Surround yourself with the best people and give them enough decision-making ability to do their jobs. At National Raisin Company, we consider everyone “family”, and as such, everyone is heard. Each of us is accountable for the jobs we do, and each is motivated to improve on those jobs. We all innovate our processes but work as one unit. For example: Our warehousing & facilities group evaluated and implemented effective skylights for added illumination, more efficient forklifts for operations, parts inventories, and preventive maintenance scheduling. All of these programs improved our operation and our bottom line.
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 Jane Asmar, Senior Vice President of Sales at National Raisin Company, including Raisels. As part of her family business, Jane has been with National Raisin Company for over 25 years.
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 was born into a farming family. My father, uncles, along with my mother and aunts, proudly started National Raisin Company filling a need to bring raisins to market through cooperation among growers more efficiently. Since then, the company has been laser focused on creating the most ethical and efficient ways to bring high quality foods, primarily dried fruits, to an expanding customer base.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Raisels, National Raisin Company’s most innovative product, started in 2008, when our team began to feel the need for a family-friendly food that kids liked to eat and moms wanted to buy. We were testing flavored prunes for a different project but KNEW that raisins would have the wider appeal. National Raisin Company’s R&D department was staffed by young parents, and we all had a common goal: developing fun, kid-centric products that were better for them than sugary snacks.
A lot of things have to come together for a successful launch of a new innovative food product:
- The need has to be there. Does the consumer really want this? Do they KNOW they want it?
- The timing has to be right.
- Can this brand be leveraged in the market?
- Contemporary packaging.
- Appropriate distribution to reach target market.
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 can’t really name one particular mistake, but I can tell you that I’ve been ordered never to drive a forklift again. I will say though that if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying as hard as you can to be innovative. Mistakes are part of the business, but if you plan accordingly you can learn from them and you can minimize the negative impact.
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?
The starting point for this is that you’ve got a product that customers actually want. After that, I believe most failures in the food industry are caused by financial situations; you simply run out of money. Look at your finances with low expectations of early demand coupled with higher-than-expected costs. Realistic budgeting coupled with pessimistic sales projections overlayed by almost worst-case cost implications should, if done correctly, result in a plan that makes you think twice. If you’re not sure you have the stomach for it, you’re probably on the right track. Half your sales double those costs and roll forward.
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?
A comprehensive competitive assessment is a great place to start. See what else is out there in the market and assess why your offering is better:
- Are we better tasting?
- Are we better for you?
- Are we better for the environment? (Social conscious?)
- Are we less expensive?
….People (customers, retail buyers, brokers, etc.…) need A REASON TO BUY. If you can’t simply state WHY people should be buying your product you might want to think about strategically revising your offering.
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?
Raisels; our ‘sour-licious’ brand of flavored golden raisins was an idea slightly ahead of its time. When we introduced Raisels into the marketplace, we knew we had an offering that had consumer appeal, was poised to expand the category, and was in our core-business. Unfortunately, the initial (retail) testing didn’t go as well as we had hoped, allowing a planned retreat to assess the market. The result was a change in strategic direction. We now have a successful business extension with widespread distribution.
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?
We at National Raisin Company fully recognize and appreciate the need for continued innovation. We have our own in-house R&D department staffed by food technologists with culinary experience, and they do a great job of working internally as well as with our customer base to develop “better” products to bring to market. However, we also realize the benefit of working with outside consultants who bring industry perspectives to our efforts. We have found the best consultants are those with a good, “natural” fit to our customer-centered culture and who are respectful of our people and processes. The best efforts are when we’re all on the same page and communicate openly & honestly.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Venture Capital vs internal funding depends on a lot of things, mostly your financial situation and the scope of the project you’re working on. The bigger the vision, the more capital will be needed, but before you approach a Shark Tank, for example, consider the following:
- It may be best to start small and grow organically without the need for outside investors.
- Evaluate your ability to outsource production, sales &/or distribution without sacrificing quality.
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?
