It’s the end of 2017 and a great time to reflect on what we’ve accomplished as a company creating food for kids with dietary restrictions and what’s in store for 2018. As you can imagine, it’s been a whirlwind, and there are some days I can barely find myself standing upright. Then, there are other days when I hear from parents and children so excited to be able to enjoy a pizza or chicken nuggets, after years without (due to their dietary restrictions) and I am inspired to push on.
I have learned more than I could ever have imagined. I have been challenged (and continue to be) personally, professionally, financially and otherwise. Taking an idea and bringing it to market requires ambition, drive, smarts, creativity, and courage, but it also demands stamina, tenacity, grit and a resolution to succeed when everyone and everything tells you otherwise. And it will. You will be confronted with obstacles that in the moment seem insurmountable. Digging deep, wiping away the tears, finding solutions and pushing forward (often on your knees) is what will define success or not.
Caleb’s Cooking Company has always been about helping kids and parents who struggle with chronic disease with dietary restrictions. I am in the food business, but really the food is just a vehicle to help children. The support I provide via blogs, videos, social media and just talking to parents, is as important to me as the food we produce. Every day that I talk to a scared, overwhelmed mom desperate for advice on ways to help their child, is a success. So, as far as I am concerned, I have already succeeded.
Having never worked in the food industry before starting this company, it’s been, and continues to be, a steep learning curve. I am slowly, but surely finding my way.
One thing I have discovered, is that creating great recipes that customers love does not a successful business make.
Luckily I found chefs, who have created outstanding recipes for me. I never could have imagined products that have such amazing flavor profiles – especially without most of the ingredients used in food today – gluten, grain, sugar and preservatives.
It’s clearly important that our products taste great, but if our cost of goods (COG’s) – labor, ingredients, packaging etc., cost more than we can sell the products, than it doesn’t really matter how good the products taste, does it? This was where we were a couple of months ago. We had great tasting products, but our ingredient and labor costs were so high, we were losing money on every sale.
We have been selling online for the last 4 months and customers love our products – so again, really good news. As autoimmune illnesses in our country have exploded and more and more children are starting to use diet therapy as a means of healing, the need for food (for kids with dietary restrictions) that is not only gluten free, but also grain, sugar, nut and preservative free) is exploding. So, the opportunity is ripe. Now, all we had to do was fix the problems.
How to Reduce COG’s (cost of goods)
We dug into the production process and found efficiencies we didn’t know existed. Without large machines to slice chicken nuggets for example, it took some serious creative thinking to figure out how to cut thousands of chicken nuggets quickly and efficiently. Luckily, my chef Janalee Redmond (who also makes amazing bone broth and sauces for her own company, Brainy Belly), is not only a creative genius in the kitchen, but also down right smart when it comes to solving problems. She came up with a solution (using cookie cutters – if you can imagine).
We also needed to reduce our ingredient costs. As it turned out, we were out of stock of chicken nuggets, the holidays were fast approaching and things were slowing. So it was a good time to stop down and re-price all of our ingredients. After shopping around to multiple vendors, I was able to bring our costs down by almost 80%. We now had ingredient costs and production labor under control and a viable business.
Tackling the USDA Beast
We still had one major hiccup to address before we could enter the wholesale market (selling to Whole Foods, MOMS and other retail markets).
In order to be able to sell meat across state lines (our chicken nuggets and pork enchiladas for example), we have to be USDA inspected. This is a whole other beast to tackle. Just understanding the USDA website and the process involved hurt my brain. The USDA wants to ensure that the meat we use and work with is properly handled to make sure it is safe for our customers (as do we). In order to make this happen, I had to write what’s called a HACCP Plan. This stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. It is a written plan that defines the procedures for maintaining control of potentially hazardous food at the critical control points of food preparation or processing. Simply put, it is a plan stating how food is to be handled, so consumers do not get sick.
In addition, there are strict requirements on the wording (and even the size of the words) on the packaging/labeling for the products. The Label Submission and Approval System (LDAS) develops and provides labeling guidance, policies, and inspection methods, and it protects consumers from misbranded meat, poultry, and egg products to ensure that all labels are truthful and not misleading. This includes all forms of product identification, health-related claims, net weight and nutrition.
I submitted labels for my products and am now waiting to hear back from the USDA with their approval or comments. Once they approve my labels, we can then begin production (under USDA inspection) at DC Union Kitchen. Then, when we produce, a USDA inspector will be present, ensuring that we follow our HACCP Plan. Once this occurs, we will be able to print the USDA inspection badge number on our products and be able to sell to retailers nationwide.
Phew…I’m exhausted just writing all of this.
Before hitting the retail stores, we decided to finesse one final piece of the puzzle. Its one thing to sell online to a targeted audience, but quite another to sell to customers walking down a very crowded frozen food aisle. I felt like we needed to redesign our packaging to “call out” what differentiates our products from others in the market place. There are lots of gluten free chicken nuggets out there, but there happen to be no nuggets in stores that are not only gluten free, but grain free (with no preservatives or added sugars). Many customers are waking up and realizing that the replacement ingredients companies are using in place of gluten in products (chicken nuggets and otherwise) are just other starches (potato, rice and tapioca for example), which break down into sugar – causing inflammation. Inflammation is the key problem for children (and adults) with autoimmune illnesses and who so many now have dietary restrictions. Unless, I made it very clear on our packaging that our chicken nuggets had no grains (we use yellow split pea flour for our breading), we would just blend in with the rest.
I redesigned our packaging, with the help of Creative Director, Pamela Krausman and my good friends over at Stephen Gould. We now have clear “call outs” identifying that we are GRAIN FREE, GLUTEN FREE, with NO ADDED SUGARS, NO PRESERVATIVES and NO ARTIFICIAL INGREDIENTS. Besides the new call outs, the design is cleaner, more professional with new images of our products.
Once I hear back from the USDA with any changes they want to make to the labels, I can then order my new packaging and we can start our retail adventures.
So, to wrap it all up, it’s been an amazing, exhausting year. I have always loved building and growing things – whether it’s a garden, a movement or now a business. I never would have thought at 52 years old, I’d be starting another business, but this one seemed to have found me. I couldn’t do it without the support of an amazing team – both in the kitchen and online via all of the supportive parents in the Facebook SCD groups who have become my lifeline.
I am following my passion and my heart. I will continue to work as long and hard as I have to until the phone calls and messages from scared moms stop coming in.
Blessings for a healthy new year for all – especially the little ones.