How to start a food business in Oakland #1: figuring out what to make

At Forage Kitchen, we’ve created a space where people with or without a food background can fulfill their dream of starting a food business. To that end, I thought I’d write up a no-nonsense guide on how to get started. Here goes!

1.     What to make:

If you don’t know what you want to make, starting a food business can seem daunting. I suggest picking something you really love and which—in your opinion—you haven’t seen done well. Running a business is hard, and it’s even harder if you’re making something that you’re not really excited about. Don’t worry if you can’t see yourself making it for the rest of your life, just make sure you’re excited about it RIGHT NOW.

Most of the success of any business rests on the passion of its owners. People want to support people who are excited about what they’re doing. That excitement will show though in all kinds of ways, from the way you talk about it and how good it tastes, to your marketing and the employees you hire, so make sure the excitement is there, or your chances of success will probably be slim.

If you’re still stuck, go to a market you see yourself selling in and observe what they have. Is there anything you LOVE that you’ve never seen sold? Look at what’s out there, but most importantly, at what’s not there.

2.     Start at home with a Cottage Food Permit:

As much as I’d love to tell you that, as soon as you find your idea, you should come to Forage Kitchen, it just wouldn’t be true. Start at home. With all the costs of renting a kitchen (even the much-reduced costs of being in a shared space like ours), it’s very hard to get a brand new business off the ground. You want to be 100% certain of your product before making that investment.

We’re lucky in California to have access to Cottage Food permits, which allow you to make products at home to sell at farmers markets and to local stores.

Unfortunately, this permit doesn’t cover all food products, only “non-potentially hazardous foods.” (Basically, you can’t make anything that you’d need to store in a refrigerator).  I’m not an expert on this, but the great folks over at SELC (a group that was VERY instrumental in getting the law passed) have an FAQ section that should answer any questions you have on this issue Check it out here.

For everything else, you’ll need to use a commercial kitchen before you start selling. I’d still recommend being insanely over-prepared before taking this step. Have everything ready: your branding,. your packaging, your consumer trials. Get people to try your product (and not just your friends, because they’ll all tell you “IT’S AMAZING!!!”)

I’m not suggesting that your product isn’t amazing, but you’ll save a lot of time and cash by getting second opinions. Forage Kitchen organizes a great venue called “Tasting Table” at BatchMade Market (each first Friday of the month), where you can drop off your food items and get consumer feedback, which is super helpful. But you can go even further. Set up a table down the street from a farmers market and offer samples. Go on Craigslist and offer free food in exchange for feedback. Email food makers you love and ask for their opinion. Come up with your own clever ideas! In my experience, food veterans love to help passionate newbies—but you need to ask. Don’t be shy! I had knots in my stomach cold calling folks when I first started (I still do!), but I can’t overstate the importance of putting yourself out there. You won’t be sorry.

Just make sure you know what you’re doing before paying for a kitchen. Money burns fast once you get to that step.

Here’s a link to the cottage food permit:


Next post: Brass tacks! My business partner Matt will give a step by step layout of what permits you'll need and where to get them.

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This is the third post in my series about kickstarter. If you havn't yet, check out the first one here

The promotional video is the most important part of your campaign. In my opinion, this needs to be truly great, so go ahead and spend some cash on it. It's possible to make it look polished and professional without spending a ton of money. You might be able to recruit some film or media students to help you out. Maybe you have a friend with some editing skills.

Some quick tips:

·      Make it no longer than three minutes. This is an elevator pitch.

·      When you're structuring the pitch, place the most important information at the beginning. Keep in mind the inverted triangle that is used in journalism. The first sentence should contain everything that the viewer needs to know, and from there on out, the sentences appear in decreasing order of importance.

·      Appear in the video, even if it's just for a few seconds. People like to see the founder talking. They will feel more enthused about supporting the project if they can connect to the personality behind the project.

·      Be honest and forthright. Sure, it's a sales pitch, but people do not enjoy feeling as if they are being sold to, so don’t be afraid to speak frankly and openly about your personal interest in doing the project.

·      Be passionate. Many people who pledge on Kickstarter do so because they feel inspired by people who are brave enough to pursue their dreams. Show them that your ambition and enthusiasm are real.

·      Make the visuals striking and dynamic. I used an animator to add movement and excitement to my video. You can play around with other ideas—anything that's pleasing to the eye and helps to keep things moving. Be creative!


