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“Build a great story.” with Rich Labriola

Figure out ways to make your product stand out amongst the competition. Whether it be the type of service you offer, the packaging you use, or the size of product that you make comparatively. I had always thought that brownie bites were just a silly way to market brownies. Not so silly given that they […]

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Figure out ways to make your product stand out amongst the competition. Whether it be the type of service you offer, the packaging you use, or the size of product that you make comparatively. I had always thought that brownie bites were just a silly way to market brownies. Not so silly given that they blew up the market for selling brownies and made manufacturers hundreds of millions of dollars because they were so portable, and marketable to kids and grownups alike.

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 Rich Labriola, a self-taught dough aficionado and Chicago’s premier artisan baker. In 1993, he founded his first business, Labriola Baking Company, on Chicago’s South side and it sky-rocketed quickly to success, selling his bread at the first Trader Joe’s stores in the Chicago area. He then went on to open Labriola Café & Neopolitan Pizzeria in 2008, serving pizza to sate demand from customers wanting more than just his bread. He sold Labriola Baking Company in 2013 and turned his attention to donuts. After watching a travel show featuring Stan Berman, owner of the iconic Los Angeles donut shop, Labriola phoned Berman and a friendship between the two bakers was born. The pair’s partnership brought Stan’s Donuts & Coffee to Chicago with the first location opening in the Wicker Park neighborhood in 2014 and a cult following soon amassed. Six years and twelve locations later, Stan’s Donuts is a Chicago institution. Known for his original donut creations including Pockets, “Le Stan,” and most recently the Pretzel Donut, Rich maintains innovation and relevancy with his donuts. A fruitful partnership with Goldbelly allows for Stan’s to be shipped nationwide, and soon Rich will be returning to his wholesale roots with Stan’s Donuts available in Chicagoland grocery stores. Not only has Rich established himself as Chicago’s “Chief Dough-boy,” he understands how to create an iconic brand and continues to give guests what they want for decades.

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”?

My parents owned a pizzeria in Calumet Park, and as a kid I would hide in the back seat of my dad’s car when he drove there so I could work with him making pizzas. I loved the feeling of the dough in my hands. Growing up after that, I worked a ton of odd jobs that I wasn’t passionate about, but I had a drive and passion for quality foods that I knew I wanted to follow. I worked as meter reader for Commonwealth Edison for three years before getting fired and after that I knew I wanted to pursue baking full time, so I taught myself French, Italian and German methods of bread making, and the rest was history.

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

Having been in the baking industry for a long time, we always toyed with donuts. But I really think the “ah ha” moment was seeing Stan Berman and his shop, Stan’s Donuts, in Los Angeles on TV for the first time. It was a travel show and seeing his shop and the donuts as the “top” in the US sparked something for me, since I had been toying with donuts for so long, and I called him up. Our partnership changed over time, like all good ideas do, but that was the first inclination of seeing the idea that sparked this whole brand for me.

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?

In the bread business, when we started doing our bread testing in 1993, I didn’t know anything about it. Nothing about the water, yeast, flower, any of it. So, we had 100 pounds of flower, and I asked another baker about how much salt I needed, and he said, “a tomato can” of salt. Salt percentage in bread is like 2:2 percent ratio. So, I didn’t really know how much that was and just got a full tomato can’s worth of salt. Obviously — that bread did not turn out. The lesson I learned there was that bread making is so much about preciseness, or you simply can’t make bread. If one thing is off, or you have too much of one ingredient, it won’t turn out. I quickly learned the lesson of, “how to be precise in everything.” Bread bakers are more precise than anyone else, and that lesson ultimately carried over into my business mindset.

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?

I think people as they grow feel they need to change to adapt to their growth. But for me, I’m not willing to change to grow, so I have to figure out, “how do we grow to change our process.” Once you give up those techniques that you founded your business on in order to make growth happen, everything else just keeps changing. For example, someone from accounting can come in and say, “Change to cheaper ingredients to help your prices,” but then your product’s quality is going to change. Keeping what we do sacred and not allowing our quality ingredients and process to waver from the start has kept us successful. Staying true to your process is the key.

