Andy LaPointe: “Customer feedback is key to your success”

Customer feedback is key to your success. If they don’t like your product, why go into full production? Getting non-biased feedback it vital. The best way to do this is to become a vendor at a local street fair and sample your product to everyone. Being a street fair vendor will give you immediate feedback […]

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Customer feedback is key to your success. If they don’t like your product, why go into full production? Getting non-biased feedback it vital. The best way to do this is to become a vendor at a local street fair and sample your product to everyone. Being a street fair vendor will give you immediate feedback from non-biased customers. If you’re interested, I wrote the book Festival Profits — The Guide to Selling Your Products at Street Fairs and Festivals. It is a step-by-step guide to street fair success. You can learn more in the “Guides” section of the Traverse Bay Farms’ website.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy LaPointe.

Traverse Bay Farms was started in 2001. Since he and his wife started the gourmet food company, Traverse Bay Farms has won 30+ national food awards at America’s largest and most competitive food competitions in America. They are the #1 nationally award-winning super fruit brand in America. Their products are distributed in 42 states and 5 countries across the globe.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. Not only were my parent’s entrepreneurs, but many of my aunts, uncles and cousins were entrepreneurs, too. Many still own and operate their own businesses including construction, bars, restaurants, pizzerias, machine shops, internet consulting and more.

You see, while growing up, four of my uncles were among the first franchisees for a pizzeria franchise. My dad was a licensed builder. When one of my uncles wanted to build out a new location, they would have my dad do the construction. Of course, my cousins and I would help, too.

Being in our early teens, we did more of the clean-up, but as we grew older, we helped with the heavy construction. Many of those building skills are still with me today. I’ll share that a little later how growing up in construction helped me to become a better food entrepreneur.

Back to the buildout of the locations. Once a pizzeria was constructed and the certificate of occupancy granted, we would move in equipment. Once the pizzeria was open to the public, my cousins and I would work in both the pizzeria and the commissary.

In the restaurants, we would make the pizzas, subs, salads, etc. In the commissary, we would grind the cheese, make the pizza dough, and deliver the stock to all of the pizza stores.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

Being surrounded with these many different experiences growing up was certainly a blessing. My parents never really pushed me to go into the family business of construction and my extended family never really pushed me or my cousins to go into the food or the construction business.

Although, of course, like many parents, they probably would like to see their kids go into the family business — but we never felt pressured. However, it turns out many of my cousins and my brothers are in the food and/or construction business. Go figure. 😊

Not feeling pressured, into a certain direction allowed me to become my own person with my own experiences. For that, I am very grateful. Like many kids as we get older, we want to go out and explore the world.

I earned my real estate license at 18 and sold real estate while attending college. In 1991, I earned a degree in finance from Eastern Michigan University. A few years later, I switched to a career in funding and financial planning. Between 1994 to 2009, I worked as a series 7 stockbroker, registered funding advisor (RIA) and mutual fund wholesaler.

Now here comes my “ah ha” moment…

It was September 11, 2001. You see, at the time, I worked for a financial services firm that had an office in New York City. Every time I visited NYC on business, I would take time out and walk the World Trade Center and other buildings in NYC. Growing up in construction I really enjoy walking through massive buildings and structures.

In fact, I was in the WTC just a few weeks earlier. One of my friends at the time was dating someone who worked in the towers. When I was in NYC for corporate meetings he and I would walk over to the towers and have lunch with his girlfriend. We all know what happened on 9/11.

At the time, I was a mutual fund wholesaler traveling 150 nights per year and logging over 75,000 airline miles annually. As a wholesaler, I worked directly with money managers. I sold mutual funds and separate accounts to funding advisors. They would in turn sell them to their clients.

My territory included 7 mid-western states. I was responsible for training stockbrokers and funding advisors in financial planning and wealth allocation strategies using the managers I represented.

On that fateful morning, I was in Covington, Kentucky. I was waiting for a 9:15 AM meeting with an advisor. As I sat in the advisor’s office lobby, everything unfolded on the TV. Like all Americans, I was glued to the TV screen.

When I traveled, I would usually fly into a town on Sunday, do my rotation, and then fly back home on Thursday evening. But after what happened, nobody could get a flight. I was stranded. I called the rental car company and told them all flights were grounded. Later that morning, I began my 8-hour drive from southern Ohio to my home in a small-town in northern Michigan. I returned the rental car at my local airport.

During that drive was when I had my “ah ha” moment. I made the decision to stop traveling. What happened that morning could have happened to anyone who was a road warrior or worked in the big city. Like any other day, fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters went to work but at the end of the day some did not come home.

