Founders Q&A – Food Craft Institute

Thinking about starting your own food business? Then make sure you check out the amazing work done by the Food Craft Institute (FCI), a school in Oakland, CA that teaches all you need to know for building and running food-based small businesses. Among others, you can learn all the basics from jams, to butcherycoffee, or even beer making from some pretty awesome teachers! The institute founder, Anya Fernald, is herself a distinguished expert in sustainable food with quite some leadership experience, among others as director of the Slow Food Nation San Francisco and co-founder and CEO of Belcampo Meat Co., a company that produces food at the highest level of quality and integrity.

Just like us, the FCI believes on empowering rural areas via food entrepreneurship, therefore we found this project fascinating. Highly relevant these days, ambitious, and absolutely spot on the FoodCrafters movement!! We had the chance to ask a few questions to Anya and Marcy Coburn (the institute director), who shared with us the story of the FCI and also quite a lot of useful advice for becoming a successful food entrepreneur. Read on!

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FC: Hi Anya, can you introduce yourself and tell us the story behind the Food Craft Institute?

We started the Food Craft Institute (FCI) in October 2011 as a professional development institution striving to create and improve the viability of small and medium-scale value-added food businesses in rural and urban America. Through its courses the Food Craft Institute provides the skills training and resources for entrepreneurs to succeed, scale appropriately and reach profitability.

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The idea came to me as a way to create dignity and professionalism to food jobs (beyond celebrity chefs) and knew that this esteem would improve the quality and availability of artisan foods.

FC: What were the biggest challenges to start and sustain such an ambitious project? What helped you most to overcome those difficulties and make FCI a reality?

Food Craft Institute’s mission and programs address one of the great challenges facing America: how to build an equitable food system that feeds people without disastrous environmental and human health impacts. FCI’s approach to this challenge is to connect our graduate entrepreneurs to and prepare them for real opportunities in the “New” American food system with training, community building and investment.

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FC: The food scene in SF has come a long way in the last decade and is now one of the most vibrant in the world on par with Tokyo or Paris. The strong tech/geek culture, access to top venture capital and education, and the pro-entrepreneur attitude certainly helped a lot. What do you think is still missing or needs improvement in the Bay Area (or in the US for that matter), to support and enable more people to start their own business and earn a decent living with it?

Unlike in the world of high tech, food businesses in most food sectors still have difficulty raising capital. It is clear that the lack of quantifiable, peer-reviewed data and analysis on food business’ metrics and long-term food business performance is a direct cause of many food producer’s difficulty in raising funds, supporting expansion, and achieving profitable, sustainable scale of operations. We are currently working on a project that will provide data on existing, successful small-to medium scale food companies that can be used in forecasting sales, determining margins, and assessing capital needs for food and farm entrepreneurs.

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FC: Could you share your most useful practical tips for wannabe food entrepreneurs (mistakes to avoid, how to grow a digital community on Fb/Twitter, sanitization/regulations or supply chain and transportation, etc.)?

  1. Be yourself – don’t do something that you aren’t excited to do constantly and non-stop for a long time.
  2. Have a point of view and stick to it.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for money – lots of it.
  4. Don’t do it alone – hire the people and the personalities that make the business team a complete picture.
  5. Don’t hold onto something – a recipe, a technique, a product – that doesn’t sell.
  6. Don’t underestimate the importance of branding and marketing.
  7. Pay yourself a salary from day one.
  8. Hire a lawyer, and accountant and a business consultant and pay good money for them.
  9. Never undersell yourself or your products.
  10. Talk constantly about what you are doing.
  11. Seek out mentors and advisors that you trust and ask them for advice.
  12. Stay nimble: never stop learning and changing.

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FC: What are the most amazing food crafting projects/events/organizations that you’re really excited about (by FCI grads or generally around SF/California/USA)?

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FC: What’s next for FCI and for you? Any secret future projects you’d like to share with us?

The big project to come is the aggregated data set that we are working on that I mentioned above. Once we have that funded we will formally announce the project. Also in addition to our annual Eat Real Festival in Oakland we are finalizing a plan to do Eat Real Festival Atlanta in the Spring of 2015.

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FC: A final word for anyone who dreams about starting their own business but are too scared/shy, don’t have time/money, or simply don’t know where to start?

Not everyone is an entrepreneur – know yourself and know if you have the right personality to work long hours, take huge risks, make quick decisions and never give up.

Also – take a class with us!

[All images in this post are courtesy of Food Craft Institute]

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