Solve a specific pain point YOU have. At MamaSezz Foods we wanted someone to make great tasting whole-food plant-based foods that we could heat & eat and add our own flair to so we could quickly have a delicious, healthy dinner ready for our three generation family that everyone would eat. We started the company so we could buy from it because it solved a problem we had — how to eat a healthy meal without spending hours chopping. When you solve for your own problem, you understand that customer well and know how to talk to her in an authentic way.
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 Lisa Lorimer, co-founder and CEO of MamaSezz Foods www.mamasezz.com a whole food plant-based meal delivery company available nationwide in the U.S. Prior to MamaSezz, Lisa spent over 24 years as the owner and CEO of the Vermont Bread Company, supplying certified organic breads, rolls and English muffins to supermarkets and natural product stores, including private label for Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. She sold the company to a private equity firm and retired (or so she thought…) and went back to school to get her MBA from The Darden School of Business at UVA. She is the co-author with her s/hero Margot Fraser, founder of Birkenstock USA, of the book Dealing with the Tough Stuff: Practical Wisdom for Running a Values-Driven Business. Lisa is married with kids and a dog and a cat, and she lives with three generations of her family in Vermont.
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”?
Igrew up extremely poor with a single mother in rural Vermont. I learned very early about the power of community and about the importance of education — we were given food and clothing by our church and townspeople, and my teachers helped me find the love of learning early on. I graduated a couple of years early and headed off to college at a young age but dropped out after one semester and went to work at a French restaurant. Many years later when my company was the largest women-owned business in our state and I was appointed to the White House Conference on Small Business, my grandmother said “that is nice that you met the president dear, now when are you going to finish college?” So, I listened to her (like I always did) and went back to get my BA and then later my MBA.
For my business life, it all started when I was 21-years-old and I was hired by a tiny bakery as the Assistant Distribution Manager — a big title for driving around and opening accounts to sell our natural breads. When I was 25 I had helped to grow this company from less that $100,000 in sales to almost $1 million, and I decided to move to another state to buy another small bakery (on the payment plan) and do this for myself, because I realized I really loved it. When I gave my notice, they came back with a plan for me to stay any buy out one of the family members, so I stayed and eventually worked with my long-term partner to buy out everyone (also on the payment plan!).
Vermont Bread Company grew to be one of the largest natural and organic wholesale bakeries in the US, supplying supermarkets and natural product stores with our brands as well as private label. Over time, it became clear that we needed to become a much larger company because our customers and our suppliers were consolidating and getting bigger every year, so we needed to get big enough to service them properly. We worked with a private equity firm to put together several regional bakeries like us, and I was able to retire early…. Or so I thought…
Can you share with us the story of the “ah-ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
After selling Vermont Bread Company, I thought my days would be full of teaching and consulting and hanging out with my family. And it was, for a while. Then my 80-year-old mother-in-law was released to us in hospice care with congestive heart failure with only a 10% ejection fraction. In doing research about who has survived this severe level of heart disease, we found Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dr. T. Colin Campbell who said to feed her a whole food plant-based diet. So, we did. We made WFPB meals for her and we noticed that she was getting better and better. She was able to get up out of bed, then walk around in her cottage, then out to the patio, then stroll up the driveway… until a year later when she was able to swim and drive and her heart function returned to the low end of normal.
By this time, we started eating this way too and our health improved — my blood pressure went down, I lost some weight, my co-founder Meg’s macular degeneration cleared up and her arthritis went away. But we noticed that to eat this way you need to spend half your life chopping, so we looked for someone to make this food for us and deliver it to our door. We tried a bunch of meal services, but they were either a bunch of groceries with a recipe that went bad fast in your fridge in a couple of days (too much pressure!) or they were frozen sad TV dinners that meant that everyone in your family needs to have their own. And the trash! Yikes! We had a garage full of boxes and ice packs and cooler inserts. We realized that nobody was making us the family style food we needed, delivering it to us, and taking back all that trash — so we started MamaSezz to do just that: www.mamasezz.com. We like to say we started the company so we could be a customer.
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?
The story that comes to mind is from the bread company and is funny, in retrospect but stressful at the time. We made a terrific new product, a great tasting all natural cinnamon raisin bread topped with a white frosting. It tasted great, and we sold a ton. Then we started to get reports that our customers were setting their kitchens on fire. Turns out they were slicing the bread and popping it in the toaster for breakfast like they always did with our other breads. But because of the sweet topping, the heat from the coils caught it on fire quickly. We were a small company at the time, so we had not done any kind of research outside of our employees. We all knew not to toast it — so it never crossed our mind that someone would. Now we make sure to at least get people in our network to try new products before we launch…
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 biggest mistakes come from not knowing the numbers. The food industry is run on tight margins, so understanding how all of the math works is super important — knowing all the costs inside and out is critical — for ingredients, labor, overhead, packaging, shipping, distribution, selling, promoting, store margins, returns, collections. I need to understand when the next loaf of bread is “free” because we are just tacking on a couple of loaves at the end of a 10,000 unit run, and on the flip side when we hit the cliff because those next loaves of bread will cost us $100k each because we need another piece of equipment and three more employees.
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?
