Bruce Bacon of Ruth’s Vegetarian Gourmet: “A remarkable product or a remarkable price”

A remarkable product or a remarkable price. The only way that I can see to succeed is with a product that people will talk about, come back for more and help you spread the word. Either that or the ability to ‘buy’ market share through exceptional value. I guess you need a ‘hook’ just like […]

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A remarkable product or a remarkable price. The only way that I can see to succeed is with a product that people will talk about, come back for more and help you spread the word. Either that or the ability to ‘buy’ market share through exceptional value. I guess you need a ‘hook’ just like a hook in a song. What makes you get attention and then get people talking? What can cause the groundswell of excitement and customer loyalty?

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 Bruce Bacon.

Seasoned entrepreneurial veteran including the co-founder of; Genesis Attachments, Exodus Machines, ShearCore, BladeCore, Oil Quick USA. These companies are located in Superior, Wisconsin. All were started from green field and built into successful companies. These companies currently employ about 240 direct people, and many more indirectly for outside services and support. They are a major contributor to Northwestern Wisconsin’s economic base. Combined revenue exceeds 100,000,000 dollars annually. Products produced by these companies are recognized as the finest in the world. Bruce has been instrumental in team building, vision, finance, design, sales and marketing of each of these company’s products and negotiated agreements with suppliers and distributors worldwide. Ruth’s Vegetarian Gourmet is now Bruce’s passion based on his mother’s amazing vegetarian comfort food entrées. Bruce is driven to help people through employment, community and has been involved with several philanthropic organizations.

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”?

Growing up in far northern Minnesota, surrounded by forest, streams and swimming holes was idyllic. I had Little League baseball, riding horses, fishing for brook trout and feeling safe and secure in our little town of Two Harbors on the shore of Lake Superior. It was small town America. What could be better? My family of five siblings and conservative, dedicated parents was centered around hard work and just ‘doing the right thing.’ My mother was (and still is) a great home chef, and family meals were an occasion. When I was about 10 years old, my parents, at the prompting of my brother Barry, decided that becoming vegetarian was the right way to live. This did not sit well with me. Really? No turkey on Thanksgiving? I did not win the debate. Fortunately, my mother was connected with a group of vegetarians that went back generations, even in the 1960s. Anyway, I survived and in one of life’s twists of fate, those same recipes became the foundation of Ruth’s Vegetarian Gourmet.

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

This is not my first entrepreneurial expedition. I’ve had two successful ventures in the past. They were in completely unrelated industries, namely heavy industrial design and manufacturing. Those products were and are sold globally in the metal recycling industry. I thought those were complex industries, that is, until I entered the world of food! That is when I realized I did not know the meaning of the word complex when it came to markets, distribution, retail, compliance, etc. We did not enter this maze completely blind. We did hundreds of taste tests at various events and had exceptionally positive feedback. We knew we had something pretty remarkable. Nonetheless, there is always that tiny bit of doubt and perhaps a bit of amazement that says, ‘Is this special? Or am I crazy?’ My ‘ah ha’ moment came when a good friend from a big Italian family steeped in the restaurant industry said, “Bruce, send me some of your vegetarian stuff.” I said, “Sure, Sal. I’ll send you some Ruth’s homestyle vegetarian balls. Just throw them in some of your homemade marinara and simmer for a while.” He did, and when Sal’s son Joey came home from college, they sat down for dinner. Afterwards, Sal said to Joey, “What did you think?” Joey said, “About what? Dinner was good.” Sal confided that neither his son nor his wife noticed the difference. That told me we had ‘it.’ If an Italian family with deep foodie roots thought Ruth’s products were tasty and didn’t even know they were vegetarian, we were in a good place.

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?

I wasn’t laughing then. I listened to people tell me we needed to launch a vegan line in addition to our vegetarian offerings. We did. It was a disaster. The food was not good, but we ran with it for a while as I was being told that vegans love this food. That was an inaccurate statement. Being vegan is a lot different than being vegetarian, far more challenging and requires a lot of dedication and commitment, and it is expensive. My hat is off to all the vegans out there. I respect how they feel and their opinions on food. My mistake was not listening to my gut and saying no. No, we are making food that we know, and we cannot be all things to all people. My advice is stay focused; don’t get distracted. Know who you are and be exactly that.

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?

Understanding the breadth and depth of what is required to enter the game vs. just living a good life. Do you really want to do this? Really? Going out on this limb is exciting, engaging and exhilarating. But all of that happens during the talking and planning stages. All the conversations, dreams, visions of success and building your dream. I have a saying that I use a lot; “Talking about doing something is not the same as actually doing it.” It’s all glorious during the talking. Then, the reality of doing it sets in. You had better be prepared for unrelenting stress, mistakes, investing two or three times what you planned, no time for yourself or others, crying yourself to sleep, waking up with a knot in your stomach. This is not a negative portrayal. This is what will happen. I’m just saying, you had better be prepared as best you can to walk through fire. Plus, all the weight and decisions will fall on your shoulders. And yet, if you are determined, then jumping off that cliff can be exhilarating and rewarding and no matter what occurs, you will grow. Sometimes through pain, sometimes through glory. Common mistakes involve not being committed, letting fear hold you back, not seeking as much advice as possible, making sure you have a network of experts and then hold on tight. You have to go ‘all in’ or not at all.

