help achieve their growth potential on a one-on-one basis.  So I am constantly addressing the needs of the restaurant industry to the best of my ability.  That’s why I was interested in attending your class at ICE, to make sure I am covering all of my client needs!

Kathryn:  Do you work with small businesses such as new restaurants or bakeries at any stage of the process?

Pedro:  Primarily I happen to work with them in the beginning stages, early on when their needs are greatest and when they need some direction working with SBA (Small Business Association) lenders, investors or possibly finding business partners.  Our agency can help develop cash flow projections – we also have financing and account managers who review business plans.

Kathryn:  So you can help small restaurant businesses navigate the bureaucracy of other city and state agencies?  That often seems daunting to our clients, especially if they’ve never opened a business before.

Pedro:  Yes, I know the governmental leaders.  I help businesses work with the appropriate city agencies, and get through the licensing and permit process. We offer a free 1 ½ hour restaurant management boot camp for opening a bakery and getting through licensing and permits.

Kathryn:  And how do new restaurant or bakery owners “find you?”  Does the city’s 311 system lead to you?

Pedro:  Yes, but a lot is word of mouth throughout the neighborhood.  I work primarily in one location, and can also reach out directly to local businesses.  I’ve been working in the Washington Heights/Inwood area for over 10 years, and have relationships with a lot of local chefs.  Of course we also have relationships with other business solution centers, like if someone needs a manufacturing facility for a product.

Kathryn:  How did you get into this line of work?

Pedro:  I was a political science major, and worked on local campaigns before working for a local paper in the advertising department.  Through those local connections, I met the NYC Business Solutions people, and was offered a position.

Kathryn:  What should entrepreneurs such as our clients who are outside the Inwood area know about NYC Business Solutions services?  Can they also be helped?

Pedro:  NYC Business Solutions has a very useful program in which we identify customized training solutions for employees.  70% of the employer’s cost is reimbursable.  That can greatly help in training and retaining qualified food service employees, thereby minimizing staff turnover in a costly business.  For example, we helped a business who needed an employee to be trained on wine.  So we facilitated that, and the employer is only responsible for 30% of the out-of-pocket costs.

Kathryn:  What a great savings for a startup. Thank you Pedro. We’ll keep in touch to learn other ways that you can help small business startups.

Monday, September 30, 2013

What If You Never Planned to Be in the Business?

Interview with Francois Godineau
La Duchesse Anne Patisserie
Saumur, France

With Kathryn Gordon and Jessie Riley

Editor’s Note:  the location for La Duchesse Anne has been a patisserie since 1842, and became known as La Duchesse Anne in the 1900’s.  Francois Godineau was raised above the pastry shop as a child, but never wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps as a baker, and left his hometown of Saumur to go into banking.  Chef Kathryn met the Godineau family in 1999, and has been taking groups through ICE to take pastry classes at la Duchesse Anne ever since (

Jessie:  Hi Francois!  It’s been about 3 years since you took over the bakery after your father Chef Godineau retired.  Can you tell us about that transition?

Francois:  At first, my father tried to sell the business, but the worldwide recession had just hit.  Then he tried to work out a deal for the employees to buy it as a cooperative, but the financing didn’t come together.  But in the end, I left banking and bought him out. 

                      2013 ICE Cuisine Course in France Pastry Class at La Duchesse Anne

Jessie:  A lot of the front of the house (counter staff) seem new, but most of the cooks and chefs in the kitchen seem to be familiar.   Have you had a lot of staff turnover?

Francois:  It was harder to transition with the front of the house than the kitchen.  I promoted one of the sous chefs to the executive pastry chef and he (Chef Florian) got everyone in line.  My mother used to run the shop, but now she runs our second shop in Clisson (where she and my father moved after he retired; my brother assists in Clisson).  Now my wife Celine Petit runs this shop.  We brought in new people because the ones who were there originally were too used to doing what they wanted to do.   

In Saumur, I have 7 employees in the kitchen, 3 students, and 4 employees; in the shop we have 6 including 2 students and 4 full time employees. 

Jessie:  What changes have you implemented?

Francois:  One of my best ideas I think is the 9.50 Euro lunch I introduced last year.  It includes your choice of drink, choice of lunch item and dessert.  And it’s a great way for townspeople to try more of our pastries and it gets them in here. Often they think to buy a cake to take home, and our overall sales increase.

Jessie:  Most of the pastries in the case seem to be the same type as when I worked here with your father and his staff (Easter season 3 years ago).  But I see you have introduced some new ones.

                                Traditional French Wedding Cake:  the Croquembouche

Francois:  I don’t touch the items that were my father’s signature desserts.  However, I think today’s market demands some with less sugar.  So I have created a new line with more subtle flavors, less sugar, and general “lightness” than the petits gateaux and larger gateaux that are my father’s signature items.

