To Market, To Market

I have never been especially comfortable with challenging myself. I usually can work my way through a challenge mentally well enough to know if I will be successful, and have a pretty accurate view of my abilities. I rarely undertake an endeavour where I am not reasonably sure of success. Granted, there have a been a few drastic miscalculations on my part (grad school) that have turned me pretty gun shy on taking risks, and shaken my usual stony confidence.  The long and short of this is, I don’t risks where I am not fairly confident I will succeed. I may not dream big, but I do dream calculated.

So, the beekeeping thing. I love my bees, and I love honey. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to integrate them so profoundly in my life that I could support myself and be happy? Dream on, dreamer.

Well, I don’t have Big Dreams, so when it started looking like Turkey Hill’s Barrel Aged Honey might actually go somewhere, I set out to turn a Big Dream into a Calculated Dream. And to do that, I really needed to learn more about an industry I use constantly but have very little understanding of how it actually works. I mean, how do people produce and sell food products on an economically viable scale?

Great question, and not one that many people have an answer to. The most consistent elements to making it in this business are: having a good product and be lucky enough to find a market for it.

Thank God locally sourced, gourmet foods are so trendy right now. Producing and marketing my honey has been a crash course in commodities pricing (Did you know the difference between whole sale and resale pricing? I didn’t! Also, what is a reasonable mark up?), distributor dealings, contract writing, sales, production, engineering, and imaginative problem solving. Oh, also business insurance and labeling rules.

So here are the things I have learned about in the process of developing a food product

1. Production and Development

Developing and producing our product is one of the most interesting parts of this business, and I have to hand it to my dad for having an almost obsessive attitude about production. His mechanical background makes him ideal for addressing problems like how to handle size and weight of massive storage barrels. At 12 lbs/gallon, producing hundreds of gallons of honey per year becomes a logistical nightmare. As our volume increases, our system of aging, bottling, labeling and distributing will have to refine and evolve. It’s one of the best pain in the ass problems I’ve ever dealt with.

A less fun problem is developing the packaging. I really just want it to be functional, but it has to look nice on a shelf, and be consistent with “brand”, that we haven’t really developed yet. There are also FDA labeling rules, such as weight that need to be visible and certain size.

So, cool. We have a good product.

2. Sales and Marketing

Getting someone to buy it is tricky. It started with word of mouth, selling to friends and family, and friends of friends, etc etc. And eventually it got to the point where we capitalized on some professional connections, and landed a restaurant account. Managing sales accounts is one of the worst pain in the ass problems I’ve ever dealt with. So, it came down to this. Did we want to manage our own sales accounts, with dozens of small sales, or did we want to get a distributor, someone who would buy large quantities of product from us at our lowest price (whole sale), then resell it to retails, who then would sell directly to the consumer? It’s a question of balance. Selling directly to consumer is more costly, but the profit margins are higher.

Since I am gone for four months, and everyone has a full time job, we were luck enough to land a distributor who specialized in gourmet foods, and has done amazing things for us. But since we do make the most money from direct to consumer sales, I still try to drum up as much word of mouth as possible. We were lucky enough to be profiled in Minneapolis/St. Paul magazine, and I even got a mention on my favorite podcast.  Unique marketing events like tastings have been a great success for us.

3. Not getting ahead of yourself.

It’s almost euphoric to hear people from all over the country get excited about our product, and tell me it’s the best. Not just friends who are blinded by personal bias, and not just strangers, but by actual funny people I respect and admire, and kind of want to be. It’s really hard to remind myself that the whole thing might crash and burn eventually. and to not let my ego start to think I actually know what I am doing.

It feels like we are really successful, but to date, no one has actually drawn a paycheck and that day is still a long way off.

When this whole thing started, it felt like a misguided risk, I didn’t have any idea what we were doing, and I wasn’t really sure that I was capable of doing it. But talking to farmers with high end food products don’t really have any idea of what they were doing either. And that’s really comforting.

So, now I suppose after some 26 years of taking only small, calculated risks, it’s time to dream a little bigger and do something that I am not sure I can do.


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