6 Take Away Gems From the Food Business School’s “Scale Up”

East End chef Colin Ambrose reports from his time at the Food Business School.

Vision, mission and values are the baseline for success according to William Rosenzweig, dean and executive director of the Culinary Institute of America’s new Food Business School. I just returned from a three-day intensive workshop created by Rosenzweig, the author of The Republic of Tea, where I will learned his approach to teaching non MBAs how to bring new services and products into today’s food market place. Rosenzweig’s first words “vision, mission, values” ring in my head now as I think about where to take my newest venture, how to map out the plan and how to side step many of the potholes along the bumpy road to success.

Over the weekend during 21 hours in a class room on the NYU campus, we ran through a variety of “Scale Up” exercises. On the first day, the class focused on core values and the importance of establishing a working knowledge of our organizations. Based on those values we worked on defining a mission statement. For Estia, my thoughts took shape and a view of my new business came into focus through the following ideals:

  • Fresh, clean food, long life;
  • Building relationships through customer confidence in the quality of our products;
  • Exude a happy attitude, reflected in the employees and the people who represent us in every aspect of our business;
  • Delight in repeat visits, build family on a daily basis.

Another message that came through several times during the three-day experience was the issue of creative tension. Rosenzweig stressed the importance of recognizing and managing creative tension. Understanding an organization’s current reality and the vision for what you want to achieve will help forecast tension. He identified the gap between the two as pathways to success and the importance of detailing all aspects of the journey early on in terms of quantitative and qualitative realities. For me it was a lesson in managing expectations by clearly defining where my business is today and what it’s going to cost in terms of financial expenditures and creative effort to begin the process of scaling up, but then it’s necessary to chart the course and list the dimensions and scale that will be required to achieve each step in the process. My take away from this exercise was that too much tension on any one phase of the scaling up process might jeopardize the overall goals of the mission and as the process advances that tension might add unneeded stress and possibly break down the organization.

The Food Business School’s approach to teaching entrepreneurs how to build a tool kit to scale up includes a host of well prepared, professional guests. Our first was Dondeena Bradley, head of global innovation at Weight Watchers. Bradley’s first words also ring in my head today as a baseline rule to focus on moving forward. “Maintain your authentic edge, your specific skills build capacity, which determines who you are.” She reinforced her message of being authentic with a chart that stressed capability, capacity and authenticity all anchored by a heart. Visually this worked for me; I immediately understood that regardless of the size of one’s company, progress in building from an existing platform has to be co-creative in order to be optimized. In order to define new directions and build from day one, it takes a team, not one person’s vision. She defined this by explaining the structure of Weight Watchers business when she arrived at her new post and how she worked within that existing strata to engage long-time employees and allow them to help her determine the avenues to future growth and success.

Next up was Erin Patinkin, CEO of Ovenly, a bakery cofounded by Patinkin in the New York just six years ago and recently recognized by Time Out magazine as the best bakery in New York City. Patinkin provided a perfect entrepreneurial ying to Bradley’s corporate yang. Both were extremely helpful. The Ovenly success story was told in short spurts with a heavy dose of reality and stress on honesty. The Food Business School had helped to design Patinkin’s roadmap to success (she was a student of Rosenzweig’s). We had a chance to hear her echo the message that our teacher made clear from the start: She clarified her belief that establishing a values profile and writing her fledgling company’s core values and then sharing them with her team from the start was fundamental to Ovenly’s success. She also stressed the importance of investing in a good M&A attorney, out sourcing a CFO and building firewalls like having a separate name or trademark that the entrepreneur controls apart from the operating company — all good rules for reducing creative tension as the orders start rolling in.

“While our lives have become faster, the kitchen remains basically the same.”

Sam Kass was our first speaker on day two. He put the students at ease with a cool demeanor and a friendly smile; his background as former White House chef and senior policy advisor for nutrition in the Obama administration may have something to do with that. Sam Kass is an extremely good people person. He applauded the class for making an effort to be part of the solution after having heard from several in our group that they were creating products for issues like seafood sustainability, building a vegan ice cream company with recipes addressing issues like dairy allergies and baking and marketing products that eliminate grains and refined sugars. He was aware of their efforts and reinforced the importance of perseverance. Again we heard the call to maintain authenticity through the scale-up process. He reminded us of one of the things we all had in common: “Food can be a big part of the solution. It’s sensory, tangible and inherently social.” He added, “While our lives have become faster, the kitchen remains basically the same.” This has been a baseline belief for me since I planted my first seed in the Basil Brothers Garden in Amagansett on a cool spring day in 1993. And now I sat with a man freshly harvested from six years in Washington. I heard his kind encouragement and was hugely satisfied. In the food world it’s good to be slow.

Then Stephanie Strom of the New York Times joined the conversation; it was time to touch on media. We heard about her daily challenges of sifting through hundreds of emails to find the stories she feels are most important. She admitted that some days are better than others and her mood can dictate the direction her work takes her — a surprisingly honest thing for a media leader to share. Strom’s priorities as a reporter on the national food desk keep her eyes glued to big corporations but she’s passionate and interested in the stories about start ups and occasionally gives them a nudge by passing things of interest on to her colleagues. The bullet-point suggestions on addressing the media from a top New York Times editor with a food related message include: keep it short and don’t sell too much community mindedness. Since you never know what she’s looking for on a given day, “Be practical. Here’s what I do; here’s the success I had; here’s what’s interesting.” At the end of Strom’s session we had a chance to ask questions; her response to one piqued my interest. Regarding the food columnist Sam Sifton, she said in a very flattering tone, “Sam has the best job in world.” It must be nice to have the respect of colleagues like Strom. I’ve been following Sifton with great interest for years; he’s earned the praise, and I’m inclined to agree his job seems magical. That’s what a degree from Harvard can help achieve.

In the final phase of our three-day tour through the Food Business School’s “Scale Up,” we had a chance to present our concepts using the techniques and message points that had been discussed in our classroom. To serve as guest judges Rosenzweig culled three premier business gurus from his Rolodex. We had a chance to pitch our “book” to Lexie Komiar, the business development and growth lead from IBM Watson; Rob Kaplan, managing director of the Closed Loop Fund; and Anne Greven, head of acquisition finance, North America managing director at Robobank. I found it thrilling to share my story and goals for growth with this insightful group. It was a whirlwind that seem to end as fast as it started and I went four minutes overtime. They were all kind, suggesting some points might be more important than others. I need more hard data on the screen, better not get too deep into sourcing pigs, it would be good to describe my ultimate core product more completely from the beginning of the pitch and, most important from Anne Greven, don’t share the turtle rolls until after the pitch, “I was distracted by the food and didn’t catch everything you were saying.”

My 6 Gems from “Scale Up”

  1. Create a mission statement, teach it to your team and require them to live by it from the start.
  2. Identify the creative tension that can tear your business down, work with your partners, staff, investors and suppliers to reduce the tension at each step and build pathways to achieve success.
  3. Be honest, be bold, chase your dreams with professionals who have experience in your field.
  4. Figure out how your concept is part of the solution and take responsibility for that. Don’t fake it, invest in it and own it. Tell your story directly, concisely and show your personal commitment to the outcome, remembering that authenticity is very important.
  5. Consistently tell your businesses story with clarity stressing its unique authenticity.
  6. Don’t serve the goodies until the last page of the book.

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Colin Ambrose is the chef/owner Estia's Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor and Estia's Darien.