Get some working capital. You’d be surprised how easily you can fund an early-stage business. It represents a ton of upside at relatively low risk for accredited investors. Learn the SEC regulations for raising capital privately. That helps.
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 Keith Schroeder, Founder & CEO of High Road Craft Ice Cream, Inc., the nation’s largest and fastest growing craft ice cream manufacturer, with products distributed nationwide. His company has been recognized on the Inc 5000 for four consecutive years, along with numerous press accolades and awards for entrepreneurial excellence. Keith is also an accomplished chef and cookbook author, having won a James Beard Award for his recent cookbook, Mad Delicious, The Science of Making Healthy Food Taste Amazing.
High Road was born in 2010, on the heels an Executive MBA business plan project at Kennesaw State University, and Schroeder has emerged as a passionate mentor to emerging and early stage entrepreneurs.
Schroeder is a voice for authenticity, craftsmanship, and celebration of global cultures and cuisines, and integrates this passion into High Road every day. He enjoys playing guitar with the amp cranked up and challenging the status quo.
He is a father of two: a son Jackson, who studies opera at Boston Conservatory, and a daughter Madison, who is a fellow entrepreneur and graduate of Georgia State University. Schroeder’s wife, Nicki, is the co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of High Road
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’m originally from Long Island, New York, so I’m half beach bum and half NYC-o-phile. My parents divorced and remarried when I was young, but I had the opportunity to live with both of them over the course of my life, and learned a ton about stewardship of time and resources, and the value of being reliable and trustworthy from my Mom and Stepfather. My Dad was also a principled competitor and coach, always more concerned with creating winners than winning. While one home was more buttoned-up and adult-centric, the other was more of a playground. I learned important lessons in both environments that serve me well today.
I come from mostly Greek heritage on my father’s side, and my mother adored cooking and entertaining. As a result, there was little chance that I wasn’t going to find my way to becoming a food professional, though it took frustration with a start in the rock and roll industry as an entry-level record promoter to get me to scrap my original career goals and to move into the culinary field.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
I don’t think it was quite an “ah ha” moment but more of a gradual romance with the idea of bringing a singular food product to market. I wanted the opportunity to become “best in the world” at something — the undisputed champion of ‘whatever-food-thing’ I was going to create. Perhaps because I grew up around so many Mom & Pop ice cream shops and had many fond memories of boardwalk ice cream cones that I fell into ice cream. When I was a chef, I loved my alone time with the ice cream machine and used the medium as a way to explore flavors. Restaurant guests were always willing to be adventurous if the flavor was nestled in an ice cream.
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?
All mistakes eventually fall in the “funny” column but at the time feel like impending doom. I think what you learn is that mistakes either cost time or money, and you simply bounce back by reflecting and keeping on. Mistakes minus quitter-mindset times numerous iterations equal mastery.
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?
First, they assume they have a product that “people” love. Some people might but a critical mass audience likely does not. Entrepreneurs should compartmentalize their passion for their idea or product, and work very hard at understanding this fundamental truth: the market decides. Brands also seek distribution gains too fast. We did that, and to some degree, we keep making that mistake. Food brands win when their products fly off the shelf. If the entrepreneur wishes to plant seeds via distribution far and wide, they must be prepared for more failure at a higher cash burn rate.
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?
Step 1: Understand how the product behaves in the supply chain. Shelf-life testing and food safety expertise is a prerequisite to setting ambition free.
Step 2: Learn everything about making said product. Don’t simply go to a copacker and expect them to get it right for you. In fact, if you can pilot the product by making it yourself: better. If you can raise capital and build your own facility: best. The marketplace loves makers.
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?
Practice. Fail. Repeat. Don’t whine. When it’s hard, it’s supposed to be hard.
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’m not a fan of the idea of consultants. I find them to generally dilute critical cash flow for the entrepreneur. Perhaps it’s my pride as a maker and culinary professional, but I like to work with folks with significant skin in the game.
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 in both, but one comes before the other. Get to $1MM in sales by bootstrapping. Then, go get some cash from brilliant, operationally involved investors. And build a board of directors early.
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?
Journey. Talk to people. Find your fit. Ask for little. Listen a lot.
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.)
- Identify a market need for your product. We started because chefs couldn’t easily order culinary-driven, luxury ice cream. When we presented that idea to chefs, they said, “yes, we need that.”
- Get some working capital. You’d be surprised how easily you can fund an early-stage business. It represents a ton of upside at relatively low risk for accredited investors. Learn the SEC regulations for raising capital privately. That helps.
- Show up to everything. If you’re doing more talking than feeding people, you’re not doing it right. Sample and share.
- Remind yourself that you know almost nothing. You’re on a decade’s long journey at minimum. Strap-in.
- Very quickly, this will be more about being a great employer than being a good maker. Study hard and get great at managing people.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
I cannot. I think we still have a long way to go.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I hire people where they are in life, without judgment, and let them try and fail while they’re on their journey. I don’t like the idea of touting that we’re an inclusive workplace, because I think that’s simply how the world and business should be. But, unfortunately, that’s not our reality in this country right now, so it’s important for me to shout out loud that Black Lives Matter, and that LGBTQ+ professionals must be respected and welcomed as fully worthy human beings, where their hearts, souls and minds are as normal as any other humans. In the Western world, culinary education is Eurocentric. In corporate America, there’s an antiquated boilerplate for what it means to be “professional.” I’d like to play an influential part in smashing the status quo to smithereens. All the people. From all the places. With all of the flavors, techniques, personalities, wirings, so long as they’re rooted in the mutual love of others — should be out front, leading our world to brighter days.
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 want to trigger the world’s greatest start-up movement. I’d like to see a trillion dollars distributed to 1 million entrepreneurs to kick-start a more dynamic global marketplace. And it has to be agnostic of tech, or perhaps even non-tech. The tech world has plenty of venture capital available. I want the movement to impact the Main Streets of our world and provide soulful work to a material number of global citizens.
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.
Mark Cuban comes to mind, largely because of his tacit recognition that the world’s markets need a reframing. There has to be an IPO-marketplace available to small business that’s transparent, regulated, lower cost, and not the domain of elite banks. Grassroots entrepreneurship can save the planet. I think he’d help usher that along.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.