Becoming an entrepreneur and starting your own business is incredible. But making the transition from Employee to Entrepreneur is a major step in anyone’s career and life. Your decision can go from absolutely amazing to sideways in a hurry.
High Road CEO Keith Schroeder has learned a great deal about how to be both successful and unsuccessful making the leap to running your own business.
Some areas we cover are the mindset of an entrepreneur vs. employee. How do you know if you have a viable idea? Financial considerations for moving out on your own. Gaining business and entrepreneurial skills. Where to look for help and much more.
Additionally we look at some obstacles and considerations specific to launching restaurants and commercial food manufacturing.
As usual, Keith presents in his straight-talk, no BS style, sharing his own personal experiences, trials and tribulations as he progressed from chef to executive chef to launching his own restaurant (that closed) to opening High Road Craft Brands.
Life isn’t always perfect and starting a business certainly isn’t. This episodes aims to help you consider your leap with your eyes wide open.
This episode features host High Road Craft Brands CEO Keith Schroeder and Walter Biscardi, Jr., Executive Creative Director.
In addition to listening and watching the episode here, you can find Minus Twenty on most audio streaming services and YouTube. Full transcripts below.
Full Transcript of the episode. Apologies for any typos.
Welcome to Minus Twenty. The journey of an independent food business.
Walter Biscardi 0:07
Hey folks, welcome back to Minus Twenty I'm Walter Biscardi.
Keith Schroeder 0:10
Walter Biscardi 0:11
And today we're going to be diving a bit into the mindset of transitioning from an employee to an entrepreneur. Like ready to open your own business.
Keith Schroeder 0:22
Yes. Step one, quit your job.
Walter Biscardi 0:26
I think step one, just make sure you're ready to quit your job.
Keith Schroeder 0:29
Walter Biscardi 0:29
Don' you think?
Keith Schroeder 0:29
Walter Biscardi 0:30
So let's talk about that. So why don't we start a little bit with your career.
So you were a chef. How long were you chef?
Keith Schroeder 0:39
I moved down to Atlanta, Georgia in 1994. Ah, went to culinary school. And I guess the first inkling of professional chefiness was somewhere in late 95.
Walter Biscardi 0:53
Keith Schroeder 0:55
Yes, before that you were a carrot peeler andchicken breast filler. Hotel cart pusher and
Walter Biscardi 1:04
Keith Schroeder 1:05
Pizza warmer upper. then they let you touch the food
Walter Biscardi 1:09
And then they let you touch the food. So, how long were you in this world?
I mean what what was your progression?
Keith Schroeder 1:17
So yeah In all seriousness started working at Nikolais Roof which is lovely restaurant to this day,
on the top of the Atlanta Hilton towers overlooking most of Atlanta.
And it really is beautiful out there. And ah went on work for a gentleman by the name of Jean Banchet
who owned a place called Le Francais and I believe it was Wheeling Illinois, suburb of Chicago.
Walter Biscardi 1:36
Keith Schroeder 1:39
And opened some restaurants in Atlanta when Atlanta won the Olympic bid.
Yeah, so the hospitality industry was booming in Atlanta from the day of the announcement of the Olympics coming to town through Today,
Walter Biscardi 2:01
Keith Schroeder 2:02
The city just just caught caught. I should not say Atlanta caught fire. That's bad, right?
Walter Biscardi 2:09
It did catch fire a long time ago.
Keith Schroeder 2:10
A long time ago, the city started doing very well.
Walter Biscardi 2:14
It had a food Renaissance that continues through today.
Keith Schroeder 2:17
Correct. And when I was getting into it, it was common
for the chefs to be European in origin.
So there were Swiss chefs and German chefs and French chefs, primarily running the higher end hotels in the city.
So most of us were young American culinary kids at the time learning from very, very talented,
well educated, hardcore, intense, European trained chefs.
