Q & A with Instructor Jennifer Lewis
Some entrepreneurs start young, selling lemonade on the sidewalk or negotiating better terms for Halloween candy consumption. Instructor Jennifer Lewis was definitely in that club. As a child spending time in a Northern Michigan fishing community, she was selling worms to the fishermen at 5 a.m. before they went out for the day. We asked Jennifer about her path from being that entrepreneurial 8-year-old to published author, business coach, and Continuing Education instructor.
What drew you to the culinary arts?
When I was in college I was part of our school’s swim team and also lived off campus. When not swimming or in class, I was the team’s go-to cook and was constantly cooking up meals and treats in my apartment kitchen. I found that I really enjoyed the process of baking and cooking and also found great joy in feeding other people.
You started your first food business while pursuing your MBA, missing the creativity of the kitchen. What was the focus of that business?
My very first food business, which I ran for about 10 years before selling, was a high-end dog treat business. Pet treats weren’t initially my intention when I decided to start a food business but in doing research, at that time the ‘treating pets like kids’ trend was exploding and I realized there was a market opportunity I could take advantage of. And it helped that I loved dogs too! My very first client was Neiman Marcus and I ended up selling wholesale to a number of high-end retailers so it was a great learning experience. Just in case students are curious, I have gone on to start human food businesses as well!
How did that experience influence how you approach working with people just getting started?
I know how frustrating it can be trying to find all the answers to the many questions food entrepreneurs have and it seems like no one wants to tell you what they’ve learned along the way. My goal has always been to democratize the information and make it accessible so that anyone with a passion and a good idea can start a food business.
You had experience in the culinary world. And you were getting an MBA. What was the biggest knowledge gap you realized you had as you navigated the process of starting your own business?
I realized that having culinary experience was an excellent training ground for how to efficiently work in a kitchen and how a kitchen operations and an MBA gives you critical skills when it comes to running a business like a comfort level with accounting and projections. But I also realized that neither actually equips someone with all the information for how to start a food business. There are so many business books geared towards starting a small business, but so many fewer focused on the intricacies of starting food businesses such as the licensing requirements and what you need to know when it comes to packaging and marketing your product. A lot of that is things I learned through trial and error with my own businesses and by talking with thousands of food entrepreneurs over the years about their challenges and successes.
Is now a good time to start a home based food business?
Now is a good time to start a food business, despite all the craziness in the world, because you can do so at a very low cost. This is a great opportunity to ‘try out’ that idea you’ve also fantasized about starting with minimal risk and minimal cost. And from a consumer standpoint, people are looking for things that will make their lives easier. If you can offer them a delicious product that they don’t have to make themselves, they will pay for it! As way of example, I recently purchased a 4-pack of handmade cinnamon rolls from a local business owner. As a former pastry chef, I’m fully capable of making cinnamon rolls myself but I – like most folks – am juggling too many balls in the air all at once and it was so much easier to buy from a local business instead of making from scratch.
What challenges are you anticipating people may face as they work toward starting a home based food business during this pandemic?
The biggest challenge I foresee is that because everyone is home all the time, if you live in a home with other people – be it roommates, partner, kids, etc – is keeping them out of the kitchen while you’re preparing food for sale. And then the constant need to clean up immediately after you’re finished preparing that food so that your family/roommates can come in and use the kitchen.
You have been providing support and resources for food entrepreneurs for more than a decade. What do you find motivating or inspiring about this work?
I love the energy and creative ideas that entrepreneurs always have – it’s infectious. Food is a business that people get into first and foremost because they are passionate about something and I love being able to be part of that process with them.
You have been teaching with Continuing Education for almost a decade - 9 years in March! What has changed in that time?
The biggest difference is the access small businesses have to technology for things like accepting credit cards and for marketing. I still remember when I started teaching that I used to have to bring an example of a Square credit card swiper to show people and devote some time explaining how it worked. Now everyone is familiar with them!
What are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to going back to farmer’s markets. My local market is an evening market and the entire neighborhood would turn out to shop, pick up dinner, and hang out on the lawn listening to musicians while kids ran around half crazed. It has always been one of the highlights of my Summer and I am really looking forward to that again soon.