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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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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