Opening any restaurant is a gamble, but the odds are especially stacked against health-food businesses. There are a lot of reasons not to take the plunge. If you remain undaunted, here's some advice from the market’s most successful chefs and business owners.
1. Find a hole in the marketplace.
Find a food that desperately needs a healthy makeover. Lukas Volger founded Made By Lukas after writing an entire cookbook on veggie burgers, and realizing that “there was nothing luxurious about frozen veggie burgers.” Loren Brill was frustrated that she couldn’t find a single store-bought cookie that used whole-grain flours and organic sugar, with no preservatives, so packaged her own cookie dough, Sweet Loren’s (now sold at Whole Foods). Franklin Becker of New York’s casual, fast-growing eatery, The Little Beet, says, “there was no lunch place that people feel safe with, that didn’t involve sandwiches.”
2. Make a delicious product.
“Taste is number one,” says Brill. “If I cut out all the sugar it turns into a granola bar and misses the mark. People are willing to spend more for a ‘wow’ instead of an ‘okay.’” Raw-food star chef Matthew Kenney agrees: “Everything is about the product.”
3. Give your brand a personal story.
“When I was trying to come up with a name, everything sounded too sterile,” says Volger. “Adding my name humanized the product [veggie burgers].” Brill echoes the thought: “Signing ‘XO, Loren’ on the package made a difference. It’s my real signature. I want people to know that there is a person named Loren who created these recipes. Betty Crocker is a fictitious person. It shows what a different time we are in.”
4. Read up.
Volger recommends reading Cooking Up a Business. “All those companies started small. It’s comforting to know how much work it is. It’s not just me,” he says.
5. Don't read too much.
“I meet with a ton of people in the research stage, and I always tell them that there is no way to really prepare for the reality of launching a business,” Volger says. “I could have done research for years and years.”
6. Utilize your resources.
Cookbook author Louisa Shafia used to run a catering company in Manhattan, but had to close it down due to high costs. “These days there are better resources,” she says, citing the Pfizer building in Brooklyn, home to dozens of food startups that pay an affordable rent and join a supportive community. Food incubators are proliferating throughout New York City — Hot Bread Kitchen is another example. The Brooklyn Flea is a great place to test a food business for little money, and similar concepts are opening throughout the country.
7. Raise some dough.
“Open with more in the bank than you think you’ll need,” says Marissa Lippert, founder of Nourish Kitchen + Table in Manhattan’s West Village. Volger recommends approaching investors such as the Slow Money organization.
8. Give great service.
“You have to be customer service-oriented and friendly. That’s the underlying core of the business,” says Lippert. “People come here multiple times a day. It’s their kitchen away from home, which is what I was hoping it would become. You have to know someone’s order when they walk in the door. One of our regulars is a staple in the neighborhood, a woman in her 70s named Roz. She’s kind of like our grandmother.” Becker attributes the success of The Little Beet to great service. “It’s an environment where literally everyone knows your name. It’s infectious — in a good way,” Becker says. “The secret sauce is our people”
9. Establish the culture.
“We’ve developed a culture that goes way beyond the food,” says Becker. “Set that culture early. Establish the foundation so you can build on it. We give a 75 percent discount to staff so they can eat here and feel good. They start to sing the gospel, and become ambassadors of the brand. Our group lost 500 pounds in six months. We have an unbelievable retainer rate: 15 people have been promoted to management in a two-year period.”
10. Put in the work.
Susan Baldassano, Director of Student Affairs at NYC’s healthy-food cooking school Natural Gourmet Institute, has seen a lot of former students launch businesses, both hits (such as Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy and By Chloe’s Chloe Coscarelli) and misses. “Any creative business is difficult, whether you want to be an artist or a dancer or a chef,” Baldassano says. “So you have to work really hard. All the people that have made it have dedicated themselves and put in all the time.”