Four Months Later

I swear I didn’t get buried by the onslaught of decision making in the last four months. I also didn’t crawl into a closet, carefully crafting healthy snacks on my own. I’ve been nonstop, making decisions and making progress. So so many things have happened in the last four months; I’ll try to summarize as best I can now, and use this post as a launching for 2017, resolutions, and better tracking of Nibble progress.

  • I started working from a commissary kitchen in Oakland. Forage Kitchen is a co-working space for food: I have a shelf in dry storage, another in the walk-in refrigerator, and another in the freezer. I reserve whatever station (stainless steel tables) I want for the duration I need, and I have access to use huge stoves, ovens, mixers, dishwashers, etc. and keep things on my shelves when I’m not there. Everything is big and professional and clean and new (the Kitchen opened around the same time I started there). My first few months have been completely overwhelming there as I learn how to use commercial appliances and cook at a larger scale. I’m in the kitchen now about 3 or 4 days a week!
  • I launched with Byte Foods. I met the female CEO of Byte months earlier, and I had had the fresh food vending machine company in mind as I worked on packaging all summer. We finally launched in late November, which was tricky because everyone is eating sweets and holidays snacks during the month of December (and there is usually more free food hanging around an office then too). Needless to say, I’ve been delivering to them every week since, and we’re still working on how to continue to improve the product, get the word out, and grow with Byte. Very very exciting that that opportunity came my way!
  • I established relationships with a few other platforms in the Bay – these are companies that connect small food vendors (or other local shops) with companies that want to supply food to their employees. It helps small folks like me because I can reach a wider audience faster, and helps me practice my kitchen process (with small batch hummuses, kitchen process and logistics = super important!). I’m hopeful that with employees coming back to the office and wanting to kickstart their new years resolutions of healthy eating, I’ll see demand for Nibble snacks grow through those platforms.
  • A few amazingly talented people have started working with me, supporting me, and helping me in the kitchen. I truly would not have made the progress I did in the last four months without the long hours of these folks – I now have a better sense of what I need for next steps in terms of a team, the skills of that team, etc., and I’ve learned a lot from them!
  • I’ve started to participate more in booths at events. This has been a great way to sample the product (currently, five unique hummuses with unlimited (well, about 12 different) vegetables to pair with them) and get immediate reactions and insights about what consumers like. It was actually pretty fun to make a banner, think about ‘tabling’ and what goes on a table at a booth, and make give-away cards to takeaway.
  • In early December, I was elected President of Slow Food San Francisco. This is such an amazing amazing opportunity and I am so honored to be a part of this global nonprofit organization. San Francisco is the oldest chapter in America, and the prior Board has set the bar way high. I am seriously so excited to work with the seven other females that were also elected, and see what we can accomplish together!

I leave you with a few photos of the final packaged product that I’ve been creating, packaging, delivering in the Bay Area. My focus now is on what’s next – with funding, the snack shop, hiring, etc. Future posts for those topics. 🙂

So Many Possible Answers (and a single question for you)

The last few couple months have just flown by. I’m already beginning to characterize months five and six as when I spent the majority of my time talking to mentors, customers, partners, platform-owners, friends. It hasn’t been discussion as it pertains to product validation for Nibble (I’ve seemingly taken care of that, for the moment), but more discussion centered around my own operational questions, like:

  • how (who is delivering? how often? does that make sense?) and
  • where (where are you creating? where are you selling? which channels make the most sense now?) and
  • when (when will you start a subscription? when will you open a shop? when will you be ready with your packaging?) and
  • with what (where are you sourcing your produce? your packaging? your beans?)

Given my minimal food industry experience, I’m trying to absorb as much as I can from the vast experience of people I’ve met that have been in the industry, especially in food operations. All of this talk has pushed me to face one deep, thick reality of the Nibble business much sooner than I otherwise would have: Everyone has a different view on what I should do. Ultimately, I am the only one (until I have a co-founder) that can decide what is right for the business I am creating. 

This realization may sound super simple. After all, I’m the founder; I’m the creator; I decided to start Nibble; I decide what happens next. I had some notion, however, that once I got to a certain point (like people want what I’m making) and I started to talk to industry experts and mentors there would be some norming on what makes the most sense to answer the hows and wheres. Like, the path would be fairly clear to anyone that’s run a food business or worked for many years in a food startup. But nope. Every single experienced person has a different idea, suggestion, proposal, thought, criticism, notion, or stroke of brilliance. One person rules one idea out, and the next person suggests that idea should be the only thing I do.

