Every story has a beginning. High Road Craft Brands was born of one chef's frustration with the limitations in the corporate food service world.
Keith Schroeder made the leap from Executive Chef to Entrepreneur to seize an opportunity in the food service manufacturing sector. But this was not a leap made blindly. In this discussion you'll hear some of the steps Keith took including business school programs to prepare himself to not just open a business, but to be successful by keeping a narrow focus.
This is a great, real-world introduction for anyone who is ready to make that leap from employee to entrepreneur but isn't sure exactly what they need to do to prepare. Whether you're in food service or any other industry, the path that Keith followed to start the High Road is full of good advice for all listeners.
This is the first of a three part overview discussion on the launch, expansion and future of High Road Craft Brands.
This episode features host Walter Biscardi, Jr., Executive Creative Director for High Road Craft Brands and CEO Keith Schroeder. In addition to listening or watching here, you can find Minus Twenty on most audio streaming services and YouTube. Full transcript below.
Full Transcript of the episode. Apologies for any typos.
Walter Biscardi 0:05
Hi, folks, I'm Walter, this is Keith.
Keith Schroeder 0:07
Walter Biscardi 0:08
And episode one I thought, you know what, why don't we talk about the beginnings of how all of this even got started? Right?
Keith Schroeder 0:15
Walter Biscardi 0:16
So why don't we start out? You started out in the music industry.
Keith Schroeder 0:20
I did. I did. Went to college in 1991. Met a couple of guys who..
Walter Biscardi 0:29
Couple of guys..
Keith Schroeder 0:30
A couple of guys.
Walter Biscardi 0:31
Couple guys, you know.
Keith Schroeder 0:32
I'd befriended, I wanted to be a DJ at the college radio station. So it wasn't much it was just a they called closed circuit TV.
Walter Biscardi 0:40
Keith Schroeder 0:41
You know, in a closed circuit TV channel
Walter Biscardi 0:43
In the 90s. Yeah, we had closed circuit really, really high end.
Keith Schroeder 0:46
Lame right, and and no one listened to it.
Walter Biscardi 0:47
Keith Schroeder 0:48
But they had support from very talented professor who counseled and coach them through starting an FM radio station.And so I was the first program director of that FM radio station.
Walter Biscardi 1:04
I could totally see that can you see that I can totally see that.
Keith Schroeder 1:07
And spend most of my time in like old closets in the Student Union just pouring through old vinyl and then helping out.. I didn't know much about electronics or the studio side of things but was so ravenously into tunes.
Walter Biscardi 1:24
Keith Schroeder 1:25
volunteered my time and yeah became a college program director at the radio station. And yeah, very proud of that experience taught me a lot about managing people. We had 100 plus DJs 24/7
Walter Biscardi 1:38
Keith Schroeder 1:38
Yeah. would stay up a college in the summertime and and be on the airwaves. And I have a I have a rebel streak. We had an NPR station on campus and I delighted in toeing the line and you know, at
Walter Biscardi 1:53
how far can I go?
Keith Schroeder 1:54
Yeah, like 10pm and one second, would say fuck. (laughter) You know, just to do it.
Walter Biscardi 2:01
first podcast not even five minutes in
Keith Schroeder 2:04
Yeah, I will ues expletives. Okay part New York, part punk rocker. (laughter) Yeah. And so, you know, had had the time of my life. Then then left college went into the promotions side of the record industry and I just simply didn't like it. Just felt kind of pay to play very inauthentic. I was like a jaded kid and then just decided, I don't know what the hell I want to do with my life and tail between my legs went back up to college.
Walter Biscardi 2:40
Keith Schroeder 2:41
Instead of going to class I got a job as a waiter and then spent spent the lion's share of my time watching cooking shows in the afternoon.
Walter Biscardi 2:51
Oh, man.What did you say it was, the 90's?
Keith Schroeder 2:54
So yeah, the learning channel. You had discovery channel
Walter Biscardi 2:58
You had Julia Child
Keith Schroeder 2:58
You had Julia Child, you had the Frugal Gourmet.
Walter Biscardi 3:01
The Frugal Gourmet!
Keith Schroeder 3:02
Who may or may not.
Walter Biscardi 3:04
Well, you know what? You know, we won't go there.
