Finding Your Way into the Food Business

6 steps to getting your food product to market

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Tom Purdy, owner of Taro Delights, started off giving his
homemade taro spreads and dips to friends at Christmas.
Today, Whole Foods stores in Hawaii carry seven flavors
of his dips and he’s become one of the most popular
vendors at local farmers markets.

Just about everyone has a family recipe or talk-of-the-town potluck dish they think is ono enough to be a grocery-store bestseller.

These are our six steps to take your product from concept to consumer. Most of our guides are entrepreneurs who followed their own dreams and launched specialty-food businesses in Hawaii. They say the road to success wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

1. Consult friends and family

It’s important to test your product before you invest in production or packaging, so start first with family and friends who want you to succeed, but ask them to be totally truthful.

“At this early stage, you want people to tell you what they like and don’t like about your product,” says Ted Kuahine, owner of Pelekunu’s Teri Sauces. “You want them to be brutally honest, because their opinions will likely be shared by others. Ask them how much they’d pay for your product and what kind of packaging they’d like to see. It’s like having an informal focus group.”

Get people from different ages and backgrounds – coworkers, your children’s friends and father’s lunch buddies – so you cover a variety of palates. Then, tweak your recipe according to the feedback and conduct more rounds of testing until you and your taste-testers have confidence in your product. 

Kuahine suggests developing an entire line of products and offering different sizes.

“It’s hard to get good real estate in a retail store a lot of times if you only have one product,” Kuahine explains. “If you have a variety of products, it might be more attractive for both retailers and consumers.”

Tom Purdy, owner of Taro Delights, a line of flavored taro dips and spreads, says it’s also important to make sure early on that all of your ingredients are readily available.

“If you’re a small business, chances are you’ll be manufacturing on a need-only basis in the beginning, so you can’t be waiting weeks to have your ingredients shipped in. You need to have them now,” Purdy says. “One thing that I always tell people is to source their ingredients at retail price so you know the worst-case scenario if you have to make a batch of something on short notice – say, you have to buy your sugar from Foodland or flour from Safeway. If you can make that work, then you know you’ll be OK.”

2. Do due diligence

The first thing Dan Belmont, owner of Hawaiian Fudge Sauce, did when he decided to launch a business was get educated.

“I went to the Small Business Development Center and they were a huge help,” he says. “They directed me to the Department of Health and connected me with SCORE and the Pacific Gateway Culinary Incubator. The Business Action Center on Nimitz (Highway) is awesome, too. You can pretty much walk in there and start a business. I also took a couple of business seminars that were led by the Small Business Administration and that helped us get a small loan for about $5,000. I did all of my homework and research first and that really helped me out.”

Kuahine and Purdy agree that conducting market research, doing cost analyses and creating a long-term strategy are keys to a successful business, “but don’t discount the importance of trusting your gut feeling, luck and faith,” Kuahine says.

Tom Purdy mixes a batch of his popular taronaise while
employee Bermima Terry weighs and packages it. “I’m
usually in production one or two days a week and I also
handle all of my own distribution,” says the former radio
disc jockey.

The state requires anyone selling food products to obtain a food establishment permit, which costs $50 to $150 depending on the level of food handling required, and is good for two years. Others who plan to sell less frequently – as a fundraiser or for one weekend at a craft fair – can pay $25 for a temporary food-sale permit, which allows them to sell products 20 times within three months.

It’s also important to get general-liability insurance, which can range from $700 to $2,000 a year, says Kuahine. “A lot of the buyers, that’s the first thing they’ll ask for. If you don’t have liability insurance, they won’t even talk to you, because they’re not going to be responsible for your product if someone gets sick.”

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