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“Creativity.” With Starr Edwards

Creativity — I think the glamorous side of creativity in the food space is obviously the recipe, but the real creativity is in problem-solving day to day challenges. An obstacle we had early on was sourcing pre-made chipotles in adobo that were up to our clean ingredient standards. Our only supplier could not keep up […]

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Creativity — I think the glamorous side of creativity in the food space is obviously the recipe, but the real creativity is in problem-solving day to day challenges. An obstacle we had early on was sourcing pre-made chipotles in adobo that were up to our clean ingredient standards. Our only supplier could not keep up with the growth so we decided to make it in-house. The challenge was, at that time our kitchen was not outfitted with any sort of cooking equipment. So how do you simmer chipotles without having to basically rebuild your commercial kitchen? Answer — Rice Cookers!

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 Starr Edwards.

Along with her husband L.A, Starr oversees all aspects of the natural food production company behind award-winning Bitchin’ Sauce. Day to day she monitors operations, handles key accounts (including Whole Foods, Target, Wal-Mart, and Costco), and spreads her authentic brand vision and business ethic. Together Starr and L.A continue to expand their saucy empire throughout the U.S. and abroad.

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”?

Thank you for allowing me to share! My parents were foodies on the cutting edge of healthy eating. We grew up vegetarian and the pantry was always stocked with weird things that my school friends would tease me about at lunchtime; spirulina bars, whole wheat chapatis, tofu and soy milk are all part of my food DNA.

As a kid, I always had an entrepreneurial spirit and enjoyed work. My first job was as the 50/50 raffle girl at my brothers’ little league games. By the time I was 11, I was working in the concession booth. I got a paper route at 13 and began working full time by 15.

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

As a 16 year old, I began experimenting with a raw, vegan diet. At the time, “plant-based” was far from the mainstream. With such limited offerings, it was necessary to make my own food if I wanted it to be delicious. I made the prototype Bitchin’ Sauce with ingredients that we had stocked in the pantry. I think the ah-ha moment was when I still craved the saucy goodness, even after loosening up on my diet, and saw other folks without dietary restrictions really enjoyed it, too.

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?

So so so many mistakes. They are only funny in hindsight. One year, Olivia (our now CFO), was making the Chipotles in Adobo and accidentally made Ghost Peppers in Adobo. We didn’t realize until tasting the final “chipotle” product that we made several batches of this super spicy, near inedible sauce. Rather than toss it all out, we made our first debut of the “Chi-Ghost-le” which soon became a fan favorite. We still bring a limited run back every October. And we made immediate improvements to our ingredient labeling policies — a big lesson in Food Safety there.

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?

My perspective is definitely colored by my experience, but the main thing I have noticed is that people either use a recipe that is not duplicatable/scalable or they use a formula that does not account for taste. Taste is paramount, but you have to be able to scale! Finding that sweet spot is usually a make it or break it obstacle.

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?

First off, do it! And when you get discouraged, keep at it. Dial in your recipe, rent space in a commercial kitchen, start with farmers markets and local stores, and sample, sample, sample!

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?

You really have to embark on the journey with fortitude. I think a big piece of why Bitchin’ forged ahead was that we did not have a lot of other options. This kind of necessity is the foundation of many successful brands. What was helpful to me was visualizing just the next few steps ahead. Trying to conceptualize a full manufacturing facility and thriving sales team is tough when it is just you and your product. I’ve seen this hurdle overcome by focusing on the next, accessible, achievable goals.

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 think getting help, asking for advice is always a wise thing to do. Personally, I would recommend assembling a team of advisors rather than a development consultant. By having multiple advisors, you can “fact check” advice rather than getting pigeon-holed into the consultant’s process. I’ve seen that process stifle and squash many ideas. Got to keep the creativity alive!

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

My only experience is with bootstrapping, but i have been learning a lot about venture capital in the last couple of years. Bootstrapping can be challenging, but ultimately operating your business without training wheels is very empowering. I think it comes down to how much risk you want to take on. More risk, more reward.

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?

