February 24, 2012

Entrepreneur Spotlight – Hippie Chow

hippie_chow_granolaHippie Chow is, as the name suggests, a little ‘granola.’  In fact, it is granola – handmade with all-natural ingredient goodness granola!  In a food catagory as competative as granola though getting noticed can be tough.  Which is why, when learning that Valerie Jennings managed to take her small company from a startup farmers’ market business to being carried nationwide by a gourmet retailer in just a matter of months, we wanted to know more.   

Given the proximity to Valentine’s Day, it seems fitting that we to talk to an entrepreneur who started her food business because of her love for good ingredients and her love for a guy.  Can you tell us the story of why you first started making granola from scratch.

Valerie Jennings: I love to cook and experiment with recipes and having just read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen, I was beginning to take a closer look at ingredient labels and sources. My guy, Joe, was taking this snack mix to work with him every day – I won’t mention names but let’s just say it is a major brand. After reading the ingredient list, I was convinced the snack mix would lead to an early death if he continued eating it (I might be exaggerating a bit but it definitely was not healthy). So I immediately tossed the snack mix in the trash and set out to create my own snack for him. Granola fit the bill – healthy and delicious.

How did the name Hippie Chow come about?

I was brainstorming names for my granola and, after several less-than-stellar ideas (Val-nola being one of them), I came up with Hippie Chow. Obviously, there are strong connections between granola as a mainstream food and the counterculture movement of the 1960’s. And to me, the name (and historical reference) communicates so much about the values of the company I wanted to create. Open-minded, environmentally conscious, social awareness, natural and organic ingredients, sustainability, a focus on relationships, unconventional.

For a hippie, you have some pretty extensive business knowledge behind you.  You worked as a financial analyst and earned your MBA from Rockhurst in Kansas City.  How has your business background helped you start and grow this business?

I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur and was just waiting for the right idea. The truth is this business is a dream-come-true for me because it allows me to apply my business background while at the same time embracing my hippie nature. Having spent time working for Wall Street firms, I’m convinced that the current, prominent model of doing business in this country is not sustainable. My goal was to create a company that exemplifies an alternative to the Wall Street model of doing business. Rather than focusing solely on profits as a measure of success, we consider social, environmental and economic factors – a so-called “Triple Bottom Line.” I believe business has tremendous power to be a catalyst for change and support a more humanistic view of capitalism’s role in society than what is traditionally taught in business schools.

On the flip side, did you have any experience working in a commercial kitchen prior to starting hippie chow granolathis company? 

None. My kitchen experience was limited to what I had taught myself at home. But I think that’s part of the beauty of our story. Food doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult to make in order to be good. What matters are good ingredients and attention to detail.  We’ve got plenty of both.

Coming from such a strong business background, did you write a business plan before starting Hippie Chow and, if so, did you find that process helpful?

Absolutely. Once I had made up my mind to start a business, I went looking for help to figure out what to do next. I was amazed at the number of resources (many free or low cost) available to entrepreneurs. Kansas City is home to the Kauffman Foundation – a non-profit organization dedicated to global entrepreneurship – so there is a strong tradition of entrepreneurship in the community. I completed the Kauffman FastTrac program to develop my business plan. That planning process was invaluable and I refer back to and update my business plan often.

In May 2010 you started selling Hippie Chow in the Overland, KS farmers’ market and by that Fall you had been picked up by Dean & Deluca.  That seems like something that only happens in made-for-tv movies!  Can you tell us how that happened?

The stars aligned for Hippie Chow that summer, no doubt. Dean & Deluca has six locations in the U.S. including one in Leawood, KS – a suburb of Kansas City. At a networking event in June 2010, I met a freelance food writer who happened to be a personal friend of the then-general manager of the Leawood store. She liked my story and made the introduction. After that, things happened pretty quickly. Not only did the general manager of Leawood’s store like my granola, so did the company’s higher-ups at the corporate office. Within a few weeks, we had hammered out the terms of an agreement and we started shipping granola to all six locations.

It should be noted that during that entire time in 2010 you were also working full-time at another job (which you continued to do until the end of the year).  Did you ever feel stretched a little thin that year? 

“Stretched a little thin” is probably an understatement. It was definitely a stressful – albeit worthwhile – time in my life. I would have loved to leave my corporate job soon but the financial analyst in me wanted to save up as much money as possible before leaving my steady paycheck. In hindsight, I’m glad I did it. That being said, I remember numerous times when I would bake granola until 2 or 3am, sleep for a few hours, then get back up at 5am and head to the farmers’ market. Needless to say, my social life suffered a bit during that time.

