Doing Good and Entrepreneurship Leads to Pasta Startup

Doing Good and Entrepreneurship Leads to Pasta Startup

Last week I sat down with three of the four Colorado Food Works founders, Francisca, Meghan and Hannah of in a live interview to learn more about the upcoming launch of their pasta with a purpose business. Their passion and enthusiasm for helping others while also making a profit is refreshing and I look forward to watching their story unfold.

The four members, including Charlie, are students in the Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise MBA program at Colorado State University.  The desire to make a difference in others’ lives as entrepreneurs led them to Kenya to research the barriers women face to become economically self-sufficient which includes transportation, greater home responsibilities, child care, education and cultural norms.  The “aha” moment for the foursome came when they realized these same barriers exist right in their backyard in Northern Colorado.

36.5% of single mother households live in poverty in Colorado and she would need to work 132 hours a week to be self-sufficient, or 27 hours a day.  From the perspective of an entrepreneur, this is a real problem that needs a solution.  The team honed their business model, knowing it would be based around food, to create a system to assist single moms to get out of the poverty cycle. The team threw around various food ideas and decided on pasta for several reasons: there are no other local pasta companies (the closest one is 60 miles away), the simplicity of making pasta combined with the nostalgic feelings of joy, community and comfort that pasta inspires and it has a great profit margin.

As a transitional employment model, FoodWorks employees would make pasta for 70-80 percent of their paid time and then learn valuable skills to help them gain higher-paid employment.  The team has been meeting with various non-profits in the community to avoid reinventing the wheel, and instead partner up with organizations who are already doing skill and job training.

Keeping in line with their social mission, the founders are also deciding on whether to incorporate as a B Corp (Public Benefit Corporation).  According to the website, B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.  “In theory this seems like a really good idea,” Francisca said, “but people don’t really know what to make of it yet…it is such a new concept.”  The other option they are considering is to organize as a LLC or Corporation and then be certified by B Lab.  The major benefit of this route is to become a part of the organization and have the support of other B Corp Companies to engage and network with without having to incorporate under B Lab.   “It becomes a community and opens the door to working with other B Lab companies that we never would have had access to,” Hannah mentioned.  Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation and Patagonia are all B Corps, as well as many food brands, which isn’t too shabby of company to associate with.

As a side note, I highly recommend finding support networks for all food business entrepreneurs.  Starting a business can be very lonely work, especially if you are going it alone.  Engaging with people who are going through or have gone through similar experiences helps you feel not so alone and also provides excellent insight on mistakes to avoid and resources to get your business off the ground faster.  We are launching the Cultivate Community this fall, to provide just this kind of support to network with other food startups as well as resources such as focused topic webinars (think budgets, marketing, packaging, labelling, getting into a grocery store, e-commerce, etc.) and access to our experts to solve individual challenges.  Get on our list here to get updates on the launch of the Cultivate Community.

All of this philanthropy is great, but having an amazing product is key to their success.  Hannah took on the challenge of perfecting the pasta recipe.  The team interviewed and learned from local chefs to find out what they thought made great pasta and even travelled to New York recently to learn the art of pasta from top chefs there as well.  “We learned there is no perfect pasta,” Hannah said, “at the end of the day it was really what we wanted to start with.”  The experimentation began in her home kitchen with lots of flour and her pasta machine. Following the Lean Startup Model she set out to create the minimum viable product (MVP), they decided to start with an organic dried eggless semolina beet-colored fettuccini noodle and are getting samples out to people for feedback.  Once they feel like the product is perfected, Hannah is excited to experiment with ingredients like squash and lemon to create unique flavors that is also beautiful to look at.  The goal is to source organically and locally-grown milled flour as well as the additional ingredients for a high-quality and sustainable pasta product.

All of this comes together to create a great story behind the pasta to tell potential customers.  My time at Whole Foods Market taught me that people are willing to pay more, or are happier with their purchase, when their dollar does more than just buy the product.  In this case, 20-40% of each package of pasta sold is going back into the community supporting local farmers and helping single mothers out of poverty to support their families.

