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June, 2011

The Non-Bossy Guide to Networking

If you’ve ever been looking for a job– and let’s face it, we’ve all been at one point or another looking for a job–inevitably you’ve gotten the advice, “It’s all about who you know!” Or perhaps you received a slightly different version: “Relationships, relationships, relationships!” Finally there’s “You just gotta network, baby!” All are equally irritating, of course, when you’re feeling a little bit lost and uncertain and probably less than confident in the strength of your all-important network. I, for one, remember feeling discouraged by that advice straight out of college, since as far as I could tell, I had no network to speak of whatsoever.

 

My understanding of what “networking” really is has changed quite a bit since then. The mystique is gone, and now it simply refers to the inevitable friendships and alliances that result simply from doing favors for–and asking favors from–the other humans we meet along our merry ways. And while journalism and the other types of work I’ve done certainly have helped me form some great relationships, I am struck by the ways in which starting a business is an especially collaborative act.

 

With a menu like that, what's not to like?

Consider this: When we first decided we wanted to sell ice pops at farmers’ markets, I of course had to contact my friend Aaron Reser at Mill City Farmers’ Market, which was already full for the year. But after giving me some great suggestions for farmers to buy produce from, she decided I might benefit from a chat with Erica Strait of Foxy Falafel, who is also selling at farmers’ markets–both her delicious falafel and her bike-blended smoothies (you gotta see it to believe it).
Erica shared a very useful brain dump about starting a business, and also happened to put us in touch with Meghan McAndrews of the excellent blog High Plains Thrifter, and vintage store Mighty Swell Vintage–we’ll be catering Mighty Swell Vintage’s July sale– and writing a guest blog post for High Plains Thrifter next week. And thanks to Meghan, a well-networked gal herself, we’ll be meeting later this week with Annie D’Souza of Yelp Twin Cities about possibly doing an event with that fine organization this summer.

 

Meanwhile, we met Lori Karis of Sweet Cheeks baby food a couple of weeks ago– through her posting about a freezer for sale. Though the freezer wasn’t quite what we had in mind, we bought two heat sealers from her, as well as a couple food scales, bowls, measuring cups and–why not– an industrial size roll of aluminum foil. Lori, like so many other owners of small food businesses, was overflowing with great tips, and happy to help. Looking for a commercial kitchen? she asked. Try Thuro Bread in St.Paul. You already know how that story ends.

 

And so maybe there really is no punch line this winding tale, other than this: whether or not 10,000 Licks succeeds, I’m learning a ton about the way things work in this world, and the term “networking” has never felt less jargony, and more simply and wholesomely true. Networking, I’m beginning to think, is just another word for how when one person is still splashing in the water, struggling to get on the boat, everyone else, or most everyone else, seems instinctively willing to reach out a hand.

 

I like a world like that.

10,000 Logistics, or the Non-Delicious Parts of Starting an Ice Pop Business

As much as I’d love to spend my days making and eating Sweet Corn ice pops, and doing little else, sadly, there are a few non-edible items to attend to when starting a food business. To be honest, I kind of love this part too– the research element activates my journalistic brain, and the need to make 10,000 phone calls to figure out each aspect of, say, acquiring a food license for the City of Minneapolis, activates the part of my brain that is usually only employed when I have to call AT&T about an errant charge on our cell phone bill. I can be like a dog with a bone with certain details.

 

And it’s incredibly rewarding when all that research and legwork, by myself and fellow pop diva Sarah Newberry, really starts to pay off. And what a week this was for payoffs.

 

The first, and most exhilarating piece of the puzzle piece that we’ve put in place, is the commercial kitchen! As you’d probably guess, and as Bob rightfully pointed out in response to my Sweet Corn post, you can’t just make ice pops in your home kitchen, and sell them to the masses. This is for a lot of good reasons that I needn’t get into–nonetheless, it can seem like a major obstacle. How can we afford to pay thousands of dollars per year to rent a space, when we’re not even sure yet how much we can make selling these suckers? And more importantly, where can one find a commercial kitchen space to rent? Thankfully, the Twin Cities have a number of options for food businesses, the leading ones being Kindred Kitchen in North Minneapolis, and the gorgeous Kitchen in the Market facility at Midtown Global Market. Kitchen in the Market (KITM) stole our heart– it’s a beautiful space, and owner/manager Molly Herrmann has helped make it a great collaborative space for small food businesses, in which everyone seems to want to help everyone else. If our business continues to grow, we have hopes of joining KITM next year. But because it’s a business, KITM requires a year-long lease, and if you can ponder for a second the idea of eating an ice pop in February, you can probably guess why we’re not yet sure whether 10,000 Licks will be a year-round business. So, where to head next?

