March 15, 2013
Jesse and Katie Hancock didn’t jump headfirst into pickling though. They spent several years trying to find a niche they could fill on the west coast when they noticed that pickling was taking off in artisan food centers like Brooklyn, NY. At that time there were limited artisan picklers on the west coast and, when combined with a large harvest of green beans, they decided to give pickling a try.
While both Jesse and Katie are good cooks, pickling was new to them so they had to learn everything start to finish. “There was a lot of trial and error,” Jesse recalls. Throughout the learning process they made a commitment to bring delicious farm flavors to the table using less sugar than traditional methods. This meant that they experimented with ingredients like pomegranate juice and chai spice as part of their pickling recipes. Their unique approach to pickling is part of what’s won them accolades like a Good Food Award and legions of fans throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Making the Move Into Entrepreneurship
What many of these fans don’t know is that in order to build the business they wanted, Jesse and Katie actually moved from Idaho to Oregon to make it happen. While much of the business planning process and recipe experimentation took place in Sandpoint Idaho, they realized that the area’s geography and weather patterns limited the amount of fresh produce they had available to them from local farmers. So Jesse did some research to determine which area had the highest per capita farms in the region which is what led them to the Portland, Oregon area. “We wanted to work with local farmers,” Katie says,” so we needed to be somewhere where we’d have easier access to meeting and working with them.”
Picking up your family, which in the Hancock’s case includes two school age children, to start a business may sound risky but Jesse and Katie have always approached the business from a conservative standpoint. As mentioned earlier, they actually spent several years developing a business plan that helped them see how the business could make money and helped them lay out the steps for smart, strategic growth. “If we were in our 20’s, both of us would do this full-time and just live on couches,” Jesse, who still has a full-time job in IT says, “but we’re not so we want to grow smartly.”
The business is almost 100% self-financed with a very small loan from their parents which has helped them build up their inventory as more and more stores start knocking on their doors. To save money, Katie says that they’ve been doing everything by hand including things like slicing vegetables when a machine could do that for them. “We’ve added equipment slowly as we’ve been able to afford it,” Katie says.
Bumps In The Road
Despite having spent so much time developing the business plan, that doesn’t inure entrepreneurs from mistakes and the Hancocks are no different. “We underestimated how long it would take us to actually process the product,” Jesse says. “Turns out it takes about 6 times longer than we anticipated.” In fact, Katie tells a story of one of their first forays into the kitchen to make their planned 1000 jars of pickled asparagus. What they had assumed would take a few hours ended up taking a full 24 and they still didn’t complete all of the jars. “We lost a lot of produce learning that lesson,” Katie says.
The production piece continues to be ever-changing as, since they deal with produce, they are highly dependent on the growing season for their ingredients. For them, many of their ingredients come in all at once so they have to stagger the production in a way that enables them to get everything processed and have room to store it all for several months. Another concern is the impact that weather has on their business. While it doesn’t necessarily impact their production process, a bad winter or dry summer can wreak havoc on the farmers’ crops which, in turn, may increase the prices they’re paying for ingredients or mean that certain ingredients simply aren’t available in the quantities they need.
Knowing How To Talk The Talk
Another challenge for the Hancocks initially was that they weren’t familiar with the terminology that buyers use when negotiating deals. Phrases like FOB (Freight On Board) and Net 60 (buyer will pay within 60 days – not upfront) were tossed about and rather than admit that they didn’t know the meaning they’d just smile, nod, and look it up later. “You want to ask them what a certain phrase means,” Jesse says, “but you don’t want to look like you don’t know what you’re doing.” Thankfully, the Hancocks were able to find a handful of people who helped mentor them navigate through their first several wholesale orders.
(Editorial Note: After I return from vacation I plan to start offering articles from time to time that will look at some of this terminology so that it’s not so foreign to you if you’re not familiar with it already).
Juggling Business and Family
With 2 school age children and Jesse holding down a full-time job, the Hancocks have fine-tuned the art of juggling. Katie takes care of certain aspects of the processing during the day when the kids are at school and Jesse does go into the kitchen after he finishes work as needed. In the summer, so that they’re kids aren’t in daycare, Katie wakes up early and goes into the kitchen for a few hours before Jesse has to leave for work.
All the juggling though is worth it to them. Not only is the business growing successfully, but their kids are at an age where they get a huge kick out of seeing their parents’ products on store shelves. “They do a lot of errands with me,” Katie admits, “and I think they get tired of that. But I think some day they’ll really appreciate it.”
“It gives them a sense of a work ethic,” Jesse adds.
Besides, it’s not all work and no fun. Jesse and Katie did have the opportunity to go into their sons’ classes to teach the entire class how to pickle which was an experience they and their children really cherished.