DC Union Kitchen & Crew

How to Start a Food Business Without Pulling Your Eyeballs Out

Have you ever thought about how to start a food business and the details involved in manufacturing a store bought frozen pizza from scratch? I know I never did, until now.

I wrote an earlier blog called, “How I Survive the Day-to-Day Running of Caleb’s Cooking Company”, which provides a glimpse into the last couple of months building our website, brand, social media presence and online community. All of these pieces of the business are critically important, but since we’re in the business of making and selling food, its time to get into the kitchen and start cooking.

It sounds relatively simple, but let me tell you… it’s not.

I’m an operations person — all about execution. Ask any of my friends or colleagues and they’ll tell you, I can multitask and “get shit done” like the best of them. But, setting up a food enterprise is some serious business.

Here are just some of the logistics and details I am tackling right now:

  • Food Packaging (deciding style, size, weight, graphics, info on food boxes)
  • Shipping (how to ship frozen food, costs etc.)
  • Coolants (dry ice vs. gel packs)
  • Sourcing Ingredients (best vendors to buy organic whole ingredients)
  • Business/Food Licenses
  • Staffing

Lets break these down one-by-one, so you have a better understanding why I have turned grey in a matter of months…

Food Packaging

We’re going to be selling three products to launch:

  • 9-Inch Pizzas (dairy & non dairy versions)
  • Chicken Nuggets
  • Pork & Bean Enchiladas

First things first, I have to decide what we’re going to put the food on. The trays for the food have to be able to be frozen, go into the microwave and oven. I also have to consider size and weight, not only of the trays, but the boxes themselves, and food (to manage costs). I did what probably anyone would do — went to the grocery store

and stalked the frozen food aisles. I decided to use Amy’s Kitchen and some of their products as samples to work from. Amy’s is obviously mass-producing their food, but it was a good place to start.

I figured I could use the same size box and tray for the chicken nuggets as the enchiladas, which would save costs. I started working with a vendor and got some samples. As it turns out, the minimum number of boxes I can order is 5,000 (yikes). This is pretty standard.

Next, I need to decide on box dimensions. I am going with a pretty traditional size box (very similar to Amy’s), but noticed that boxes in the frozen food aisles stand up on their side (so that the fronts of the boxes face out). I decided to make the width of the pizza box a bit wider, so it can stand on its own.

Sample Packaging Boxes & Tray

I received the template to design the boxes and now need to decide their look and feel and what I want them to say (besides the obvious ingredient and nutritional information). I’ll work on that copy and provide everything to my graphic designer to lay it out and make it look beautiful!

Next up, how to seal my pizzas? I’ve been struggling with this one for a while. But then, my buddy Andy (who’s making some killer frozen traditional pizza over at DC Union Kitchen), found a solution. It’s called the Pizza Capper. It’s a machine that seals your pizza in a matter of seconds. It’s pretty cool. Check it out. Andy just bought one, so he’s going to be the guinea pig and if he likes it, and it saves time and money, it’s definitely going on my shopping list.

Shipping/Coolants

When working with frozen foods and selling direct to the customer, one of the biggest concerns is shipping. Shipping frozen food is commonly referred to as the “cold chain.” A cold chain is a temperature-controlled supply chain, according to Wikipedia. Without getting into the details too much, I need to make sure that our food is held at an air temperature of 0 degrees F and the internal product temperature doesn’t exceed 10 degrees F (while we’re shipping).

Right now, my options for shipping frozen food are dry ice or gel packs. They each have their advantages and disadvantages. I’m leaning towards dry ice. Then, I need to decide the best cooler option. I am pricing out cooler samples (there are a wide variety with different wall widths (the thicker the wall, the longer the food stays cold). All of these items are expensive. The coolers themselves run as much as $7–10 just for the cooler/box (let alone shipping costs). This is the reason why I have to have a 12 product minimum order.

Sample Cooler & Shipping Container

I need to make sure I can ship food cross country without it defrosting. So, I’m getting ready to run a sample test. I plan to buy 12 boxes of Amy’s food (we’re not in food production yet), put it into my sample cooler with dry ice and UPS it 2-day air out to my sister in LA. I’m then going to do the same thing again with gel packs and see which one keeps the food the coldest. I can also see what my shipping weight and costs are.

Sourcing Ingredients

I have a long list of ingredients I need to buy in order to start cooking our first products. Keep in mind that everything needs to be organic, with no toxins or preservatives and free of GMO’s. We also can’t use any grains, foods with gluten or sugar. Our ingredients range from boneless pork shoulder to organic yellow split peas, organic coriander and black beans, to organic chicken breasts & thighs, butter, eggs and canola oil.

Luckily, I have partnered with DC Union Kitchen, a food incubator in Washington DC, which helps launch and build food businesses just like Caleb’s Cooking Company. They have established relationships with a wide variety of vendors who sell everything from produce, to meat, to seafood. DC Union Kitchen will help me find the best vendor with the best ingredients at the best price.

Business/Food Licenses

As you can imagine, there are a lot of restrictions, laws and regulations when it comes to managing, making and selling food to the public. So, it would only make sense that there would be a bunch of licenses I would have to get before I can launch. Here is a list of what I am presently navigating. Thankfully, many of these licenses can be acquired online, but just like any legal proceeding; there are hoops to jump through, red tape to follow and patience to be acquired.

1. Business License Application
2. Federal EIN Letter
3. DC LLC Registration
4. DC Food Safety Manager’s License
5. Clean Hands Certificate
6. Sales and Use Tax Registration
7. Certificate of Insurance
8. Health Inspection Report in my business’ name
9. Certificate of Occupancy
10. A notarized letter stating that we produce out of Union Kitchen
11. Union Kitchen’s Caterer’s License

Staffing

Much of my staffing depends on financing and whether I can raise the next round of money needed. If not, then I will be in the kitchen serving as one of the line cooks. If I can raise the money needed, then the plan is to hire a Sr. line cook who has not only the kitchen/cooking experience needed,

DC Union Kitchen 33,000 sq. ft Kitchen

but also operations/logistics in their background, to help manage the kitchen. In addition, I’ll need to hire a traditional line cook to help with kitchen prep. We will not only be cooking, but packaging the food and shipping directly out of DC Union Kitchen. This means we need to have a buttoned down process as it relates to cooking and packaging. After all, time =money and there are only so many hours in the day.

Caleb and I are fired up and really excited to finally get into the kitchen and start making food. Well, I have to admit, Caleb’s more excited about eating the food than he is cooking it, but you get the idea. Since we didn’t make our the $30k in our Kickstarter campaign, we are short on funds, so if you can spare a couple of bucks, we sure could use it. We set up a page on the website for donations. Every cent is going to a good cause — that I can promise you. Thanks for your help!


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