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Fermentation business idea

 
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Location: Iron River MI
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I currently work a full time job at a utility company with good pay and benefits, but absolutely no fulfillment at all. I’m not interested in my job and feel that I should be more passionate about how I spend these 8 hours every day. I’ve tossed around a few different small business ideas and the one that sticks out as possibly being the best idea is a fermentation business.

I’ve been fermenting vegetables for maybe 6-7 years, and have gotten into kefir, kombucha, vinegar and sourdough as well. I love food, am interested in health and wellness, and am passionate about helping to create sustainable local food systems. I’ve also worked in kitchens before and have a friend who is a state health inspector, so I’m familiar with the environment and most of what is legally required.

Here are some of the reasons I think this could be a slick idea for a business:

1. Relatively low startup costs
2. Relatively easy to make a bunch of product
3. Billions of bacteria will be happily working for me for free to help create my finished product
4. There are ZERO fermentation businesses within 100-150 miles of us
5. Physical health, gut microbiome, probiotics, fermented foods and local food systems are all on the rise and I dont see that stopping soon.
6. I think I could keep my full time job and put 4-6 hours a week into making product without totally throwing life out of balance. This could lead to a sort of smooth transition from one career to the next (theoretically).

Ideally, I would like to source organic produce as locally as possible, and try to sell all of our product as locally as possible. This will help build local food systems, connect community with food and connect farmers with their customers.

Being people who are familiar with fermentation, and probably enjoy it at least to some extent, I would love your opinions. Am I being totally naive about this idea? Should I just stick with my current job and stop looking for greener pastures? Any big obvious roadblocks that I haven’t considered?

Any advice is greatly appreciated!

Thank you,
-Brody
 
pollinator
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Look into cottage industry laws in your area; some localities will not let unpasteurized food be sold to the public.
Also make a list of all the people and places you would potentially be able to sell your product on a weekly, monthly basis.
 
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hey brody

Good on you for trying to find something you are more passionate in! I am all for making fermented foods. I am waiting for some water to cool in order to start making some dandelion mead i picked this morning. Nettle beer is cooling before i add lemon juice, honey and raisins to it, to start the fermentation process. These things happen in my everyday life. With that being said it is made only for our use. Scaling up really adds much more to the process.
I make quick drinking mead because i do not need to store it for 6+ months, to age the mead. This is mostly because of the space required, plus not having constant temp areas for storage.
Sanitizing bottles is something i dread. Maybe some type of washing machine could sanitize large amounts of bottles at once?

We have people on the island who make kombucha and sell it. It works and is quite easy. I do not know what would be required to make more than 1 gallon at a time however. Other than having many 1 gallon pickle jars going.

Sauerkraut is quite easy. I am surprised sauerkraut is sold in stores, i find it easy to make and process.

I do believe this is something which would be good to try. I suggest;
-starting small
-I suggest sticking to 2 or so items and nailing them really well
-Still making all the other ferments for your own use.
-consider teaching workshops
-sales avenues which do not require inspection


Our farmers market allows items which are made by local people. This includes beer, herbal elixars, meads, kombucha, sauerkraut, herbal salves, wine, fruits. Just about anything, all without inspection.

What type of scale are you looking to do? 4-6 hours a week might only get you so far. Most of my attention to these items is in little stints.
How will you market the product?
Will it all need to be inspected?
Would teaching workshops help folks eat more of these items?
Making home scale produce, is usually more money than what can be had at the store. Will you be charging a good amount for the items? Is there a culture of people buying food from small producers? People here will reguarly buy organic sourdough for 7.50$ here. It is made by a local baker. My mom thinks 7.50 is crazy.

Is there a way to make a sort of weekly/bi monthly delivery of fermented foods to people? Subscription style?


so much to say really. I have some other things to do today.

Look forward to your reply brody!
 
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Although it's something I did once and never looked at again, try and create a five year business plan.  What's your trial process to prove the ideas viable? How much will you need to make and sell to break even? How will you scale it up? What will be a measure of success?  What are your start up costs and how will you fund it? Remember to give yourself enough margin to employ yourself.  How will you reach your customers?  Maybe do a SWOT (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) analysis.  You may find your local council have business support officers that can give advice, maybe even funding if you fit their criteria?
I'm not into fermented foods myself, although I would like to try it.  My one attempt at saurkraut was .... not good.  For me to buy something like this I would be keen to try it first.  Can you give samples at a farmers market for example?  Or have assorted trial packs and menu suggestions.
Other ideas, how about reusing jars?  That could be a way of locking in customers to your product, if they got a reasonable discount for returning your jars.  Then you could afford really premium jars, for a premium product price.
Running your own business isn't for everyone, there are far more annoying paper hurdles to jump, and noone else to delegate to.  It sounds like this is something that you have some passion for so give it a go.  If you can prove there is a local demand, and build on it whilst keeping your existing job, it seems like a win to me.  
 