Even though your business was getting a lot of positive attention from retail buyers and farmers’ market customers, was it nerve-wracking to give up a full-time job with a regular paycheck for the unknown world of entrepreneurship?

Absolutely. I remember having intense anxiety during my last week of work at the corporate job. I kept thinking “Am I crazy? Am I doing the right thing? Will I regret this decision?” Eventually I just had to tell my inner voice to shut up and walk out the door. Now, a year later, I can honestly say that I have no regrets.

Getting picked up and carried nationwide by a major retailer is something many artisan food producers dream of but it can wreak havoc on your production plans.  Did you face challenges in needing to increase production so quickly given that you make all of your granola by hand?

I’ve been really fortunate to have a few things fall in my favor on the production side. Initially, I was making my granola in a commercial kitchen in Lawrence, KS. It was a great place to get started but I realized pretty quickly that the business wouldn’t be able to stay there long-term. Scheduling was an issue and we didn’t have access to certain equipment (namely, a commercial mixer) that would help us be more efficient. So I started to look at renting space and building my own commercial kitchen – not an inexpensive endeavor. Luckily, around this same time, the Kansas City area got its first-ever business incubator for food businesses – the Ennovation Center in Independence, MO. Those folks contacted me and asked if I would be interested in touring the facility. As soon as I saw the space, I knew it would be the perfect home for Hippie Chow for the next few years. We have access to high-quality, commercial-grade equipment as well as storage and office space. Having access to this facility (at a reasonable hourly rate) has been a fundamental aspect of why and how I’ve been able to scale the business.

valerie jennings hippie chowYou recently exhibited at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.  Have you taken Hippie Chow to other tradeshows before?

The Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco was our first trade show. We had a blast! I went with my one employee – Lexie – and a former intern – Lauren. We had so much fun meeting the folks behind our favorite food brands, networking with prospective retailers and, of course, enjoying the beautiful city of San Francisco.

Do you have any recommendations for artisan food entrepreneurs who are wondering whether they should spend the money and resources to attend a tradeshow.  Did you find it to be beneficial?  Any words of advice of things to do/not do?

Based on our experience with the Fancy Food Show, I do think trade shows are beneficial and worthwhile but it’s important to commit the resources (think money and energy – lots of it) to be successful. The NASFT (National Association of the Specialty Food Trade) offers lots of resources for first-time exhibitors and I definitely recommend taking advantage of those. I’m planning to track our new business from the show over the next 12 months to analyze how those revenues compare to the cost to exhibit. It’s important to be able to justify your decision to attend a trade show with financial analysis.

You call your fans ‘Chow Heads’ – how do you stay in contact with your Chow Heads and keep them engaged in the brand?

Social media and the internet have been huge for the development of our brand. The name “Hippie Chow” attracts a lot of folks initially and our engagement on Facebook and Twitter are really geared toward creating and sustaining relationships. We are a very personal, relationship-oriented brand so social media sites are a prime means of engagement. We also conduct a lot of in-store demos on the weekends – talking to folks and handing out samples. In the summertime, we continue to participate in several area farmers’ markets. These are a great chance to interact with our customers as well as try out new products. Finally, we have a new feature on our website where customers can upload fun and creative photos of themselves with Hippie Chow. Our goal is to create an online community of Hippie Chow enthusiasts.

Any other thoughts or ideas you’d like to share with small food entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs?

Know your customer (and then stick to what you know), be prepared to work really, really hard and follow your passion!

Since I know someone will ask about this, are you still with the guy who helped inspire Hippie Chow?

Of course! Joe is Hippie Chow’s #1 supporter and my personal sounding board on a lot of business decisions. And yes, we still eat a lot of granola at home. It’s the one item we always have on hand!

If you want to become a Chow Head you can buy Hippie Chow granola from a number of retailers around the country or purchase some online.

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5 comments on “Entrepreneur Spotlight – Hippie Chow

  • Jim Lewis on said:

    Excellent article!! Shows what someone with an idea, hard work, and a “can do” attitude can accomplish. I’m going to order some on-line.

  • Robyn on said:

    It’s great to have a blog covering how to start a food business. A friend of mine was thinking about putting together a soda business in Austin. One of the major issues is wondering if you can actually make money since being compliant with local and state regulations in selling food is such a complicated issue. I think it’s awesome that Hippie Chow was able to have the success that it did.

    (Note, this comment was edited to delete out the name of a business attorney as I don’t want it to seem like said attorney is endorsed by this site)