A good attorney is invaluable to guarding your business, but before you go about getting a patent, ask a trusted, knowledgeable advisor if a patent is warranted. The easier your product is to mimic, the less resources you want to spend on patents. A far better strategy would be to nurture your idea through the initial stages and develop as much distance between you and your competition as quickly and efficiently you can. The name of the game is to build as many barriers of entry as possible. If you’re already out there in the marketplace before competitors have time to react, you’ve created a disincentive for competition. Additionally, when and if you have competition, the market may expand through all the attention, and your sales might grow.
- Sourcing is critically important to your ability to bring great things to market. Without quality going in, you won’t have a quality product. This is especially true if your product is easily duplicated. Sourcing ingredients, manufacturing, sales and distribution starts with networking. Trade shows, industry organizations and associates are all good places to start.
- If you’re sourcing ingredients, evaluate who you’re buying from through on-site visits, third party certification such as GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) are all required in today’s marketplace. And evaluate how unique the ingredients are. Where they come from (worldwide procurement is subject to political factors) and how volatile are the prices to natural causes, such as weather? In addition, ethical sourcing (part of GFSI) and direct social compliance are necessary.
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.)
- Surround yourself with the best people and give them enough decision-making ability to do their jobs. At National Raisin Company, we consider everyone “family”, and as such, everyone is heard. Each of us is accountable for the jobs we do, and each is motivated to improve on those jobs. We all innovate our processes but work as one unit. For example: Our warehousing & facilities group evaluated and implemented effective skylights for added illumination, more efficient forklifts for operations, parts inventories, and preventive maintenance scheduling. All of these programs improved our operation and our bottom line.
- Be true to your culture. We’ve had three generations of our family working for the business and we’re exceptionally happy that we have hundreds of family-associates who also keep National Raisin Company at peak performance. Our family culture results in a better, more caring operation that makes better, more innovative products. For example: National Raisin Company recently coordinated a community outreach program for COVID Vaccine administration to our community, beginning with our workers. The result was that more than one thousand people got their first and second COVID Vaccines in a clean, safe, convenient atmosphere all because of our people and our culture.
- Be honest and ethical in everything you do. This applies throughout all aspects of our operation. At National Raisin Company, everything we produce and ship is “made to order”, and that means our manufacturing process is intricate and delicate. Sometimes we incur additional expenses to make sure our customers get optimal product.
- Continue to reinvest into your business. National Raisin Company turned 50 years old this year and throughout that time, we’ve grown from a single facility housing a single manufacturing line, to six separate dedicated facilities producing multitudes of products in numerous categories. Our main plant is one of the largest and most technologically advanced production facilities around, and we’ve got the third party certification to back it up. We’ve invested in our people, our equipment, our processes and our communication abilities to receive, account for and process electronically.
- Measure twice, cut once. National Raisin Company’s continued expansion is the result of prudent, well-thought out and well executed programs. We have an appropriate decision-making process, and we proceed with extreme caution while evaluating our progress. We tend to stick to our plan but are flexible enough to revise along the way.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
We’re currently working on a few products which we’re really excited about. Many of our products are better-for-you options than what’s currently available, which is a trend we only see rising this year and beyond.
Most of our products come from two different sources:
1. our customers directly demand them
2. we ourselves see the need and want them
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
National Raisin Company is a family owned and operated business. From our very foundations when my dad and uncles started National Raisin Company 50 years ago, we considered ourselves to be good neighbors, good community members and most importantly, good citizens of the earth. We have always waged a war on corporate waste and have leveraged technologies to make our operation run faster, smoother, and cleaner. Over the last few years, we have implemented two major ecologically based programs aimed at conserving natural resources. Our anaerobic digester converts wastewater into renewable energy as well as recycled water, and our solar fields currently power the majority of our physical operation.
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.
Candidly, I’m really happy that National Raisin Company does what it does best: create delicious, healthy products for our customers. We source from a verifiable stable of quality entities and we are blessed to sell to an outstanding customer base. We respect our growers, and they respect us, and we have a good time doing what we do. If I can impart our ethical, family-based, sustainable ethos to others, it would be to do the same.
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.
To fully understand what people are eating and to be able to predict into the future, I’d like to have lunch with Greg Russell, CTO of Grubhub and Jason Droege, who just stepped down from Uber Eats, and who might have more time for a leisurely conversation. Additionally, I like the innovative approach of Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani and Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.