Posted on 17 October 2008
by Alexis Priddy
Bpeace Fast Runners Mariam, Guljan, Zainul and Habiba are food processors (dried fruits and nuts; tomato paste; honey; and mint water and dried herbs and essences, respectively). During the Bpeace Apprentice Road Trip (BART), they're spending two weeks in Maine. Why Maine? This state harbors a lot of entrepreneurial natural and organic food companies with an inspirational size footprint inspirational for our Associates.
Our BART foodies had a whirlwind trip, with tangible and actionable lessons learned:
- Lean Manufacturing: They particularly responded to the idea of developing documents detailing standard operating procedures that they could provide to their employees and suppliers in order to improve the quality and efficiency of production.
- Private Label Production: The recurring theme of doing private label production for other companies resonated. Mariam, Guljan, Habiba and Zainul learned the potential benefits and drawbacks of this arrangement. If they decide to pursue opportunities with other sellers back home, they now also know the implications of pricing/costing, and what constitutes appropriate contractual agreements for these types of arrangements.
- Product differentiation: A visit to Wilbur's Chocolates (above) and Simply Divine Brownies included a product review, and a tour of each company's (joined) retail stores. The emphasis was on using packaging and specialty products to achieve product differentiation--capturing new markets through holiday and seasonal themes, and "Maine native" products. Owner Catherine Carty-Wilbur provided a tour of the production facilities, going over the principles of sanitation, quality control, production organization, and packaging.
But in addition to the valuable direct education, came the Bpeace Aha! moments. As often happens, these were as a result of unscripted, human interactions we couldn't have predicted.
Starting small can yield big results: During the Q&A session at Wilbur's Chocolates (over fresh Maine cider and chocolates), our Afghan entrepreneurs asked how Catherine grew her business. They heard how she and her husband started their business by cooking up chocolates on their stove, and setting up a packaging system in their basement. They've achieved their current level of sales/production over 25 years. They've grown slowly on purpose--taking on loans only when they have all of their other debts paid off.
Hands-on can get neurons firing: At Swan's Honey, Karen and Lincoln Sennett were extremely warm and hospitable. The technical information about processing and production was most immediately helpful to beekeper Zainul (with the Sennetts in her gift from Swan's, above). But some of the other market opportunities for products and byproducts were of interest to everyone, especially the demonstration of how to make both soap and balm using honey and beeswax. Bpeace Fast Runners even tried their hands at rolling their own beeswax candles. It seems this got them thinking: not only did Zainul hatch interesting ideas for product expansion (i.e., selling her wax, which she is not now doing), but the foodies got collaborative—Zainul and Mariam talked about teaming up to produce a honey nut spread, and Habiba wants to explore incorporating her essential mint oil with Zainul's beeswax to make specialty balms and soaps.
Apply elbow grease, create new product: On Friday, we loaded the entrepreneurs into a van for the two-plus hour drive from Freeport, Maine to Boston for the Natural and Organic Food Show at the Convention Center. Wow. Sensory overload. Everyone snacked their way through the booths, dazzled by the packaging and innovation. But it was something that Americans take for granted that made Mariam’s eyes pop out when she tasted it—nut butter. Afghanistan is known for the quality of their almonds, and when Mariam (with me above) tasted a raw almond nut butter, she was immediately smitten and grilled the exhibitor on how to make it. We’ll have to round up a food processing machine to show her just how easy it is.
Family businesses are strong businesses: The last stop at the Food Show was the booth of Liberty Richter, the distributor for Bar Harbor Foods. CEO Mike Cote is my dad. And the VP of marketing and Quality Insurance is Bpeacer Cynthia Fisher who provided the vision behind this Maine portion of the apprenticeships for the Food Processing Fast Runners. The number and quality of strong family bonds seen in the Maine food businesses hit home for our Associates—most Afghan entrepreneurs we meet work side-by-side with husbands, sisters, and cousins. Above, our grateful Barties and their hosts, left to right: Guljan, Zainul, Cynthia, Mariam, Mike, Michelle and Habiba.
--Bpeacer Michelle Cote, October 2008