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“Speed is King.” with Talia Shandler

Speed is king — getting it right is important but getting it done is crucialEven though we are in the fresh produce industry and items take time to grow, there is innovation in packaging, item pairings and exotic products. If we delay on getting this done, the product is no longer in season and we […]

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Speed is king — getting it right is important but getting it done is crucial

Even though we are in the fresh produce industry and items take time to grow, there is innovation in packaging, item pairings and exotic products. If we delay on getting this done, the product is no longer in season and we miss an entire window. We have become great at taking an idea and having it shelf-ready in a few days. It might not have the best graphics and use stock items but it gets on the shelves and sold.

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 Talia Shandler, Vice-President of SGS Produce.

Talia Shandler understands the full supply chain from farm to table and has produce in her DNA. After obtaining her MBA from UCLA Anderson and working with Wonderful Brands, she brings a world of knowledge and a fresh perspective to the 100+ years family business. Representing the 4th generation of SGS’ leaders, Talia recently won the ’40 Under 40 Award’ by Produce Business and is featured on the Emmy nominee KCET/PBS’ documentary ‘LA Foodways’ for her active effort in food recovery and environmental stewardship.

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”?

Most families have Thanksgiving dinners discussing sports. My family would discuss the produce business. All our gatherings and meals were around the weather conditions and how they were affecting the growing areas. The new dishes put on the table were made of a new variety of produce that we were considering to sell. And the fruit at the end of the meal would always include the freshest new apple varieties. And I loved it! Both my grandparents and my parents were involved in Shapiro-Gilman-Shandler Co (SGS Produce), a wholesale distribution produce company headquartered in Los Angeles. When I graduated in college, I wanted to have other experiences in the industry out of the family business, so I moved to Las Vegas and opened my own produce company. I’ve got back to Los Angeles to pursue my MBA from UCLA Anderson, and right after my masters I worked for Wonderful Brands — still on the agricultural side — with pomegranates, citrus and nuts and for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. However, I still missed working and having those great discussions with my family. I have been working at SGS Produce for 9 years now and each day is like a family meal. I have three young boys that love coming to work and playing on all the forklifts and pallet jacks.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

SGS Produce is constantly creating and marketing new products. We sell to most independent markets in the Western United States and we always want to keep our customers on the cutting edge. We have created quite a few new lines of products — a full Asian line, an affordable bagged organic line and introduced an easy way for a healthy mixed produce bag to be distributed to families. While none of our products are new in terms of the actual product, the packaging and distribution are innovative. The best break through happened when we went to a customer for a general visit and they showed us a bagged organic line and asked us if we knew where to get it. It was our product! Clearly it was getting around.

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?

There is a saying “know your customer” that is so true. Our company was established in 1907, not that long after the California gold boom. My grandfather was a true business visionary and the first to be a one-stop-shop for produce for independent grocers. He knew retail very well and he trained me to know retail customers. However, I wanted to break away on my own and at 20 years old I started a foodservice company. I would knock on restaurant doors and talk to chefs. I remember getting my first order which was “1 asparagus” so I sent “1 pallet of asparagus”. My mindset was still in the retail client. Had I really understood the customer I would have known that this current client (a restaurant) couldn’t have used a full pallet of product. I was so used to working with retailers and their volume that I didn’t realize that they meant one case. Until these days I confirm the order size each time! More than that, it was a powerful lesson to understand the customers’ needs first.

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?

Food at its core is basic. It amazes me that such a simple human need inspires so much innovation. Today there is a huge variety of new products and alternatives for old ones. Yogurt is a great example. In a big city like Los Angeles, one can find different yogurt options made of dairy, grains, nuts etc. Some of the new lines target a very small market. However, not all the stores have such a niche clientele for these products or the mindset for super trendy food. Therefore, it is important to be realistic and research thoroughly the market share for a new line. Even if you are passionate about your creation because of its benefits to the final customer, ask yourself and your team: “What is the likelihood a retailer will want to put it in their store?”

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?

My three young boys love watching Mark Rober’s science videos on Youtube. He has a great philosophy in his approach to science experiments and I share the same view for new product development. If you have an idea, do research what has been done before. Then mock it up for as cheap, easy and quick as you can. Finally get the product to market as quickly as possible. Too many people have a great idea and spend so much time trying to get it perfect. There will be plenty of time to improve the product later, but you need to show something to the customer in order to get their opinions and feedback as soon as possible. If you spend all of your time and resources on what you think is a perfect product, you’ll likely have too much inventory or investment to pivot when it comes the time for improvements. So, get it to market the cheapest and fastest way you can.

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?

