There were no easy answers for the women attending last night’s discussion with women entrepreneurs in packaged foods sponsored by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Chicago Downtown Farmstand. Participants included Nicole Bergere of Nicole’s Crackers, Jessica Volpe of Pasta Puttana, Jenny Yang of Phoenix Tofu, Meg Dhamer of Pigtales Twist, and Elizabeth Madden of Rare Bird Preserves.
The five women, whose businesses ranged from pasta to tofu, discussed what inspired them to start a business, problems they’ve run into and how to take their passion for food to the next level without losing the integrity of what their products. Hard work and lots of it seemed to be the answer for anyone wanting to break into food production.
Most of the panelists moved into this business after a significant change in their life — a divorce, the end of school, the birth of a child, lack of employment alternatives. But as Jenny Yang of Phoenix Tofu recalled, her move into ownership was not an easy switch. She enduring eighteen months of non-stop effort in order to put her stamp on the business, “I was gone so much, my children asked my husband if I still lived in this house.”
Passion for quality food was a big driver for everyone on the panel, as was using produce in season and from local sources. Nicole Bergere lamented the American public’s taste for processed, preserved packaged goods as she uses none in her crackers, “Please try real food, there’s nothing like it.” Everyone on the panel nodded in agreement.
Since Nicole has been in business the longest and had the most success, the other women on the panel asked her how to grow without losing the essence of the product. She turned to Elizabeth Madden from Rare Bird, “You don’t want to be Smuckers and I don’t want to be Ritz Cracker.” She told them in order to grow, they should find the people who work like you work, believe in what you do and creep along until it happens. Don’t sacrifice quality and never disappoint a customer.
I’d say that’s solid advice for women going into any type of business.
Products from these women culinary entrepreneurs are available at the Chicago Downtown Farmstand, 66 E Randolph, Chicago, IL 60601.