PTM 012: Making Extra Money by Starting a Small Food Business

In this podcast, PT talks to Jennifer who has started a dog treat company! She offers lots of tips and advice for any potential entreprenuer. She also has plenty of tips for folks specifically interested in small food business.

Part Time Money PodcastIn today's episode, I have the pleasure of chatting with Jennifer Lewis of Petit Four Legs, a handcrafted dog treat company. Jennifer started her part-time gig while in grad school and has continued with the business while maintaining a career in marketing. Her income from the part-time business now reaches close to a third of her career income.

Jennifer's story and advice can really help anyone interested in staring a small food business. There are plenty of good entrepreneurial takeaways as well.

Jennifer's Story: Specialty Dog Treats

Any grad student would admit they could use a little extra money. While working on her MBA, Jennifer Lewis came up with the idea of combining her love of all things culinary along with her background in business and created a part-time job for herself.

PetitFourLegs.com was born in the kitchen of her tiny apartment in Chicago when she realized a need for specialty dog treats that none of the big manufacturers could meet. It took her about 2 months to design a specialty treat along with creative packaging—one that people would give as gifts on holidays to their pets or to an aunt or friend who is crazy about his or her dog.

It took her about 6 months to go through the entire process, including creating a business plan and pulling the trigger on the business. Even after she finished grad school and took a job in marketing at a Seattle zoo, she was able to find the time to continue baking doggy treats and after several years was making 1/3 of her full-time salary.

Due to health and culinary regulations, Jennifer couldn’t bake items in her own kitchen, so she rents a local commercial kitchen for a few hours each week, and then works on packing and shipping those orders during nights and weekends. It takes her a bit of coordination of her schedules to make it all work, but the trade off is that she gets to exercise both creativity and culinary skills—something she didn’t get to do in her day job.

About 2 years ago I had written a press release. I had switched over to using green packaging, wrote a press release about it, didn’t expect a whole lot. Just about 2 weeks ago I got a call from a reporter from Inc. Magazine who was interested in doing a story about green packaging and had found me because Google Search could search the press release that was on my website. So, it kind of taught me that lesson. It is like everything that you do that is good for your business, the New York Times may not be reading the press release, but at some point with the beauty of search engines, somebody might, and it might be really beneficial for your company.

The Business of Drop Shipping

Her first client was Neiman Marcus. She had a connection through a person her mother played bridge with. That connection gave her the name of a person, Jennifer sent them samples of her treats, and she got a contract with them to drop ship her product. They also listed it on the Neiman Marcus website.

So what is “drop shipping”? Take for instance, Neiman Marcus. They sell Jennifer’s product on their site, and when someone purchases the product, Jennifer gets an email telling her it needs to be shipped. She then packages it and ships it on their shipping account. Jennifer is paid the wholesale price, and the retailer is able to take the margin and not have to worry about the inventory. For a culinary product like Jennifer’s, it works well because it enables her to assure quality for her customers, as her product is not sitting in a warehouse for months at a time.

Jennifer credits her idea of sending samples for helping her land the account. Often people think doggy treats are shaped like a bone and in a plastic bag, but hers was not like that. She knew they needed to see the packaging because it is one of the things that made her product stand out from the rest. The typical Neiman Marcus customer is a luxury consumer who is specifically looking for gifts to buy. Her product fit their niche.

While Neiman Marcus was essential to building her brand’s equity, she no longer contracts with them. Instead, she’s built drop-shipping partnerships with a variety of other individual partners. Another 60% of her business is funded through partnerships with boutiques, while about 5% comes from online retail sales on her website.

Starting a Part Time Food BusinessNot only did I start and currently run a small business on the side but I also wrote about a book about how to start a part-time food business that was just published. The book I wrote, which is titled Starting a Part-time Food Business: Everything You Need to Know to Turn Your Love for Food Into a Successful Business Without Necessarily Quitting Your Day Job, came about after numerous people asked me to consult with them regarding how to start a small part-time food business.

Listen to the Podcast

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Questions I ask Jennifer during the podcast:

On Money and Life

  • What made you want to make part-time money?
  • Did it fill a financial need, or was it a passion?
  • What is your full time gig and how does that work with your part time business?
  • Have you always had a full time job?
  • Was your MBA for your marketing career or for entrepreneur?
  • How much are you making with the business?
  • Are you planning on full-time?

On Starting a Food Business

  • What made you choose this type of business over something else?
  • How did you develop this small food product and how did you promote it?
  • How did you get into Neiman Marcus?
  • How did you get on Good Morning America?
  • How were sales after a big media hit like that?
  • What is drop-shipping and why do you use it?
  • Do you have retail space?
  • What percentage of your business is drop ship vs wholesale?
  • Do you make all the product yourself at home?
  • Is kitchen rental space your biggest expense? What other expenses?
  • Why not do the work in your own kitchen?
  • What mistakes have you made along the way?
  • Where is a good place to find a PR firm?

Full transcript can be seen by clicking show