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Venae Watts and Minerva Dairy: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food

Taste — Stay true to your flavor profile. I’ve been told by others in the industry: “You could sell a lot more butter if you would treat it more like commodity butter, cut some corners and produce more for less.” But why in the world would I want to be average? To me, suggesting this […]

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Taste — Stay true to your flavor profile. I’ve been told by others in the industry: “You could sell a lot more butter if you would treat it more like commodity butter, cut some corners and produce more for less.” But why in the world would I want to be average? To me, suggesting this was practically an insult.

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 Venae Watts, a fifth-generation family member of Minerva Dairy, America’s oldest family-owned creamery; as current co-owner, with her brother Adam, Venae grew up in the business, obsessing over butter like the four generations before her. She holds the titles of Treasurer and Secretary, but her work also encompasses HR, sales, and marketing; with over 25 years working within the family business she has played a pivotal role in helping to lead the sales team to continued success and growth while simultaneously helping to navigate Minerva Dairy through the ever-changing food industry. She has a Bachelor of Science from Muskingum College and is a member of the FFA Educational Board.

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 in Minerva, a small village in Northeastern Ohio. I rode bikes around town with friends, back when no one used to lock their doors. I was just like every small-town girl who helped out her family’s business; in my case, I worked at a creamery. I was so small when I started, I needed to stand on milk crates in order to reach the butter I was rolling. My mom used to write our chores out on a legal yellow pad and leave it in the kitchen on her way to work — chores for both the house and the dairy. We had to complete and cross them off before we were allowed to do anything else that day.

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 reading an edition of TIME magazine and can still picture the cover: “Eat Butter,” it simply said. I read the cover article and started seeking out more articles that supported butter. As I devoured the articles, I wanted to scream out, because my family has been doing what the articles were highlighting on for a long time. At the time, I wanted to yell, “We are already here! We have been here for 120 years!” But how do you scream that out to the world? The answer was the place that the world sees us most prominently: our packaging. We just had to figure out how to do that. Today, we’re proud to flaunt our updated packaging featuring stylized retro graphics and a contemporary feel that can easily be spotted on the grocery shelf.

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 lesson: You cannot fire your brother.

My business partner is my brother, Adam Muller. Adam and I, being siblings so close in age, would tend to argue about details. Often these arguments revolved around details that were of no importance, but we would hold our ground as if our life depended on it. A few times, it led to one of us “firing” the other. The funny thing is that neither of us would ever quit.

Looking back on my younger self, I now realize how smart my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were. They created a lifestyle and business model for our family. Each family member has value and is given respect and their own part in the family business. We cannot fire each other, and my brother and I joke about it now.

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?

What happens most often is that people underestimate the amount of time it takes to start a food line. Budget more time for yourself. Do your best to meet deadlines or even aim to complete milestones in advance. It’s important to bring a sense of urgency to every task, especially the small ones.

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?

  1. Identify what makes your product different — that’s your competitive advantage.
  2. Identify who would find value in that difference — that’s your target market.
  3. Identify how you would get that product to them — that’s the process you now need to build.

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?

The first step is to start small and then build. By focusing on a few tiny details at a time, the idea of building a business becomes less daunting. Many people spend too much time thinking about the big picture. Set a clear path of where you want to take this idea and start with small baby steps. For example, start by creating a name for your business or developing a tone and voice document. This will be your roadmap to finding your target audience and crafting a plan.

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?

New ideas, and the development of those ideas into a viable business, can definitely benefit from a consultant. But do your research; have a clear goal in mind for your business and make sure the consultant you hire has the skillset and the background necessary to get you there.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

First identify where you want to go and then what resources you will need to get there. Do you have those resources already or have them easily reached? If so, consider trying the bootstrap method. If not, and you need to acquire funding or other resources to get off the ground, seeking out venture capital might be your best bet.

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?

There’s a lot going on in this question! And it would be an incredibly complex answer to write it all out. To sum it up: read and research. Doing your homework on every aspect of your business is crucial.

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.)

Taste — Stay true to your flavor profile. I’ve been told by others in the industry: “You could sell a lot more butter if you would treat it more like commodity butter, cut some corners and produce more for less.” But why in the world would I want to be average? To me, suggesting this was practically an insult.

Fun — Love the creative process, even to the point of nonsense. You need to lose yourself now and then in the passion that sparked your business journey. Being open to trying new things and just having fun is how innovations get made. For example, our Garlic Herb Butter came about when I was just having fun in the kitchen with family, and it’s now one of our most popular products.

Data — Math is a truth-teller, and you should always be looking for the truths of your business. If you’re having a meeting or making an important decision, ask to see the data before at least 24 hours ahead of time. This allows you space to read, research, and develop your questions independently of others’ thought processes and agendas. I once took an unsuccessful and costly journey with a retailer that could have been avoided if I had asked the right questions early on and gotten some numbers to consider in advance.

Listen — I learn more from what is not said then what is said. Good relationships with suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors come about by seeking out those that spend less time selling to you and more time doing work for you. And that includes making sure both sides are listening to what the other party needs so that the relationship is mutually beneficial.

Time — Time is a limited resource. A sense of urgency to finish tasks both big and small is important, but it’s also crucial not to compromise the quality of your work or the product in order to reach a goal on time. My personal mission is to be part of something that is bigger than my time on earth. This is the secret to longevity, something that outlasts you.

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

This is simple: if you love it and are crazy about it, there must be others that will feel the same. How many people are on this earth, after all? You just need to get the product in front of them. Find your people and share it with them.

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

Humane treatment of our cows is our first priority. There is a “Pasture-Raised” certification requirement in order for a company to become a Minerva Dairy supplier. We also look for any ways to reduce our carbon footprint and continue to make that a priority in our production.

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 think a movement to promote family businesses would be wonderful. It’s a powerful thing: each generation teaches the next about what’s important, both in the family and in the business. That knowledge grows with each generation, so the business becomes stronger along with the legacy. Being a mother and running a family business might be a lot of work, but it’s truly an honor that I get to take up the role as teacher of the sixth generation of Minerva Dairy.

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.

Sheryl O’Loughlin; her life path appears to have been similar to mine. A relaxed conversation with her would be a joy.

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

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