Creating a Local Food Business

By Colleen Leonardi & Nijma Darwish | March 15, 2015
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With our focus on starting and running your own food business, we asked some local food entrepreneurs how they approached entrepreneurship from the ground up and what they recommend for newbies. Read on as Todd Mills, Founder of ACRE, Farm-To-Table To-Go Restaurant, Dara Schwartz, founder of Darista Dips and Darista Café, and Gavin Meyers, Co-founder of North High Brewing, share their experiences and hard-won tips.

Grow an Idea Todd Mills, Founder of ACRE, Farm-To-Table To-Go Restaurant

Todd Mills recently opened ACRE restaurant in Old North Columbus. Before setting up shop he attended The Ohio State University for his Masters of Business Administration, where he grew his idea for ACRE.

“Use the network you have to help turn your idea into reality, and find who may help along the way,” says Todd. “Business plan competitions or pitch competitions are also another way to get the idea out there. I think it’s valuable and useful to take your idea and be challenged.”

Todd also held a series of pop-up shops at The Hills Market in Worthington. “It was extremely helpful because it was a very low-risk way of testing my idea. It allowed me to rent their kitchen space and utilize their equipment so my primary expense was ingredients and my own time to set things up. That was a great partnership.” Todd adds that there are similar options such as The Commissary, “where you can bring in your audience and use their space,” another great way to test out an idea.

For Todd, a business is based on long-term relationships. “If you are looking to have more of an impact and build a true community-based business then it’s important to form partnerships with growers and vendors, and not [ask] them to produce the cheapest product but instead find a balance in high quality product at a fair and reasonable price.”

Define Your Product Dara Schwartz, Founder of Darista Dips and Darista Café

Dara Schwartz has dipped into wholesaling her delicious spreads instead of settling into a brick and mortar. Her advice? “Define your brand positioning, personality, and story. Determine your key value and attributes to what makes your product exceptional. This will shape your marketing and sales message when communicating to your customers [buyers] and consumers. Get creative with packaging and predict how you want your consumers to engage with your product and your brand.”

Getting to know your product is also important she says, “Run a pilot program with stores for about four months. This will give you enough time to not only learn how your product behaves, but if you reach product acceptance it will give you valuable time to work out your kinks.”

Dara also chooses to, “love and nurture” the businesses with which she works. “Don’t ‘Spray and Pray,’ or ‘Drop and Drive;’ build strong relationships with each store, their buyers, and marketing department. How can you help your product and their store perform well together? Offer product demos and sampling. Get creative with hosting events and partnering with other brands being offered at their stores. Equip each team with assets and collectively plan for store incentives.”

She also prefers walking into the markets as opposed to just shooting an email, or making a phone call. Her “Darista Dips” can be found in Columbus specialty shops, grocers, and cafes.

Build Partnerships Gavin Meyers, Co-founder of North High Brewing

In 2012, Gavin Meyers and his business partner, Tim Ward, opened North High Brewing, a brew-on-premise establishment in Columbus. Gavin offers his advice on looking for the right partner. “It’s important to have different levels of expertise in the partnership. That’s going to make up for the other’s shortcomings, so you both can work together, and this helps build a great team.”

Before going into business he also recommends building relationships with other professionals in the same type of field. “Find someone who went through a similar experience, one you wouldn’t be competing with, that has that personal experience. Find someone who would like to share their story. Know when it’s right to ask the questions and they will be answered organically.”

It’s also important when starting any business to be adaptive. “Pay attention to your customers. Keep them in that feedback loop. There can be an untapped opportunity you’re unaware of,” says Gavin. The business duo have recently opened a second location to help fill demand for the wholesale side of the business, going from a two-barrel batch size to a 40-barrel batch size, something that Gavin says, “wasn’t in the initial business plan but the customers expressed they wanted more, and it proved to be a valuable and much needed expansion.”

Finance Fund to Invest in Healthy Local Food Systems in Ohio

In Ohio nearly two million residents, including more than 500,000 children, live in communities that are underserved by supermarkets and other healthy food retailers. The Columbus-based Finance Fund, a nonprofit organization with a proven 27-year record in building better communities through financial investment, recently launched the Ohio Healthy Foods Financing Initiative (OHFFI) to offer a market-based solution to this problem.

OHFFI was born out of the recognition that access to strong food systems has historically driven economic development in impoverished communities. The program will finance local and healthy food-based businesses. Building self-sustaining, competitive local food systems is at the heart of OHFFI, which will fund grocery stores, food hubs, food processing facilities, and incubator kitchens, among others.

The program is currently securing funding to support a range of projects in communities across the state. OHFFI will be implemented in partnership with The Food Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving access to healthy and affordable foods in neighborhoods nationwide.

Learn more at

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