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I recommend having a few alternative sources of containers to sell things in. I have a friend whose business faltered when canning jars and lids became scarce. She sells jams and sauces in jars. She's just started to get enough supplies to start selling again.
 
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A container return system may keep the cost of containers down if you are selling in jars or glass.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Dustin Rhodes wrote:Look into cottage industry laws in your area; some localities will not let unpasteurized food be sold to the public.
Also make a list of all the people and places you would potentially be able to sell your product on a weekly, monthly basis.



Unfortunately, Michigan cottage food laws don’t apply to these sorts of foods, so we need a full blown licensed commercial kitchen and state inspections to do this.

And good idea with the list. I have a lot of networking to do first to find out who’s interested in selling the products.
 
Brody Ekberg
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T Simpson wrote:A container return system may keep the cost of containers down if you are selling in jars or glass.



Definitely want to sell in glass or plastic jars, and a return/deposit system has crossed my mind. Mostly because recycling is a joke and landfills are worse. It seems like it could be complicated to set up, but could be worth it.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Ellendra Nauriel wrote:I recommend having a few alternative sources of containers to sell things in. I have a friend whose business faltered when canning jars and lids became scarce. She sells jams and sauces in jars. She's just started to get enough supplies to start selling again.



Very good point. The great panic definitely had/has affected so many industry related goods.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Nancy Reading wrote:Although it's something I did once and never looked at again, try and create a five year business plan.  What's your trial process to prove the ideas viable? How much will you need to make and sell to break even? How will you scale it up? What will be a measure of success?  What are your start up costs and how will you fund it? Remember to give yourself enough margin to employ yourself.  How will you reach your customers?  Maybe do a SWOT (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) analysis.  You may find your local council have business support officers that can give advice, maybe even funding if you fit their criteria?
I'm not into fermented foods myself, although I would like to try it.  My one attempt at saurkraut was .... not good.  For me to buy something like this I would be keen to try it first.  Can you give samples at a farmers market for example?  Or have assorted trial packs and menu suggestions.
Other ideas, how about reusing jars?  That could be a way of locking in customers to your product, if they got a reasonable discount for returning your jars.  Then you could afford really premium jars, for a premium product price.
Running your own business isn't for everyone, there are far more annoying paper hurdles to jump, and noone else to delegate to.  It sounds like this is something that you have some passion for so give it a go.  If you can prove there is a local demand, and build on it whilst keeping your existing job, it seems like a win to me.  



So far, this is all ideas and me looking into startup costs. So I definitely need to come up with an actual business plan and should run through a lot of what you mentioned. I was pretty into it before the pandemic, but that brought the whole idea to a halt quickly. Now that I see society isn’t collapsing and money is still relevant, the idea is back in the front of my mind!

I dont think I can legally do samples, at least not at a farmers market. But there may be other ways and I like the idea. Definitely will need to talk to our state inspector to see what, if anything has changed regarding food safety due to the great panic. And yes, a container return system is a slick idea for several reasons. Seems like it could be complicated but worth the effort.
 
Brody Ekberg
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jordan barton wrote:
I do believe this is something which would be good to try. I suggest;
-starting small
-I suggest sticking to 2 or so items and nailing them really well
-Still making all the other ferments for your own use.
-consider teaching workshops
-sales avenues which do not require inspection


Our farmers market allows items which are made by local people. This includes beer, herbal elixars, meads, kombucha, sauerkraut, herbal salves, wine, fruits. Just about anything, all without inspection.

What type of scale are you looking to do? 4-6 hours a week might only get you so far. Most of my attention to these items is in little stints.
How will you market the product?
Will it all need to be inspected?
Would teaching workshops help folks eat more of these items?
Making home scale produce, is usually more money than what can be had at the store. Will you be charging a good amount for the items? Is there a culture of people buying food from small producers? People here will reguarly buy organic sourdough for 7.50$ here. It is made by a local baker. My mom thinks 7.50 is crazy.

