Understanding Food Entrepreneurs: Motivations, Methods, & Meaning

by Claudia Catalano

When I was 16 I had a dream of starting my own pie business. I was working a summer job in Maine and had convinced my boss to allow me to bake homemade pies and sell them by the slice at his “lobster in the rough” establishment. The customers went wild for them, and on my first day in business I sold out before the lunch rush even finished. Not knowing what he had gotten himself into, my boss brought my baking to a halt after the third day of sell-out success. He feared it was becoming too disruptive to his core business. I was crushed. Since then, there has been a renaissance in locally produced food. Publications like Edible Boston provide a steady stream of small-business stories featuring cooks, candy-makers, distillers, coffee roasters, cheese makers, chocolatiers, farmers, and various food wholesalers. Crop Circle Kitchen, a shared commercial kitchen and culinary business incubator in Jamaica Plain, MA, has launched over a hundred businesses since 2009 with a 40% success rate. My short-lived pie venture aside; I seek to discover the holistic experience of food entrepreneurs today. What motivates them? What sustains them? Is there a deeper meaning behind the work they do?

food_logosI recently completed a semester-long research project for the class Food Ethnography with Professor Carole Counihan (ML 642). With the aim of gaining a holistic understanding of this growing business group, my research explores the motivations, challenges, and operations of six food entrepreneurs in the Boston area. The methodology consisted of participant observation, 30-60 minute semi-structured interviews, photography and collection of visual artifacts such as logos, product packaging, and marketing materials. I was fortunate to meet several inspiring, Boston-area entrepreneurs that willingly participated in my research and welcomed me into their worlds. They include: Guy Rabinowitz of Guy’s Healthy Home Cooking, Alex Whitmore of Taza Chocolate, Lourdes Smith of Fiore Di Nonno, Alex Bourgeois of Alex’s Ugly Sauce, Poorvi Patodia of Biena Foods, and Sherie Grillon of NoLa’s Fresh Foods.

Participants were asked several questions regarding their personal and professional backgrounds, business ideas, motivations, challenges, goals, daily operations, marketing efforts, ties to local food community, and general outlook on life. What I found is that most food entrepreneurs in my study have different motivations than general entrepreneurs. While, of course, they all need to earn a living, most are not monetarily driven.

The desire to make others happy is a primary motivator and most entrepreneurs see that as an immense source of fulfillment. Below is one of the most telling quotes from my research:

“…I love seeing people smile when they eat something. It’s that… core. Food is love. Food is culture… it should bring pleasure… There’s some piece to me that wants people to be happy.”

Lourdes Smith, Fiore Di Nonno

Ubiquitous to food entrepreneurs is passion and hard work. Start-ups especially stated how hard it is to run a business—physically, emotionally and financially. Based on my research, there is evidence of a deeper meaning behind the work of food entrepreneurs. They are not just selling products to consumers, but making human connections, enriching lives, and in some cases making ethical or environmental statements.

Perhaps if I had persevered, my young pie business would have succeeded. But even in my three days as a food entrepreneur, I felt the power of bringing people happiness through food.

Claudia is a first-year MLA candidate who hopes to combine her background in design with her passion for the local food movement. To read her entire research paper, email claudia.j.catalano@gmail.com.

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  1. I loved your article. I was a food entrepreneur once and i found it inspiring. Now i work in food marketing, helping entrepreneurs, and food photograph, and making people happy is a part of the motivation.

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