Interview: Watusee Foods

Tell me about how your firm has grown in the last few months.
In the last few months we have not focused on topline revenue and instead really focused on solidifying our vendor relationships and our strategy for cash flow for the next two years. We’re trying to get a little bit more out back to day-to-day and just make sure we’re ready to rock and roll January 1st 2015. I mean factoring and packaging and supply chain, so that we have the cash and resources in place to grow this business, in order to have the effect that Greg and I really want. It’s been very exciting to develop these relationships, understand the scale of food, and the huge supply chain and inertia behind it that these big companies have, and realize we’re really on the precipice of being able to be a thorn in the side of processed, crappy carbohydrate snacks.

How have you been able to connect with these vendors? What are some steps you’ve taken?
A lot of that is asking questions constantly to everybody you get in contact with, but knowing not to overwhelm them. So, having a feel that “Oh this guy at some point was in food” or this guy consulted for a company that helped a food company. And building relationships with all the people you’re with. It’s important to understand people you normally talk to and what their lives have been previously. You can sometimes build relationships more quickly that can actually help you out in strong ways.

Have you figured out what your strategy looks like?
We have honed a 30,000 foot view of our model, which is: find a contract manufacturer and regionalize these accounts, keeping our sales team lean, and focusing on quality not quantity.

Will you continue to produce the chickpeas in DC?
It depends what manufacturer we can find. Some part will always be in DC, as planned, but to really produce at the scale of Lay’s potato chips, you really need to find somebody that is adept, skilled, and efficient at a level beyond what I see on a day-to-day basis.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Everybody has an opinion, and none of them are necessarily wrong, but only one person sees the whole view. I’m very lucky that I have a business partner that basically sits in the back of my head and has a 30,000 foot view at all times, but it can be difficult to decide which nugget of feedback from people you respect you will run with.

What is your business partner’s role?
Greg gives me ten to twenty hours a week, his primary role is my mental handler. From strategic projects, he handles a couple relationships, and jumps in and out of PR.

I know that you hire people from underserved areas. Can you tell me about some of the value that your employees have brought to your company?
It’s building a stronger community. Having people that have had different experiences in their lives on your team creates different perspectives. Whenever you’re doing something if you’re only doing it with your own blinders, it’s not going to be as successful as when other people jump in and give feedback. The trick is making sure everyone feels respected along the way. We really have a stronger team based on the various experiences that our staff has. And when we’re looking at our vendor relationships, we prioritize the folks that have a very similar scope to us and have also done it a whole lot better, hiring folks that have had challenges previously, and getting those people into healthy and productive workplace environments.

Is there any feedback that you’ve gotten specifically from your employees that you’ve adopted?
One really specific one deals with my attempt at putting a very simple non-mechanical apparatus in place to help with our packaging. Our folks currently scoop the product in the bag. I continue to try to find a very basic funnel and gravity system to help reduce the amount of human error that through iterations from them and feedback, we realized that it just wasn’t going to be practical, that it interrupted them before a mobile button system could go into place. So it was actually based on their feedback that that project is instead focused on finding environments where they can physically be as comfortable and productive, rather than using tools to help them.

Tell me about the relationship you have with your mentors.
Two come from food backgrounds. I’d like to say my relationships with them are jovial and productive. I hope they’re having fun. Some are CEOs of companies that have absolutely nothing to do with food, some are CEOs of food businesses. Some are previous CEOs of businesses, and some are just smart people who I trust and respect. It’s important to find people who can understand my thought process and then provide different perspectives. Instead of me going down a true north path, and this thing goes south, I might end up going northwest to a much better solution than it was previously.

Are you planning on expanding your product line, creating new flavors?
Yes, we’re planning on producing some new flavors with Whole Foods. Already, we introduced a store-specific barbecue flavor for their opening of their Columbia, MD location. And we’re planning on one or two additional seasonal flavors within the next year, as well as reintroducing barbecue for the spring, given the feedback we were able to receive along the way. We are currently in 32 Whole Foods, visiting four more today. By the end of the month, we should be above 35.

When you reached out to Whole Foods, did you know someone there initially or is there a process that they have?
They have a process. At that time, Union Kitchen was the shared food incubator space that we were in, I was lucky enough to have known one of the cofounders, Jonah Singer, for a long time, so we had a really positive work relationship. I knew that he had talked to Whole Foods along the way and he offered to make an introduction and from that introduction, about 20 businesses went in front of Whole Foods. We were one of two or three that they decided to roll out. We are now the fastest growing product as a local producer Whole Foods has ever had in their store. We picked up over twenty five stores in just a couple days and they describe that growth as incredible.

Do you have a moment that stands out to you as one of your proudest moments that you’ve had through this or some sort of recognition or milestone you’ve reached that you were proud of reaching?
It’s such a continuum. I think there was a day when we received something like 8 or 9 Whole Foods recurring orders in the same day. That was really satisfying. Also, we’re able to really have some conversations that are going to lead to the impact we’re looking to achieve. This is going to lead to [farmers] dedicating all this additional farmland to just make organic chickpeas, and growing the size of the organic-loyal market. We can grow this business so we can really have an effect so that other companies can stop using industrial seed vegetable oils and stop using non-organic seeds, and also scale the impact along with us as we bootstrap.

We now buy our chickpeas in lumps of like 40,000 pounds a pop. That means that we have to find somebody who can supply 40,000 pounds of chickpeas. That’s not a normal order in the market. As we dedicate and solidify our supply chain, we’re better able to grow the market for chickpeas.

Where do you get your chickpeas from now?
All our chickpeas are grown on American soil, they’re primarily harvested from the southwest because you want a bigger bean, and their environment yields a larger diameter bean. We also source from the Southeast.

You must have done a lot of research to figure out where the beans grow best, that sounds pretty specific.
A lot of that is talking to people. I am really talking to the folks that live the bean business and sell beans.

Is there anything else you feel we haven’t touched upon that you would like people who visit our website to know about your company or about your growth process?
Really focusing on surrounding yourself with good people like Ian Fisk at Mentor Capital Network and folks that will actually take a liking and take a care to you and make sure you’re growing a business that’s about being inspirational, first and foremost to your customers and your consumers, but also the people that surround you. Staff, vendors, providers. We’re here on earth to be happy and we want to have those relationships be positive and productive.

I first met Ian six years ago, with a business plan that was focused on a gym that would harness human energy beyond standard renewable energy technology throughout fitness facilities. From there I became a judge, created a different perspective, and this year I was back with my second submission, and the strength of Mentor Capital Network has definitely been a positive force on our business.