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?

It sounds cliché, but let people try it! Friends, family, everyone you know. Get it out to as many people as you can to see what their thoughts are. You can tell the enthusiasm of a food product by the way people eat it, how much they eat, how they react, etc. If your friends and family like it, then you can move on to the next steps. But if they don’t seem excited about it, then you go back to the drawing board. If I love something I make, but 90% of the people in my circle don’t like it, then the public definitely isn’t going to buy it. Use your community and inner circle to test it out before you move forward with any product you make.

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?

It’s really about, if you believe that much in it, you have to be in it 100%. Maybe you keep your current job while you’re developing your product or idea, but that means your new product is another job. You give the idea as much focus as you would your actual job. The market is over saturated with so many products, so you have to ask yourself, “What’s out there that’s new and different?” Coffee and donuts are everywhere, but we packaged them up in a new setting that was totally different. For example, no donut shop in Chicago has the coffee or beverage program we have. We saw that was an aspect of our business we could really invest in and grow so it would set us apart from other donut shops. Ask yourself, “What do people need more of?” and use that to guide your idea. If your product is not going to be the “best,” or the “cheapest,” figure something else out that will set your product or idea apart.

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?

I would say, unless the consultant is someone you’ve been close with or trust, you are the only one who knows your product. In the beginning of my career, I had all these old-time bakers telling me you had to do things a certain way because that’s what they were always taught and it’s how they’ve always done things, but it’s not always right. Consultants can box you in to a corner of one way of thinking. Sometimes consultants know too much for their own good, and they’re not in-tuned to your industry or the business world. Consultants can be good sometimes, but they’re almost like grandparents. They’ll watch the kids for you, but then they leave and don’t have to deal with them anymore. They might help you lay out a plan, but they don’t have to actually execute the plan and they don’t know always know the industry like you might. I would say, if you’re going to hire someone, just be very careful using a consultant.

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

Personally, I’ve always bootstrapped everything, but it doesn’t mean it’s always right. If you want to see everything all the way through and you don’t want other opinions, venture capital can be a problem. However, either way you do it you have to put money in the beginning stages of starting your business. I’ve only ever done it one way, so I might not be the best person to ask. But everyone is different, and it also depends on how much capital you need. If you can do it all on your own, most people obviously would. Either way you have to do what’s best for you and your business.

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?

How to file a patent: I’ve not filed for patents; we’ve just filed for trademarks. It’s a tedious process. I would recommend that you find people who that’s all they do — file trademarks and patents — to help you. Don’t let someone do it who “knows,” how to do it, but it’s not what they specialize in. You can get kick back for small things and it makes the process harder and longer.

How to source good raw ingredients: Trial and error. It’s all trial and error. Someone can say, “this is the best chocolate,” but until you try it yourself, you can’t take their word for it. It also goes beyond just tasting. Tasting ingredients is one thing; using them in the process is another. Take the time to find something you really like that works really well for you. Also keep in mind that this can be an ongoing process. What you like today could be different in a few years.

How to source a good manufacturer: Trial and error, also. Finding a co-packing company when you’re a small business is hard because no one wants to give you the time of day. If you want to do a small run of something, you have to find someone midsize. Most of the private label companies want large runs, there’s a middle ground that’s hard to serve for a perishable product. Someone can make you 100,000 of something, and that’s six month’s supply and you have to pay for it. You just have to keep that in mind when you’re looking for a company that’s the right fit. I would recommend going a step or two about where you’re at in your production.

How to find a retailer or distributor: Knock on a lot of doors! Usually a distributor wants you to be wearing a consultant hat, which businesses (especially small businesses) don’t usually have. And distributors are motivated by retailers. So, if you can get a retailer interested in your product first, you can get a distributor to get into it. One thing I learned from my own experience getting into grocery stores was that some people use brokers, which can help because they can get you into places you can’t always get in, so that’s always an option. But mostly, just knock on doors and network! Currently, COVID makes this hard because you can’t just walk into places like you use to — which is how I made my business. I literally walked into the back doors of retailers can made people taste my products. Also, a little bit of luck helps. When I was just making bread, folks from Costco ate at my restaurant in Oak Brook and they liked what they had so much they drove to our factory to see for themselves. And that was how our bread ended up in Costco. But when you work hard enough for long enough, things like that will happen. But you have to start somewhere. My number one piece of advice would just be knock on 100 doors. Someone will answer.

