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“Your work is never done. ” With Kirsten Sutaria

Getting a product on shelf is relatively easy (if it’s good!), getting consumers to pull it off the shelf over and over is the hard part. You can have great meetings with buyers and be listed in retailers, but if people aren’t buying your product over competing ones, retailers will be quick to replace you. […]

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Getting a product on shelf is relatively easy (if it’s good!), getting consumers to pull it off the shelf over and over is the hard part. You can have great meetings with buyers and be listed in retailers, but if people aren’t buying your product over competing ones, retailers will be quick to replace you. Never forget, taste is paramount!

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 Kirsten Sutaria.

Kirsten is the co-founder and Chief of Curious Creation at Wonderlab’s Doozy Pots, an organic plant-based gelato company, which she founded with her husband Karl in 2019. After studying Food Science at Cornell University, Kirsten began her career in product development and innovation. Over the last 12 years she has developed new products such as Ben & Jerry’s Greek Frozen Yogurt and Non-Dairy lines, plant-based beverages for Innocent Drinks, and numerous others as a consultant for clients in the US and Europe. Now, she is bringing together her interest in plant-based foods and her expertise in the science of ice cream to create her very own wondrous, delicious, and sustainable treats.

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”?

I guess you could say I grew up in a “foodie” family! As a kid, my parents owned restaurants and worked in the food and wine business, so from a young age I was around food and I have always felt comfortable in the kitchen. I have such fond memories of being in the kitchen with my family, whether it was baking bread with my grandpa or frosting cakes with my mom. I moved to Waterbury, Vermont when I was little and went on the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour countless times as it was right down the road. I remember seeing the Quality Assurance team slicing open pints of ice cream to check for chunks and swirls. As a kid I thought “I want that job”! I started working in restaurants when I was 13, plating desserts and hosting. In high school when I was deciding “what I wanted to do when I grew up” I was thinking either exercise science or food science and food science won out. Realizing that I could have a career in food, without having restaurant hours, I was sold. I then studied Food Science with a concentration in Operations and Management at university.

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

Having entrepreneurial parents always made me think I would like to have my own business one day, but for over ten years I was fortunate to have exciting roles within well established companies that I admired. Part of my job has always been to research ingredients and I had spent quite a bit of time reading about hemp seeds. I was surprised to learn about how much nutrition was packed into the little seed and how it is a very sustainable crop to grow, especially organically. As I had been working on plant-based product development and had a strong personal interest in nutritious, sustainable foods, I realized that hemp beats out other plant-based alternatives such as coconut, nuts and peas from both an environmental and nutritional standpoint. Even better, because of its specific fat profile, it had the potential to create a delicious ice cream and I knew had the skillset to create it! I began tinkering with recipes at home and told Karl that I thought I could make a better plant-based ice cream with hemp. As a lawyer, he was naturally skeptical but once he tasted it and did his own research, he was all in and we moved from London to Cleveland to set up Doozy Pots.

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?

Doozy Pots is the nickname my grandma used to use as kids when we were being silly, and I am a bit clumsy…so I refer to myself as a “Doozy Pots” quite often. Ice cream can get messy if it goes anywhere other than where it is meant to go, and before we found our “flow” in production we had our fair share of accidents. More than once I have found myself standing in a puddle of ice cream mix after forgetting to shut a valve on a machine and having it pour all over the floor and my shoes. Karl is sitting here telling me that as a kid it would have been a dream to have a delicious ice cream river running through the room, but it’s not that fun, let me tell you! Whilst amusing, it is also time and money literally down the drain. We learned that in production — and in many areas of the business — being slow and methodical is going to be more efficient than being fast and sloppy. The old adage holds true, haste makes waste!

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 is such a part of everyone’s daily life it often seems simple, and we take it for granted so there is a belief that having a food business is easy, but it’s not.

Many people naturally go into it without much knowledge of the food industry and make the mistake of ignoring how the industry works and focusing only on the recipe or fancy branding. Having realistic expectations and really taking the time to understand the steps it takes to get a product from kitchen to grocery store shelf (and off that shelf into a customer’s hands!) is worth the time. Most things will take longer than planned and cost more than planned.

