Texas Rising - April/May 2011

Humble Budget,
Tasty Venture.

The obstacle of a tiny budget wasn’t too much to overcome for Humble House Foods’ founder, Luis Morales. by David Bloom

Luis Morales, Humble House Foods Founder

With just $500 and an inability to take “no” for an answer, San Antonio food craftsman, Luis Morales and his fiancé, Marsha Millegan, have turned a passion into a successful business venture.

After graduating from the San Antonio branch of the Culinary Institute of America in 2007, Morales and Millegan dreamed of carving out careers as their own boss, rather than working for a restaurant, hotel or country club as they’d both done in the past.

“But the whole process of getting licensed to operate a food business is almost designed to discourage anyone from starting a business,” says Morales. And the young couple was told that $50,000 was the bare minimum they should invest in their start-up venture if it was to have a decent chance of succeeding.

Undaunted, Morales read every book he could find about Texas’ food laws and how to get an operation up and running. Wading through dense legalese wasn’t a piece of cake for the trained chef, but it was the necessary first step to ensuring that he understood what was needed to run a business that met every health code requirement.

In the summer of 2009, they sub-leased a 10-foot by 12-foot room from a local coffee roaster. With the basic ingredients for their cheeses and an investment with two zeros less than the suggested $50,000 seed money, Humble House Foods became a reality.

Selling their unique artisan cheeses at the Pearl Farmers Market in San Antonio and direct to restaurants, they slowly but surely built a customer base that appreciates fresh handmade cheeses with no preservatives or chemicals. They also branched out into pestos and spreads, which Morales says have come “the bread and butter of our business.”

In its first year, Humble House Foods posted revenues of $40,000. Morales expected 2010 would exceed $125,000 when the books are closed. Last fall, the company signed a lease on a 1,200 square foot location. TR

Read more about Humble House Foods – their story, their products and their cheese-making classes.

Winning Customer Loyalty is Key to Farmer’s Market Success

At Texas’ outdoor farmers’ markets, just as in the aisles of chain grocery stores, consumers are clearly in control. That means that a vendor can’t just put out a basket on their fresh produce on a red-and-white tablecloth and expect to make a sale. In short, they need to be both farmers and marketers.

Tatum Evans, manager of the Pearl Farmers Market in San Antonio, says her vendors run the gamut, from “those who know how to use Facebook and Twitter to aggressively get the word out about their products, to those who barely know how to use e-mail.”

Some vendors take advantage of marketing 101-like advice, offered through the USDA or the Farmer’s Market Coalition.

“We had a pork producer, Peach Creek Farms, that saw their sales double after learning how to be more attuned to the customer expectations,” says Suzanne Santos, who runs Austin’s Sustainable Food Center (SFC) Farmers’ Market.

Peach Creek Farms is one of 120 vendors who helped generate more than $2.6 million in total sales at the SFC Farmers’ Market. And with more than $1.5 million additional dollars spent at neighboring businesses on market Saturdays and Wednesday, they estimate a total economic impact of $4.1 million. So there’s a lot riding on a farmer’s ability to close the deal.

Five Keys to Success

  1. Consistency — Evans says that when you bill your farmers market as a year-round, rain or shine affair, it’s important that your vendors honor their commitment to be there every week.
  2. First Impressions Matter — “Our vendors realize they only have a few seconds to get the customers’ interest,” says Evans. Successful vendors have developed a knack for drawing potential customers in with interesting signage and welcoming smiles.
  3. Quality Counts — Customers are drawn to farmers’ markets because they believe the products are often superior to store bought. Santos says that eggs always are top sellers, but have been particularly so at times when health concerns were raised about the grocery store produce.
  4. See Interesting Food, Buy Interesting Food — Vendors with unique products do well. While apples and oranges are cool, seaweed has cache. “The guy with his tanks of aquatic seaweed always sells out,” says Santos.
  5. Make it Fun for the Whole Family — The farmers market shopping experience should have something for everyone, from demonstrations by top chefs to live music from local bands. “We also have a lot of sampling areas,” says Santos, “We want the kids to see healthy eye candy, like carrots and radishes.”