 

thuro bread

Home sweet new home.

I won’t bore you with all of the stories of the options we didn’t ultimately choose– community centers and churches and restaurants with odd hours–we considered them all. But ultimately, we found our solution right down the street, in a location that is literally equidistant from Sarah’s apartment in St. Paul, and my house in Longfellow. Introducing… Thuro Bread, a bakery and shared kitchen facility that is literally right next door to Izzy’s Ice Cream on Marshall Ave. In a nutshell, it’s perfect, complete with an affordable monthly rate, and–get this–a walk-in freezer. A walk-in freezer! That means that instead of cramming our pops horizontally into a freezer that is currently shared with frozen chicken broth and frozen corn and ice cube trays and veggie burgers, we can now set our pop molds on a stand-up cart designed for commercial use, and simple roll it on into the freezer. This blows my mind. In conclusion, woohoo!

 

freezer

Keepin' it cool

And yet it didn’t stop there. Ms. Newberry, who heads up our the Department of Equipment and Acquisitions, trucked out to Shakopee in her dad’s vintage Suburban last week, to pick up our new stand-up freezer, purchased from a company that accidentally ordered 10 of the wrong freezer model, and so resold them for a deeply discounted price. Anyone in the market? They have a few more. Picture this sucker with a chalkboard mounted on the side of it, with our revolving list of flavors…pretty adorable, huh?

 

So far, both Uptown Farmers’ Market and Northeast Farmers’ Market have invited us to participate once we get our Market Manufacture License from the City of Minneapolis (hopefully in about two weeks). So, very soon you may be able to stroll up to that little white freezer cart, and order up one of a growing list of flavors.

 

This week has been, to say the least, exhilarating. While each of these breakthroughs represents a great amount of effort and persistence, the results continue to surprise me. In other words, while I continue to insist that starting a food business is completely doable, somehow when that proves to be true, even I am a little bit shocked.

 

It’s like I’ve been declaring to the world, “We can do this!” and yet no one is more surprised than I when I realize that we are, in fact, doing it. And here we go.

 

Keep It Strawberry, Silly

I admit it. I have somewhat of a bias towards the unusual flavors, the unexpected ones. The flavors that cause people to tip their heads a little at first, as if to say, “Huh? How could that possibly be… edible?” Yes, I love this tip of the head. Because it is so often followed by “Omigosh, but it’s SO good. I never would have guessed it!”

And yet. Sometimes you don’t feel like tasting a Chocolate Jalapeno or Balsamic Fig or Pinot Peppercorn ice pop (just invented those three on the spot, though stay tuned…). Sometimes you just want some good old-fashioned sweetness. For days like these, my friends, there’s this simple recipe based on the Strawberry-Vanilla Swirl pops in Shelly Kaldunski’s book, Ice Pops. Now, I’m not over the moon about the texture on these– the yogurt did a funny crystallization thing– but they were simple, delicious, and frankly kind of adorable.

Bath time for the strawberries.

Pucker up.

They were never the same after that.

Strawberry Puree, meet Vanilla Yogurt.

It was like they'd always been together.

The final stretch!

And here’s where I confess my newbie blogger’s mistake: I didn’t take a picture of the final results. I know! The shame! Thing is, these pops had to stand in for the rhubarb pops that weren’t yet frozen enough to take to the RhubarbBQ, and well, see, um, oh dear, how will I ever make it up to you? In any case, follow this recipe, and you’ll get to see these pops in person.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Strawberry-Vanilla Swirl pops:

2 1/2 cups strawberries, cut in half

2tbsp superfine sugar (pretty easy to find, but regular would probably be fine–or you can blend it to make the grains of sugar smaller).

1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

Pinch of salt

1 1/2 cups vanilla whole milk yogurt

Directions: Combine strawberries, lemon, sugar, and salt in a blender and process until smooth. Meanwhile, place 2 tbsp of yogurt into each mold. Top each with 2 tbsp of the strawberry puree and repeat until molds are full. Finally, use a paring knife to draw figure eights in each mold, swirling the two flavors together.

Freeze and enjoy!