With food, people’s health and safety are on the line, so you need to be really buttoned up on the food safety and regulatory aspects. People just starting out might not think about food safety and regulations, but it is integral to a functioning, successful food business.

I have also seen some people feel like they need to be an expert in absolutely everything or being too proud to ask for help. Being thorough is good, but you cannot master every element of the business, so identify areas where you are not an expert and find one. It is ok to ask for help.

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?

First, really have a think about whether you want to turn your hobby or passion into a job that will take 110% of your time, attention and money, and which won’t always be focused on the thing you’re most passionate about. If you are comfortable with that, you can go to the next steps:

  • Is there a need in the market for your product? Consider what else is available in the category, and whether your product fits a gap or combines attributes in a unique way. If so, what types of people would buy it?
  • Identify where you want to sell your product, which should align with where the types of people you think will buy your product shop. Where you want to sell will dictate where you can produce it. You’re not going to be in 500 supermarkets making product in your kitchen and you don’t need a massive co-manufacturer to sell at the local farmer’s market.
  • Define your budget — how much do you have, and what steps can you take with it?
  • Research your local, state and national regulations for your product. Process, packaging, nutrition, etc. all have legal guidelines that must be followed, and having to re-print packaging because you didn’t follow the rules is an expensive and entirely avoidable mistake!

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 you are a great creator, but finance or business operations is not your thing, find someone who complements your skillset. There is no need to go it alone and having a co-founder or partner can really help in the long run. If creating is your passion and the business part is a challenge you will very quickly lose your passion as you get bogged down by “business”. Just because it’s your idea or product, doesn’t mean you have to run all aspects of the business.

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?

In addition to running Doozy Pots, I do product development consulting and have seen firsthand how clients can have a brilliant idea but are missing the knowhow on execution and really benefit from guidance. You may have a vision for your dream house, but unless you’re an architect you’d hire someone or a team to make that vision a reality. I am a firm believer in surrounding yourself with people smarter than yourself and yes, it can be expensive, but in the long run it helps you go further faster. As founders, Karl and I think it’s beneficial to bring in some informed, outside perspective. It can help unlock your own thoughts and get some decisions made, even if those are different from what the consultant suggests.

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

For the last 2 years Karl and I have bootstrapped Doozy Pots. It’s definitely stressful but you’re investing in yourself and your future and it makes you think twice about how you’re spending your cash. Having no investors allows you to set the brand up the way you want it and you don’t have investors to answer to right away. There is certainly good venture capital money out there, but you really need to make sure your goals align and that you’re prepared to have the VC be an influence in the business. For example, if you want to maintain high quality ingredients and sell small batches, but your VC envisages cost cutting and selling your product in mass retailers, things can quickly go sour. Your business plan and goals will also dictate what type of funding you’ll need. If you are happy to start small, bootstrap if you can. If you want to be in 500 stores, you’ll likely need to be looking for outside capital.

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?

Great question, each of these topics could use their own article!

Filing a patent for a food product is not always necessary, especially if it’s simply a recipe that you have. That is better kept as a trade secret. If you have a novel process or equipment, that may be worth trying to patent but the patent process takes a lot of time, money and a someone with a strong understanding of intellectual property law. If you’re thinking about patents, your first step should be to talk to a patent lawyer to find out whether your idea is suited to a patent, and whether that patent will actually create any value for you.

For raw ingredients, make sure you are sourcing ingredients that can scale with your product. At Doozy Pots, we are committed to sourcing organic ingredients and spend a lot of time finding companies that align with our values. It can take a while to find good quality, great tasting ingredients that are available at quantities that fit the business and align with our pricing expectations. Understanding lead times and minimum order quantities is key. If you are changing ingredient suppliers, always, ALWAYS, vet the ingredient first. Just because an ingredient has the same name, doesn’t mean it has the same sensory attributes. I’ve seen people make costly mistakes on this assumption!