During that drive, I searched my experience to find something that would allow me to stop traveling, work from home, replace my corporate income and spend as much time with my family as possible. After I returned home from that long drive, my wife and I discussed everything and decided to start the business the very next day.

Eight years later, our company was able to fully replace my corporate income and allow me to stop traveling. I left the corporate world in 2009 and never looked back.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest story is about our logo. We started our company and contacted a logo designer in the Detroit area to create a logo for our newly formed company. After a few weeks of seeing several different ideas, we made the decision to move forward with one of his logo designs. It was an abstract combination of orange, red, green and blue.

We paid 350 dollars for the design and we loved it. But our customers didn’t. Many people began asking what our logo was or what it represented. They asked if it was a red bird splashing in the water. Or if it was the rising sun over the forest and the water. Either way, the logo wasn’t as good as we thought it was.

A little later, I was reading Entrepreneur Magazine. While reading through the magazine, I read about an upcoming contest. The contest was to find to America’s Ugliest logo.

A company would submit their logo to the competition and if they won, Entrepreneur Magazine would redesign the logo for free. Guess what? We won! They completely redesigned our logo, and best of all, we are still using that same logo today.

The biggest lesson is not the always reply on or believe the experts. Go with your gut, your experience and your partners when making decisions about your business.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The most common mistakes when starting a food line include:

#1: Taking it personal when people do not like your recipe

#2: Not taking into consideration your supply chain

#3: Not willing to make changes to your recipes

#1: Believe it or not, not everyone will love your recipes as much as you do and that’s ok. 😊

Over the years, we’ve attended countless street fairs, trade shows and events and have the opportunity to meet other food entrepreneurs. Believe it or not, but we had witnessed food entrepreneurs get upset when someone says they do not like their recipes.

One experience my wife and I will never forget happened at a trade show. While at the show, we witnessed a food entrepreneur get mad after a store buyer tried their product and said it tasted like another line the store currently stocked.

The entrepreneur explained the recipe was his own secret family recipe. When the buyer started to walk away, the entrepreneur yelled across the trade show floor stating the buyer doesn’t know what good food tastes like. Don’t do that.

#2: While using ingredients from your own garden may be great when you start, it may not be enough supply as you grow. Consider getting ingredients from reputable suppliers that are of the same quality as the ingredients from your own garden.

#3: As your company grows, you’ll find you may need to make changes to slow selling recipes. Just do it. As entrepreneurs, we need to decide what is more important. Do we want to take our recipe to the world or be stuck with a potentially slow-selling product? The choice is yours.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

A food entrepreneur has several choices of production options when starting a food company. One method is not better than another when building your business. You simply need to start where you stand. In my book, How to Start a Food Business, that is available on my Traverse Bay Farms website, I have included 6 ways to get started. Here are just three of the six for your review:

  • You produce the product in your own home kitchen
  • You use a “shared kitchen” to produce your product
  • You hire a co-packer to produce your recipe for you in their kitchen

Once you’ve decide which path you will follow, take that first step and start your business.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

Most importantly is to create momentum. No matter how small. Momentum leads to more momentum. Your food business is based upon recipes, but those recipes have to be marketed.

Here is a brief list to build momentum for your brand:

#1: Find out if your state has a Cottage Food law.

The Cottage Food law allows food entrepreneurs to make certain types of recipes in their own home kitchen and sell them directly to the public. If your products are covered under Cottage Food law become a vendor at a local street or festival.

Not only will you get to sample your products to people at the street fair, you will also get instant feedback about your recipes. Finally, you can sell your products, too. Cash solves all problems of business and is a big motivator.

#2: Decide how and where you will distribute your products.

Reach out to local distributors and retails and ask them to carry your products. Start building relationships in your local market.

#3: Always think of how to leverage your time, resources and cash flow.

The benefit of being in the food business is the leverage that is available to you. To quote Archimedes “Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.”

In the food business, your production batch and your distribution is your leverage. For example, it takes one 5-hour block of time to produce 5,000 jars of your product. Once the production is complete, you now sell your product 5,000 different times. That is a 5000 to 1 leverage. You work once and sell it 5000 times.

The same is true with retailers and distributers. You ship a pallet of 100 cases, each case containing 12 jars, to a distributor. That single pallet allows you to leverage your time and resources. You ship the pallet once and your distributors sells the cases to the stores. The stores in turn place your product on their shelves. Their customers in turn buy 1,200 individual jars of your product. That is a 1200 to 1 leverage.

