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“5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” With Chef Vicky Colas & Akiva Resnikoff

Of course, we go into business ownership hoping to make buckets of money, and we’ve all heard the incredible stories of brands that experience rocket success; their products can be found on thousands of retail shelves within the first year, or the brand is acquired within a few years of launch for tens or even […]

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Of course, we go into business ownership hoping to make buckets of money, and we’ve all heard the incredible stories of brands that experience rocket success; their products can be found on thousands of retail shelves within the first year, or the brand is acquired within a few years of launch for tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Those stories inspire us to continue staying focused on our vision, however for most food brand entrepreneurs the journey includes a seesaw of wins and losses, endless unforeseen obstacles, great risk, tough decisions, and personal sacrifice. If you adopt the mindset that hurdles are simply part of the success journey, you’ll far lead far more effectively with greater peace of mind.

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 Akiva Resnikoff.

In 2009 in his mother’s kitchen, Akiva launched his “Fully Functional” cookie passion project which would later become The Cookie Department. With a background in sales within the functional beverage industry, a full-time business development role at an artisanal bread company, and a vision of bringing innovation and functionality to baked goods, Resnikoff became a one-man cookie band. After work and in the wee morning hours he formulated recipes, baked, packaged, marketed and delivered cookies to a handful of local retailers. No longer in the kitchen or behind the wheel of a delivery van, Resnikoff has evolved into a skilled CEO with extensive consumer goods industry knowledge. Staying true to his roots, he still loves to whip up new cookie recipes.

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”?

Mypassion for sharing joyful times around baked goods started young. My loving father, a physician and the sole financial provider for our family passed away suddenly, leaving my extraordinary mother with three small children to raise on her own. There was of course grief and struggle after our profound loss, though our mom provided an endless source of stability and love. The expression “The heart of a home is the kitchen” was especially true in our house. No matter how tired, busy or stressed she was, my mom prioritized making nutritious meals from scratch, and special occasions always meant happy family connection around mouthwatering baked goods. If I close my eyes I can still smell the sweet aromas wafting from her kitchen.

Having struggled academically and forgoing college as a result of severe learning disabilities, it was clear that I would need to forge my own path. While my siblings excelled in college and then graduate schools, I accidentally became a Renaissance Man. Directly out of high school I worked as a grunt for a printing house, hoping to apprentice myself into a solid career. An injury forced me to pursue a different line of work, and as through my mom I had developed a deep love of both the process of baking and the gift of bringing joy to people through sharing the fruits of that process, I chose to study pastry arts. This led to a job with a bakery design firm, followed by picking up jewelry design to fulfill my hankering for creative expression. Having enjoyed some commercial and financial success with jewellery, I was inspired to attend art school to hone my craft and learn the business end of pursuing art as a career.

Acceptance into my desired art school in 2006 propelled a move from my home town of Berkeley, California to Portland, Oregon. I quickly realized my dis-ease with the prospect of repaying student loans while nurturing a budding career as an artist, so I dropped out and founded a niche art magazine. In soliciting prospective advertisers and potential subscribers, I discovered that I really enjoyed sales. So when the opportunity came to work for an energy drink company that advertised in my magazine, I jumped at the chance.

I spent the next few years learning all I could about sales within the functional beverage industry. By the time I was tasked with opening the California market, my entrepreneurial wheels had started to crank with increased recognition that my higher ups were profiting off my efforts far more than I was. As I pondered yet another career move that would allow me to become my own boss, the 2008 recession hit. I was laid off and fortunate to find a job as a Sales Manager for an artisan bread company. The entrepreneurial dream would get to percolate, as I coveted the steady income during such a precarious financial time.

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

Back in 2009, while enjoying an espresso and cookie at a coffee shop, I noticed the throngs of other patrons also fueling their afternoon slumps with coffee and sweets. A “lightbulb” moment hit; could I use my love of baking and experience in the functional beverage industry to create a decadent, caffeine rich treat by adding coffee to a cookie? Of course, I enlisted my mom and together we tested over 60 trial-and-error batches in my childhood kitchen. The Awaken Baked containing a full cup of coffee was finally perfected! This double-chocolate coffee treat would become the signature cookie of my yet to be founded company, The Cookie Department.

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?

In 2013, with a line of five “Fully Functional” cookie flavors including a vegan option, it made sense to include a gluten-free cookie. I decided that the Natural Products Expo, an industry trade show attracting tens of thousands of retail buyers was the ideal venue to launch our sixth SKU. Working with our very first co-packer, we placed an order for thousands of our brand new Cherry Bombs, a double-chocolate cookie infused with tart cherries and probiotics. Marketing materials revolved around the launch of this new gluten-free flavor, cookie packaging was designed and printed, the website was updated… we were ready to launch!

