Finding Your Way into the Food Business

6 steps to getting your food product to market

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3. Find a certified commercial kitchen

The state DOH requires that all commercial food products be prepared in a certified commercial kitchen that has a three-compartment sink for cleaning food products and a separate hand-washing sink in the food preparation area. Purdy and many others got their start at the Pacific Gateway Culinary Business Incubator in Kalihi. The center’s executive director, Tin Myaing Thein, says about 90 businesses use the 13,000-square-foot, certified commercial kitchen – one of only a handful in the state that are open to the public – for a fee based on their usage and requirements.

“This project was to help low-income people who couldn’t afford to spend their limited amount of capital on building a commercial kitchen,” Myaing says. “We take away that economic barrier. We supply the facilities and equipment so business owners can focus on their business.”

Purdy first made his taro dips at the Pacific Gateway’s commercial kitchen, but he now rents space at a Kalihi facility owned by a friend, who also got her start at Pacific Gateway.

“Pacific Gateway’s a great place and it offers a very friendly environment,” Purdy says. “The rent is reasonable and you have the opportunity to meet a lot of different small-business owners in the same boat as you. You never know who will have an extra case of chopsticks or takeout containers that they’re willing to sell to you.” Purdy says it’s common for small food manufacturers to piggyback on one another or barter with supplies to reduce costs. 

Pacific Gateway has 12 kitchens and will soon add a bottling facility. All users must have a DOH food permit.

“We have all sorts of businesses that use our facilities,” Myaing says. “There’s one elderly woman who makes cookies on the side just to supplement her income. She doesn’t ever plan to open her own store or grow too big. She just wants to bake.”

Still, Myaing adds, “It’s called an incubator kitchen, because, once the businesses can stand on their own two feet and have created a customer base, they usually move out.”

4. Hit the circuit

Word of mouth is the best form of free marketing when you’re starting out, but you can’t depend solely on the coconut wireless.

“One of the most important things you can do to get your product into customers’ hands is set up a booth at one of the many farmers markets around town,” Purdy says. “It’s a great venue to introduce your product to the public, provide education and sampling, and receive instant feedback from customers. Plus, at least you’ll have some cash flow to help grow your business.”

Purdy’s approach has worked. His dips are still sold at farmers markets in Haleiwa, Windward Mall and Ala Moana Center, but they are also sold in stores such as Whole Foods, Down to Earth and Tamura’s.

Most vendors at farmers markets don’t have their own stores, so the markets help them build their customer base, says Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga, special events and projects consultant for the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, which manages four weekly farmers markets on Oahu: at the Neal Blaisdell Center, Kailua Town Center, Kapiolani Community College and Mililani High School. To sell at one of these markets, products must be manufactured in Hawaii and predominantly use local ingredients.

Taro Delights’ Olive the Above spread is a bestseller
among families with children, Purdy says. 

Most vendors pay about $55 for a 10-foot-by-10-foot space at the KCC market, the busiest in the state, with about 7,000 customers every Saturday. Not only customers frequent the markets. Purdy landed his first wholesale account when a buyer from Tamura’s in Kaimuki approached him one morning at KCC and offered to carry his taro dips in the store. That’s also where he met Claire Sullivan from Whole Foods, who was so interested in his taro dips that she arranged to have the store’s executives meet at Purdy’s home in Manoa to sample his products. Whole Foods now carries seven different flavors of his taro dip.

While the markets can be launching pads, Nakama-Mitsunaga says, there has to be more to your marketing plan. “I always tell people not to rely on the market to be the success of their business. Instead, they have to use it as a marketing tool to get sales and feedback. It’s not wise to base your entire business on sales at the market, where there are many variables, such as rain.”

Belmont and Kuahine secured major accounts at the annual Made In Hawaii Festival. “The first year I did it, in 2004, I probably picked up 10 vendors,” Belmont says. “The festival is a great place to get people talking about your product and buyers will come around if they like what you’ve got, so it could be a big opportunity.” Booths at the Made in Hawaii Festival typically cost about $800 for the two-day event.

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