Culinary experts share food business advice

People who want to start a food business — or who already have one and want to make it more successful — received pointers during a SMARTstart program recently at Dade City’s One Stop Shop.

From left: David Robbins, Michael Blasco, Brian West, Shari Bresin and Chris McArthur contribute helpful advice during a seminar on starting a food business, on Nov. 20. (Brian Fernandes)

The free program, titled “Food is the Biggest Business,” was presented on Nov. 20 by the Pasco Economic Development Council Inc.

Chef Jeff Philbin of the PPK company moderated the panel, which consisted of Michael Blasco of Tampa Bay Food Trucks; Chef David Robbins of the Harvest & Wisdom restaurant; Shari Bresin of the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences — Pasco Extension Office; Brian West of Publix Super Markets; and Chris McArthur, owner of Patriot Coffee Roasters.

The panelists took turns informing the attendees about the different aspects of the culinary world.

Building an establishment
“I think one of the most important things you could do is to vet your business idea,” said McArthur, of Patriot Coffee Roasters. “There is no substitute for having a good business plan. It is your road map to success.”

Those venturing into the food industry need an objective that’s both practical and detailed, he advised.

The coffee shop owner said he lost thousands of dollars in his company’s first year. That’s why it’s important for entrepreneurs  to surround themselves with mentors and like-minded businesspeople.

West, of Publix, said a company should understand consumer demand, in order to prosper.

“We’re not just looking for a product to put on the shelf. We’re looking for the products that our customers are after,” he said.

West said to remain competitive, a company must focus on at least two of these: quality product, customer service or pricing.

Monetary standpoint
The panelists also discussed the importance of the financial aspects of a business.

“If you’re not an accountant, don’t try to run your own books,” advised Blasco of Tampa Bay Food Trucks. “If you’re not a marketing person, don’t try to do your marketing. Understand what your strengths are and play to them.

“If you have the right accounting team with the right financials, they can show you how to put things in the name of your business and make sure you pay for things pre-tax,” he said.

Financial stability should be at the core of one’s own business, noting that some fail because they didn’t know how to handle their finances, West agreed.

However, good credit, a longstanding relationship with a bank and a solid income can boost the chance of getting a needed loan, Blasco said.

“They usually like to see a business plan that’s very thorough and very detailed, that shows you kind of know what you’re doing. They also like to see experience in the industry you’re going into,” he added.

When purchasing produce from farmers, be sure it’s of good quality, Blasco said. He also noted that while Dade City is known for citrus, because of citrus greening, peaches have become more popular for producing revenue.

The food truck industry
Blasco also offered his insights into the food truck business.

Food truck operators should never keep their food supplies at home, he said.

“It should be stored in a commercial kitchen or a commercial space that the health department or the Department of Business and Professional Regulation have access to.”

One space that’s now available for such storage is the recently renovated incubator kitchen at The One Stop Shop.

Food trucks have been allowed, since 2013, to operate outside of a commercial kitchen if it has the necessary resources, Blasco said. Those include: a fresh water supply, such as a well, that can be tested once a year, and a three-compartment sink in their truck, with hot water.

Blasco said it’s also a good idea for food truck owners to operate in different locations, to improve their livelihood.

Also, it’s important to buy a high-quality truck, he said.

These typically cost at least $40,000. If the truck is selling for $25,000, that’s probably a red flag that the truck is not up to par, he said.

Other food truck operators also can be a good source of support, he said.

“For the most part, it’s a pretty friendly culture. The other food trucks actually are really helpful. So you’ll find that networking with them makes a big difference,” Blasco said.

Healthier alternatives
Providing food that is better for one’s own health is also a key component in the culinary world.

There’s a growing trend with veggie burgers at various fast food chains, Bresin said, noting that consumers are not only vegans, but meat-eaters, as well.

“They’re (restaurants) seeing good results, they’re testing it and people are coming,” she added. “A lot of it is diet and lifestyle.”

Grocery stores, such as Publix, also are offering these alternatives, as well.

The food chain is marking tags on products that may be healthier than others, West said.

He also noted that Publix has been implementing in-store dieticians to offer customers advice on changing their diet and losing weight.

And, the term “organic” doesn’t necessarily apply to produce sprayed with pesticides, which businesses should disclose to their customers, Blasco said.

Chef Robbins said in addition to all of the practical advice, it’s important for entrepreneurs to understand why they got into the food business in the first place.

“Know truly what your motivation is, because at the end of the day, there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs — no matter how good you are, no matter how well-planned things are,” Robbins said.

Published December 04, 2019

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