Due to unforeseen delays, I was finally able to pick the product up from the co-packer… on my way to the Expo! With a bit of trepidation, I tasted the new cookie, knowing that it was too late to adjust any issues prior to launch. To my great relief, it was amazing! Mouthwatering! Decadent! Phew!!! But as I slowly chewed, focusing on the flavor and mouthfeel, I realized that it was too melt-in-your-mouth gooey chocolatey, too sweet, too rich.

After multiple back and forth calls with the co-packer while setting up/working the three day trade show booth and simultaneously running the day-to-day of the business, we finally got to the bottom of why the cookies were so much sweeter than our original tests; our new co-packer had flubbed the scaling of ingredients resulting in a cookie with more than double the chocolate and sugar than the nutritional panel stated! When prospective buyers tasted the cookies, I was mortified to tell them that each cookie had a whopping 80 grams of sugar, tasting vastly different from the product they would (hopefully) be purchasing in the future.

Through this experience I encountered my first lesson in working with co-packers. To date, The Cookie Department has employed five, spanning the spectrum from symbiotic to nearly ruinous. For companies like mine that outsource manufacturing, the co-packer alone can make the difference between smooth success and complete failure.

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?

Many new food brand entrepreneurs attempt to scale prior to really knowing the fundamentals of their business or products.

For example, attempting to sell into large scale grocery chains before testing in local independents can be a very expensive mistake. Neighborhood establishments value local brands, and you will greatly benefit from taking advantage of opportunities to become a big fish in a small pond before trying to become a guppy in the ocean.

Methodically scaling manufacturing is crucial as well. Many new brands opt to work with a co-packer without first manufacturing on their own. In my view you need to get your hands dirty, literally. To KNOW every nuance of your product including process, ingredients, suppliers, retail buyers, logistics, employees, customers and financial resources. Some brands bypass the co-packer all together and raise capital or take out loans to build their own commercial kitchen. This can be a six or even seven figure expense, requires the added skill and time inherent in running a kitchen, and can be disastrous without having first proven the business model.

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?

How often have you had a great idea that stayed in your head, you then see it on a shelf somewhere and kick yourself for not jumping on it sooner? Well, it makes sense that most great ideas end up being done by someone else because idea generation requires a very different skill set than that of running a business.

Start by researching what skills, mindset, tasks, and time might be required in the starting and running of a business. There are millions of people that have already attempted what you’re contemplating, and a large handful are super happy to share what they’ve learned. Resources are nearly endless through publications, podcasts, lectures, small business associations, networking organizations and formal educational options. Specialtyfoodresource.com is a great industry resource.

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?

If running a business is appealing to you after learning the basics of business ownership, I highly recommend starting super small in your local market. I can’t state enough how much you will learn, how many surprises you will face, how many mistakes you will make and how much you and your budding company will adapt during this early phase. This is the time for you to oversee every aspect of your new venture. The more control you have in the beginning, the more you can determine what works, what doesn’t and what you can outsource without risking the quality of the product or customer experience. You want to make your mistakes and learn as much as possible when you’re small enough to easily and least expensively pivot and adjust.

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?

You may have noticed by now that I’m a big believer that creating your own product is the best way to begin a food brand. So my bias is to start with a food you have passion for and if you would benefit from expertise you don’t already possess, hire for things like food science and business coaching.

Most food brand entrepreneurs I know, myself included, have built their companies around a food they have a meaningful relationship with. I started my company with a passion for baking with functional ingredients. After nine years in the functional cookie space, I was inspired by my wife, Elannah, to create a ketogenic friendly line.

Like so many entrepreneurs, my products stem from something deeply personal, which in turn fuels my commitment. No matter how skilled an Invention Development consultant may be, they won’t be able to help with one of the most crucial aspects of launching a successful food brand; your passion for sharing your creations with the world.

Elannah is on the strict diet to control brain inflammation and blood sugar swings due to a traumatic brain injury. For her first several years eating keto there weren’t any commercial products that fit within her restrictions, so I tinkered in our test kitchen, whipping up fun decadent treats. As the keto commercial space began to grow, she has tried nearly every new product to hit the market. As none have been as tasty with ingredients as clean as those I make for her, I recognized a hole in the low carb, low sugar, keto friendly cookie space.

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

Nearly every business owner considering raising capital will be faced with the decision of going after sufficient funds at the expense of giving up more of their brand than they are comfortable with. In my experience, VCs don’t invest in ideas; they invest in brands with proven revenue, so they aren’t the first stop for raising seed capital. More common is an initial raise through crowdfunding or friends and family.