Now back to my early experiences in construction that helped me to become a better food entrepreneur. My dad taught me about the benefit of leverage. My dad is a master carpenter. He would tell me the only way he could build the projects he wanted to build was to leverage the skills of others.

The electrician, masonry, etc. each has a specialty skill. Although, he could probably do all of the work himself, it would take a very long time. He taught me for a few dollars per hour you can hire other people who can do what you want done. Although you may be able to do the work yourself, build a team of skilled people around you. You’ll be able to achieve success much faster.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

That is a good question. Now, don’t laugh when you read this, but the very first date my then-to-be-wife and I went on was to an invention development consultant. I’ll share more about this later in this response.

You see, since I was about 14, I would carry around a book with blank pages. I call it my idea book. Whenever, I have an idea I write it down. I can be about anything and on any subject. I don’t judge the idea; I simply jot it down in my idea book.

Over the years, I have filled at least a dozen or so books full of ideas. Most of them are terrible, but every now and then I have a good idea. 😊

Anyway, when I was in college, I had the earth-shattering idea of a two-doored mailbox. This way, people could retrieve their mail from the door in the back of the mailbox without walking into the street.

On the first date, I took my then-to-be wife to meet with an invention development consultant to discuss my great invention. The consultant loved the idea and it would only cost me 1,500 dollars up front for a patent search and to file the appropriate paperwork. Of course, being in college I did not have that kind of money. So, we left and went to dinner and a movie. My wife later told me that was the strangest date she was ever on.

In closing, when starting out instead of contacting an invention development consultant check out the website. They offer free business mentoring and education.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

When starting out, it is better to bootstrap. We had an opportunity to be funded when we first started. It was a 50,000 dollars funding for 30% of our company. At the time, it seemed like the best thing to do. However, after a few months of going back and forth, all parties decided it would not be a good match.

At the time, it seemed like a bad omen for the business. However, after the first few years we built up the business and eight years later I was able to leave my corporate job.

Also, when you take other people’s money, you also take on their oversight. Oversight of your time, your resources and more.

VC money seems to be the answer to everything, but when you’re first starting out an entrepreneur needs to put their own money, time and energy on the line. If the business model works, you’ll soon have VC’s contacting you.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

Since recipes can’t be copyrighted, the next best thing to do is the secure trademarks and patents. In addition to your recipes and your employees, your IP (intellectual property) is your most valuable asset. The first step to filing a patent or trademark is find a good IP attorney. You’ll want to find a firm that specializes in trademarks and patents. Try not to use the local law firm that does child support, divorce, dog bites, criminal defense, etc. and an occasional patent on the side.

For our patents and trademarks, we use an IP firm in Chicago. Our FDA attorney is based in Washington DC and one of the best in the country. Both are very expensive, but well worth it. Don’t go “on the cheap” for these services. Finally, make it a point to make an in-person visit with your IP attorney. It proves you are a professional and serious about your business.

Finally, get to know your IP attorney on a slightly more personal level. I mean ask them about their family, etc. You’ll be amazed how they will immediately take your call when you’re more than “just another” client.

When you are sourcing raw materials and contract manufacturers, inform the salesperson you want a long-term relationship. You want a fair price, fair terms and honest communication. Most people only want the best price. While price is important, having strong relationships can be more valuable over time.

Also, ask to speak with the sales or production manager, too. This will prove to the firms you’re working with that you are serious. You want to have a mutually beneficial relationship. When you have a relationship built on mutual trust, you may learn your production runs are always pushed to the front of the line or you’ll be able to secure in-demand raw ingredients when your competitors are running out of material to make their products.

Getting your first retailer is simple. When it may not be easy, it is simple. Walk into your local grocery or specialty food store and tell them you are a local food business. Retailers love to support local businesses. The reason is they can advertise they carry local food products. It’s a Win-Win.

Unlike in the past, distributers are more willing to bring on new product lines. Learn who the local distributors are for your type of product and reach out. Be prepared to offer a number of product samples, too.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food are the following:

#1: Who will make your product?

Deciding who will make your product is probably the most important decision you can make. If you decide to make your product, do you have the production capacity? Or, if you hire a contract kitchen, can you still make a profit after all costs?

#2: What is your strategy for getting feedback on your products?

Customer feedback is key to your success. If they don’t like your product, why go into full production? Getting non-biased feedback it vital. The best way to do this is to become a vendor at a local street fair and sample your product to everyone. Being a street fair vendor will give you immediate feedback from non-biased customers. If you’re interested, I wrote the book Festival Profits — The Guide to Selling Your Products at Street Fairs and Festivals. It is a step-by-step guide to street fair success. You can learn more in the “Guides” section of the Traverse Bay Farms’ website.

