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“Follow your heart” With Julie Couzins

I started the company for my one son originally. My favorite part of owning the OMG café was the smiles on the kids’ faces when they walked in and could eat everything. To me that was the BEST part of this journey. Be good, be kind, be humble — don’t lose sight of those things […]

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I started the company for my one son originally. My favorite part of owning the OMG café was the smiles on the kids’ faces when they walked in and could eat everything. To me that was the BEST part of this journey. Be good, be kind, be humble — don’t lose sight of those things ever.

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 Julie Couzins.

After being diagnosed with Celiac Disease and finding out that her four children were gluten-intolerant as well, Julie Couzins discovered there was a lack of tasty, kid-friendly, gluten-free snacks her family actually wanted to eat. Julia Couzins started OMG as a small cafe in Frankfort, Illinois 10 years ago with an executive chef and the guidance of hospitality veteran Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, to help create a line of gluten-free products with real ingredients that quickly set the industry standard. Now, the brand is an industry-leading developer, manufacturer, and distributor of quality and delicious gluten-free frozen food and baked goods with clientele across the country and a booming direct-to-consumer marketplace.

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 Flossmoor, Il with my three siblings Cathy, Brad and Rob. I graduated from HF Highschool in 1988. I went to THE Ohio State:)) and graduated with a bachelor’s in hospitality management, then moved back home to work for my father at the Chicago Stock Exchange. I got married, and now I have 4 incredible children, Emily, Ryan, Danny Weil and Jake.

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

My son Danny Weil was eight at the time that he was diagnosed with Celiac. He would come home from football practice or games all teary eyed and sad because there were no gluten free snacks and everybody else would be eating pizza, cookies and other random snacks. That truly is the moment I knew what the next chapter in my life would entail.

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?

Honestly, the absolute funniest story was during my presentation at Disney. We were a new café when presented with the opportunity to show Disney World our products. I flew out and was dressed all cute in high heels, a dress and ready to present…. Until I was asked to go in the kitchen and cook the entrees and pizza. More heads turned and yeah, I looked good, but in actuality they were looking at my no hair net and open toed heels in their kitchen. An ah-ha moment at its finest! LESSON learned: ALWAYS be prepared and research ahead of time when given an opportunity.

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?

Trying to take on too much too fast and being too much to everyone. Nail what you set to nail and then grow. For us, and I quote Richard Melman, “Be the best damn gluten free product out there and then you can grow your brand.”

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?

Research the cost and make a plan, then, an outline to start on every piece of the plan.

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?

Follow your heart. Surround yourself with an incredible team and leave your ego at home. As an entrepreneur you will wear many hats and eventually the one that fits best will stay tight. It’s OK to seek advice and ask for help and guidance. TEAM is a necessity.

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?

My gut says seek advice from friends or other entrepreneurs to start. OMG had bad luck with a consultant. In no way does this mean it is always a bad option, but the bottom line is to follow your heart as you know whom you can trust. Give yourself credit as well; you know more than you think. Trust in yourself.

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 believe this comes from the Business Plan — every opportunity must be weighed. With that being said, I do believe the biggest misconception is that when you own your own business you can earn what you feel, and you are free to work the hours you chose. FALSE! In fact, you are the most underpaid hardest worker on your team, and that will get you a powerful, respectful team, or as I choose to call it, family. So, to answer the question, bootstrap until the need arrives. Trust me, you will know. You must grow to an uncomfortable state before you seek outside funds. Always stay humble.

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?

Research, Google and LinkedIn :)). Friends in the industry are a must as well. I have 4 people I could name that still mentor me and one of them told me at the very beginning “when you are working hard and doing the right thing great things will happen.” VERY true statement.

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.)

Find a need or a niche

Research

Dedication

Passion

TEAM

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

I always let my customers dictate what product should be next. The trend is your friend. Going back to Melman’s guidance of creating the BEST gluten-free food, that is what we did. Now, we already have a great base for our products.

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

By giving the Gluten Free world some quality products they deserve and helping educate in Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance.

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 started the company for my one son originally. My favorite part of owning the OMG café was the smiles on the kids’ faces when they walked in and could eat everything. To me that was the BEST part of this journey. Be good, be kind, be humble — don’t lose sight of those things ever.

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 would have to say Drew Brees, for several reasons. He is a Celiac and understands the disease and the limited options available. I have 3 boys who are football players and idolize Drew. In their younger years, it made them feel more “normal” knowing their superhero had the same kryptonite as them and proved to them they could still succeed.

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

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