I initially invested $100 into ingredients, and for the first several years grew The Cookie Department with my salary from a full-time job. Once it became clear that my cookie passion project had become a brand with legs, I quit my job and raised a small amount of money through friends and family. Since those early days we’ve done two additional rounds of financing.

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?

Patents are rare within the food space unless you’ve invented a unique production process. What is far more common and crucial is ensuring that your IP is secure through filing trademarks.

Most ingredient suppliers require high MOQs (minimum order quantity) so working with a local ingredient distributor is the most cost effective way to source when you enter the commercial stage.

Knowing the nuanced complexities of your production process will help you to quickly assess which manufacturers might be a good fit. Once you’ve selected a manufacturing partner keep in mind that to them you’re merely one customer, yet to you, they’re essential to the life of your brand. In acknowledging this imbalance, I maintain as much control as possible by formulating all new recipes, sourcing specialty ingredients, and solidifying processes in-house before I engage our manufacturer to run a larger scale test. Because I am intimately aware of every facet of my product and production, I’ve quickly and with minimal expense been able to solve baking challenges encountered by all five of the co-packers I’ve worked with.

For example, just recently we had our manufacturer run a commercial size test for a new flavor. The resulting cookies spread more than they had in our in-house test, resulting in a flat, thin cookie. The manufacturer, having followed every instruction I provided to a T, was stumped as to why the test hadn’t worked. After a thorough review of their process and ingredients used, I realized that they had sourced an almond flour with a different size granule than we had used in our in-house test. They had simply purchased ‘almond flour’, which is a universal term that can be used to include a spectrum of granule sizes. If I didn’t understand the nuances of ingredients and the makeup of our cookies, we would have had to spend significantly more time and money troubleshooting, and the product launch would have been further delayed.

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. A deep “Why”, Winning Mindset, and Healthy Expectations.

This is the time to reach deep down inside and connect to your ‘why’, to ensure you have crystal clarity on your vision, your values, your passion, and your purpose. Steve Jobs famously said, “…If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.” Ask yourself some pointed questions like; What’s personally at stake if you choose to pursue this venture, as well as if you choose not to? How much of yourself are you prepared to invest? What will the impact be on your family and finances? What does success mean to you? What values do you envision imparting through this brand? How do you want your product or service to make people feel?

A successful entrepreneur will learn to embrace challenging situations as opportunities to strengthen humility, patience, resilience, creativity, resourcefulness, and commitment.

Forbes.com stated, “The entrepreneurial mindset is about a certain way of thinking — it is about the way in which you approach challenges and mistakes. It is about an inherent need to improve your skill set and to try and try again.”. Do you possess the ability to adapt and make swift crucial decisions? Can you stay focused while being pulled in numerous directions? Do you have the emotional intelligence to remain calm, focused and accept responsibility when inevitable setbacks happen? In running your own business, you will be given many opportunities to exercise these muscles, so make sure you’re up for stretching in these ways prior to launching.

Of course, we go into business ownership hoping to make buckets of money, and we’ve all heard the incredible stories of brands that experience rocket success; their products can be found on thousands of retail shelves within the first year, or the brand is acquired within a few years of launch for tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Those stories inspire us to continue staying focused on our vision, however for most food brand entrepreneurs the journey includes a seesaw of wins and losses, endless unforeseen obstacles, great risk, tough decisions, and personal sacrifice. If you adopt the mindset that hurdles are simply part of the success journey, you’ll far lead far more effectively with greater peace of mind.

2. Research, Research, Research.

Learn everything you can during this phase: your product, industry, customer, competition, commercial channels, and logistical elements (including supply chain, ingredient and packaging sourcing, manufacturing, marketing, staffing and legal requirements). Sounds like a lot, I know, but this information will greatly aid you in determining the viability of your company concept.

Now that your head is exploding, let me break it down a bit so you have an easy jumping off point. Before investing any more energy, time or money, make sure that your product is something people want by studying the marketplace. Is there a need for your product or service? Who is the target market? Is there competition and if so, can you offer something better or unique? Is it within a growing or dying industry, or perhaps one that doesn’t exist at all?

Once you’ve gathered this insight, firehose yourself with sufficient feedback to perfect your widget. You will inevitably make changes to your products or services along the way, but of course you want to launch a tested and perfected product. Next, learn the logistical elements of running a food brand, followed by studying up on how to market your product, and so on. Take each piece one at a time and you will have a wealth of priceless information to guide your decision making.

3. The Boring Necessities.

No one particularly loves this part, but being thorough here is crucial. Once you get all of these logistics behind you, you can dive right back into the fun stuff!

