How to start, and sustain, an artisanal food business

susie - credit Laiko Bahrs
Susie Wyshak: her new book helps others start their own food business. Photo: Laiko Bahrs

The only time Susie Wyshak had parental sanction to play hooky from school was to go see Julia Child do a cooking demo; which is to say she grew up in a food-loving family in Los Angeles. So perhaps it is no wonder that, some years ago, she thought about launching her own artisanal food product.

She had fallen in love with forbidden black rice and started experimenting with roasting it to transform it into a crunchy, savory snack. But, right away, she faced seemingly insurmountable challenges; not least the fact that everyone thought it looked like mouse poop.

Wyshak was in the process of looking at roasting drums and considering having a co-packer produce it for her, when she realized the cost of getting the ingredients to the co-packer was prohibitively expensive.

June Taylor is committed to making farm-direct preserves in her Berkeley Still Room
June Taylor is committed to making farm-direct preserves in her Berkeley Still Room. Photo: Susie Wyshak

“I’m so not into this,” she realized. So she gave up her dream. But, in so doing, Wyshak realized that with all the knowledge and contacts she had made from years of working in the artisanal food business, plus an MBA in marketing, she was the perfect person to help others start their own food business. She could be their hand-holder, and their cheerleader. She would write a book on how to do it instead of doing it herself.


Good Food Great Business: How to Take Your Artisan Food Idea from Concept to Marketplace is the result, newly out with Chronicle Books. And, given that Wyshak lives in Oakland, many of the businesses she features are in the Bay Area.

Wyshak’s book is meticulously researched: she talked to nearly 75 artisan food producers and other experts. She asks the reader to think about not only whether their personality is right for entrepreneurship, but if it is, what kind of food business they should consider.

Clarine Lim Hardesty sells Clarine's Florentines at an early underground market
Clarine Lim Hardesty sells Clarine’s Florentines at an early underground market. Photo: Susie Wyshak

She gives the pros – like many places need better food options – and the cons: 80-hour or more workweeks are not uncommon when starting out. She discusses business plans, branding, packaging and production. She discusses the ins and outs of selling a product independently as opposed to being sold at markets, using a distributor, how to determine pricing, and marketing.

Wyshak has been in the East Bay since her Cal days. Involved with the Slow Food movement, she worked for Foodzie, an artisanal food e-commerce marketplace, where she heard the stories behind so many products.

“I like supporting food producers, and I like giving them ideas and connecting them,” she said.

Todd Campagne of Happy Girl Kitchen makes, teaches out of Oakland and runs a cafe in Pacific Grove
Todd Campagne of Happy Girl Kitchen. Photo: Susie Wyshak

And plenty of East Bay businesses are featured. For example:

  • I-li Chang of Oakland’s Vice Chocolates resisted hiring a helper for the longest time, thinking, as many small-business owners do, that no one can do it as well as you. But, once Chang decided to hire a helper, it allowed her to expand to a second farmer’s market.
  • Arnon Oren, the caterer behind Oren’s Kitchen – based in Berkeley – who noticed his seasoned nuts were a hit at catering gigs. So, at a client’s suggestion, he decided to turn them into their own product. He partnered with the California Autism Foundation for packaging, giving meaningful employment to the disabled, who measure out the product into smaller bags for sale.

Other local businesses mentioned are:

  • Clarine’s Florentines cookies; how she developed a one-page business plan
  • How Ocho Candy’s business was planned around key value propositions
  • How Alive & Radiant’s founder got into Whole Foods
  • How Blue Bottle ended up in their facility in Oakland — “Believe it or not, they still seemed small back when I started writing,” Wyshak notes
  • What Rockridge’s Market Hall looks for when sourcing new products.
  • How the owners of Lotus Foods, who had no background in the food business, founded a company that is helping its farmers.

Screen shot 2014-12-18 at 2.56.26 PMWyshak’s greatest challenge was figuring out how to put the book together, because “the process of starting a food business isn’t linear,” she said. As she found out, there’s no one way to do it and be successful.

Now that the book is out, Wyshak is working on developing an e-course to complement it.

“If there are enough people who participate, with people starting businesses supporting each other, I think that could be really fun and a real catalyst for them,” she said. “I have different experts for different chapters lined up, and am connecting with retailers. The idea is to have them review your product while it’s in development, and offer other things you can never otherwise do, and make the book come alive, and offer inspiration to people.”

To find our more, visit Wyshak’s FoodStarter blog.

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