Keith Schroeder 3:06
We'll Let it go. We didn't have Food Network then.
Walter Biscardi 3:08
That's true. Yeah, I hadn't started yet. Yeah, so Wow, So and then
Keith Schroeder 3:13
PBS, the great chefs of the world. Remember that
Walter Biscardi 3:15
I remember Wolfgang Puck cooking with Julia Child. I remember that whole series.
Keith Schroeder 3:19
So great chefs of the world was just like, one camera in the kitchen with Chef with no personality just making a dish with a really boring voiceover. Chef Steven blah blah blah, and he's putting asparagus on the plate and I would I would watch it and cannabis was not legal nor available at that time. (laughter) So something must have been wrong with me because I I would just watch hour after hour after hour and became a cook and moved down here at 94 to Atlanta.
Walter Biscardi 3:54
Keith Schroeder 3:55
Went to culinary school became a chef.
Walter Biscardi 3:57
Wow. Wow. So so you're a chef so went through you finish culinary school. So what what's your progression after you get out of culinary school and before we started High Road, which kind of like that, what was that little progression in there. Did you go from like a line chef to executive chef or I mean, what would
Keith Schroeder 4:13
Yeah, it was very sort of classic traditional school of hard knocks. route I want one of the things I look back and laugh at is when our culinary school gave out the most outstanding student award, but I'm also a complete goofball. So at graduation for culinary school, I was talking and joking the entire graduation. And when they announced my name as most outstanding student I didn't hear
Walter Biscardi 4:43
You didn't hear it?! (laughter)
Keith Schroeder 4:43
there was (laughter) a really awkward pause. (laughter)
Walter Biscardi 4:50
Really not a surprise for anybody who actually knows Keith but that would have happened, he missed his own graduation.
Keith Schroeder 4:56
I missed my own award actually got up there and then I actually had to look at the award (laughter) to know what I won I had to walk across the stage
Walter Biscardi 5:06
Why do I have a lamp in my hand? It's a major award! Okay. Oh my gosh, that's hysterical.
most outstanding person who doesn't listen apparently yes what it was. Wow.
So, you know, so worked at places pretty, pretty posh in Atlanta called Nicholai's Roof at the time, which was a hot spot in the 80s and 90s. Worked for a gentleman who since passed away but was a is a deeply regarded French chef, Master Chef was a sous chef to Paul Bocouse in Leone.
Keith Schroeder 5:43
Yeah, he's a big deal. His name is Jean Banchet, and owned restaurants in Chicago, Atlanta. He may or may not have done something in Florida late in his career, I'm not sure. But again, he's since passed away. But every year in Chicago, the big chef awards or the Banchet awards. Yeah, wow. Yeah, yep. And he was one of you know, he's old school. Old School is a, playboy, the best cook I've ever seen and probably ever will see. So I'm very blessed and lucky to have worked for chef Banchet.
Walter Biscardi 6:18
So you're your career's progressing?
Keith Schroeder 6:21
Walter Biscardi 6:21
I know. Then you become an executive chef. Right?
Keith Schroeder 6:24
Walter Biscardi 6:24
And you're running a team?
Yes. So I've done you know, I like I like to have a broad swath of experiences. I've worked in the restaurant space. I've worked in a very high end boutique catering. I've worked in casinos. I've worked in resorts I've worked in hotels, gave me a pretty nice, broad, culinary background. And, you know, after 9/11 moved the family up to Burlington, Vermont, and I was the executive chef of the New England Culinary Institute the Burlington campus for a while. Lot of fun.
And that's actually where you crossed paths with Alton Brown for the first time, wasn't it?
Yes, yes. In fact, the first time I ever met Alton Brown, he was the guest speaker for graduation for the students and I had just been promoted to executive sous chef of the campus. Didn't really know much of him at the time, so I was supposed to
That was a while back.
Keith Schroeder 7:23
Yeah, I was supposed to receive him and I had plans. You know, we should take the guest speaker out to dinner.
Walter Biscardi 7:30
Keith Schroeder 7:30
And so you know, he came in, he's like, well, I really don't want to go out to dinner. I said, Man, I'm just just gonna have you for a burger and a beer (laughter) I'm beyond tired. So, yeah, we we met for the first time there and then later on, he was kind enough to have me on his podcast, which was awesome probably 2011, 2012 Yeah,
Walter Biscardi 7:52
We're one degree of separation because I actually worked on Good Eats for a couple of seasons.
