Food Producers

Veteran Maine Food Producers Share Lessons Learned

The companies represented on the panel were Stonewall Kitchen (Natalie and Jonathan King), Stonyfield Farm Café (Mac McCabe), Winterport Winery (Joan and Mike Anderson), Grindstone Neck of Maine (Carl and Mason Johnson), and  Raye’s Mustard  (Karen Raye).   These are all well-established businesses, involved in a variety of food products and run for the most part by the people who built these businesses from scratch.  The points the panelists made really resonated with me, both in view of my own professional experience and because I have heard these same issues and concerns raised many times over by clients and industry contacts.

Here are the key lessons these food industry veterans shared about distribution, finances, marketing, and people:

Distribution, Pricing, Costs

  • Have a clear distribution strategy.  Network with your peers and do your own research on all distribution channels –  retail supermarkets, specialty food stores, warehouse clubs, military commissaries,  foodservice,  etc.
  • Understand the pricing and margin structure for each channel – they are all different.  For instance, a supermarket retailer’s margin will be in the range of 30-40%, while a specialty food store will be about 60% (including distributor margins).
  • Understand your true costs.  Put the tracking in place that will help you to accurately determine every aspect of your costs.  Make sure you factor in yields for both raw ingredients and finished products.
  • Price consistently – be very careful about discounting.  Stonewall Kitchen, for instance, has never discounted their prices.


  • Plan for capital investment.   New food producers often underestimate their capital needs.
  • Control your growth.  Develop a relationship with the oldest bank in the area and then deal with the youngest bank manager there who will spend time with you and fight for what you need.


  • Know your market.  You need to know everything about the market you are in and be passionate about what you do.
  • Sampling is the key to growing a food business.   You can gather critical feedback and create a buzz about your product.
  • Always be creative, innovative.  Maintain your enthusiasm and the positive driving force of your business.


  • Surround yourself with the best people you can afford and be sure to take care of yourself.  This latter point is very important and often overlooked.
  • Figure out what you are good at and what you are not good at.  Hire good people to do the latter.
  • Know when to hire staff in order to grow.  In fact, having the right people is critically important for start-ups. Hire good people who are passionate about what you do.
  • Promote from within, but remember that sometimes you also need to hire outside.

3 Key Takeaways

1. Hiring decisions (and timing) are critically important to a successful business.

2. Know your business, inside and out, particularly your financials, pricing, costs, and capital needs.

3. Be passionate about what you do.

If you’d like to discuss how these lessons apply to your brand or business, contact me at