Think about your favourite café, pub or foodtruck. We all have one. They represent more than transactional spaces though. They make us feel good. We lean on them. And just as much as we might rely on these places for an epic biscuit, burger or burrito, the people behind these shops count on us too. No, not us the customer, but us the neighbourhood. That’s right. At the most recent Local Talks Vancouver event, Food Business: What we know now but didn’t know then., what attendees learned about being a food entrepreneur can perhaps be summed up into one key insight: running a culinary business is about people and community.
The panel was made up entrepreneurs representing a range of knowledge, skills and experiences. They were: Lisa Skelton from The Wallflower & The Smallflower, Emma Gemmer from Zimt Chocolate, Kumiko Umeno from Chicha, Matt Hagarty from Whats up Hot Dog, and Sara Lalonde from The Paper Crane Coffee.
Lisa moderated the conversation, and she wasted no time in teasing out nuggets of wisdom from her peers. What had prepared them to be entrepreneurs? For some, it was business skills learned in past jobs. “If you don’t have clients or you don’t have customers, then you don’t have money,” shared Kumiko from Chicha.
But there were also the early struggles in life that gave them a snapshot of what was to come. Matt from Whats up Hot Dog recalled working as a punk show promoter and half-jokingly said that it primed him for “being used to disappointment and things going wrong.”
What can go wrong? Apparently, a lot. Consultants can overcharge you. Horrible employees can cost you business when they subject guests to a bad experience. Plumbers can mess things up. When dealing with contractors, “Ask more questions than you think you deserve to ask,” said Sara from The Paper Crane Coffee. “Don’t be polite or nice or accommodating. Ask those tough questions. Don’t worry about appearing to be difficult or antagonistic; you have to be that person.”
What they know now
What specifically do the panelists know now that they wish they knew before? “Everything,” offered Emma from Zimt Chocolate. “But honestly, be a little bit more discerning with reading people and distinguishing between opportunities and nopportunities.” (What a great word to coin, btw.) Other tips included: focusing more on the “not fun stuff,” the skills that will help you actually make money; manage staff properly; and know what to charge for your product.
At Whats up Hot Dog, Matt explained that he had been charging the lowest price you could charge for beer at one point, a practice that he learned was unsustainable. “It was cool,” he said. “But it wasn’t going to be cool if we were not in business anymore.” Sara concurred: “You need to learn how to value yourself.”
It takes a village…
How does community fit in again? Starting a food business involves unimaginable amounts of work, and stress, and risk. “When you’re trying to make something out of nothing, there are so many moving parts to figure out,” explained a panelist. But she added that it was her senior peers in the food business that gave her the most support in this endeavour. It turns out that the people who are already running a successful enterprise are the most eager to help a new owner. These mentors are key, and the smart ones are easy to identify: “The people are who are going to be giving you good advice aren’t going to be charging you for it,” was how panelists put it.
In other words, the system—the cycle of new owners, success, failure and learning—works when we recognize that we are all in this together.
What else did panelists say? Here they are, verbatim:
“Through experience, perspective changes.”
“Be a little more cautious about being nice.”
“Find yourself a good bookkeeper.”
“Your value is more than burgers and beers.”
“Get things in writing with contractors.”
“Sometimes you need to let people go.”
“Every partnership is different.”
“Like marriage, you have to pick right.”
“It’s nice to delegate, but sometimes it would be nice to delegate some of the weight.”
Answering the question, “Could you ever work for anyone else?”
“No.” “No.” “No.” “No.”
And, “When do you know it’s time to move on?”
“You just know.”