Keith Schroeder 7:55
So Walter did a lot of the all of the animations, Yes?
Walter Biscardi 8:00
Most of them most of them yeah seasons nine through twelve. Did the editing, color grading all that stuff.
Keith Schroeder 8:05
no big deal, it's the coolest cooking show ever.
Walter Biscardi 8:08
Yeah just the coolest cooking show ever
Keith Schroeder 8:12
second to this cool podcast yeah yeah you know high budget in fact is so high budget that I just realized that that light is not turned on and we're like halfway through the podcast. I'm going to just step over here while Keith does a tap dance and turn that light on Look at that. That's how high budget this is. So yeah, so my credits include a couple of enemies in Peabody Award, but I forgot to turn on the light.Why you were so dark, the whole first half of the podcast, so do not adjust your sets. I just turned another light on.
Walter Biscardi 8:46
Okay, so at some point here, are you going to business school while you're a chef or when did when did business school come into play?
So I was I think it was about 2003, 2004 I had this lingering you know irritation that I had dropped out of college my junior year and not finished. So I had, you know, was working on a on a broadcasting degree,
Keith Schroeder 9:13
and probably could have, you know, cobbled together some kind of general studies thing and finished up real fast but became very, very interested in business and decided effectively to start from scratch. And went to State University in New York school for, called Empire State College. And had a wonderful experience there and finished my degree in business management and economics. Became really interested and never thought I would be in economics, behavioral economics, organizational behavior, you know, the, the anything behavioral sort of the human, the human side of business, and how to engage people to get them to be their very best. To collaborate and create great teams was really intriguing to me. I had grown up with a dad who was a football coach.
Walter Biscardi 10:13
Oh, wow, a lot of discipline
Keith Schroeder 10:15
multi sport coach actually and watched championship athletic moments and thought, you know, probably wired to be very similar here I am in business though how do I grow at a championship business moments and that became my thing. I ultimately finished my bachelor's degree I think sometime in 2006. I ended up finishing up and then had the bug to go get my MBA started that in 2008, finished in 2010. Started High Road in in 2010. Basically this around the same time I graduated
Walter Biscardi 10:51
Masters is too much school for me too much school.
Keith Schroeder 10:53
It was hard.
Walter Biscardi 10:54
So you know, I think it's interesting that that you made the transition, you were chef and then you transitioned on into business. How important do you think we're like any chef who's watching this right now and saying, okay, I want to open my own restaurant, my own business, whatever it is. I mean, how much business do they need to get like a full business degree? Or like what what types of things should they be thinking about if they want to take that step and run their own place?
At the very least, I would advocate to take courses like ones that are titled finance for non finance professionals, to really gain an understanding of how to manage cash, cash flow, be in a cohort with people and professors who could talk a lot about what could go wrong. Risk Mitigation, chefs are creative types generally. You know, and anybody who's getting into their own business, it typically has some kind of, you know, irrational optimism about themselves and so can end up tripping themselves up quite a bit if they don't balance out and gain some skills you know relative to the art of pragmatism. If you don't know how to check yourself, chances are you'll just bleed yourself out of cash.
Keith Schroeder 12:22
Walter Biscardi 12:23
And how much like you haven't. Did you ever actually open a restaurant?
Keith Schroeder 12:29
Walter Biscardi 12:29
So how much time do you have say from that time you open the doors until you're going to bleed out of cash like how much time do you have like really get this thing right or you're gonna screw up?
That depends. If you bootstrap it, it might be night one. You might be out of money as you're serving your first meals.
Keith Schroeder 12:46
Right. That's not uncommon by the Wow. It's not uncommon for small mom and pop restauranteurs to put most of what they have into the infrastructure, turn the lights on, and swipe some credit cards for the first few days worth of ingredients and, you know material. So, you know, on the flip side there are investment firms that will put a couple of million dollars into into a startup. There are family offices out there who may have generated wealth in the restaurant business and so are not afraid to invest in in the restaurant world. On the food side of things. There's no shortage of startup incubator private equity type money, and also family office money that's available to entrepreneurs with the right approach, the right concept, the right audience and the right product mix.
