Learning the business of food

Veronica Janssens, co-owner of Batch Ice Cream in the South End, has been in the frozen confection business for about five years. But in between formulating flavors and churning out pints, it can be hard to find time to scrutinize financial statements or plot a course for growth.

So, Janssens said, she decided she needed a plan for “running a business in a grown-up sort of way.”

The solution she found was a food-focused business course offered by Interise, a Boston nonprofit that promotes small business and economic development. The 15-week class, part of Interise’s StreetWise MBA program, aims to support the growing number of food startups that have popped up in city neighborhoods and rural towns, spurring investment and creating jobs.

With the local food trend showing no sign of slowing, Interise teamed up with the Jamaica Plain food incubator CropCircle Kitchen and Boston Public Market, the year-round local food market that is expected to open near the Haymarket MBTA station this summer.

Liz Morningstar, chief executive of Boston Public Market, said the course is part of her organization’s mission to boost homegrown foodie businesses. But, she added, “It’s also smart business. We necessarily want a stronger pipeline of companies.”

The class, which is free, includes 15 owners from 10 companies that sell everything from herbal infusion drinks to decadent doughnuts. (The group also includes a flower grower who sells at farmers markets.) Some, like Union Square Donuts and Q’s Nuts, both based in Somerville, have already gained buzz for products such as maple bacon donuts and Mexican chocolate almonds.

Others are still planning their official launches.

All want to find ways for their businesses to grow.

On a recent Monday night, the group met at Interise’s offices to polish their elevator pitches to potential buyers, talk about targeting their ideal customers, and trade tips about promoting themselves on social media. For the first seven weeks, the curriculum focused on keeping, reading, and analyzing financial statements; the remaining eight weeks will cover marketing, sales, human resources, and strategic planning.

At the end of the course, the students will have created a three-year business plan. Already, the work they have done has changed the direction of one business.

Barbara Rietscha, owner of the flower-growing operation Stow Greenhouses in Stow, has decided that positioning her company as a farm and florist, moving away from its identity as a wholesaler, is the best plan for expanding her business. She had been considering the change for some time; assessing her financials for class convinced her to accelerate her plans.

As class proceeded this week, product samples — pouches of flavored almonds, plastic tubes of wrapped caramels, boxes of frozen ravioli — littered the tables in the classroom. Business lingo like “end user” (aka customer) and “margin” (the difference between cost and price for each item sold) shared conversational space with talk of flavor combinations and cheesemaking techniques.

These conversations are one of the key benefits of the class, said Christina Barbieri, co-owner of the Amesbury cheesemaker Wolf Meadow Farms. Though she has a business degree, Barbieri has discovered that the food industry offers very specific and unexpected challenges, such as working out the logistics of obtaining ingredients from local sources.

“It’s so different from anything you learn in a textbook,” she said. “We’ve been learning so much from other people.”

Interise is watching the dynamic among the food entrepreneurs closely, said Johnny Charles, the organization’s Boston program manager. StreetWise MBA is a national program; more than 2,000 entrepreneurs in 36 communities have participated. In the past, classes have generally included a mix of businesses specifically chosen so that the students don’t find themselves trading tips with their competition, Charles said.

The food class, therefore, is something of an experiment by focusing on a single industry, he said. It will help Interise find new approaches to serving a range of small companies.

“Are there different ways we can think of supporting different businesses in different industries?” he asked. “There’s still some learning to be done.”

The goal for many of the students is to secure a slot at Boston Public Market when it opens in a few months. The final line-up of vendors — there will be about 42 to start — has not been announced, but is likely to include some of the class participants, Morningstar said.

Regardless, she said, the public market is eager to support even those businesses that don’t end up as vendors, because they will help to expand the food scene in Boston. That ultimately benefits the public market, the companies, and their customers, she said.

For entrepreneurs like Janssens, the importance of the class is more straightforward: It encourages her to focus on the business aspects of her ice cream company.

“The class makes you step back,” Janssens said. “You have to answer the hard questions you sometimes try to ignore.”

This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe on March 12, 2015. Click here to read the full story and see photos of the students. 

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