Dan Curtin of Greenleaf Foods: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food

Passion — Be hungryTireless EnergySurround yourself with the best talent Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Dan Curtin, President, Greenleaf Foods. Dan has been in the food business for more than three decades and is also a veteran in the plant-based meat industry. As a former partner at Boca Burger, he helped grow the business to […]

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Passion — Be hungry

Tireless Energy

Surround yourself with the best talent

Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Dan Curtin, President, Greenleaf Foods. Dan has been in the food business for more than three decades and is also a veteran in the plant-based meat industry. As a former partner at Boca Burger, he helped grow the business to double-digit millions before selling to Kraft Foods. In 2017, Curtin took his expertise back to Maple Leaf Foods following the company’s acquisition of Lightlife. Today, Curtin leads the company’s alternative subsidiary as President of Greenleaf Foods, the owner of Lightlife and Field Roast. He considers himself a flexitarian and his wife is vegan.

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 share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led you do make a change or do something different at the company you’re leading?

Iremember making the decision with Maple Leaf Foods to expand its protein offerings and enter the plant protein business through the acquisition of Massachusetts-based Lightlife in 2017. It was a huge ‘ah ha’ moment for us when we realized how big of an impact we could have on the entire plant-based category by growing and evolving the brand. To give you an idea of just how fast the plant-based foods industry is growing, the Good Food Institute estimates that plant-based food is outpacing overall food growth at retailers by more than five times.

Shortly after we acquired Lightlife, I met the founder of Field Roast, David Lee. I was so inspired by his business and his vision, and understood how Lightlife and Field Roast could complement one another. Even though they’re both plant-based protein brands, they are vastly different in how they approach ingredients and flavors, production and consumer demand. We acquired Field Roast in 2018 and established Greenleaf Foods, SPC, a wholly-owned independent subsidiary of the Maple Leaf business.

Three years later and we continue to evolve the Lightlife and Field Roast brands. Through our work with Boston Consulting Group, we connected with thousands of consumers to better understand their needs and values when it comes to plant-based protein. In response to our findings, we reformulated our Lightlife products to be made with fewer, simpler ingredients. We also introduced a new look for the Field Roast brand to better represent our reputation for crafting high-quality plant-based meats and cheeses with bold, flavor-forward recipes.

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

My first job was a bank teller. Every morning we needed to get our funds from the vault of $20k in various bill denominations so we could cash checks and fill withdrawals for the bank’s customers. We also needed to set aside $1k in marked $20 bills to be our “bait” money in case the bank got held up. The process was we would count all the money, verify it with our manager, put the “bait” money in a special section of our drawer, then plug the drawer into the alarm system after we ensured the bait money was properly secured.

One morning I forgot to properly secure the “bait” money and didn’t realize this as I plugged into the alarm system. Within minutes the bank was rushed by a dozen police officers with guns drawn yelling for everyone to get down on the floor. Seconds later the officers were standing over me shouting to know where the intruder was. I was shaking thinking I was about to get shot when I realized my mistake and I had set off a false alarm. I sheepishly tried to explain it was an honest mistake and would never happen again.

The lesson learned for me was to always ensure you double check the critical pieces of any execution otherwise you may set off a false alarm and create unnecessary panic for those around you.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when looking to start a food line or establish a career in the food industry? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One of the most common mistakes many people make early in their career is thinking they know all the answers and not listening to others. It’s ok to ask for help, and it’s important to recognize your mistakes, then course correct. It’s not about who is right, its about finding out what is right. This only happened when you have a trusting, strong and supportive network.

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

Go for it! Follow your intuition and surround yourself with knowledgeable people who can help you with your mission. Have strong passion and commitment, don’t be afraid to fail or take risk. Be quick to pivot and adjust as learnings occur.

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?

Do your research, be prepared to take risk and most importantly: be all in.

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

There’s a saying, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I think that applies in business too. To source good ingredients, establish strong partnerships and win business, it is critical that you surround yourself with a strong team of people who can apply their knowledge and expertise.

I would also recommend forming relationships with partners who not only meet your business needs, but who align with your organization’s vision and values. When it comes to finding a good retailer, consider your product’s core demographic and know your customer. Have a compelling story, do your homework, understand them as a customer and be confident in your product and be able to articulate why the retailer should accept it. Be ready to answer their objectives and know when to be quiet and take the order.

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

  1. Passion — Be hungry
  2. Tireless Energy
  3. Surround yourself with the best talent
  4. Strong, consistent communication
  5. Terrific product

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

I give back to the communities where I live and do business. I also am highly involved in all aspects of our business and get to know our associates on a personal level. It’s important to me that our associates don’t just have a job, but a career, and that I can nurture and support their aspirations on a personal and professional level.

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.

If I could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, it would be to inspire a movement that allows others to create compassion for others. We could all use a little more positivity and kindness in our lives.

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.

Elon Musk. He has a passion to do the unthinkable and achieve what at one point seemed impossible.

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

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