“From Avocation To Vocation: How We Turned Our Hobby Into A Career” with Chef GW Chew
An interview with Phil La Duke
Too much growth can be your best dream and worst nightmare — When you have amazing growth, really quickly, it’s a great feeling. However, when you are growing so fast, your cash flow needs to keep up with the demand. That’s something that can hurt many startups in the beginning who have a great product.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing GW Chew, the founder of Something Better Foods. Chef Chew has been a vegan food inventor/restaurateur for over 15 years. He recently founded and opened The Veg Hub, a vegan restaurant in Oakland that features the Better Than Meat products, that all started in his momma’s kitchen. He has traveled throughout America spreading the life-changing news of health with fun and creative classes. He has been featured on TED Talks and he recently filmed his first television program, titled “Chew’s Challenge: 28 Days to Well-ness” on the Dare2Dream Network. He has a mission to lift people from health ills that are plaguing our communities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us GW! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in Southern Maryland, where my father was a sharecropper up until the late 80’s. One way we came together as a family was through food. Growing up, our meals revolved around meat, which was a part of our culture. Everything from fried chicken to ribs to pork chops to ham are all foods we ate constantly.
Once I was older and learned more, I read scientific studies stating that these types of unhealthy foods are some of the leading causes of heart disease, diabetes and even certain cancers, especially in communities of color.
In fact, a few of my family members passed away prematurely due to poor food choices and diets. I even lost my father at 62 years-old from a preventable disease and an unhealthy diet.
After 15 years since starting my healthy food journey, I made it my mission to change lives one chew at a time by creating plant-based proteins and foods. That’s how I became the founder of The Veg Hub in 2015 and creator of my vegan-inspired products, Something Better Foods Inc. in 2016.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
For me, there are several reasons why I started The Veg Hub and Something Better Foods.
I found that there are countless studies that show urban communities as food deserts, with proven food insecurities and statistics that show African Americans have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases than the general population.
With the death of my father at a relatively young age and having that void in my life, I wanted to create a better way of living for my community through food. Research shows that plant-based foods have multigenerational appeal. Also, the market has grown 6.6 percent year-over-year and the U.S. market is set to reach $5.2 million by 2020. When I think about eating healthy, I think about plant-based foods and how it’s a life or death issue. That’s why in 2001, I decided to become 100 percent vegan.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
When I transitioned to being 100 percent vegan 18 years ago, it wasn’t as popular as it is now. Back then, much of the vegan food available for someone looking for a plant-based diet was not the best in taste.
So that is where I focused my energy — on stripping down the preparation process to create the foods I loved, but with healthier ingredients.
This is when I began my own personal journey to understanding how to make my own plant-protein and my own vegetarian meat products from scratch. I take beans — everything from soy beans to garbanzo beans and different types of grains — to create my own plant-proteins.
I also had the challenge of how to fund my idea and make it a reality. You really have to get resourceful. For me, the Wells Fargo Diverse Community Capital program and its support of two local CDFIs (Community Development Financial Institutions) called Working Solutions and Pacific Community Ventures helped me access capital but also coaching on how to grow a small business. You have to look for funding partners that believe in you and offer you resources to learn along the way.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Part of being a business owner is loving the process and all aspects of the process, even the parts that can be challenging. I fell in love with food and the origins of food.
After 15 years of trial and error, I was able to patent a process taking basic ingredients to recreate the taste and texture of the foods they replace. For example, the “cheese” in my three Cheeze Mac-n-Cheeze has no dairy and are made from cashews and carrots. Finding new and creative ways for your product (or work) to connect with people makes it seem less like a job and more of my purpose.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I think the best way to keep things fresh and enjoyable is to keep growing and keep challenging yourself to resist complacency. I was very fortunate this summer to start selling my company’s Better Chew brand of meat and chicken substitutes at 44 Whole Foods supermarkets in Northern California. That’s huge.
This expansion would not be possible without the resources and support of programs like Wells Fargo Works for Small Business®: Diverse Community Capital program, which helped me expand my business. Likewise, my customers and vegan foodies alike make my business enjoyable. I appreciate that the people in my community want better food options and support me in their journey to healthier eating.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
Enjoy most: One of the things about being an entrepreneur is you control your own destiny. I am proud that I manufacture a business that employs about 12 people and generates nearly $5 million in sales post-launch. For me, it’s all about the mission: changing lives one chew at a time.
Downsides: When you are growing your business, access to capital can be a challenge. Early on I had this vision that one day I would see my product on a shelf. So with that, I knew I needed to expand from The Veg Hub.
The money we received allowed me to open up my own production facility. It also afforded me the opportunity to create the branding and packaging for our products to hopefully work with a distributor and reach a broader audience.
That early seed money was really important; I feel that that seed will grow into a really impactful plant one day.