Honestly, it’s super exciting that there are literally dozens of different possible answers to some of these questions!! But I’m not going to lie – I’m beginning to feel the heavy weight of decision making. It’s the weight of taking in multiple, often conflicting views, combining it with my own view, and spitting out next steps that I have the utmost confidence in. That equation has just gotten way more difficult in the past few months. I don’t feel like I’m in any sort of decision paralysis, but my quick legs of decide + execute have begun to feel a bit heavy… especially since some of the decisions now involve larger price tags.

I know one of ways I can quicken and strengthen my decision-making pace again is to bring on a co-founder. I’d love that, with the right person that believes in Nibble and helping Americans snack healthy. Obviously the co-founder relationship is important, and I take this seriously. Are you interested, or do you know of someone that may be interested in being involved with Nibble?  Let me know so we can get together!

The Nibble Snack Shop Mission

June was a full month of travel, both for personal and professional reasons. Reunions of friends and reunions of family (in Arizona and NC) provided a backdrop to reinvigorate relationships and reconnect with my reading list.

I also had an opportunity to attend the Food Business School’s Food Venture Lab. The course couldn’t have come at a better time for Nibble – I was finishing up the vacation I had planned for the year, and I had been contemplating the best channel to take Nibble down for the next few months. The office delivery I had used to validate my product wasn’t necessarily my long-term vision for Nibble, so I needed to wrap my head around next steps to help me achieve my vision.

Over the course of the week, my fellow ~12 students and I carefully worked our way from a going-in idea (in some cases, folks had actual businesses up and running; others just had a rough idea of what they wanted to do; some had no idea) to a playbook that clearly outlined mission, vision, values, unmet need, value proposition, financials, target customers, market opportunity, competitors, and next steps towards an incremental milestone. (Phew!) Most of the time the Lab felt thick with presentations (we heard from trademark lawyers, CEOs that have sold food businesses, investors, etc.), readings, and trying to both listen and apply new skills directly to our ideas. By day two I realized that I needed some decompression time at the end of each day (when in Napa, right?), but then I needed my own recalibration time to be able to keep up and make sure I was getting the most out of the learnings. So I developed a steady rhythm of learn – think – learn (repeat) during the day, and relax – apply – prepare in the evening time. The intensity of the course felt overwhelming at times, but I think I definitely was able to effectively learn and grow Nibble because of the setting. The beautiful Westin Verasa Napa, the amazing weather, coffee from Model Bakery, the delicious breakfasts and snacks and lunches prepared by the CIA, runs along the Napa River, dinners with my husband (who worked from Napa that week) at places like Oxbow Market, Celadon, Bounty Hunter, Hog Island Oyster Bar: it was an ideal learning environment for me.

 

So what did I learn? What did my playbook look like? How much progress did I make? Well, in the two weeks since I’ve been back I feel like I’ve had so much more clarity around channel pursuits, business administrative needs, and my next milestone(s). I feel more at ease with pursuing non-retail channels as a means towards opening a snack shop in the coming year, and I have more confidence on how best to structure my business to increase access to fresh fruits and veggies over the coming decade. That tells me I learned a whole lot! All of the details boil into one clear mission:

To make snacktime a healthy & convenient occasion in an inspiring space…

While increasing American access to & consumption of fresh produce.

The Place for Snacks

I’ve been traveling for a couple weeks to attend two weddings back on the East Coast. I (obviously) used this as an opportunity to continue to study, explore, observe, and understand snack offerings in every place I went.

What continues to be so fascinating to me, and showed up in the physical placement of small food items nearly everywhere I went is that snacks are obviously a part of what Americans do, but we just don’t focus on it. We allow snacks to be an afterthought, a random bag of a random corn product at the end of a random aisle. We let snacks hide away near a register or disguise themselves as a full meal by increasing portion size or pairing them with a variety of other snacks. The reality is that snacks do not have an elevated position in our eating habits. They don’t get the prime spot of breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You might say I’m just toying with words here, that the act of snacking could take place at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or you might question what defines breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the first place and argue that someone could “snack” during those “meals”. And I might agree with you, except that every day we make excuses about the food choices we make because of the word choices we use. “Oh, it’s just a snack so I’m going to grab this 260 calorie Clif bar with 20g of sugar at my desk in front of my computer.”or “Oh, it’s just a snack on the go so I’m going to pick up chips and nuts and a smoothie and a candy bar.” or “Oh, it’s time for lunch, so I need to be good and order a salad.” The food choices we make are in part linked to the time of day of consumption and the mindset we have about meal vs. snack. Since I am trying to impact people’s food choices when they want to consume something small in portion, I have no choice but to use words people understand because those words define their behaviors and choices.