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?

You must do research and test your competition. Do you really have something that is special or unique? Does anyone else think so? It’s best to gather numerous opinions. Do you have a good story? What makes you different? Who will make the product? What will it cost to outsource, or am you making it in house? Do you have a reliable supply chain of ingredients? Is your profit margin healthy and sustainable? Can you price in distribution and retail markup and still be competitive? Do you have access to business function experts like accounting, H/R, taxes, compliance, purchasing, logistics, storage, operations, sales, marketing or design?

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?

I think the first step is a lot of research and attempting to understand if you have a sustainable business model, assuming you gain entry into the market.

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?

There are two benefits to doing all this work up front. One, of course, is to determine if you have the pieces in place to build this dream. The second benefit is that step one is a lot of work and tests you. Are you still on fire for this dream of yours? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then jump off the deep end and join the rest of us who may or may not have some imbalance in our lives. Or, maybe we are just dreamers who are built to make our dreams reality. Remember, every single company out there, no matter how big or small, started with a dream. Also, remember that the way is hard, and the highway is littered with those who did not prepare well.

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

I don’t know a lot about this part, except that you need to have this piece in place with provisions to go to round two and three. Finance is its own world of expertise with all kinds of opinions, views and approaches. After all my years as an entrepreneur, I am still open to advice on these matters.

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?

I actually have some patents in my name from my previous life in industrial design. They are expensive and time consuming and typically have limited value. I would advise that you determine (with a quality patent attorney) if you have an airtight patentable invention, how hard a design around or modification might be and what the real costs are financially and as a distraction of your time. If you have something distinctive, it is likely worth the effort. Just be as sure as you can when you make the decision.

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.)

1) A great story

In today’s world, it seems that connectivity is increasingly important and relating to the people and company that we do business with is of value. Social media and people valuing content, source, and sustainability are all gaining clout. Ruth’s has a great story — my mom and our family, the history of the products, the all-natural ingredients, made from scratch, no processing, chemicals or additives, caring about the community, the planet and our health. All those things resonate with informed humans.

2) The right people

It takes a village. You need great people who believe in your mission and have the specific skills that you need to succeed. I have a business philosophy that had always served me well: ‘Hire the best people and let them spread their wings.’ Great people do not need to be managed; they need to be included. Build a great team and move out of their way.

3) A solid plan

How will you go to market? Are you selling online? Retail? Institutional? Local? Regional? How exactly are you going to get your product out there, and if you do get it out there, what will entice people to buy your product vs. what they have been buying up until now?

4) A remarkable product or a remarkable price

The only way that I can see to succeed is with a product that people will talk about, come back for more and help you spread the word. Either that or the ability to ‘buy’ market share through exceptional value. I guess you need a ‘hook’ just like a hook in a song. What makes you get attention and then get people talking? What can cause the groundswell of excitement and customer loyalty?

5) Marketing and sales

Someone has to promote, push, create, follow, create and foster. This is the money stream. You’ve got to have it, and it can cover a lot of other unknowns, mistakes and costs under the covers as you grow.

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

How do you create an amazing product? I honestly don’t know; I stole my recipes from my mom!

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

The most gratifying thing in business to me is employing people. That doesn’t just mean a ‘job.’ It means seeing them grow, watching as they gain confidence, take on new challenges, do things they never knew they could do. I love seeing a great big smile break across the face of a human being who never had a break and realizes, “Wow! I did it.”When you have a chance to help someone change their life situation, it is the best feeling in the world. There are so many people who through life’s circumstances never could quite catch that break. My mission is to open the door, invite them in and keep them close. We should not just be employers; we should be empowerment providers. I know this much; if you give someone a chance, make them a part of a team, help them reimagine their life and place on this planet, they will be there for you. Always. There is a lifelong bond that is built and once the foundation of the reality of personal success is instilled, it lasts a lifetime. That is all I want. I want to see that smile. I want to meet their kids. Change the world for one.

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.

Now that I’m running a business in my hometown, I feel very connected to the community. One of our company mandates is to give 20% of our profits to charities that help meet the basic needs of people who need it most. We care about our town and want its residents to be successful. Two of the biggest challenges in the workforce are day care and transportation. We hope to help address the first obstacle with an on-site day care service in the near future. Families just can’t afford day care or sometimes a reliable vehicle, so we’re hoping to ease those burdens for the people who work with us.

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.

I’d like to have lunch with Gary Hirshberg. He took what he built at Stonyfield Yogurt and parlayed that into helping others — namely entrepreneurs, who in turn built more companies, employed more people and helped others, who in turn helped others. I admire people who don’t sit back once they have ‘made it,’ and people who took the blessings that were given to them and ‘pass it on.’ You can always tell when people change the world because they care, and I feel like Gary Hirshberg is one of them.

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

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