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.)

To me, the 5 important things to a successful food line are as follows:

1. Find an area that seems underserved to you, but don’t strictly follow trends. Trends come and go. We never followed the low carb trend at Labriola Baking 15 years ago. Mostly because all of the products tasted horrible. That model can’t be sustained.

2. Figure out how you differ from the competition. Build a great story. I mentioned it before, but anyone can do coffee and donuts. Figure out how to package yours differently and showcase it differently. We built out our coffee and beverage program so it wasn’t just, “coffee and donuts,” but so much more, and something no one else was doing.

3. Make your product better than the rest of the competition by leaps and bounds. We tend to make the mistake that larger food companies with mediocre products don’t have loyal followers. The truth is that they actually do. Don’t take for granted how hard it is to sway a loyal customer away from the competition.

4. Figure out ways to make your product stand out amongst the competition. Whether it be the type of service you offer, the packaging you use, or the size of product that you make comparatively. I had always thought that brownie bites were just a silly way to market brownies. Not so silly given that they blew up the market for selling brownies and made manufacturers hundreds of millions of dollars because they were so portable, and marketable to kids and grownups alike.

5. Chances are that most everyone will not see your vision. Don’t let that discourage you if you believe in your product. The one thing you will also need is flexibly to adapt and change. If you are doing taste tests and everyone around you is not as enthused about the food that you are making as you are, don’t dismiss this. They are probably a better judge of the actual customer than yourself. You will find a way to please yourself and the people around you by tweaking what you are making. The customer doesn’t need to know that you did something different to make it better tasting or more palatable. They just need to know that they like it.

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

It’s about quality of ingredients. Stan’s took making donuts one way, by pairing great bread techniques with great baking techniques. It’s also about wowing people. Some things are so hard to penetrate you just can’t always do it. So you find the niche, then find your way in the niche to get your product out there. When it came to making artisan breads, we weren’t the first producer in Chicago, but we were the best producer in Chicago. Having donuts and coffee is a basic thing, but the way we did it was different. It’s being willing to go farther with quality ingredients and never sacrificing that. Plus, the technique of 20 years of baking.

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

For starters, providing great livelihoods and opportunities to a lot of our workers. But also, we’ve made it part of our mission to give back and donate to a lot of different charities. We’ve been supporters of Lynn Sage and In Good Taste for a few years running. The Stan’s Van [our food truck] also does tons of fundraisers — most recently, to benefit the American Cancer Society and Autism Hero Project to name a few. Also, we are about to start a year-long partnership with Cal’s Angels, which is something we’ve not done before. We also support through donations — for the past two years for National Donut Day, we’ve provided a van full of donuts to a winner from applicants through social media — last year we popped up at Benito Juarez, a Chicago Public school, and this year we donated to RAGE in Englewood. And through our yearly 5k race, we support the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

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.

There’s no easy answer. I would say if I could just inspire people to work hard — everything boils down to hard work. You just have to get out there and keep pushing. You have to pull yourself up and do it, you just have to. People can say Stan’s was an overnight success but it’s not, it was 20 years in the making. It was paying attention for 20 years to everything around me. Everything. Whatever it is — people eating pastries, how people approach the world of coffee, anything like that. The road to having the ‘best of everything’ isn’t the road to the biggest company. For me, it’s just about how rewarding it is to hear, ‘Your pizza is the best, your donuts are the best,’ [etc.] But that’s not possible to achieve without hard work. If I could inspire anyone to work hard, I can’t imagine how much good could come from that, in any industry. Especially with young people. Inspiring the younger generations to understand the value of hard work could bring about so much good to the world.

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.

Howard Schultz of Starbucks. What he did was just incredible. He took something that didn’t exist and changed the world.

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

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