Walter Biscardi 13:44
Okay. Very good. So and we'll put some information in the body of the copy of what what kind of classes that you might want to look at, or considering
Keith Schroeder 13:53
I like Udemy. edX.
Walter Biscardi 14:00
Keith Schroeder 14:00
is very good. There are a number of, MIT has open courseware so you could go out there and get the materials from a lot of business schools around the country for minimal money to free. And and LinkedIn bought lynda.com.
Walter Biscardi 14:15
They did. They did.
Keith Schroeder 14:16
And they've since expanded the scope of the education that they offer. So, you know, getting a basic. Doing a basic course in financial modeling actually matters. I think too often entrepreneurs rely on what the accountants or the finance guys tell them, but they don't quite understand the language. You need to understand the language.
Walter Biscardi 14:37
Keith Schroeder 14:37
You have to.
Walter Biscardi 14:38
The one thing I never did, I was an entrepreneur, but I never actually took business courses. So I was actually learning from him on the back end of my business. So
Keith Schroeder 14:46
and I'm a solid c minus. (laughter) so I apologize in advance.
Walter Biscardi 14:51
So what was really interesting is so when when you went to get your masters, basically your final project or thesis project, whatever you want to call it, was a business proposal right had put together a business plan?
And interestingly enough, you chose an ice cream company. Why? Why did you decide to build a business plan for an ice cream company?
Keith Schroeder 15:10
So if you recall, 2008, 2009 was the worst economic downturn of our lifetime. And it was crisis beyond crises, right. And so I was in the hotel world at that time, and the capital had simply dried up. And companies were trying to preserve cash any way they possibly could and didn't have access to cash. And one of the ways hotels will save cash is to have chefs and culinary departments reduce their labor force. And so as as the labor forces started to contract chef still had to prepare food for the guests and the hotel.
Walter Biscardi 15:55
Keith Schroeder 15:56
Chefs, there became a significant demand for better quality convenience foods, right? So you didn't have a pastry chef anymore you had to find a way to buy a good cake or a good tart or good tart shell.
Walter Biscardi 16:09
Keith Schroeder 16:10
ou know, the food service industry was really limited to the mainstream brands like Blue Bunny or private label sure products Sure, or or or Haagen Daaz on the on the more premium and but brands like Haagen Daaz didn't really have a nice portfolio flavors for the culinary community. So we thought that we could step in and provide more interesting products in a more appropriate pack size for the culinary audience here in the southeast. There was one player at the time company that we've since acquired that we felt made a strategic misstep, it was Ciao Bella gelato. And Ciao Bella was really a leader amongst the culinary community. Their original founders of the business did a beautiful job connecting with chefs and restauranteurs up in the northeast to create a really beautiful base of business and then grew into specialty retail from there. And they had success on The Oprah Winfrey Show with this Blood Orange sorbet pint.
Walter Biscardi 17:17
Oh man once Oprah sees it...
Keith Schroeder 17:18
And so you know private equity came in pounced on and when you're going to be the next big thing we're going to sell a billion pints of you know blood orange sorbet and they kind of just slowly de emphasized their position and food service and we we saw it as an opportunity. Number one there was a time where a sort of you know, classic red sauce Italian or southern Italian fare, she was the de facto nice night out in the United States of America but that had evolved diversified and and changed and we were riding a time where casual became more important because it was during this economic downturn. it wasn't so cool to be ostentatious or showy. Right? And so casual fare started to percolate right in southern fare, which has been rootsy and historically quite casual
Walter Biscardi 18:13
Keith Schroeder 18:13
sort of came into the spotlight during that time. So High Road and its southern roots really overtook Ciao Bella, which had kind of dated itself at that time and required some reinvention.
Walter Biscardi 18:26
Okay, so you basically saw an opening. That's right. And so so now you did a business plan. You actually ended up like winning some awards on this.
Keith Schroeder 18:34
We did. We did. We, we, I think we did three or four Shark Tank style competitions. Came in second and the first one that we did refined our pitch. Won a state a statewide competition, got invited to an international competition at the University of Nebraska back in think it was March of 2010. And won the graduate school segment of What was at the time called the International New Ventures competition, and we won some some seed capital..