Court the media

Our project received hardly any publicity. I had thought that people would be excited to write about it, but getting publicity was like pulling teeth. Most responses I received ran in the following vein: Definitely let me know when the kitchen opens. Would be happy to write a piece then. It drove me insane, but, at the same time, I could understand it. There are so many campaigns on Kickstarter; no one will want to write a story about your project unless there is something truly groundbreaking or quirky about it, for example, if it is making an insane amount of cash or it's the first campaign to raise money to buy an electric chair to help people with a fetish for electricity to live out their ultimate fantasy. Unless your project has that wow factor, you should brace yourself for very little media coverage, perhaps a few small stories here and there.


Manage your contacts

As I said in the previous post, it's best to approach Kickstarter as a platform on which people whose support you already have will be able to further express their support in financial terms. Compile a list of all the people you’ve ever met; all of their connections; the organizations to which you belong; the organizations bearing some kind of link (no matter how tenuous) with your idea. Reach out to any journalists you know, as well as all of the publications you want to be in.

Make a calendar of whom you’ll contact, and when you will do that. This will help to provide some structure during the campaign (when you’ll really need it). Once the campaign launches, you’ll be frantically checking and re-checking the pledges, and wondering and worrying about how to get people to go to the site. Having a calendar and a plan will provide you with a sense of calm and help you to remain focused. 

My approach was to select four or five people or organizations to contact each day. This helped me to maintain momentum throughout my campaign. I drew up a schedule of when I would hold events to promote the campaign, when I would send posts to my e-mail list,  and what would be covered in those posts.


Partner: Forage Kitchen


in the next post: how to organize and run your campaign

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How to succeed on kickstarter - post # 2 - nuts and bolts of creating the perfect campaign

This is the second post in this series, if you havn't read the first, check it out here

Across the next few posts, I’ll be sharing a step-by-step guide to launching a Kickstarter campaign, based on my own experience. I didn’t come up with all of these ideas by myself; I received a ton of help from Whately. He had recently completed his campaign, and he gave me some great tips on how to run a successful one.

Read, read, read

Read everything you can get your hands on about how to launch an amazing campaign. Check out people's blogs, which can offer helpful tips and warn you about common pitfalls. Read Kickstarter's How To page. This provides invaluable insight into how to craft a successful campaign and how to create an application that's more likely to be accepted. It contains some really great info about the success rates of different lengths of campaigns, the optimum length for a promotional video, and tons of other useful stuff. Since Kickstarter operates on a commission basis, it's in the company's best interests to help you to run a successful campaign, and that's why they’ve taken the time to create a great overview.  Read it!

Conduct thorough research

Before starting my campaign, I spent weeks on the site just looking at other folks' campaigns. I paid attention to which strategies and techniques seemed to be working and which ones didn’t seem to be working quite as well. It's worth spending time on this phase of the project. Also, try to be a sport. Pledge on a few projects you think are neat or worthwhile, as it helps to create good karma. It makes you look a little hypocritical if you're trying to raise money, yet your profile says you’ve never helped out anyone else.

Compose a strong application

It's essential that you submit a strong application, otherwise your campaign will not be approved. You may be tempted to put this off until just before you are ready to launch. I would strongly advise you against leaving it until the last minute, because there may be something in your pitch that doesn't mesh with the Kickstarter rules and regulations. If, for example, you say you're aiming to start up a business or to raise a portion of the funds you'll need in order to complete the process, your application may be rejected.

If your application is rejected, don't lose hope. First, make sure you understand why you've been rejected. Then, redraft your proposal and resubmit it. If you've submitted your application early, then you'll have plenty of time to rework it; however, having to do this under time pressure can be an incredibly stressful experience. Try to have your application approved before you make your video. If you make the video first and there is something in it that doesn't pass muster with Kickstarter, it will be a hassle to fix.

In my next post I'll talk about creating the perfect campaign video!

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How to succeed on kickstarter (or at least some tips to point you in the right directions)

Over five years ago, I launched my first Kickstarter campaign, and raised $156,000 to launch Forage Kitchen, and I've been meaning to write about it ever since. Now that the business is open and running seems like a good time to relay my real experience creating and running a campaign in the hopes it will help someone out there to jump over mistakes I made and see what worked for me. If you’re creating a campaign for a product pre-sale, a lot of this won’t apply, but more so for community based projects

I’m sure you’ve all witnessed the meteoric ascent of million dollar projects succeeding. Perhaps, with rose-colored glasses, and stars in your eyes, you imagined yourself achieving the same success for your project. The truth is, while Kickstarter is an amazing platform for product pre-sales, it's only a fairly good platform for everything else.