#3: What is your creation story?

People want to know your back story. Why did you create your company? Where did your recipes come from? Reporters, journalists, etc. will want to know the personal story behind your brand. Create your story today.

#4: What is your distribution?

Will you sell your products in retail stores? Will you sell your products exclusively online? Whatever you decide, you’ll need to create a business plan to achieve maximum leverage for your time, energy and resources.

#5: What is your exit strategy?

This probably could have been listed at the top the list. If you have a clear exit strategy, you’ll have daily, weekly, monthly and annual goals you must achieve to reach your goal. Even if you don’t plan on selling your company in the future, you’ll still have an exit plan in place. This will give you a roadmap to follow and benchmarks to achieve daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. It’s a great inspiration to set and achieve goals.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

The actual product is only part of the recipe for success. The other important ingredient is you need to create buzz. You need to create the “wow” factor. If a food entrepreneur doesn’t create buzz or the “wow” factor around their brand, they will most likely fail.

The reason is simple. There is more competition today than ever before. You need to be able to position your product as the first choice a consumer makes when they have money in their pocket and looking for a product you are offering.

Let me share with you a few ways we create buzz and the “wow” factor around our products. After you read these simple ideas, you’ll have a better understanding how to not only create buzz around your products, but most importantly keep it going. So here we go…

#1: Enter your products into competitions:

Although winning is important, even if you don’t place in a local or national competition you can still let everyone you entered your products into the competition. Most of your competitors don’t enter their products into food competitions because they are afraid of losing. You’ll create confidence in your products.

The benefit of entering your products into a food competition is the event only publishes the top 3 or 10 winners. If your product doesn’t place in the published results you can still benefit.

You see, let’s say you enter your product into a competition and the event coordinator tells you your product ranks 24th out of 100 entries. Guess what? You can write a press release stating your product ranked within the top 25th percentile. When food buyers, distributors, retails, etc. read your press release they will likely think, “Wow, they ranked the top 25th, it must be a good product. I need to carry their product.”

#2: Customer video testimonials

Today, videos sell. One of the best ways to get video testimonials for a food product is to attend a local street fair and sample your products. Our company usually attends 2–4 street fairs around the State of Michigan every summer. Of course, with Covid-19, this year was different.

Since many of the people attending the street fair probably haven’t previously experienced your product, this is an excellent way to jumpstart your testimonials. People sampling your products usually tell you immediately if they like your product or not. When a person says they like your product ask them if they would be kind enough to give you video testimonials. If they say yes, take out your mobile phone and record the testimonial. Also, if you offer them a free jar of your product, many people will be more than willing to provide a quick video testimonial.

Once you have a video testimonial you can place it on your website and other social media for years to come.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

#1: Giving Back and Donate a Portion of Profit.

Thanks to our customers, we are able to give products to local food banks, non-profits, etc. They can then either give away our products or use them during their fundraising events. We also support other supporting arthritis research, diabetic research, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Epilepsy research.

#2: Become a source of knowledge and insight

Offer a ladder to those coming behind us is important to building a strong entrepreneurial community. Providing time by offering real-world experience is valuable to others. This is accomplished by either sitting down with other budding food entrepreneurs to discuss their plans or by writing books. I allocate time weekly to either offer consulting to other food entrepreneurs or to share my knowledge in a book or report.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

One of the most important assets people have is their minds. The ability to think clearly about the facts is vital to a happy and healthy life. When a person begins to understand their internal world, they can create the external world they dream of. No matter if that world is health, wealth or relationships. Everything starts with a thought. A person can’t achieve anything without first conceiving it in their mind. All action begins with thought.

By teaching people they can control their thoughts through will-power, they can control how high they go in life.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

With all due respect to your readers, I would choose to speak again with my grandmother. She lived about a mile away and across the street from my cousins. During my early years, we would visit her every Sunday.

My cousins and I would help her make dinner, pies, cookies, etc. During dinner she would tell us stories of her childhood in Canada. After dinner, my cousins and I would run off and play in the garden or climb the apple trees she had in her front year.

She taught me how to listen. She taught me how to simply enjoy time. But the most important thing she taught was how to think and use my mind. Almost every time I saw her, she would ask, “What is the most important thing you own?”. I would reply, “my mind” and she would give me a hug. At the time, I did not fully understand or appreciate the question, but now I do. I ask my children the same question. She passed away in 1985, when I was a junior in high school. I love you Mimay.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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