The fact that snacks are an afterthought, exhibited by the offhand physical placement in stores and kiosks, does not worry me. My goal is to push people to see snacks as just as important as breakfast, lunch, and dinner (if not more important if you’re making poor choices in between meals!). The frequent chances we have throughout the day to make better snack choices present a huge opportunity to integrate more produce into our diet and keep us fuller longer!

A Decade of Health

My husband so sweetly reminded me that yesterday marked the ten year anniversary of my commitment to living a healthy life. More than a decade ago, I had gained a few pounds, didn’t exercise, and rarely thought about increasing my vegetable intake. In the cold of Boston winter, in a state of mediocre health (and likely on a path towards unhealth), I set my 2006 New Year’s resolution to start exercising a couple times a week. The months ticked by. When I woke up on May 1, 2006 and glanced at my wall calendar, my thought was Shoot, it’s May!! I was supposed to start working out four months ago!! I just could not believe that a commitment I had made to myself resulted in four months of doing nothing. It was truly a shock. I had been thinking about it. Every day I had been thinking Today’s the day.  I’m going to start today. And I just never did. So my shock of it being May pushed me to the gym that day. Initially I worked out just a couple days a week, but over the last ten years I have maintained a fitness regiment of cardio and strength training and trying new exercises and running races and enjoying pushing myself with a trainer and yoga and spin and weights… over and over and over (I do a variety of work-outs six days a week now).

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The more important lesson I learned that year is this: time will pass anyway. Whether you work out, eat more broccoli, snack on cookies, watch more TV, smoke, train for a marathon, meditate, etc.: time will pass anyway. You can choose to experience that time as an unhealthy person – wishing to be healthier, wishing to exercise more – or you can actually wake up and make those wishes real. The time will pass whether you make a healthy choice or not.

Food Safety

After a long weekend at The True Cost of American Food Conference, I recently arrived on an early Monday morning to a dimly lit conference room at the Department of Public Health, which is housed in what used to be a Masonic Temple. Though I had entered under the watch of Charity, Fortitude and Truth (see: Masonic Temple), I was expecting a day of Prevention, Accountability and Obsolescence. I was signed up for a June session of Manager’s Food Safety Certification Class & Exam, but was hoping to sit in on the April session to get through it sooner. Luckily, there were enough no-shows (really, people? you spent the time and money signing up! why not show up?) that I could learn and test that day.

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I was there to comply with California Law, which states that every retail food facility must ensure that:

  1. At least one(1) employee be certified in food safety by passing an approved Food Safety Certification examination
  2. All employees involved in the preparation, storage or service of food in a food facility must obtain a food handler card

I had taken #2 a few months ago, so all that was left was #1. Even though I don’t have a retail food facility yet, I know it’s super important to share with customers (current and future) that I have the proper certifications to be preparing food for them.

There is a ton of detail that goes into preparing food, and while you’d think I would walk away from a certification class with more confidence that our food industry is highly regulated and assessed, and therefore our food is prepared appropriately, I instead walked away totally scared. Think of the number of food establishments you purchase food from on a weekly basis. Now think of the number of ingredients in each of those dishes/items you purchase. Now think of the number of times each of those ingredients changes hands before it gets to your food establishment. Now think of the number of surfaces, boxes, containers, or utensils that ingredient may have touched in its long life before it got turned into your food. Those hands and surfaces each contain opportunities for your food to get contaminated. Sigh. And I haven’t even mentioned temperature…

So it’s scary. I am personally concerned about the lack of guidance (in the class) around produce temperatures and how long cut produce can sit at room temperature or remain fresh in the refrigerator. We were tested on general guidelines, but I know it’s up to me to test scenarios as I build Nibble, and document my procedures. I actually love this behind-the-scenes operations of taking diligent care of those ingredients that will be in each Nibble snack, so I find this sort of challenge both interesting and satisfying. In the meantime, I’ve been a bit more careful about which food establishments I frequent since I took the class… because you just never know.

YC & Conversations about Food

The last few weeks have been incredibly busy. I definitely need to work on finding time to squeak blog posts in on a more frequent basis, since I now feel overwhelmed about trying to cover the dozens of steps on this journey that I’ve covered in the last few weeks.