Nike was onto something when they said “Just do it!” Ideas are great but it is the execution that takes it to a winner.

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?

Consultants have a place in the business cycle and can help fast-track an idea. Before hiring a consultant though, you have to understand exactly what to expect from them and their value for your development. With hard work and “boots on the ground” often a new enterprising person can accomplish quite a lot. But consultants can often open the door to a customer or help reduce the time and cost to get the line to the market. It’s the “Shark Tank” effect! However, you need to have very strong deliverables agreed upon and make sure that you’ll pay for those deliverables and not just for talk.

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 am by nature a bootstrapper, so I tend to lean to this side. The produce business is thousands of years old. Everyone needs to eat. So, in my experience, I find that successful people are those who have done it themselves and can see where there is value to add. The barrier to entry is very low in the produce business so we don’t have a lot of venture capital in the industry. We do have a lot of private equity money once you are successful and that seems to be a common theme emerging as an alternative strategy.

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?

It is a global market. That is both a good and bad thing. We were working on a new bagged product and we got quotes on both local bags and some from Asia. The raw material from Asia was significantly less expensive so we ordered from there. It was a nightmare! Delays, poor quality and sharp edges that made the product unusable. We should have ordered a small batch from the local vendor so the product launch wouldn’t be delayed, and that would have given us time to really negotiate and source better products. Interestingly enough, the raw material vendor referred us to one of his other customers that we can now sell to.

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.)

1. Know your audience

We service many different types of ethnic customers and it is great when there is cross over. We are balancing to carrying items that “remind them of home”, like sour cherries, and “new product introduction”, like a full Asian line. We make sure that at any given time we have items that will appeal to our customers and know which items will do well in their particular category.

2. Speed is king — getting it right is important but getting it done is crucial

Even though we are in the fresh produce industry and items take time to grow, there is innovation in packaging, item pairings and exotic products. If we delay on getting this done, the product is no longer in season and we miss an entire window. We have become great at taking an idea and having it shelf-ready in a few days. It might not have the best graphics and use stock items but it gets on the shelves and sold.

3. Embrace the trends and take them a step further

We are constantly looking for new items to keep consumers excited to go into our customer’s markets. We helped create the fresh Thai coconut trend and we have expanded it with additional items from Thailand and Vietnam. And we took the trend and started including “taps” for our customer. We always look at the trend and ask ourselves “how can we build on this?”

4. Having the idea is great, but sometimes the timing needs to be right

We have been “ahead of our time” on quite a few items. We came up with the idea for meal kits ages ago. However, the consumer wasn’t ready for it yet. Now we see meal kits everywhere. We are going to see a ton of traditional grocery habits being altered due to the pandemic. And this is going to bring up a lot of opportunities for innovation that consumers weren’t ready for before.

5. Assign implementers for new ideas.

Who is the ideal person in your team to leverage and manage a new idea and product development? Do we need a consultant to help this particular process? Those are questions that need to be asked. We had a product called Bountiful Bags that had the potential to be successful but lacked the right follow up. Make sure that your new line stays on the list of priorities.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

Any product that makes their life easier, healthier, and adds an element of entertainment or fun. Trendy is good, but to keep the ability to adapt as trends shift is even better. Social responsibility is also important. Everyone wants to be part of a community and do good things.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Food is a precious and valuable resource. At SGS Produce we are committed to reducing all waste, including food. We have partnered with food redistribution companies all around the Western United States to make sure that people who need food will get it. We have donated over 2 million pounds of food in the past year. With the pandemic we have increased our outreach and are committed to do not waste food that could go elsewhere. For our efforts, SGS was featured in the Emmy nominated documentary “LA Foodways” and we see this as an existential issue. In addition to food waste, we are the first produce distributor to achieve Zero Waste Certification from True Waste. We have redesigned how we work with packaging and our wood waste.

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.

Since I am in the food business, I obviously have a passion for feeding people. My greatest mission is continuing the work we have started with food redistribution. I would love to continue the mission of helping ensuring food security for everyone. Another idea and trend that I would like to advance is changing food back to the way it used to be — produce for the taste, not necessarily for how rapidly or beautifully it can grow. I feel like food has moved away from its original nutritious purpose. If we all got back to the original idea of food as vital nutrients, I think we would solve a lot of health issues.

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 love to meet Mackenzie Bezos. She is so accomplished in her own right and was in Jeff Bezos’ shadow for so long. Now she can choose to do anything she wants and get it done. I’d love to ask her how she decides where to put her efforts and assets. There are so many competing causes that are so worthy. It is like the business world — there are so many ideas, how do you choose?

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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