The Memo: Why skiers make great entrepreneurs

Wednesday, 11 June, 2014 By Lee Greene
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When people ask me: “When did you start this business?” I never know what to answer. Because the company now is lightyears from what it was when I first started dabbling with this idea back in 2006. Since then, I pivoted more than once – hence the title of this blog post. I listened to customers, learned from experiences – and I adjusted the strategy and the products accordingly. Did I start in 2008, when I incorporated? Did I start in 2010 when I moved to the USA? Scrumptious Pantry today is very different from what it was when I started – though it is true to the core idea of preserving rare flavors and re-introducing them to consumers.

My Scrumptious Pantry story begins 2004 in Italy. While I am studying for my MBA most of the day, I do make it a ritual every day to shop for groceries. The school is in the middle of a vibrant Milan neighborhood, full of small specialized grocers: a baker who only sells bread, a cake shop for pastries and cakes, a butcher who only sells poultry, a store filled to the brim with cheeses from Piedmonte…. And the Saturday market, oh, the market. Piles of deep purple eggplants are glistering in the sun, next to fragrant herbs and luscious tomatoes. It’s where my love of food – a gift my family gave me early on – becomes my obsession. And my career choice.

Upon graduation I bid the world of consulting and powerpoint presentations goodbye and join a new winery in Tuscany as their Managing Director. The next four years train me for Scrumptious Pantry: the struggles of a start-up on a market that is dominated by big industrial players, who have spent decades and millions of dollars to train consumers’ palates to cheap, industrial food full of artificial everything. How is a start-up, whose innovation is the connection to the values of the past, going to reach consumers and tell its story against the marketing budgets of the established giants? How to reach consumers who care enough to pay the difference in price? And can we achieve all of this before we run out of cash?

The Italian Years
My Tuscan wine years where exhausting and exhilarating the same time. And as I saw consumers asking more stories about the origin of their wine and food, demanding more transparency, and being excited about regionality and a sense of place that you can taste, I decided that it was time to bring these concepts to the grocery shelves. As I lived in Italy and had built a strong network of organic and biodynamic farmers that created their own value-added products, bringing these great products stateside was how I got started: Scrumptious Pantry, an umbrella brand for regional “terroir” foods from Italy. Friends with retail shops in the US said “we love the idea, we want it”, and so off to the US I sent my goods, working at the vineyard during the day and then hitting the computer at night (the difference in time zones came in handy for this exercise!).

Reviving American Heirlooms
Scrumptious Pantry Heirloom tomato product line oldThe line was well received, but the more conversations I had with US retailers, the more I felt that I should be replicating the concept with US farmed foods. And and so in 2010 I packed my cats, my furniture, cookbook collection and sailed (figuratively) to the US. I set up shop in Chicago, in the middle of the heartland, a city driven by a dynamic food scene, a six hour drive from my dad’s hometown of White Hall, Illinois, where my Grandma first taught me to cook.

Initially my idea had been to partner with farmers that had tasty regional food products and label them and centrally market them. But I soon realized that the products I envisioned were nowhere to be found. If I wanted to capture true heirloom foods – inspired by traditional recipes and showcasing heirloom varieties – I had to make my own.

So I spent a year to figure out the lay of the land and the supply chain: farmers, ingredient suppliers, kitchens, laws & regulations… (more on the challenges of building a supply chain for local foods made from fresh ingredients in another post).

Finally, in March 2011 I launched our first US made foods. I literally dove into the bounty that the Midwest has to offer, I browsed farmers’ markets, I read old regional cookbooks from the 1700s, I studied seed catalogs as if they were the new Grisham novel – and made exciting discoveries. All these precious heirloom seeds – so much more than just heirloom tomatoes. The Beaver Dam Pepper! A variety brought to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, in 1912 by an Hungarian immigrant. Now almost forgotten, cause it grows up to nine inches long – far too labor intensive for modern agriculture. But oh so tasty! Through my network of farmers I found John at Stone Circle Farm. I am told he “grows” the Beaver Dam Pepper. When I called him up, he chuckled. “Grow”, he said, “is a little exaggerated. But I do have a couple of plants.” That was enough for me to start recipe testing and for John to get some ideas on how to grow these babys, and by 2013 we grew approximately 5,000 lb of Beaver Dam Peppers. This cooperation creates the framework of the model I have been applying to most of our products since then: partner with an enthusiastic farmer who is a true steward of the land to grow heirloom vegetables for me.

A fateful 8 ft
Scrumptious Pantry Heirloom gourmet food fancyScrumptious Pantry was a fun mix of Italian products and Midwest grown items – joined by the message of “terroir”: Food with a sense of place. I enjoyed it tremendously, but felt that it was lacking focus, a word easier to understand. As we were preparing for the 2012 Summer Fancy Food Show I was on the phone every day for hours with my parents – seasoned Marketing executives – trying to figure out the missing piece. One day my mum said the magic words “What you are looking for is ‘heirloom'”.

“Do you heirloom?” was the slogan we printed in big red letters on our vintage posters that hung in the back of our booth and our little half booth sure looked great – we even had a raised garden bed with real heirloom tomato plants! On day one of the show, a gentlemen walked up to my booth and asked “tell me what you do”. Little did I know that our banners had caught the eye of Whole Foods’ Global Grocery buyer. . . It was the start of an incredible journey, and for most of 2013 I pivoted again. I put everything else on the backburner to give an answer to the Whole Foods team: which heirloom foods could we make for them? Which categories? How can we guarantee supply? It was such a valuable experience and I really need to thank everyone at Whole Foods, national and regional, for the support and guidance they gave us – from redesigning our packaging to better reflect our new “American Heirloom” focus – by now I had discontinued most of the Italian items so I could focus on the immense task that came with building the American line-, to recipe choices, they have been a tremendous support.

Where we go from here
We launched a line of Heirloom Fruit Curds for the holidays and just delivered a line of Heirloom Hot Sauces for a May launch. We are excited and humbled that Whole Foods has put their trust in us and believe in our – somewhat crazy – idea. I love the path we are on, the message we send with our gourmet food products, the quality we achieve and our updated look. But in any case, I keep my skis ready and their edges sharp. Because you never know, when you might have to pivot again.

Have a wonderful weekend and celebrate the dads in your life this Sunday!

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At Scrumptious Pantry we preserve the exciting flavors of rare heirloom fruit and vegetables and precious heirloom seeds. Delicious varieties put up in gourmet condiments and artisan preserves for you to enjoy at home! Because Heirloom is much bigger than just Heirloom tomatoes.

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