Walter Biscardi 19:05
So he goes from a chef. We take business courses, he gets an MBA and then he start and he comes up with an award winning business plan.
Keith Schroeder 19:11
Walter Biscardi 19:12
Keith Schroeder 19:14
you're right, you're right.
Walter Biscardi 19:14
It's almost a natural step. You've got this award winning business plan.
Keith Schroeder 19:17
You start the business,
Walter Biscardi 19:18
Did you ever think you were actually going to open it? Or did you just think just a really cool business plan?
Keith Schroeder 19:22
Well, I credit a guy named Gary Roberts, who was a professor of entrepreneurship at Kennesaw State University. And we, all of the cohorts in the MBA program were asked to present four, three or four slides to just it was a concept pitch first before you did your formal business plan to a panel.
Walter Biscardi 19:43
Keith Schroeder 19:44
And so we we pitched seventh of eight, eight groups that day who are getting skewered by by the professional panel, it was like a P.E. guy and business attorney. Some a few professors who had on entrepreneurial experience and they were just kicking the crap out of all these poor teams. And I thought my god here I am (laughter) the only chef in the class with the dumbest business plan. (laughter) It's juvenile you know, idea at best. Everyone else is trying to cure cancer and I'm trying to make more ice cream with 17,000 ice cream companies (laughter). And I got up and said, here's this poor chef.
Walter Biscardi 20:25
Keith Schroeder 20:26
He doesn't have any staff anymore. Here's why. Here's this beautiful ice cream. We don't have any competition. And we have 10 customers lined up. Thanks. (laughter) It was a we had no words on our slides. It was just pictures of chefs in their environment. Boom, boom, boom, boom,
Walter Biscardi 20:46
Keith Schroeder 20:47
And really spoke to the pain points that the chefs were experiencing. And Gary Roberts got up, stood up, turned back the the rest of the classroom said now this is a business.
Walter Biscardi 20:56
Keith Schroeder 20:58
And I was not (laughter) aware (laughter) at the time
Walter Biscardi 21:02
You didn't know you actually had a business?!
Keith Schroeder 21:03
No I didn't know. (laughter)
Walter Biscardi 21:04
That's kind of cool.
Keith Schroeder 21:05
I thought I could pull it off here in Atlanta, but I didn't know how scalable it was.
Walter Biscardi 21:08
Yeah. Yeah. So it's one thing to create an award winning business plan, but he's like, Oh, that's a great business. So just not not going into great detail, but I'm sure there's people out there who would like to know a little bit about well, how did it go from paper, Now I gotta get funding. I gotta find a commercial space. I gotta get ingredients. How did you because you've never done that before. You've never started like,
Keith Schroeder 21:33
nothing like that.
Walter Biscardi 21:34
Commercial. You started a restaurant.
Keith Schroeder 21:36
Walter Biscardi 21:36
So So how you like maybe just a cliffs note version? How did you take it from paper? figure it all out? How did you find the space? How'd you get funding? How do you get equipment?
Keith Schroeder 21:45
Yeah, a cliff notes version is that there was a colleague in my MBA program,
Walter Biscardi 21:52
Keith Schroeder 21:54
His name is Deepak who came to me and said, I really think you should do this. And I, you know, I had been working so hard as a chef, I really didn't know much about capital or raising money or how to raise money and all the laws behind it. We kind of, you know, glossed over private equity and raising money during the MBA program, but I was a novice at best.
Walter Biscardi 22:15
Keith Schroeder 22:16
And so this guy said, I believe in you, I believe in this. And I want you to talk to a couple of my friends and I think we can round up sufficient capital to get you started. And went with my business plan to his house. One Sunday, Saturday or Sunday morning, met a couple of guys had a lovely conversation with them and they were kind enough to you know, cobble together what amounted to be about $250,000 to help us start High Road. And we opened in the old Focus Brands, Church's Chicken research and development facility in in Chamblee. That's now somebody townhome someone lives In old High Road
Walter Biscardi 23:01
yeah somebody lives, they actually tore the building down, but we'll get to that in the next episode.