The younger market definitely likes more varied fruits, I find.  The older clientele like particularly strong flavors, such as cassis (blackcurrant).  But the cakes I have introduced with less acidic flavors such as raspberries, strawberries and cherries sell very well.

Kathryn:  How many recipes have you modified that were your fathers?

Francois:  I work with the guys to determine what we think could be better, and then we do some R&D until we get the product exactly where we want it.  For example, the croissant dough was a bit hard to work with.  We wanted it to be a bit flakier, as well.  We’ve now added in some powdered milk, decreased the water and mix it on different speeds than my father did.

                                                         Grapefruit-Strawberry Entremet

Kathryn:  Can you describe your process for introducing a new product?

Francois:  Well, it’s a good think we have the shop women in the front of the house.  They keep us in line!  The guys in the back and I think of too many “creative” items that would never sell.  So first we give samples to our front line people – if they say it will sell, we implement it into production.  If they don’t like what they taste, we go back to the drawing board. 

Some of our ideas from the kitchen are probably too sophisticated for the customer base in this town.  Then they offer free samples in our Salon du The, and hopefully the items then start to move.  For example, we introduced a sesame chocolate bon bon that is more contemporary, passed the taste tests and now sells very well.
                                  La Duchesse Anne depositor for macarons and other cookies

Kathryn:  You have a full line of products here, including ice creams and macarons.  How do you get your new ideas?

Francois:  Once or twice a year my chef (Florian) and I travel up to Paris and investigate what the competition is up to.  We are always tasting!  Here and everywhere else.

                                                            Duchesse Anne viennoisserie

Kathryn:  Francois, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since taking over this business from your father?

Francois:  I learned that I have to have responsibility for the whole company, and to do that I had to put my heart into it.   Although it might not have been what I envisioned for my life, I now enjoy it very much.

Jessie:  What’s next for La Duchesse Anne?

Francois:  We’re redoing our website with all new photography.  And I’d like to open more shops!

                                                          Duchesse Anne in history

Friday, September 20, 2013

State-of-the-Art Baking

Interview with Laura Horstmann, CEO, COO
Precibake Ovens

By Kathryn Gordon of Food Startup Help

Kathryn:  Hi Laura!  I met you with your Precibake crew from the US and Germany at a bread baking event at ICE (Institute of Culinary Education).  Tell me more about your exciting new project!

Laura:  We’re about to launch a new intelligent oven at IBIE (International Baking Industry Exposition) in Las Vegas in October.    The intelligence will support the baker, and is available in a variety of oven models.

Kathryn:  And how did this type oven evolve?

Laura:  My parents own Kemper and WP Bakery Group, a large commercial equipment company in Europe.  We’ve been in the US since 1990 as Kemper Bakery Systems. 

For this project, I am leading the marketing side.  My partner in this joint venture with Precibake, Ingo Stork, did his electrical engineering research in Munich and PhD at M.I.T., developing algorithms for helping cars drive themselves using camera technology. 

That product is also useable for other industries.  So now we are working together to use that intelligent camera software in ovens and revolutionize the baking world.

Kathryn:  Can you explain more about the concept?

Laura:  The ovens use the algorithm to detect whatever has been put inside it to bake.  They are completely programmable very easily by the chef.  If you’re an artisan bakery like Balthazar and you like your product to bake more dark to appeal to your customer base, the oven can learn your preferences (from your last bread bake) and adjust the heat for optimal success.  Or, if you own a supermarket or franchise chain and you do not want your employees adjusting anything, it can be set to do that as well.  You as the baker can basically give the oven feedback each time you bake, ultimately making the oven more responsible for success than your staff.

Kathryn:  Why did you decide to launch this new type of oven in the US?  

Laura:  A lot of food industry trends come from the US.  I think change is driven by America.  And we wanted to launch at IBIE because it’s the most innovation-friendly industry trade show in the country.  Come try out the ovens!

Kathryn:  I am meeting you at 175 Varick Street at WeWork.  There’s quite a trend for shared workspace – do you like it?

Laura:  We needed to rent office space in NJ (where engineers take apart ovens for the R&D) and NY with flexible space for various engineers and interns.  Several others on our team are working in Germany -- I’ve been travelling back and forth from Germany weekly.  The WeWork space is versatile and allows expansion as we add staff without having to relocate and remodel continuously.

After the oven launch next month, we will utilize the existing service support network for WP through Kemper Bakery Systems because they understand the existing software in our ovens.  So now they will help customers install, program and troubleshoot the new line of ovens regionally.

Kathryn:  Should I assume all this fabulous and innovative technology comes at a high price?

