…The product has to have the basis to universally appeal to a wide group of people. Your product may appeal to a few people, or an ethnic group but it needs scalability for success.
You need a food that can be mass-produced. There’s lots of good food products that can be made in a few days. But to make thousands or millions of units per day, that’s a different ball game altogether.
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 Reza Soltanzadah, co-founder of Chef Woo Ramen and CEO of Borealis Foods.
Reza Soltanzadah is a Food Technology Entrepreneur based in Toronto. A medical doctor by training who entered the business world right after medical school. Today, he is a seasoned executive who is the co-founder and CEO of both Borealis Foods, a Canadian food tech integrator, and U.S. based Palmetto Gourmet Foods in South Carolina, the company behind Chef Woo, an instant plant-based, protein-rich, organic ramen. For the past 25 years, Reza has led numerous international ventures whose focus has been on ESG (Environmental, social, and governance) compliance.
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”?
Well, I grew up in a very strict but well-educated family. My father was a university professor so learning and education was a big big deal. Lots of after schooling, lots of before schooling, lots of just learning. That was my childhood.
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 was in Frankfurt at the time and saw just how many people were lining up for ramen. I saw the same thing in Dubai and in Toronto. There was a craze. Lining up to eat ramen! You would expect this in Hong Kong or in Japan. And here I was, in the line-up, thinking about when I was studying in India, how universal noodles were. Maggi noodles was an Indian dish for everyone, the rich and the poor. People would have it for breakfast, with eggs. They would have it for lunch, for dinner. The more research I did on noodles, the more fascinated I became.
Noodles may have been invented in China 5,000 years ago, but every culture has its own take. In fact, our Chef Woo ramen is inspired by a female chef from 12th century China, a rarity then, by the name Song Wu Sao who became so well known for her legendary soup that she cooked for the Imperial Court.
So when I was looking for a way to bring affordable protein to a world population, I realized that with the advances in food technologies, I could not only cross ethnic lines but create a nutritious food that was easily affordable too.
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 think just being naive about how simple it would be to make things happen. Things are never that simple and what allows entrepreneurs to become entrepreneurs is being naive. I think I learned to embrace that naivety with every new venture I started, but with more wisdom and focus. It’s too late to turn back now! It’s like rock climbing. Once you’re halfway up, there’s no other direction but up.
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?
Putting together a food line, solely based on IRRs. Looking only at the economics, focusing only on the numbers, doing market share and market studies. It may look good on paper. And you do have to talk to the banks and investors using that information. But focusing on an economic mindset as opposed to a value mindset is the biggest mistake I see. If you don’t have core values, a belief system and a reason for being, the product will eventually fail. For us, Chef Woo is not a product, it’s a way of life.
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?
Sales is more important than production. Make sure that there’s a market first that you can actually sell to and distribute to. I think that anyone who wants to get into the food business should first try co-packing. You want to ensure money isn’t invested in a factory before you’re assured of sales.
Once you have sales and can cover 30% of the production capacity of a factory, then look at building one. A factory isn’t just a piece of construction, it’s an extremely costly, two-year process.
Next is chemistry. Make sure you’re able to attract people who are going to help build your company with the same values and views of life. That’s an essential ingredient to helping you build phase by phase, layer by layer. When all of it is put together, it’s like an amazing orchestra — beautiful instruments all playing together.
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?
You’re right. Coming up with ideas is easy. What’s difficult is being able to plan and execute on it. You need to check your ego at the door. You need to have the humility to know that it takes a team of people with the same mission and core values to make it all happen. That’s the difference between a successful entrepreneur and someone struggling to actually bring an idea to life.
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?
No, I wouldn’t. But I would talk to a retired executive. Someone who has either run a company or has been a part of an organization that has done this before. Someone who can be a mentor, who knows the challenges of building an organization. It’s not about an idea. It’s about building an organization that can turn an idea into a value proposition that can become a reality.
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’ve always done it by bootstrapping. I don’t know any other way. To go to an investor with an idea when you have nothing invested is absurd.
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?
Having a patent just because you have an invention is no guarantee for a successful company. Patents provide a limited amount of protection for an entrepreneur. It gives a lot of protection to a large company that has the means to defend itself in the court system. But for a start-up, the challenge is not only being able to afford a good lawyer to file a patent, but also having the money to defend it. Focus instead on the execution.
For finding distribution, I would start in a smaller region and test it first. Mistakes are costly. If the product doesn’t sell, you can more easily limit your losses. Large retailers may not even talk to you. Smaller ones more likely. So focusing on a small region or a couple of stores is a good way to make sure it works. But also looking at online platforms like Walmart.com or Amazon.com, which allows you to go to market much more easily.
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.)
First, look at your product. Is it a solution to a problem or a unique need or want? If not, don’t bother. Pushing another copycat product is extremely difficult.
Second, the product has to have the basis to universally appeal to a wide group of people. Your product may appeal to a few people, or an ethnic group but it needs scalability for success.
Third, you need a food that can be mass-produced. There’s lots of good food products that can be made in a few days. But to make thousands or millions of units per day, that’s a different ball game altogether.
Next, you need a good price point. Making food is expensive. Go to the supermarket and check out the prices of similar products. If you can manufacture yours at half that price, you might have something. If not, go back to the drawing board.
But the most important is the value system, which come from your core values. For us, we chose to create a nutritious, sustainable and affordable food.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
If you don’t have personal experience with that food product, if you’re not a consumer of it yourself, I wouldn’t start. I wouldn’t invest in it. To be an entrepreneur in this space, you have to invest in a product that you actually understand and enjoy yourself.
I’ve always been into that whole ramen culture. When I was in high school I ate ramen, when I was a university student, I ate ramen for different reasons. I loved the taste. I was a poor student, so it fit my budget. Then when I got married, it was just a fun product that my wife didn’t allow me to buy, so it was great.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
When we started Chef Woo we were doing our product development and formulation. Then COVID hit, and there was a major run on shelf stable food in the stores and people couldn’t get staples like flour, pasta and ramen. I was watching the news and saw nurses on the front line feeling despondent that they weren’t able to get groceries after their shifts. There was no food left on the shelves because everyone else was hoarding. So we decided with our first production to take our ramen to the COVID centres. We closed our factory that day and personally hand
delivered what we had to the frontline workers. They were the heroes in South Carolina. But that action essentially cemented our core values and was one of greatest moments of so far.
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’m not a vegetarian but I believe that sourcing proteins from animals is not sustainable for 7.5 billion people on Earth. As life expectancy increases, as we tame diseases, as the population grows around the world, we will have 8 to 9 billion people to feed by the year 2050. The impact of sourcing protein from animals to feed people would be devastating to the environment. It is just impossible to feed the world with the way we are going, never mind the effect of global warming. So we need to grow our proteins. As a whole, the food industry is taking the lead on this and I think consumers are also adapting. We will eventually all become flexitarians. And that means food companies like mine that will develop food that is tasty but doesn’t have to replicate animal sourced protein. It just has to be a good tasty food that is nutritious and sustainable. I am very optimistic that over the next five years that sourcing proteins from plants will grow significantly and I hope the next 15 years, most of the world’s protein will be from plant-based sources. For companies and entrepreneurs, this is a huge opportunity.
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 want to lunch with Bill Gates. I would serve him my ramen and we would have a wonderful conversation. We share the same core values in the way he looks at the world in trying to solve problems for mankind. He’s involved with a number of projects that I think are quite admirable. And the impact of his leadership on sustainability can have a profound effect.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.