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Business: Honeysuckle Gelato
Founders: Wes Jones, Jackson Smith and Khatera Ballard
Year our Business Launched: 2011
In 2011, I made what many considered a very risky decision: I quit a good job in a down economy to start my own business. To make things even more interesting, I entered an industry in which I had never worked to make a product unfamiliar to most in the Southeast: gelato. While my business partners and I received praise for our bravery and the quality of our team (two of us hold masters degrees and the other worked under, arguably, the best gelato maker in the country), we knew there were skeptics. We also knew that it would require a defined vision, extremely long hours, financial help and loads of patience in order to make our business, Honeysuckle Gelato, a success.
It's been more than 18 months since I quit my old job, and Honeysuckle Gelato has been up and running since last June. We launched with a food truck and now supply southern-inspired gelato to some of Atlanta's finest restaurants, specialty markets and private events. While our list of "teachable moments" (translation: "mistakes") seems to be endless, the lessons we have learned continue to help us evolve and improve.
I've found that our greatest miscalculations revolve around two assumptions: 1), believing that we did enough due diligence to have a workable understanding of the major legal issues associated with operating a food production company and a food truck and 2), thinking we had the time, money and help necessary to truly get up and running.
The idea behind our food truck was to use it as a source of cash flow and a marketing tool. Even after meetings with attorneys, health/permitting officials and then-current food truck owners, I had no clue how to truly navigate the legal landscape. I knew we needed five major permits/licenses: one from the Department of Agriculture to manufacture our gelato, separate business licenses for wholesale and retail sales and health and vending permits to operate our food truck.
What I was unaware of were the additional 10 permits/licenses that I ended up getting. I also was unaware of dual permitting restrictions that prevented us from operating our food truck in most metro Atlanta counties. The list -- and the number of hilarious stories behind getting every license and permit -- is endless. I spent more than 30 days over our first 12 months in different regulatory offices working through the permitting process. That's more than a full month of work! Since this is a blog and not a novel, let me just leave this part of my story by saying that the process was slightly tougher than I anticipated. If anyone is interested in hearing the full breakdown, set aside a few hours and a couple of bottles of wine and give me a call.
The permitting process (which I fully support, but would love to see streamlined) was one of the major factors we underestimated in regards to the amount of time, money and help we anticipated needing. However, this was not the only factor in our miscalculations. Despite taking a number of months to research and write (in my opinion) an excellent and well-thought-out business plan, there was no way to truly predict everything that could have and did happen once the actual work started. Something as simple as setting up a meeting with a chef typically took two or three times longer than anticipated. Many potential customers were hesitant to try gelato because they mistakenly thought it was a form of gelatin, not ice cream. Freight costs on container shipments were astronomical. Small-batch printing for pint labels would cost more than the actual product in some instances, forcing us to limit our pint offerings. Finding the right suppliers for local and natural and/or organic dairy and produce took quite a bit of trial and error. Balancing selling enough volume with picking the right partners to ensure we did not devalue our brand took (and is still taking) a lot of patience. All in all, we were a classic case of "you don't know what you don't know" with a number of aspects of getting a business up and running -- especially a food business.
However, all of these experiences taught us valuable lessons and led us to hire several wonderful and qualified individuals to help get us on the right path. To date, we've hired one part-time consultant, one part-time kitchen assistant, seven seasonal employees, a salesperson and two interns. If we continue down our current path, our part-time kitchen assistant will be brought on as a full-time employee; we will hire two additional assistants for the kitchen and two catering employees and at least one office employee. This doesn't count the seasonal work we will still need or any potential hires in 2014.
Looking back over the past 18 months, I am proud of where we are and wouldn't trade our struggles for anything (well, maybe just a couple of things). I'm most proud of the fact that we have stayed true to our goals and vision and that the quality of our product has only improved.
Looking forward, I only hope that we continue to stick to the practices that have led to our current position. The best advice I can give is to share the few things I think have made us successful: Focus on what you do best; always look for ways to adapt what you're best at to meet your customers' demands; practice patience; and never compromise the quality of what you offer. Do this and people will notice. Trust me, I know.
Follow Wes Jones on Twitter: www.twitter.com/honeysuckleatl