How I overcame drawbacks: In my case, Working Solutions provided me with $50,000 loan in October 2017 that I used to acquire a manufacturing site in Vallejo, California — and they also provided strategic guidance for my business around profit margins, pricing, packaging, and other essentials.
That support, in turn, prompted other investors to buy in — allowing Something Better Foods to raise nearly half a million more dollars.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The great thing about my life is that I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 18. I’ve started different businesses and have always been able to set my own reality. I wake up every day with the intention to “do whatever I have to do to keep the ship alive”, from washing dishes and sweeping the floor to pitching my business to a multi-million dollar company.
Every day brings its own priorities. And something as small as sweeping floors is a good reminder of where I come from — it keeps me going.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Almost every day I have that experience. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 18 years. Anyone in my position knows that the times of a startup are real — lack of capital, lack of resources and lack of people — but the challenge is what keeps me going.
My wife and I run this business and what we recognized was that we are changing lives — this product and our business is a platform to help people in their lives. We realized that when you have a purpose, you can’t stop and the mission keeps us going. I have good friends, advisers, my wife and my kids — they all keep me going.
People reach out to me all the time saying that they saw my product and I realize that what I’m doing is bigger than me. My story and my product will inspire others to be their best. This is my purpose. Who would imagine a little country boy would do all this? I just can’t give up.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s funny now, but not when I started. My first business was in 2008 and I didn’t know much about business or finances, and I decided to use everything for my business on a credit card — this was tens of thousands of dollars. In business, credit cards were meant to be a short term bridge for money but I was using it as a long-term solution. Big mistake. Once I made it out of that, I never made that mistake again. Now that I know better, I am much better at assessing financial risk. Access to capital and business costs have been a big part of learning as a startup. Everything has a cost.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
My mother. She has been the one who has taught me so much. She was a correctional officer and sacrificed so much for me. She taught me about having a strong work ethic — if you want something you have to work for it and fight for what you want. Especially as an African American male, she wanted to prepare me for the world.
She became my first investor — she sowed the first seed into several of my businesses. She was my first business partner. And with 15–20 years of investments into me and my business, she gave me the tools and confidence to believe in myself and make this happen.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The Veg Hub is a non-profit restaurant I founded in 2015. It’s broken up into two words: Veg, which highlights that our place is a vegan or vegetarian restaurant, and Hub, because we want it to be a place where we educate the community on healthier food options and what that looks like.
We found that when you combine healthy food with education, it becomes a powerful resource and tool for the community — which we are fortunate to have a customer base who loves our products and appreciates learning the basics of food and nutrition.
I want people to know when they taste our food that it’s more than just nourishment in the moment; in your journey to being the best you, I want our products to make a positive impact on the future well-being of our customers.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Too much growth can be your best dream and worst nightmare — When you have amazing growth, really quickly, it’s a great feeling. However, when you are growing so fast, your cash flow needs to keep up with the demand. That’s something that can hurt many startups in the beginning who have a great product.
- Make sure you hire well — Pay attention to who you hire and the key positions that require good people. I’ve always wanted to give people an opportunity to work and try to help people in my community. But with that, I learned that we have to be practical and mindful because at the end of the day, we are running a business.
- Work/life balance — We had baby during the first 6 months of getting our startup up and running. It was definitely challenging because my wife is my business partner and it was tough getting the business off the ground while she was pregnant. We made it through but for other entrepreneurs, it’s something to think about as far as timing and starting a family.
- Choose your investors carefully — All money comes with a cost, whether its friends and family or an investor from a financial institution, make sure that money is the “right” money and allows you to fulfill your business’ mission. It’s so important to invest well.
- Protect your IP — This is something that I didn’t understand early on. I didn’t understand the rules around patents, intellectual property and protecting my ideas. Sometimes you lose out on the opportunity to patent your idea because things are happening so fast in your first year. Protect your ideas before you go to market. I learned this the hard way.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think the greatest good can come from food positivity, nutrition education and healthy food options. Food is something we need daily and the more we talk about the basic function of food, what it does for our minds and bodies and influencing change in a community where there aren’t many healthy food options, impacting these factors I feel could change the entire life outlook for so many people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite “life lesson quote” is a Bible verse from the Book of Job, chapter 8 verse 7, which says “though thy beginning was small, yet thy latter end should greatly increase.” This tells me that, yes, you can start out small, but through hard work and determination, you can do anything.
My career in food started off in my mother’s kitchen. It’s important to master the small things first and go from there.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
The person that I would love to meet and pick his brain is Chris Gardner, stock broker and investor turned motivational speaker from San Francisco. He became well-known from the hit Hollywood movie, based on his life, The Pursuit of Happyness. He was homeless at one time, trying to care for his son, and went on to one of the biggest brokerage firms in the world. His story stood out to me, especially as a parent. Fighting against all odds, he never gave up and worked to make an impact. He also worked with Nelson Mandela, which was truly inspiring. I want to meet real people that I can learn from who have an inspirational story, like mine.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
About the Author:
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrust Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com