Keith Schroeder 23:06
And we were able to renovate for about $40,000 the interior that's all cost. We just bought some basically some paneling and adhesive to put the wash down walls on. cleaned all the sinks that were already there was just like this abandoned fried chicken development
Walter Biscardi 23:24
And they still had a little bit of that fried chicken smell walked into one side of the building yeah
Keith Schroeder 23:29
A lot of elbow grease, and we bought one hardening cabinet a master built hardening cabinet like the ones you see in the old homemade ice cream shops.
Walter Biscardi 23:37
Keith Schroeder 23:38
And then one Emery Thompson batch freezer a 24 quart batch freezer and some plastic wash down shelving to put the ingredients on and a stainless steel table that I had in my garage. (laughter) That was High Road.
Walter Biscardi 23:53
So it's about 250 grand in to get it up and going
Keith Schroeder 23:57
Walter Biscardi 23:58
Keith Schroeder 23:59
And that's than a typical house in Cobb County.
Walter Biscardi 24:01
Or I mean, certainly less than most businesses.
Keith Schroeder 24:04
Walter Biscardi 24:04
I mean, just to go ahead and get something like like an actual commercial enterprise. Yeah. Going. Now. Did you already have like a couple of clients?
Keith Schroeder 24:11
Walter Biscardi 24:11
So you really did.
Keith Schroeder 24:12
We really did. Yeah.
Walter Biscardi 24:13
Keith Schroeder 24:13
Fellow chefs in the community. I mean, people like Matt Swicker at the Valenza. Word of Mouth restaurant group there. Took care of us since day one. Our good friends at Gourmet Foods International place the bet on us right away. Southern Foods, which was acquired by Chaney Brothers in the early days placed a bet on us very early. South City Kitchen, who is a customer to this day was our first and 1,000th invoice.
Walter Biscardi 24:43
Keith Schroeder 24:44
That was really cool,
Walter Biscardi 24:44
That's pretty cool.
Keith Schroeder 24:46
and I was still the CFO when we printed out invoice 1000. That's why I know that I was like, Oh, look at that.
Walter Biscardi 24:53
that's pretty cool.
Keith Schroeder 24:54
Walter Biscardi 24:55
Wow. So so any advice for just you know, some brief advice for a chef to if they have a business plan, they've run it through some people, it looks pretty solid. Do they need to find a friend like yours? Or can they are there other more avenues today where maybe they might explore to get some of that initial funding that it might just where they might start looking?
Keith Schroeder 25:18
Yes, there are. I think there are more avenues today there are a number of incubators across the country, I would start there. I we got a ton of help from the Small Business Development Center, which is typically state funded but supported by the SBA, Small Business Administration. SBDC here in Georgia is fabulous
Walter Biscardi 25:42
it is actually used their services
Keith Schroeder 25:44
Fabulous and go deep free works super, super hard, they'll help you export. They'll help you work through your idea. They'll help connect you to early sources of seed capital or lending. You have to get out there and be really passionate. About your concept and be willing to hear hard and fast feedback about what's wrong with your concept. I've seen a lot of food entrepreneurs here in the state of Georgia who were very stubborn about their concept and so don't don't grow at the rate that they could. Because they get attached to their original idea. I think one of the things about being an entrepreneur is it's about the customer, and about this kind of tenacity that you need as an individual to figure out what your business will be someday. Right. So I never quite cared whether or not High Road ended up as an ice cream company or a fried chicken company or a widget company. And I knew I wanted to do something in food and that's where my natural expertise lies. But I suspect that High Road will be much more than an ice cream company as as we endure.
Walter Biscardi 27:00
Sure. So just to recap, you started out in the music industry, ended up watching a lot of cooking shows, (laughter) went to culinary school, became a chef. And most importantly, you then decided taking business classes so you'd understand the finance and business side. Actually, the ice cream company was a was a school project, if you will.
Keith Schroeder 27:23
Walter Biscardi 27:23
And that turned into reality.
Keith Schroeder 27:25
Walter Biscardi 27:25
And so we're going to lead this podcast with High Road in the original building.
Keith Schroeder 27:30
Walter Biscardi 27:31
Food service only. And then we'll pick up in the next episode, we'll talk a little bit about expansion and growing the company.
Keith Schroeder 27:38
Walter Biscardi 27:38
So thanks, Keith. That's episode one.
Keith Schroeder 27:40
Thanks, Walter. Thanks, all