Passion — it’s addictive. You’re going to need it to persuade people to work with you; to work for you; and to support you. It’s the number one item you need –you won’t be able to move without it.
Energy — it’s contagious. It brings out the best in people. It is the starting point for adventure and excitement — and your food brand is going to have plenty of adventure and excitement.
A Story — it gives your customers a reason to believe. Who are you and why are you here? Transparency, honesty and integrity create authenticity.
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 Nick Spencer, founder of two Chicago-based food brands — Spirit & Co., makers of distinctive sauces with premium liquor; and Jolly Posh, purveyors of fine British meat products. He is an expatriate Brit with a passion for the power of specialty food, who believes in maximizing individual and collective potential by being creative.
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 am the third generation of my family to pursue entrepreneurial ventures in the food sector. My father was a mushroom farmer, and though he died when I was young, I have fond memories of visiting the mushroom farm on the outskirts of Leeds, in West Yorkshire, England. Initially, my grandfather (who started the farm) had intended to grow strawberries, but pivoted into mushrooms as demand grew in post-WWII England.
My stepfather produced refrigerated vehicles for food purveyors, supermarkets, and specialty stores. He got started by buying a small boat-building business, and had originally planned to keep building boats, but received a special request from a local meat-market to make refrigerated trucks.
I grew up with a strong desire to be entrepreneurial and to pave my own path in life. I also grew up seeing the commitment and dedication required to run your own venture.
It took me a little while to strike out on my own. When I moved to America in 2007, I was very much stuck in a corporate job. A couple of years later, newly married and in the depths of the recession, my wife and I decided to move to her hometown, Chicago, with a view to starting our own entrepreneurial endeavors.
It’s been ten years since I ditched my corporate life and followed my passion — helping people to raise their spirits and elevate everyday dining. Through various iterations, I’ve owned and operated two retail locations, two restaurant concepts, launched an online store, run farmers markets, and brought a wholesale business to life from product development to national distribution. I’ve also closed many of these businesses and/or sales channels and learned the hard way how to reposition for success.
My latest venture, Spirit & Co., brings together what I’ve worked so hard on for the last decade — bringing both specialty food and craft liquor together; and builds on the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
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 ah-ha moment came after almost ten years in the specialty food space. Having given many different business ideas and concepts a run for their money, (and having lost plenty of it along the way), I was determined to learn my lessons and emerge stronger.
I took a few days off in mid-2019 for exactly that purpose. I dropped the children off at school, sat at home with a cup of tea and a notepad, and started working on two columns. On the one side I wrote “DO”, and on the other side I wrote “AVOID”. Through this exercise, I realized that I wanted to pursue a business/brand/idea that met certain criteria. First and foremost, it had to align with my passion — raising people’s spirits and elevating everyday dining. Secondly, I decided it would be really cool if it combined my love for specialty food and craft liquor, especially as both these markets have seen massive growth and there is very little overlap between them. And thereafter I wanted to work on products that were easy for customers to understand; could create interest and intrigue; aligned with people’s interest in health and wellness; and practically speaking, were shelf-stable, easy to ship, and with a great shelf-life.
This exercise led to my “ah-ha” moment, which culminated in the creation of Spirit & Co., the world’s first line of distinctive sauces to exclusively use premium liquor in all our products.
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?
When I launched my first food brand, Jolly Posh, I was fresh from the corporate world, and had been largely conditioned into thinking that selling “experience” was vital. I was nervous about letting people know that we were a new brand. At it happened, we launched Jolly Posh at a Chicago event and, unbeknown to me, our booth was positioned next to non-other than Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman’s — one of the food industry’s pioneers, leaders, and a beacon of innovation.
Ari immediately saw the appeal of my brand and products, and Zingerman’s became our first customer. Several years later I admitted to Ari that he was our first customer, and that I hadn’t wanted to tell him for fear that, for whatever reason, it would have put him off believing in us. He candidly said, “We all have to start somewhere”. In the food world, it doesn’t matter if your products are new to market — it matters that they are delicious, that you believe in them, that they represent your passion, and that you know your target market.
Now when I launch a new brand, I make a point of letting potential buyers know that they are some of the first to see our new items, and that they have the opportunity to be first to market.
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?
Over the years I’ve heard many people say, “I’m going to get this product into [insert retailer — Whole Foods, Jewel-Osco, Publix etc] and then sell my brand for a small fortune”.
The reality is that building a food business takes time and dedication. The supply chain is complicated; it’s easy to run into production issues; selling into distributors can take years; and most people don’t know that retailers can charge you for them to stock your products. Even if you land a retailer (which is the easy bit), you have the challenge of making your product sell — because if it doesn’t sell, there are no repeat orders, and no second chances.