Great! To get to the starting gate, now it is time for the research. Treat it like a big term paper due at school, and dig in. First make the product a bunch of times and feed friends and family. Take feedback, do your research, and make it again. If they love it and you think there a space in the market for this great idea, then it is time to really dig in. Go to stores and see products on the shelf in your category, go out on the internet, check Amazon. Identify your closest competitors and figure out what they are doing — what is their retail price in each channel, how do they sell, check their ads, order, or buy their products, look at their packaging. Talk to people in the food business and understand the costs and margins at every step from production to getting it to your customer’s home. Then build your spreadsheet and check it twice (or a thousand times) with people who understand the industry. If the numbers all make sense and you do not need to retail that famous sauce for $99 then you are ready to get some help for the next steps.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Okay, that was a little flippant, but not really. Bootstrapping sets the tone in your company about how to create a lot from a little, and it gets you focused on cash flow from the beginning. I attended the Owner President Management Program at Harvard Business School and in the last accounting class our professor walked over to a big piece of paper with a black magic marker and said that after all we had learned over the last three years there was one most important thing — and he wrote “Cash Is King.” So, bootstrapping gets you focused on that most important thing.
And, on the other hand, having investors helps you get through the high growth periods without running out of that most important thing. I did not have investors at Vermont Bread Company, but I do at MamaSezz Foods.
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.)
Solve a specific pain point YOU have.
At MamaSezz Foods we wanted someone to make great tasting whole-food plant-based foods that we could heat & eat and add our own flair to so we could quickly have a delicious, healthy dinner ready for our three generation family that everyone would eat. We started the company so we could buy from it because it solved a problem we had — how to eat a healthy meal without spending hours chopping. When you solve for your own problem, you understand that customer well and know how to talk to her in an authentic way.
Tell that authentic and compelling story.
Why did you start this line of food? What problem were you solving in your own life? Who are you? This world is full of a lot of noise these days and we are all looking to connect with an interesting and compelling story. What is yours? Here is ours: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYWphkofXEY&feature=youtu.be
Create an advisory board.
What has helped me the most during tough times is, frankly, to get help. Sometimes that means working with consultants who are experts in equipment or selling or R&D or driving traffic to our website. And sometimes that means creating an advisory board of people who are focused on helping me be the best leader I can be. This isn’t a board of directors with decision making authority — this is a group of people who I meet with regularly who help me think through problems or pick my head up to see the big picture or work to plot out next steps.
Own your numbers.
I have touched on this as I have answered other questions, but this is KEY. It can seem overwhelming in the beginning, but just know that if you have a calculator (or a spreadsheet) and the knowledge of fifth grade math, you can understand the numbers in your business. My advisory board was helpful with this too — make sure you add people who understand the financials and set the tone by talking about them a lot. I had to remember there was no shame in pulling out a calculator to help me answer questions like what changed in the gross margin this month or what is the debt to worth ratio as we consider financing this new project?
Relationships matter most, and the culture you create matters more than you think.
At our company we say that our core value is Respect, and we focus on creating a culture of Appreciation. That means we express this to each other within the company, and to our partners, vendors, bankers, landlords, and customers. When we started working with a fast growing private label customer, we always bent over backwards to help them even if it wasn’t for our own business with them — like picking up something they need on our way to their warehouse, or giving them a list of potential manufacturers for what they were looking for like yogurt or almond milk even though it wasn’t what we produced. This open and trusting relationship was helpful when we needed assistance, but mostly, if I am honest, it just-plain makes for a pleasant workday for all of us, right?
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
For the product itself, do whatever you can to make it taste great. It is nice that it is healthy and organic and zero waste, but most of all it must be delicious. Extra points if kids agree! A helpful hint to achieve this is to make sure it is fully balanced in four area covered in the acronym FASS — Fat, Acid, Sweet, Salt. This is truly the secret of food. If it does not taste right, check your FASS and adjust accordingly.
Once the food is great, then connect with your customer by telling stories. Tell your founding story, tell the story of a super-happy customer, tell stories about your employees, about your farmers or vendors. Get good at telling your stories and your ideal customers will adore you.
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.
Eating a plant-centric diet changes the world. It is the best thing you can do for your own health and the health of the planet. There are great books and documentaries for inspiration like The Game Changers and Forks Over Knives. We want to be part of helping everyone eat more veggies. Here at MamaSezz we are working hard make it as easy as possible to do like your Mama says — eat more fruits and veggies then go out and play.
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 choose Glennon Doyle, author of Untamed. But rather than lunch just with me, I would love to have her speak to our staff and the women partners we work with at MamaSezz. We were moved to action when we heard that almost a million women departed the workforce in September. As parents ourselves, we honor their choice to put the relationship with their kids first AND we want to find a way to work with as many of these women as possible by having them help us with the commission sales of MamaSezz so they can have a steady income to get them through these tough times. Our first goal is to have 1,000 women making $2,000 per month to help with mortgages and car payments and groceries. The goals of the program are simple — no upfront costs, we make it easy to recommend that you give MamaSezz a try, no direct on-going selling or collecting cash, and you can do it in the few hours in the early morning or evening when the kids are asleep. We would love Glennon to help us all remember that, as she says, “we can do hard things.”
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!