After my campaign, a lot of people got in touch with me and asked for my advice. Wanting to be optimistic and supportive, I told everyone that I was certain they could do it, and to go for it! Unfortunately, a number of those people haven't had that much success with it, so I have started to be a bit more conservative in my responses.

Before you even think about launching a Kickstarter campaign, here are some things to think about:

First, it's important to understand that Kickstarter is a platform where people whose support you already have will be able to voice that support with their dollars. Rather than expecting to win people over with your campaign, you must build your audience elsewhere and then lead them to your Kickstarter campaign. The good folks at Kickstarter have made this clear in their supporting materials, and I feel it's extremely important.

Unless people are already aware of the product or service you offer, it will be difficult to find support for your campaign. It's highly unlikely that people will find out about your project from the site itself. My campaign was featured for several weeks on the Popular Projects section on the front page, and it was mentioned twice in the Kickstarter newsletter. Neither of these initiatives helped me to gain very much in the way of pledges.

What I found to be the most effective strategy was to reach out to the people in my e-mail database and in my networks on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. At the time I started my campaign, I had an e-mail list comprising over 40,000 locals, and a social media reach of a further 15,000.  I'm not saying it's impossible to  succeed without this scale of reach, but it is a factor worth considering when you’re setting your goals. It isn't easy raising money via Kickstarter. I’ve come to think of it as a tool that's more suited to promotion rather than to fundraising.

Think very carefully and objectively about the people whose support you're counting on. Why will they want to support you? Is there a clear and specific need for what you do in your community? Will you be addressing a social issue that affects a great number of people? Are you offering a reward that people truly require or desire? Have you spoken to a lot of people about your idea, and have they expressed their interest in supporting it? Do you have a long list of media contacts who will help to promote your campaign? Is there a huge niche community eagerly anticipating this kind of product, film, space or event? If the answer to one or more of these questions is no, I would advise you to think twice about setting a high Kickstarter goal. The month I spent promoting my Kickstarter campaign was, by far, the most stressful month of my entire life. There are easier ways to raise money. I’m glad I did it, but I never will do it again.

If this rant hasn’t dissuaded you, I can understand that. When I was in your position, nothing would have convinced me that I shouldn't try it. If that's the case, you may be interested in next week's post. I'll be sharing a blow-by-blow account of how I went about it, what I did wrong, and what I did right. Launching a successful Kickstarter campaign requires a fair amount of preparation and support, and I'll be happy to tell you about how it worked for me.

In my next post I’ll give a step by step on what I did for my campaign…

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Partner: Forage Kitchen

This week and burger sausage

It’s been a great week at Forage Kitchen. Lots of activity, which I always love. We have a new pizza maker in the space, making Tarte Flambee, which is an Alsatian specialty, really delicious.  Also, for the first time ever, we have a full house of chefs for BatchMade Market this month. And to top it off, I’ve been working on some side projects, including making sausage. I’ve decided to call the one I’m working on “burger sausage.” Think of everything that’s on a burger, but inside of a sausage. So that’s iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese, mayo, ketchup, raw and browned onions, and toasted bread crumbs. It’s a fun creative outlet.

In life, it’s important to spend time doing things that don’t make sense but interest you—and that’s especially true for entrepreneurs. Whether it’s reading something that is totally outside my field of knowledge, or learning a random skill, or talking to someone about a subject I know nothing about, it’s important that I keep learning. What’s amazing is how often those skills or ideas come back and help me in my business. The more you collect, the more you have to draw on, and the more likely you are to have those lightbulb moments of insight when things just come together perfectly.

The challenges and surprises of starting something new

This is my first post about Forage Kitchen that has nothing to do with our opening or one of our events. I’d like to try to write more about what happens behind the scenes, both in our space and in my life generally: what’s great, what’s stressing me out, the random things I’m getting into (like computer-aided design, which I was just working on this morning), what we’re trying to do at the Kitchen, and what it means to me. I want to be as honest as possible.


Things are plugging along at Forage Kitchen. We’ve been open for a few months, though honestly it feels more like a year; the café’s been open for about five weeks. It’s been totally different from what I expected, and a true challenge in a crazy number of ways. I had this assumption (backed somewhat by our Kickstarter success, but also by an ever-growing list of supporters on our website) that the Kitchen would be full the day it opened. I was convinced that once it opened, it would run itself. When I write these words down now, it seems ridiculous to me, but it’s what I actually thought.