Patent your process, not the recipe. With product manufacturing, my motto is “Redundancy.” You don’t want your business held up by supply chain issues. Find a spec that you like and take it to multiple suppliers so you can compare the quality, costing, and customer service of each potential vendor. I’ve found that distributors tend to follow the decisions made at retailers. If you target and secure anchor accounts, they will often walk you through their preferred distributor set-up. A lot of store buyers are actively looking for new and exciting products, so don’t be afraid to track them down and send samples.

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.)

Creativity — I think the glamorous side of creativity in the food space is obviously the recipe, but the real creativity is in problem-solving day to day challenges. An obstacle we had early on was sourcing pre-made chipotles in adobo that were up to our clean ingredient standards. Our only supplier could not keep up with the growth so we decided to make it in-house. The challenge was, at that time our kitchen was not outfitted with any sort of cooking equipment. So how do you simmer chipotles without having to basically rebuild your commercial kitchen? Answer — Rice Cookers!

Support — A little encouragement goes a long way. For me, family members and the community provided that extra momentum that only comes from folks cheering you on. I remember at our first farmer’s market, it felt so good to hear people’s reactions as they tasted Bitchin’ Sauce for the first time. It truly was a hit and sold out, but what most people do not know is that my sweet Mother-in-law bought 4 of the 7 jars that we brought. She was amazing at supporting dreams that were still in their infancy.

Expanding on this idea of support, I think an area where I failed and subsequently made many, many mistakes was not tapping into local resources. There are so many programs available to help small business owners and I would encourage anyone starting their own business to reach out to their local Chamber of Commerce, the EDC, SCORE, etc, to get help. I didn’t do this until we were 5 years in and often regret it. Google only goes so far.

Grit — This is almost in contradiction to my last point, but I guess that is what makes success so dynamic. Sometimes people will not encourage you and at those moments you need the fortitude to persevere. For example, as Bitchin’ became a regular fixture at the farmer’s market we started picking up on negative vibes from some of the vendors and patrons.

“It’s a bad day.”

“No one will come out this week because rent is due.”

“You need to change your packaging.”

“You need to change your name.”

“You won’t be able to make enough to support yourself.”

We just started responding, “I am having a Bitchin’ day!” to nay-sayers. Sticking to the vision allows people to see the integrity behind the brand.

Favor — I think back on all of the split-second decisions that were made over the years and find it hard to not chalk all our success to divine providence. Even our name, “Bitchin’ Sauce” was a spur of the moment idea that put us in a position where we can appeal to a larger audience and actually be an impulse buy for many customers who just like the name. There are so many good ideas out there, but having the right timing and the right presentation for success are sometimes out of our control.

Gratitude — Being thankful is the key! Thankful for the support, for the journey, for the ability to work, for the ability to give.

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

Keep it fun, keep it tasty, and keep it true to the founder’s vision. It is really easy to get caught up in whatever is trending at the moment, whether it is dietary fad or packaging style. People will come back if the product tastes good. They will want to tell their pals about the product if they have a fun emotional connection to it.

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

Giving is a huge part of our Bitchin’ness. In celebration of our 10 year anniversary, we actually just launched a whole new department called Bitchin’ Givin’. To quote our mission, we believe that thriving families make the future bright. So, we bring the best of Bitchin’ to provide care and mentorship, as well as opportunities for education, activities, and arts — to invest in the lives of children and support families. We launched Bitchin’ Kids last year, to help our on-site staff with no cost childcare. Our Bitchin’ Volunteer-Time-Off program is debuting this month and will allow our Bitchin’ team to volunteer for 10% of their workweek. We are also starting a program to help empower families with tools to run their own enterprises. Lots of Bitchin’ things in the works!

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.

I would cancel “Cancel culture.” People, in all their intricacies and differences, are worth fighting for. I think the great deception of our time is this idea that we are better off alone than with people who we disagree with. Isolation is a tragedy. Being able to share DIFFERENT ideas, to disagree and still be civil, seems like a worthwhile movement to me.

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.

Terri Irwin. She is from my hometown, but set off to be an adventurer and really inspiring leader. I love watching all the old Crocodile Hunter videos and realizing that SHE is the one holding the camera. Marriage goals there! Also, my son Skip, who is the face on the Bitchin’ Sauce tub, aspires to intern at the Australia Zoo one day. Put in a good word for us!

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

Thank you and cheers to all the entrepreneurs out there! I wish you great success.

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