Laura:  No, we believe the future costs less.  Camera technology is not costly, so these ovens are not more expensive than other ovens. 

Kathryn:  Thanks Laura; it’s all very exciting, and I can’t wait to bake some French macarons in one of the new ovens! 


Saturday, September 7, 2013

What Makes One Brand More Recognizable Than Another?

Interview with Diane Stimson
Graphic Designer
By Kathryn Gordon, Food Startup Help

Kathryn:  Hi Diane; I met you when I substituted for your pastry class one weekend at ICE (Institute of Culinary Education), and then you and I discussed your graphic design career when you were on the ICE Cuisine Course in France. Can you please explain what makes up a good logo?  

Diane:  A good logo is clear, not too fussy, and the eye focuses immediately on what is being presented as a concept. 

Kathryn:    What recommendations would you give to one of our clients, starting off in the food industry, regarding how to pick a good graphic designer?  How does someone decide who they should work with?

Diane:  The overriding goal is to create a recognizable brand through the art associated with the product (awnings, in store signage, menus, business cards, website, logo, flyers). 

To start, make a point of viewing the potential designer’s portfolio (often on the web these days).  Word of mouth is good as well; otherwise, ask for references and talk to them.  Meet with the designer, to give them clear direction and so they’re comfortable doing the job for you.  If a designer makes suggestions, allow them to do so as they should know best how to translate your ideas into a graphic – it is their expertise you are paying for, after all.  Most importantly when you are given initial designs for review – give timely and clear feedback.   Also, get a clear understanding of the cost (ask for a written quote) – most designers will require a 50% deposit, just be sure not to pay in full up front as there will be changes along the way until you are 100% satisfied. 

Kathryn:    When you are working on a project, what is your procedure and a typical starting cost?

Diane:  Meetings are generally about a ½ an hour at first and I will send the customer a base quote.  Then I submit 3 initial designs, and things evolve from there.  I usually require a 50% deposit after agreeing on the work to be done.  Generally, for a 2-color logo design, the fee should start at $500.  For packaging, marketing materials and image branding additional costs will be incurred and can get quite expensive – this should be discussed in the initial meeting.

Kathryn:    How can someone minimize their costs when they are working with a graphic designer?  I’ve seen people seemingly “stuck” with a design they hate after they paid a designer for their logo…  Or, they spin their wheels without great designs because their sister went to art school for a while, and they’re trying to save money. But the designs aren’t good, and nobody is satisfied with them or the process.  It can be frustrating for clients.

Diane:  First, find an accredited artist or graphic artist who understands marketing.  Then, you as the client need to clearly define “who is the target audience.”  Not every product appeals to every market.  It helps a lot having clear direction (such as market segments defined in a business plan). 

The KISS guideline “keep it simple, stupid” is key – for example, design for more of a corporate audience should be very clean and not too fussy.  It helps a designer immensely to know where a product is intended to appeal to – the mommy and kid crowd?  A general, more sophisticated public? 

Kathryn:    What pitfalls are there regarding printing costs for labels, stickers, custom boxes, etc?

Diane:  Multi-colored (3-4 colors or more) printing is expensive.  If a graphic designer is given free range, and comes up with a design with too many colors that the client cannot afford, that’s not good. 

You can get a lot of mileage out of 1-2 colors, because that color can be used effectively in different “strengths,” and not affect the printing costs.  You need a balance and not put every dollar available for investment into your logo, because you are also going to need to print other packaging and marketing materials…  The more colors involved, the more costs incurred.

1. Example of 4-color business card         2.  Example of 2-color

Kathryn:    Should a company be prepared to rework their logo, etc. periodically?  Do they look dated after a while?  Does that matter?

Diane:  If you think about it, very recognizable brands like Pepsi or Coca Cola don’t rework their branding.  They may tweak things, but there should be no need for an overhaul with a good design.  Right now, there’s a trend towards “grunge.”  The edges are not clean, they’re a bit tattered.  Menus are reproduced on kraft paper.  But it works, and it’s identifiable for certain food brands – and probably they should stick with it.

Some examples of the current grunge look for logos:

Kathryn:  Can you talk about how you got started in design?

Diane:  I studied communications and art in college, and my first job was in advertising.  I went on to study design at SVA, and fell into art publishing as a freelancer when I was laid off from my job in the early 90’s.

Now I specialize in licensing original artwork to the home décor industry, designing posters, lithographs and giclée art prints, as well as stationery, logos, packaging, and many other proprietary products.   Most of my work is done for Target, Home Goods and Bed, Bath & Beyond.  I’m currently published by 3 different publishing houses under 4 different names, 3 of which are pseudonyms! 

Following are a few of my best-selling designs:

Kathryn:  Thank you Diane for all the great advice!