As you can tell from my tone, it didn’t turn out that way. Not that people weren’t interested, of course: we’ve had a ton of great press, and about 400 people showed up to our open house. Many of them are excited to work on projects inside the space, with eleven companies having signed up so far. After such a long time cultivating this idea, it’s incredibly satisfying to see how much enthusiasm Forage Kitchen has generated. In short, things are going well — just not as well as I expected. 


Keeping the momentum for Forage Kitchen over the years took a crazy amount of energy. . This project, which dragged on for four years with no apparent end in sight, with angry backers demanding specifics on opening dates and locations (which I couldn’t provide); with investors and bankers demanding proof (in the form of business models) that my idea was practical, I needed to really believe in my vision, never waver from the core ideas underlying that vision. But when those ideas are finally tested and are found slightly off-mark, it can feel like a crisis.


Thankfully, it’s not a crisis (though I’d be lying if I said we didn’t come close). I was able to regain my footing when I realized I could face all of the challenges of opening a new business. But the experience shook me, for sure. 


Here’s the strange silver lining: I’m more excited and engaged now than when I thought this was going to be easy. Years and years of talking about the idea to everyone I met, pushing endlessly through broken partnerships and failed lease negotiations, and maintaining enough energy to stick to it, had really drained my excitement about the project. We needed to launch, and we needed to launch quickly.


When we did, I was re-invigorated. There are so many things I have to do everyday that I’ve never done before: endless challenges and abundant learning  opportunities — everything from figuring out how to run a business with an actual location and employees that show up everyday (instead of just a ragtag band of volunteers who show up, create something, and then disband until the next time, as I was accustomed to), to co-ownership (my partner Matt is truly a lifesaver, sharing the burden of decision-making and counterbalancing my weaknesses), to running a café that is open everyday, to the politics of opening in a new city, to working with a PR agency, to learning how to use a laser-cutter to make stencils for our Founders’ Wall. The list goes on and on.


The great thing is, I feel that it’s forcing me to grow — as an individual and as a business owner. I had become comfortable in my past life preparing underground dinners and organizing foraging classes, but it was no longer exciting to me. This new thing is a true challenge. I’m not going to paint a rosy picture of it, but I’m grateful for all the twists and turns, and I’m excited to see what’s to come.

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Why everyone should get an intern

Anyone who’s doing or making something that excites them should have an intern. We think of internship as something that’s done mainly at large companies. You might intern at Apple because you think it’ll look good on your resume, or with a view to working there in the long run. But I think internship can be so much more than that.

I was talking to an artist friend last night about why she should consider getting an intern and how to go about finding one. She expressed reluctance, as she feels that she didn’t deserve to have someone helping her out (which is definitely not true). After talking with her, it occurred to me that there might be other people out there who feel the way she does, so I thought I would share my take on it. I’ve been running my business for almost nine years, and I’ve had interns since the first year, back when my project was just me and a URL.

Interning with someone who is spending time doing something they truly love—whether making sculpture (like the friend I just mentioned), operating a small food business, or running a printmaking studio in your basement where you make greeting cards to sell on Etsy—can be an incredibly valuable experience benefiting both parties. The business owner receives free help, and, in exchange, the intern gets to see what is possible.

When you take on an intern, you’re giving them a gift—you’re showing them how you live your life and that there’s another way to do things than the way they’ve been taught. They’ll see that you can have an idea for something that doesn’t yet exist, and, through sheer will, make this thing into a reality.

Now I’ll share with you some things I’ve learned along the way.


Where to find people

Craigslist is a good place to start. If you want to take a more targeted approach, reach out to local schools. Many colleges have intern messaging boards where you can post ads (usually for free). If you have any kind of e-mail subscriber list or a social media presence, this is even better, because you can reach out to a network of people who are already interested in what you’re doing.

When you’re writing the ad, keep in mind that it’s essentially a sales pitch. You’re asking someone to work for free, so you should let them know exactly what they’ll get out of it, and what they’ll be doing. Be as specific as you possibly can, so there are no misunderstandings about what the job entails. Most importantly, tell them why you’re interesting enough that they would want to spend their precious time working for you.



If you’re not used to interviewing people, it may feel strange, but it’s always a good idea to sit down with them and have a chat, so you can see if it’s a good fit. Here are some examples of the questions you might want to ask them:-

Why do they want to work for you?

What do they hope to get out of the internship?

Will they be receiving academic credit for the internship? If yes, this serves as a guarantee for you, because it means they will be far more committed.

What are their plans for the coming months? Are they able to commit to the full term?

