Fairfield Ledger
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Mt. Pleasant News   Wash Journal
Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 25, 2018

Locals get advice on growing food business

By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Apr 16, 2018
Photo by: ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo Meghan Dowd participates in the financial boot camp for food entrepreneurs April 9-10 at Fairfield CoLab. Dowd was there to get advice about developing her family business, Cado, an avocado-based ice cream.

Representatives from 10 businesses met April 9-10 at Fairfield CoLab for a “financial boot camp.”

The workshop was intended for small, entrepreneurial farm and food enterprises. It was led by Tera Johnson, director of the Food Finance Institute, who helps food businesses overcome challenges unique to their industry. She’s also the founder of Tera’s Whey.

Twenty-five people participated in the boot camp, and eight of the 10 companies are local. One came from Fort Madison, and the other came all the way from Madison, Wisconsin. Fairfield Economic Development Association executive director Joshua Laraby said the event puts Fairfield on the map as a fount of food-industry entrepreneurs.

“The food manufacturing sector is an evolving and competitive industry,” he said. “This workshop helps companies break through hurdles to go to the next level.”

The boot camp is equal parts consulting and training. Johnson trains the group in the morning, then consults with each business separately in the afternoons. Her goal is to help the business owner find a viable business model and raise money.

The experience-level of workshop participants varied from those whose business is still only a concept, to those who have been selling for years.

“Some are in completely new fields, and others are doing new things in old fields,” Johnson said. “It bodes well for this sector in the city, to have a mix of experienced and new entrepreneurs.”

Part of the value of the workshop is to rub elbows with fellow entrepreneurs, to learn from their mistakes and successes. Johnson gives each business “homework,” something to improve upon before the group reunites in May.

 

Johnson’s background

Johnson ran a cheese company in Wisconsin, and sold it to build a factory for organic whey. She raised $14 million with no product, and opened up shop during the recession of 2007. She soldiered through the tough times, grew the company, and sold it after three years. By then, she no longer wanted to be “the person pushing the boulder up the mountain.” Instead, she wanted to help others do it.

“We need more innovation in food and agriculture right now,” she said. “Few people have been through the arc of things that I have, especially when it comes to raising money.”

Barbara Stone, executive director of the Southeast Iowa Food Hub, noted how the event drew on local suppliers for its lunches.

“We’re supporting [local businesses] by using their own ingredients,” she said.

 

Meghan Dowd

Fairfield resident Meghan Dowd attended the workshop for advice on promoting her avocado-based vegan ice cream called Cado.

“At this workshop, I’ve learned what it takes to grow a company into a nationwide brand,” she said. “Every business is unique, but there are certain general ideas necessary for success.”

Dowd, her brother Jack and mother Deborah run another business, too, Shaktea Kombucha. Shaktea Kombucha began seven years ago, while Cado is only two years old. Cado has grown substantially in the past few months, from being sold in a few hundred stores to more than 1,000 next month.

So far, the business has not hired any employees. Speaking with Johnson has helped Dowd realize the next step for the business is developing a sales and marketing strategy.

Dowd said many grocery stores are willing to take chances on new products by giving them shelf space. The tricky part, she said, is selling enough for the store to keep stocking it.

“The hardest thing is getting customers to put a new product in their carts,” she said.

 

Abundant Biology LLC

Jacob Krieger and Bradley Crow run a compost production facility called Abundant Biology LLC based in an organic farm in Fairfield. Their primary market is selling compost to conventional farmers who are transitioning into organic farming. They hope to educate the public about the role soil biology plays in crop production and carbon sequestration.

“Organic farmers have already made the transition, but a conventional farmer needs to see examples, see analysis of yield change and input cost changes,” said Krieger, the business’s director.

Johnson helped the two get a better handle on how to measure success and how to pitch the business to potential investors.

“Our business model and our product are two different things, and we’re learning how to sell our business model here,” Krieger said. “Even if we never take an investor, we want to be investor-ready.”

At the moment, Krieger and Crow aren’t looking for an investor. The workshop has taught them ways of securing funding without one by changing how they do business, such as making sales up front. For instance, they promised a client 500 tons of compost last year. The client paid 70 percent of the bill up front and the rest when the product was delivered.

Crow said the pair learned from Johnson that acquiring capital would make the business look better on paper, which would help if it needed a loan.

The business began seven years ago as Krieger’s senior project in the sustainable living program at Maharishi University of Management.

His sister, Mallory, became its director of business development. Farmer Vincent Jaeger is an equal partner in the business. Crow is assistant director of operations, and came on board last year when the business became a limited liability company.

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