  • The best part of this phase… What’s your company’s name?!
  • How do you plan to fund your business? Will you draw from maintaining a job, savings, friends and family, crowdfunding, angel investors, partnerships or through loans?
  • How will you structure the time you invest?
  • Determine your manufacturing process. Will you be using your home kitchen (this option is only legal with a cottage licence for very small brands in specific states), renting commercial kitchen space, having your product co-packed, building out your own commercial kitchen?
  • What is the ideal legal structure for your company?
  • Apply for necessary business licenses.
  • Learn food label requirements and regulations.
  • Test your product nutritionals by purchasing nutrition panel software or sending your product to a lab.
  • Apply for insurances, permits and certifications that might be required for your specific product or service.

And now the fun begins again!

4. Developing Your Brand.

It’s now time to create your brand identity, positioning, and differentiation. To do this, ask yourself questions that you can succinctly answer like: What does your company do? Who is the customer that you’re doing it for? What values do you impart? What message or feeling are you hoping to inspire? What’s your company’s voice? And so on. With this insight you can now jump into creating your mission statement, visual tools, web presence, marketing materials etc.

From here, dive into further detail with a comprehensive business plan which lays out the structure, organization, and growth strategy for your new venture. A winning business plan will help you stay on track when you’re being pulled in a hundred directions, as well as legitimize your company in the eyes of prospective partners or investors. If you’re new to business ownership, as I was when I started my company, you may go through several iterations in the first few years.

5. Start selling!

This is when you want to make your mistakes and test what works and what doesn’t, as you’ll be small enough to easily adjust. You’ll be amazed by how many different tasks you’ll be undertaking as a new business owner and you’ll want to learn each nuance without feeling overwhelmed or risking quality, customer service or the reputation you’re working so hard to build. I can’t stress enough the advantages of starting small and local. So before you leap to developing a national or regional sales strategy, test your product in your own neighborhood.

In the beginning, I sold at a farmers market, followed by a few cafes, local gyms, specialty grocery stores, a college campus and even a movie theater all within a few miles of my home.

Like so many other budding food brand entrepreneurs that start selling at farmers markets, I learned invaluable insights, as they afford an opportunity to receive real time feedback on pricing, taste, branding, and customer service. With this info, you can determine necessary adjustments, and whether or not your products might transition well onto grocery shelves. So, start with a farmers market or two, then demo your creations at a local market and branch out from there. Oh, and have fun!

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

This may sound ridiculously obvious, but the only way to determine if people love your products is to ask them! You can spend a lot of money on market research, yet, from my experience the least expensive way to collect this invaluable data is to share your new creations with friends and family and to ask for brutally honest feedback. And I mean brutally honest! The more criticism they have the better, as they represent a tiny microcosm of what you hope will become a massive customer base. I know that the thought of people being critical of something you’ve worked so hard on might make you a bit queasy, but remember that the more adjustments you can make prior to launching, the more likely you are to have a product that flies off the shelves.

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

As oodles of food conscious people are gravitating toward low sugar and low carb diets, offering gluten-free certified, keto friendly cookies might seem like a natural business fit for a functional cookie company. Yet as I shared earlier, the inspiration to include keto cookies was deeply personal. Through this line, Elannah and I have been able to connect our love for one another with my professional skills and our shared passion for making the world sweeter for those that have had to forgo delicious treats due to health challenges. We’re blessed to share joy through nourishment with warriors of epilepsy, diabetes, autism, brain injuries, obesity, PCOS, and MS.

Giving up culinary indulgences may sound like a trivial price to pay for health, but let’s be real… have you ever tried to cut out your favorite foods to lose a few pounds? Well, I have, and the sense of frustration, deprivation and overall annoyance is real! Now imagine that you can only have your favorite foods at the expense of your health. Elannah and I love knowing that our cookies allow others to respect their bodies while indulging in foods that bring them joy.

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.

Through my early adulthood, when judged based on conventional perceptions of success, one might have viewed me as a flounderer. Yet now, based on the same conventions I might be seen quite differently. What changed? Certainly not my innate limitations or abilities, my values or core beliefs. I remain the same person; simply, I’ve developed the muscle to forge my own path.

Many of us aren’t built to thrive within the structure of our current academic system or societal perceptions of success. I want every kid that was told they are dumb, incapable or slow to know that they are in fact competent, worthy and capable of creating the life they envision. And for all of those with an entrepreneurial dream, know that learning by doing, seeking guidance, trusting your gut, and believing in yourself might just be enough to launch the life they imagine.

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.

Daniel Lubetzky, if you’re reading this, please know that you inspire me to measure success in great part by how my company contributes to the benefit of others. You’ve expertly created one of the worlds’ most successful snack brands, AND your contributions to the growth of budding entrepreneurs, global peace, healthcare, and nutrition policy reformation have truly made the world a better place. Thank you for all you do. It is an honor to be inspired by you.

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

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