In my experience, the last question is of the highest importance. It’s fairly common for interns to work for a week or two and then become busy with other things, such as a new job or something else in their lives. Either way, this is going to happen—after all, you’re not paying them. But having a frank conversation about the importance of committing for the specified duration, and being clear about what is expected of them (2 days per week, 6 hours per day, for example) will help to measurably reduce this.

The most important question to ask yourself is: Do you like them? You’ll be spending a fair amount of time with this person, so it’s essential that you get along with them. This is especially important if your business is a one-person show.



My preference is not to impose too much structure. I don’t appreciate being told what to do, so I assume that other people don’t, either. On the other hand, an intern is going to require some guidance. Before you post the job, spend some time thinking about exactly what they’ll be doing for you. Think broadly as well as specifically. Imagine their first day with you—what will they spend their time doing? You might want to set them a few small tasks that are easy to understand, then have them come back for a new set of tasks when they’re done. As you get to know each other, you’ll see what they excel at and what they can do independently, but, in the beginning, they will want to be managed. I’ve learned the hard way that if you give broad, far-reaching, independent projects to interns, they won’t feel like they’re getting anything out of it. Then one day, they just won’t show up. They are interning for you in order to learn from you, so you must help them to do that.

That’s all there is to it, really. Post your ad, even if you think no one will respond. It doesn’t hurt to try. In all likelihood, you’ll receive more responses than you can handle. Don’t overthink it—just give it a try. You’ve got nothing to lose. As well as the help, it’s energizing to be with someone who is excited enough about what you do that they would want to help you out for free. It can really invigorate your project, as new people will contribute new energy and fresh ideas that you didn’t even know you were missing.

Now go out and get an intern!



On productivity: 30 minutes is all I have…

Being an entrepreneur is hard. It’s amazing but hard. On any given morning, as soon as I wake up there are a hundred things I should be doing. Everything from writing e-mails to composing blog posts to posting on Instagram to dealing with employee issues to co-ordinating event production to scheduling calls to getting back to that guy who wants advice on how to start his food business. On top of this, I am, by nature, very easily distracted. One article on 3D printers can send me down a three-hour rabbit hole on industrial production and the Internet of Things. No one tells me what to do or what to focus on. No one wrote me a job description. No one sets me goals for the quarter. While this is incredibly liberating, it’s also incredibly overwhelming.

Without some kind of system in place, I feel like I’m facing an avalanche. I want and have to do so many things. As the day goes on, I can feel my anxiety mounting as everything surges towards me at once. A hundred things started; nothing finished. The day ends. I’m exhausted, and I feel like I haven’t achieved anything.

So, I came up with this simple solution. I doubt it’s unique. Even as I write this, I’m growing increasingly concerned that I actually heard it from Hugh Grant in About A Boy, but it works for me, so I’ll share it with you good people.

 I break the day into 30-minute chunks. Each morning, I wake up, make a list of the things that will make the best use of my day, and start setting timers. Of course, some things don’t lend themselves to this technique—I’m not going to hang up on someone once they’ve used up their allotted time—but for most tasks, it really does help. E-mail: 30 minutes. This post: 30 minutes. Reading about industrial design, my latest obsession: 30 minutes. Reading a novel I love: 30 minutes.

This little hack helps me to make sure that everything that needs to be done, gets done. At the same time, it allows time in my schedule for pursuing things that I’m interested in at that very moment. Distractibility gets a bad rap; we’re all supposed to be laser- focused on what we do, but I don’t work that way. Things pop up. They may seem random at the time, but I have found that following them up usually pays off at some point in the future.

 Foraging was a random interest into which I threw myself. I wanted to start collecting mushrooms in the woods—on its face, not the most efficient use of my time—but it has led me to this satisfying career and thriving business. My most recently discovered obsession is making things. I’m obsessed with the idea of being able to create something with my hands, so I’ve taken up soldering, joined TechShop, and subscribed to the Make Magazine Newsletter. Who knows what will become of this? Maybe it will fizzle out. In ten years’ time, maybe I’ll look back and realize it was the best thing I’ve ever done.  A lack of focus can result in indecision and procrastination. But if we remain too focused, we might never expand our horizons.

 I’m always searching for ways to help bring it all into focus. The above technique helps add a sense of structure to a job that’s amorphous, and always in flux. Hope you’ll find it helpful.

Looks like I’ve still got 8 minutes . . . maybe I’ll do some reading.

 If you’re an entrepreneur, artist or creative and have any tips you’ve found to be useful, please let me know! I’m always looking for new ways to make it all work.