True, everyone who tastes your _____ (fill in the blank: pies, pickles, pralines, etc.) say they’re the best they’ve ever had, but it’s a long way from receiving culinary praise to launching a successful food business and selling the product commercially. Even cooking up a delicious business plan won’t be enough to get you started.
Believe it or not, the first step to professional foodie success will take you OUT of the kitchen! Before you lease space in a commercial kitchen or buy the expensive equipment needed to make your product, you need to research and test your concept and see what kind of reaction you get from the people who will actually make the decision about whether or not to buy it. Testing is the key.
1. Make a prototype. By developing a prototype and testing it, you’ll learn if this is something there might be a demand for, something you can recreate on a bigger scale, something you can package, distribute and deliver – in other words, something that has a chance at being commercially successful. Is this a valid business idea or something better left as a hobby?
2. Test and sample. Friends and family are great for the first round of tests. Invite them over, have parties, and have fun trying out the food, but get them to offer you honest critiques so you can make the best version of the product possible. Let them know that criticism is okay – you’d rather hear it from them than get ripped by customers and food critics and have your idea fail publicly.
Friends may still be reluctant to give you negative feedback, though, so you may want to go a little wider in your circle of acquaintances. Ask people at work, put an announcement for a focus group on the message board at your supermarket; give some test products to your family and ask them to take them to their office. The more removed your testers are from you, the more likely you are to get an honest opinion.
Local craft shows and farmer’s markets are great places to get your product in front of people to see what kind of reaction you get. Make sure to check what the local regulations are first, and make sure you comply. Divide your product into smaller bites and put each in a small cup or plate. Be prepared with toothpicks, forks, spoons, or whatever utensil someone will need to try the sample. Keep in mind that these tasters might still be reluctant to tell you to your face if they don’t like something, so have a list of specific questions to help guide them. You’re more likely to get a constructive answer if you ask if something’s too salty, too sweet or too sour rather than general questions like “Do you like it?” or “What do you think?”
Keep in mind that not everyone is going to like your product – and that’s okay! Some people prefer Coke to Pepsi, and some don’t like cola at all. Keep the critical comments in mind when perfecting your recipe, but don’t let them detract you from what most everyone already loves about it. (Of course, if you’re getting more negatives than positives, that’s a clear sign that changes are needed.)
3. Make another prototype and test again. Repeat. Based on the feedback you’re getting, keep revising the product. If cost is a factor, try out a less expensive ingredient and see if it makes a difference. Maybe a different formulation will help it stay fresher longer. Try whatever variables you can think of and test each of them until you’re sure of how you want to proceed.
4. Master the recipe. Once you’ve settled on your final version, write down exactly how to make it, including what goes into it and the step-by-step cooking process. Make it several times to make sure it’s consistent. Ask someone else to make it so you know the product can be reproduced. Scale it up to see how it’ll do in larger quantities. This will be important for when the business takes off and you need more.
A thoroughly tested recipe will be easy to make over and over again in large amounts. It will taste consistently good, be easy to serve or package, and it will travel well.
5. Take it for a professional spin. This time, don’t just bring it to consumers, talk to culinary professionals and potential purchasers. If you’d like to sell to restaurants, visit a few and see what their chefs and owners have to say. Take it to distributors to see if it’s something they’d be willing to carry and market to supermarkets.
Tweak some more when you know what the industry’s response is, but stay focused on your end user. As nice as it might be to get a thumbs up from a buyer at the supermarket, the grocery store isn’t your customer, the store’s customers will be the ones buying your product. Those are the people you really need to impress.
6. Professional lab testing. Once you’ve settled on a formulation, you may need to get the product tested professionally to figure out a nutritional analysis, especially if you’re planning to package it for sale in retail shops. The Food and Drug Administration’s labelling laws require a full list of ingredients on a package, along with a breakdown of calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates, etc. If you want to make any nutritional claims such as gluten-free, low-fat, etc., you’ll need a certified analysis to be able to back it up. Foodrisk.org has a list of private laboratories that test food to meet FDA standards.
7. Market research. Finally, before you release your product to the world, you may want to conduct some professional market research. This will be the ultimate taste test: gauging the buying public’s reaction to your product and packaging.
This step may be a luxury if you’re just starting out, but there’s a reason major manufacturers and restaurant chains test market new products before rolling them out nationally, so if you can afford it, professional market research is a pretty tasty option.
The bottom line, of course, is that thoroughly testing a product before investing significant time, energy and financial resources in it is vitally important. Trying to start a food business without testing is, well, a recipe for disaster.