Is there a way to make a sort of weekly/bi monthly delivery of fermented foods to people? Subscription style?


so much to say really. I have some other things to do today.

Look forward to your reply brody!



We will definitely be starting small and probably only offering 2 products at first: plain old sauerkraut and my concoction that is a pink mix of several vegetables. I think the kraut will be the gateway for skeptics and old people and the pink stuff will grab attention and get the younger more curious people (hopefully) and pave the way for things like kimchi, curry kraut and many other ideas. Ideas that we will work on fine tuning at home on a small scale before trying to sell them.

Also, I love the idea of workshops (other than training people to stop being our customers!) and do plan on doing that sort of thing eventually.

I dont know of any sales avenues that wont require inspection. I think we legally need the product to be produced and stored in an inspected, licensed facility. Farmers markets are not an option for this kind of product here. So that is limiting but oh well.

As far as marketing: word of mouth, product in all the local stores with advertising like “locally produced” or “Michigan made” like so many other local products. Also social media obviously will be huge for marketing.

For pricing, id like to keep it as low as possible/profitable because this is primarily a low income area. But locally produced almost always seems to be more expensive, so keeping prices down may be a challenge. Or we just expand our sales area and let the prices be what they need to be.

Subscriptions never crossed my mind, but it’s an interesting idea that I’ll toss around.

Thanks for the advice!
 
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My partner is now a member of a "shared commercial kitchen", after her having two prior kitchens (one solo, one shared with one other business). It might be something to look into, since the costs of "ownership" of your own commercial kitchen are high (setup, equipment, inspections, licenses, maintenance, supplies, rent, utilities). Sometimes churches have certified kitchens that they rent out, or in the shared kitchen model, there's a dozen or so fledgling food businesses, sharing the space at different times/days, for a reasonable fee.

Packaging, yes, same experience here. Supply chain breakdown...sellouts, shortages, and delays. Maybe there's jars, but no lids... maybe there's a hundred in stock! hooray! or maybe the inventory is off... punt and get a different jar? hope our labels fit?! Hopefully this gets back to normal before the fall.

Sampling, rules are usually set by local boards of health, and can be permissive or restrictive, there's not much getting around it though, you comply and serve, or don't serve. If they inspect on-site, they can shut you down if you fail.
Some places allow you to dispense your samples at an event, others they must be pre-portioned and sealed beforehand in a licensed kitchen.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Kenneth Elwell wrote:My partner is now a member of a "shared commercial kitchen", after her having two prior kitchens (one solo, one shared with one other business). It might be something to look into, since the costs of "ownership" of your own commercial kitchen are high (setup, equipment, inspections, licenses, maintenance, supplies, rent, utilities). Sometimes churches have certified kitchens that they rent out, or in the shared kitchen model, there's a dozen or so fledgling food businesses, sharing the space at different times/days, for a reasonable fee.

Packaging, yes, same experience here. Supply chain breakdown...sellouts, shortages, and delays. Maybe there's jars, but no lids... maybe there's a hundred in stock! hooray! or maybe the inventory is off... punt and get a different jar? hope our labels fit?! Hopefully this gets back to normal before the fall.

Sampling, rules are usually set by local boards of health, and can be permissive or restrictive, there's not much getting around it though, you comply and serve, or don't serve. If they inspect on-site, they can shut you down if you fail.
Some places allow you to dispense your samples at an event, others they must be pre-portioned and sealed beforehand in a licensed kitchen.



We’re definitely hoping to rent kitchen space, at least to start out with. Ideally, I’d like to be able to put up a small building at home for the business, but definitely not yet. There are a few restaurants that have closed down here since the pandemic, there’s several churches with kitchens and a seasonal food business as well, so we do have options. Just need to start asking around to see who’s willing to rent space. Also need to figure out a way to seal our fermentation crocks so that we can tell if someone has opened them while we’re not around.

And yes, I’m sure the pandemic has created all sorts of inconsistencies and inconveniences for food packaging, among most other things. I’m not holding onto hopes for any sort of “normal”, at least not in the old sense of the word. But consistent or reliable would be nice!

And about sampling: this hadn’t crossed my mind last year when I was digging into this stuff, so I have no idea what our restrictions are. But I think it could be a great idea so I will definitely look into it.
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