December 12, 2013
Several months ago I first introduced the idea of following one food entrepreneur through their year to learn first hand from them the ups and downs they face throughout the year. I received a flood of entrepreneurs all interested in sharing their stories (many of whom will be featured throughout the year in future Entrepreneurial Spotlights) and it was tremendously tough to choose, but ultimately I narrowed the field down to one small food business. And so, let me introduce you to the Small Food Business 2014 ‘Year In The Life Of A Food Entrepreneur’…
Aletha Thomas of Monkeypod Jam started her introductory email to me with this paragraph:
My story is similar to many small business owners. I had worked for the same school for eight years, was in danger of being laid off so found a new job, was really laid off, found a new job, placed on furlough… Enough! I decided to take control of my career. So what does a mid-thirties, college educated girl do when she’s been living on Hawaii’s western-most county for the past fifteen years? Start an artisanal preserving company of course! In three years I have started a business, gotten married and had a baby. If either of the last two events happened before the jam, I don’t think the endeavor would have ever happened, but it did. So, here I am, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, knee deep in mangoes, trying like thousands of others, to make a go of it.
And she’s right – her story did resonate with me and I believe it resonates with a lot of other small food business owners out there who didn’t necessarily intend to start a food business but for one reason or another found themselves pursuing their passion and trying to make sense and become successful in our crazy food world.
Starting next month, Aletha will be sharing her story with all of us every month but I sent her a few introductory questions so we could get to know her beforehand.
When was Monkeypod started?
May of 2010
What was the impetus or inspiration behind Monkeypod?
Hawaii’s public school teachers were placed on furlough after the first quarter of the 2009/10 academic year. A girlfriend mentioned she wanted to sell her cakes at our local farmers market and asked if I would like to do it with her. For the first few weeks I brought baked goods along with a few jars of mango jam. They sold immediately. The following week I brought a few more jars. By the third week I knew I had something.
Had you come from a culinary background?
I have always loved food and the cooking process. My mother and grandmothers were all preservers. One of my favorite childhood images is of my family’s pantry shelves stocked with a rainbow of preserves.
What was your background and experience?
I’m actually a middle school teacher with twelve years of experience in both the public and private sector. I moved to Kauai for my first teaching position out of college.
How many employees does Monkeypod have?
We currently have four part time employees. During the summer months we will have up to eight.
Does your husband work in the business as well?
My husband still has his day job, but does our books in the evenings. He also has daddy-daughter day each Saturday so I may work the farmers market.
Who controls the production of your product – you or a copacker?
We control every part of our business in house. From the purchasing of fresh Kauai grown fruit to the labeling and shipping of finished product.
How much were your start-up costs?
We started Monkeypod Jam with $300.00. For the first two years every penny earned went right back into the business.
Was this business self-financed or financed through a combination of self-financing, loans, gifts, grants, etc?
At the three year mark we are proud to say we have been completely self-financed. We do know that in order to grow, we will need to use a loan within the next year in order to keep growing at a steady pace.
What resources did you rely on when you started up your business to help you learn the ropes?
The first few months I spent hours on the internet researching small food businesses. We were fortunate to start meeting other food manufacturers on the island who were willing to share their struggles and triumphs.
What were some of the unforeseen challenges you’ve had to date?
We live in a very remote area. The logistics and costs for getting packaging have been quite the challenge. Hawaii is a very expensive place to manufacture goods. Our jars cost twice as much as mainland jars because of the shipping. Farming is also very expensive which makes our fruit expensive. Our price point is much higher than other preserves because of this.
What are some of the greatest experiences you’ve had to date running your business? We love the relationships we have developed through this adventure. We know Kauai’s farmers intimately… their children, pets, struggles and the pride they take in their crops. We have also had wonderful experiences with our customers, both local and visitors. After three years of business, we now have visitors who seek us out each year when they return to the island.
What tasks do you most enjoy doing in your business?
I love creating relationships with farmers, retailers and customers. I also enjoy stirring simmering pots while listening to Pink Martini
And what do you dread?
I dread the accounting! Paperwork has always been my struggle. Thank goodness for my husband!
You’re also a mother so the time word question comes how - how do you balance everything?
There is no such thing as balance. Something always has to give, whether it’s time with Annika or slowing down the business. It seems I always feel guilty for neglecting one. What I do love is taking Annika on deliveries. She has become the face of the company. Our retailers have seen her grow from my tummy bump into a toddling little girl with pigtails. She has helped create the Monkeypod family.
Anything else you’d like us to know about you or your business before 2014?
It is December 10th and like all small business owners, I’m exhausted! The holiday madness is rearing its head and at this point I’m just hanging on, hoping to just keep up with the momentum around us. We’ve worked so hard this entire year for these final, tell-tale moments… these last final weeks of 2013 will culminate into a reflection of how much we have grown in every aspect of the business. Fortunately, the web sales keep dinging on my iphone, our inbox is still receiving holiday wholesale orders and the island events are all scheduled. It is both terrifying and exhilarating to think what kind of bang will be at the year’s end!