There isn’t a quick fix to building your brand; it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to get-rich-quick, and it’s even less likely that you’ll get-rich-quick if that is your objective from the start. Instead, knuckle down, enjoy working for yourself and bringing your passion to life; and when you launch, make sure you’re mentally prepared for the 5, 10, 15, 20 years + of hard work that lie ahead of you.
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 — write it down. Write down what the idea is, why it’s important, why you want to make it happen, and who your customer is.
Step 2 — evaluate where you need to be to make your idea work. For example, I started both my sausage brand (Jolly Posh), and my sauce brand (Spirit & Co.) in Chicago; a great manufacturing city with a wealth of experience with these products; fairly centralized for shipping; and surrounded by large, National food distributors. A great place to get these ideas off the ground.
Step 3 — Learn about the financials. If you don’t have a robust plan to make money, you’re not going to make money. I lost a lot of money in my restaurants because I neglected some of the basics in favor of blind optimism (a mistake I shall never make again).
Step 4 — Believe in yourself and your capabilities. You’re about to take some hard knocks and hear “no” quite a lot. Keep your belief in yourself and keep going. Periodically, revisit what you set out to accomplish (see Step 1), and use this to remind, re-energize, and re-focus.
Step 5 — Make some test products. My personal perspective is that product development is the easy bit. Make something that you like. Test it on friends and family, but largely ignore their opinions. A better plan is to sample your items with similar products from some competitors, and be honest with yourself about which ones are better.
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?
Amongst the many excuses — or reasons — for not making progress on a good idea, I often here “but I don’t have enough money”. Money may very well be a barrier; indeed there are plenty of barriers to getting started, and money is definitely a major one. However, the statement “I don’t have enough money”, illustrates the very essence of what separates an entrepreneur from others. An entrepreneur will look in his bank account, see, say $5,000, and ask “What can I accomplish with $5,000?”
Because here’s the truth — when you’re launching you new brand, and for years afterwards, you’re NEVER going to have enough money. All day, everyday, your entire way of thinking, acting and operating will be conditioned by the question “what can I accomplish with $x?”
How you invest your limited resources, and how you manage your cash, will largely determine your overall success or failure.
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?
For me, the essence of entrepreneurialism is the creative process — it enables people to maximize both their individual and their collective potential. No-one can do the hard work for you. However, sometimes we need people that we can share ideas with, and who can help us explore and develop our concepts and plans.
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’m a bootstrapper the whole way. Being entrepreneurial is about being scrappy; about figuring it out; about finding a way; about making the best of it. The time may come for venture capital, but by that time you need to be recouping the rewards from your years of sacrifice, hard-work and endeavor. It may be tempting to sell-out or dilute ownership early on, but an entrepreneur must always operate in line with your conviction and belief.
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?
Go to trade shows; do your research; learn from comparable products that are already in the marketplace. Build a network; invest in business platforms such as LinkedIn. Ask for help, don’t be shy.
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.)
I was trying to think of five things you need to create a successful food line, but I found seven, unfortunately! Here they are:
- Passion — it’s addictive. You’re going to need it to persuade people to work with you; to work for you; and to support you. It’s the number one item you need –you won’t be able to move without it.
- Energy — it’s contagious. It brings out the best in people. It is the starting point for adventure and excitement — and your food brand is going to have plenty of adventure and excitement.
- A Point of Difference — it makes you special. You need to know precisely why your products are special and what really makes them different.
- A Story — it gives your customers a reason to believe. Who are you and why are you here? Transparency, honesty and integrity create authenticity.
- A Clear Purpose — to keep you focused. Your business is going to have some great opportunities. Stay focused and only pursue those that align with your purpose.
- Tenacity — to deal with the knocks. You’re going to be hearing “no” a lot; but the good news is you’re tenacious and resilient, and will keep going anyway because you want to realize your dream.
- Own Your Space — be the very best in your niche, stick to it, and own it. Better to do one thing and do it properly. It’s hard to maintain a laser focus. Don’t navigate away from your core space until you absolutely OWN IT.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Your products and brand have to be true to you — they have to be authentic. Customers crave authenticity and care about provenance, healthfulness, and convenience.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
At Spirit & Co. we have a simple purpose, to “Raise Your Spirits”. We believe in the connectivities between good food and good health, and between socializing, entertaining and good mental health. From the inception of Spirit & Co., we chose to donate a portion of our proceeds to the Starlight Foundation, whose purpose is to deliver happiness to seriously ill and hospitalized children.
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 like to see a national movement to introduce healthier eating into the school system, along with an enhanced nutritional education. In particular, I want children to learn more about the impact of food choices and portion sizes and the connection to physical and mental health and wellbeing.
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.
A few people spring to mind:
Richard Branson — I’m always inspired by his success, vision, and risk-taking.
Robert Herjavec — In my mind the most under-rated Shark.
Kevin Hourican — I supply Sysco and would love to have breakfast with the CEO.
Marcus Lemonis — a very inciteful and successful entrepreneur with a talent for scaling small businesses.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.