If you plan to use a manufacturer to produce your product, go into the search with the expectation that you might have to kiss a few frogs! Don’t be afraid to walk away if it doesn’t feel right. Choosing the wrong match could be costly and painful. There isn’t a master list of all manufacturers but take a look at industry groups/publications (eg Specialty Food Association or Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Magazine) as a starting point. State Departments of Agriculture and universities will often have directories of food manufacturers. And most importantly, ask people in the food industry, there are numerous groups online that are cropping up that can be useful, such as Foodboro. You will need to consider the following:

  • Is the manufacturer in the region you would like to distribute to? If not, can you afford the costs of shipping products to where you need them to be?
  • Are the minimum production quantities in line with quantities you can sell, and your budget? Producing lots of inventory without knowing how you will sell it could be costly.
  • What certifications do they have?
  • Will they share their food safety protocols?
  • Do they have capacity to run your product and can they guarantee you capacity in the future?
  • Will they source your ingredients and packaging, or do you need to source?
  • Do you own the intellectual property rights to your recipe or is there something in the paperwork that transfers ownership of the recipe/process to the manufacturer? You want to own it.

The retailers and distributors will be dictated by what channels you want to sell your product in and what category your product is in. Smaller retailers may let you self-distribute and that may be fine as you are starting out. Consider retailer and distributor margin and velocity expectations and whether or not your brand has the means (time, money, inventory) to support those. You can research retailers online and try to take part in trade events whether online or in person, as retailer/distributor reps will attend those. RangeMe is potentially a good tool to showcase your product in front of many retailers, and Pod Foods is an interesting new distribution option. Lastly, if you’re talking to retailers, ask them which distributors they use! Often, they will want a distributor they already work with to bring your product in.

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: The willingness to sacrifice. With any business, you need to give this your all. We have spent many, many late nights and weekends in the kitchen packing pints, taping boxes and in the freezer building pallets. Work-life balance will often feel a little unbalanced.

2: Do not be too proud to ask for help. I am a food scientist and I also studied business and marketing, but I am by no means an expert in digital media. As a founder, I oversee our social media marketing. At first, I thought “I use Instagram, how hard can this be?”. Turns out, VERY, so I turned to experts to help guide me and it has saved me so much time and energy.

3: Put in the work to build strong relationships as it truly “takes a village”. Having partners like ingredient suppliers, co-packers, retailers, service providers, etc. who feel like they are invested in your long-term growth will help you obtain better terms or when you are in a difficult spot, for example when an ingredient shipment goes missing and you need a replacement overnighted immediately.

4: Getting a product on shelf is relatively easy (if it’s good!), getting consumers to pull it off the shelf over and over is the hard part. You can have great meetings with buyers and be listed in retailers, but if people aren’t buying your product over competing ones, retailers will be quick to replace you. Never forget, taste is paramount!

5: Your work is never done. I have developed and launched products for over 12 years and just because a product is launched doesn’t mean it’s done. You will constantly be tweaking and refining your products and branding while it is in market.

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

Know your “why” and make sure it resonates with consumers and the market. And it absolutely must be delicious and satisfying to eat, so good that people will come back again and again. I can’t tell you the number of products me and my husband are excited to try because of the values embodied in the product or by the company, only to be really disappointed when we eat it. Food must elicit joy.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place? As a product developer, there is no better feeling than seeing someone in a store pick your product off the shelf. Knowing that my hard work is bringing small moments of joy into people’s lives fills my heart. With Doozy Pots, our goal is to make better-for-you treats from ingredients grown in a way that genuinely enhances the condition of the planet and the people growing them, while still delivering those moments of joy we all need. We’re aiming to become certified as a B Corporation, which requires a business to act as a force for good in society, benefitting all its stakeholders rather than just its shareholders.

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 feel very fortunate to have developed an appreciation for food, cooking and nutrition at a young age and turned that into a career I love, but as a society we often forget where our food comes from and how it’s grown or prepared. We have become so removed from the food we eat, and it is doing more harm than good. Education about personal nutrition, cooking and food systems is sorely lacking in the classroom. I would love to work to develop a curriculum for children around food, which includes where our food comes from, nutrition and basic cooking skills. Developing this knowledge would help everyone make better informed decisions when it comes to food.

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.

This is so tough! It’s a tie between Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever, Rose Marcario, the former CEO of Patagonia, and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods. They have all been pioneers in sustainable business and proven that you can prioritize people and planet alongside profits and still build a successful business. They’re inspirations to me and Karl at Doozy Pots, and it would be incredible to learn from them directly.

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

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