Once they are happy with their pasta recipe, the next step is my favorite, the launch!  Operating under Cottage Food Law, the team will start by selling at local farmers markets to create awareness.  I like this as a first step, especially when the business is still nimble enough to change, because you can get a lot of feedback from customers face to face about the product, the packaging, the story, etc. These customers might tell you directly or you can make tweaks just by how they respond (or don’t respond) to your pitch.  It will be a little tricky since many markets are full or don’t take vendor applications past a certain date, but with a little creativity, they can find direct to consumer outlets.

The second launch tactic is to create or take part in community events.  Partnering with local chefs to create a pop-up event and get the pasta into people’s mouths and get more feedback.  Events are a great way to tell your story and create a buzz.  The team has scheduled their first pop-up event in July and sent out invitations to their network.

The bigger goal is to get onto store shelves and into restaurants after market season.  Northern Colorado is great place to operate with a social mission, Meghan said, because a lot of chefs care about the story behind the product and sourcing locally.  This will involve becoming a fully-certified business with the health department, meeting certain label guidelines and operating out of a commercial kitchen. Nutritional labelling isn’t necessarily required until a certain sales threshold, but if you want to get a product into stores or online, it is highly recommended since consumers have expect this information to inform their purchasing decisions.

With so many value propositions, local, quality, B Corp, sustainable, transitioning mothers out of poverty, the challenge with marketing and packaging is deciding which stories to focus on and not clutter up the space. Keeping the packaging simple so the pasta with its beautiful beet color shines through is top priority.  They have also interviewed grocery store buyers about what kind of packaging works best on the shelf and spent hours of field research taking photos of pasta aisles, which brands stood out and watching how customers shop.  This is such an important step if you want to sell in a grocery store.  While at Whole Foods Market, I met with a woman who wanted to get her household cleansers on the shelves and she put them in this beautiful bottle (taller than a wine bottle) so that they could set out on the counter and not just sit under the sink.  Neat idea, but the problem was that they didn’t fit on the shelf with other similar products.  No grocery store is going to change their schematic and shelf height for one product, so unless she changed packaging it was a no-go.  In FoodWorks case, if they wanted to stand their pasta up in a beautiful container, they would be very limited to the stores that would take their product because pasta shelves are very skinny in traditional stores. “If it is too hard for the person stocking the shelves, they will just stop carrying the product,” Meghan was told by one buyer.

I was surprised to learn that Charlie designed the logo himself.  It is simple yet elegant and captures the essence of the story they are trying to tell with their pasta company.  Choosing roles has been key to keep the business moving along based on each of the founders’ strengths.  Charlie handles social media and graphic design, Hannah focuses on the actual pasta, Meghan is the community organizer and Francisca handles operations.

I asked each of them what advice they would give to another food entrepreneur and they had some great pieces of wisdom.

Open a door and walk into a room. Once you are in that room (ie. make a decision), all these other doors will open up.

Just start doing it.  Just start, try and learn. It is easy to get caught up in perfectionism, but just start.

Understand that this experience is an emotional roller coaster.  One day you make the perfect batch and the next day nothing works.  Being able to let yesterday go and focus on today is key.

Work with people you like being around.  You will spend so much time together to start a business.

This truly is a food business to watch and root for.  We wish them all the best as they move forward in this journey.  You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram (Colorado_Foodworks) or sign up for their blog newsletter on their website.

If you are on a food business journey, whether it is just an idea or you are ready to grow and expand your markets, Cultivate is here to help.  Take our free business evaluation and then request a no cost 30 minute consultation. Also follow us on Instagram (CultivateYourFoodBusiness), Facebook (CultivateConsultingLLC) and Twitter for food business insights, trends and upcoming workshops and resources.

Want to watch or listen to the interview in its entirety?  Click below for the recording.

As a side note, this was my first time doing a live interview and I learned a lot from the experience.  I will definitely be purchasing a separate microphone for better sound quality and I will remember to hit record (we went back and recorded the first 10 minutes)!  That said, owning your own business is all about being vulnerable, putting yourself out there and trying new things.  Onward!

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