YC Female Founders Conference

I rushed to have a shirt made to wear to the YC Female Founders Conference (“ask me about nibble snacks”), prepped a couple dozen carrots + hummus, and was on my way with soft cooler messenger bag over my shoulder. I was so excited to attend the Conference! It was utter chaos when I arrived – women milling around everyone, making small talk, finding name badges. I noticed right away that there was a coldness in the culture of the event. It was really difficult to just walk right up to someone and introduce yourself, because most of the ladies were in small groups or not making eye contact. I rarely got a friendly smile and a warmness in demeanor that you’d hope to get before going through the awkward first three seconds of meeting someone. It was kinda strange for me, since I think I’m pretty good at talking to complete strangers! Needless to say, I figured out right away that I wouldn’t be handing out any snacks.

The talks themselves were a decent combination of inspiring, scary, and exciting. So many women have done amazing things in the startup space, which left me humbled and feeling totally out of place! I kept wondering if I really had the skills to pull this off, but the next moment reassured myself that I absolutely know what I’m doing! Judging from their stories, I’m pretty sure this schizophrenic feeling is totally normal. It does make you wonder what guys think though. Are they as schizophrenic in their feelings about running a company? Or do they just handle the ups and downs in a way that always errs on aligning with the ups, so their confidence does not waver?

Despite some great stories from current founders and clear direction about running a startup from Jessica Livingston, the Conference left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. At the end, where most of the networking was intended to take place amongst the ~800 attendees, the speakers, and partners of YC, a large happy hour was intended to take place. Unfortunately, the capacity of the space for the event was 500. I was part of the group of ~300 that was told it was unlikely we’d be able to enjoy the happy hour. I handed out a few Nibble snacks before I left.

The True Cost of American Food Conference

I totally hit the jackpot with the timing of this Food Conference relative to starting Nibble. It’d be really hard to provide all the details about the two full days I spent at the Conference, so I’m going to summarize my observations and thoughts. I was:

  • Surrounded by 1,500 amazing researchers, company owners, non-profit leaders – all so passionate about contributing towards making a sustainable food system
  • Humbled by the wealth of knowledge and the intense drive of the people around me
  • Struck by the many many tentacles of this sticky problem that extend beyond my tiny tiny hope of helping people to make healthier choices at snack time: wage laws, migrant worker policies, environmental impact, animal welfare, clean water, insane waste (both produce and animal)… so yeah, it’s a grotesque problem with no silver bullet solution
  • Worried that we didn’t make a ton of progress. The inpatient side of me left with real concern that we didn’t get very far in two days. We were pushing to come up with concrete things to do next as a collective group, but I worry we didn’t get very far.
  • Eager to do more! I want to contribute in any way I can towards this cause, and I am determined to find a place in the Bay Area that can utilize my time and energy.
  • Full of delicious food. The Bon Appétit Management Company did an amazing job keeping us satisfied with local, sustainable, healthy fare. A food conference certainly does not disappoint with food!

Veritable Vegetable Tour

As part of the True Cost of American Food Conference, there were a few different field trips we could select after the Conference. I opted to visit Veritable Vegetable, a local organic food distributor that I have been considering as one of my sources for produce. I am so glad I did! A small group of us got to tour their main facility and learn about how the oldest organic food distributor in the country stays nimble, strong, regional, and customer-focused. The are 135 staff connecting 300 different growers to 400 customers. Over 60% of their farms are less than 50 acres, so their commitment to small is REAL. We had a chance to pepper one of the co-founders with questions, and I just loved the depth of expertise not only around the food business, but also about the food itself. I definitely think I need to schedule more time with these folks to really dig into what produce can be at what temperature/humidity for what time – the VV team’s real world experience in this space is solid!

Other Conversations

Beyond these major life experiences from the past couple weeks, detailed professional work and personal endeavors continue to fill my days:

  • Weekly trips to San Jose to deliver snacks to a customer; sample drops in different locations several times a week (I can bring you snacks!!)
  • Connections with friends, friends of friends, fellow founders in the food space to share ideas and get feedback
  • A kind letter from YC that shared with me that I did not get an interview for this batch, which means I did not get in. This was such a blip in the last couple weeks – probably means I’m focused on the right things! I knew my application relayed a very new company, so I continue to push and develop my business; perhaps I will apply again for the next batch if the timing is right.
  • A joyous wedding weekend in Wilmington, NC that coincided with my husband’s birthday. It was wonderful to be back in NC in early Spring. Birthday events with friends included the Wilmington River Tour and the Houdini Escape the Room, both of which were terrific!