My family’s special-recipe dill pickles are widely touted as the best pickles around. I don’t plan to sell them commercially, since they’re labor-intensive, highly perishable, and they require seasonal ingredients. Add my overall laziness, lack of space, and unwillingness to follow regulation to my list of reasons for avoiding this — or any other — food business.
You’re not me, though. If you can make great food products, and the opportunity for financial success outweighs your concerns, then you might consider trying to get your products on local shelves, or even in stores across the country. But, you have to go in with your eyes wide open. I can’t possibly cover all considerations in this STARTicle; however, but I can definitely introduce possible concerns before you move forward.
First, Identify Your Customer Base
This is a vital step because it will help you to pinpoint the potential hurdles. If your intended customers are from your local community and have similar tastes to yours, a product intended for local farmers’ markets or mom-and-pop grocery stores might win the business that you need. At least you know that the hurdles will be worthwhile.
If you want to sell food products in stores or online to people across the country, you have to think hard about broader tastes and concerns. For example, in the case of my pickles, is severe garlic breath popular nationally? Are shoppers willing to keep them refrigerated from day one? Will they finish eating a jar’s worth before the pickles get soft within a month or two? If the answers to these or other questions are “no,” then selling pickles is probably not worth the effort.
Understand the Hurdles
Assuming that you are sure that you can turn a profit from sales, you still need to recognize every possible issue that might build a wall between you and success. While every product can create unique issues, let’s look at the pickles to point out some of the most common ones.
Can you consistently and affordably get all ingredients?
Think about every ingredient in your product, and do the research needed to ensure that you will have them available during the time when you plan to create your product. While local seasonality may not be an issue, you may pay more for lower-quality items when they are out of season in your area.
In my area, uniform sizes of pickling cucumbers are not always available. Even from my garden, the availability of dill is haphazard since it matures long before the cucumbers are ready for picking. I typically freeze dill bundles so they will be available when the cucumbers are ready. If I were to sell the pickles commercially, I’d have to consider freezer costs, among other things.
The lesson here: don’t count on local supplies. In fact, since one natural disaster can wipe out crops, you’ll probably want to enter into contracts with vendors for these things, and leave the worries to them.
Does your current recipe create a stable product?
Whether your product should go in the freezer or refrigerated section, or just in bins or on shelves, it has shelf-life considerations. Should you mark it with a sell-by date, a use-by date, a freeze-by date, or maybe a best-by date? Surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) only requires this type of labeling under certain specific circumstances.
My pickles last from three to six months in the refrigerator. Even cake mixes can become rancid. Your product will not become a top-seller if customers have to make another trip to the store to return an unusable, unlabeled food item, not to mention the lawsuits that you may face if someone gets sick. You may have to alter recipes to extend a product’s life — and consider accurately labeling your product even if it’s not a legal requirement.
Is your product easy to ship?
Think long and hard about the conditions needed to transport your product, from the moment it leaves your doors to the time it arrives at the store. Even stable products, like muffin mixes, are likely to fare better if they are not left sitting on pallets in hot or rainy conditions.
I am aware of pickle-transportation needs because I consider them even when I give jars away to friends. They need to be consistently refrigerated until they reach a store’s refrigerator shelves. Of course, they also need to be well-padded because glass jars can break, destroying the product while leaving a strong, garlicky pickle odor that is difficult to eradicate. I would have to pay dearly to accommodate these and other concerns.
Food Safety is an Absolute Requirement
There is no shortage of regulatory agencies that govern the safety of the foods we eat. While the USDA and FDA are probably the best known, other federal agencies exist, along with state and local watchdogs that often carry varying standards to follow. You need to know every one of them, and observe the strictest standard in every situation.
In spite of regulatory standards, however, people continue to get sick from commercial food products. Sometimes the foods would be safe if not for food allergies. Other times, foreign objects might be present, or the food gets spoiled. Liability issues are greatly complicated because they can occur anywhere between your facility and the final destination. Even if they are not your fault, you are likely to be the one who has to track down what happened if you face a lawsuit.
Are You Still Convinced That Selling Food Products is a Good Idea?
If you now have concerns that selling products for public consumption is too complicated, then you have achieved the right mindset to explore further. Make sure that you research the points in this STARTicle extensively. If you can, talk to other small business owners who can share both success and war stories. If you survive this sometimes-painful process, then you’ll be in good shape to explore the steps to starting a business and take the plunge.