And and then we became the next gen. And wanted to do our own food. right and i think i think
my generation likely start started to normalize and
make it more acceptable for quote unquote fine dining to be more regional American in nature.
Walter Biscardi 3:11
Keith Schroeder 3:12
Prior to that, I think you had this generic continental cuisine which I still don't know what
What in God's name it is.
Walter Biscardi 3:20
Keith Schroeder 3:21
Right? Something broiled, broiled something
Walter Biscardi 3:25
and 10 red sauce.
Keith Schroeder 3:26
Walter Biscardi 3:27
So what time frame is this?
Keith Schroeder 3:29
So this is 90... 95 through 97. Ish
You know opened a restaurant myself back in 98.
Moved on from that had the typical sort of ups and downs of running restaurant ultimately.
Super critically acclaimed. did well for myself but lacked the entrepreneurial and business skills to
defend the original plan, right?
So, so learning moment from from failing in the restaurant world was
make sure you understand the parameters that the landlord has surrounding said property. Right?
Walter Biscardi 4:23
You mean the land not not not the restaurant itself, but the landlord,
Keith Schroeder 4:27
The landlord of the building and the adjacent properties that can be leased out. And one of the things that I didn't prevent.
I was just a young kid, I was 26 when I opened my first restaurant. I didn't ask for exclusivity.
Walter Biscardi 4:42
What do you mean exclusivity?
Keith Schroeder 4:43
Meaning please don't have another restaurant right next door to me.
Walter Biscardi 4:46
Keith Schroeder 4:49
And so, you know, you start to see dilution. It's not a problem to be in restaurant row.
But when you know at the time, I had placed a bet on being a more
pioneering business in a semi-,recovering area, right?
And so there was really nothing on the street to speak of.
So I was the first guy, there was a facade renovation, there was some interior innovation that we took care of.
And, you know, I didn't think about fundamental things like parking.
Right? If people can't park it's kind of hard for, there was no Uber at the time, right?
Valet wasn't necessarily a thing.
You know, I thought, well, when people are dining, beer and wine is the most important thing and we don't need to have a liquor license.
Turns out, people want a cocktail too. And so I made every every silly mistake in the book ended up having a wonderful time,
And we did okay, like right to the very end, when we closed the restaurant. It was just one of those things where
"I think I could go get a job for $12 an hour." That's effectively what I'm making by owning this restaurant
and I had two babies and this sucks. So I'm gonna hit the Reset button and figure it out from there.
Yeah. So that was about a two year excursion for me and then, you know, got back into the scene
working in hotels and restaurants and catering and casinos, resorts. Yeah. So grew from there.
Walter Biscardi 6:18
So you, I didn't even know about that. So you you jumped right in without a whole bunch of thought on that first one.
Keith Schroeder 6:26
No thought. I mean, they're very, very impulsive. I think you find that a lot of entrepreneurs are this way.
"I'll figure it out later."
Right? And that's something over time that you have to educate yourself deeply.
Become far more self aware. And surround yourselves with pragmatists and some naysayers, right.
People who challenge your every thought.
Walter Biscardi 6:49
Keith Schroeder 6:50
Right. Because the irrational optimism of the everyday entrepreneur
only works when it's harnessed. Right,
If it's out of control, it's out of control.
Walter Biscardi 7:04
So good lesson number one for anybody listening or watching this right now,
if you want to jump into something don't just jump. Have a plan.
Keith Schroeder 7:14
Not only a plan, but surround yourself with a team from day one.
Walter Biscardi 7:19
Keith Schroeder 7:21
If if you're not engaged in point counterpoint with people, for hours a day while vetting your plan,
you will focus on the parts of the plan that the light your brain, right, it's a creativity, it's a bit of an addiction.
Right? So you know that right? So you fixate on it,
you place more value on it than it deserves, right. I'm a creative person.
"I'm a genius and I should be able to do what I want to do and I want all my toys and this is what the idealized creative an environment looks like"
and, you know, "F 'em if they don't get it", righ.,
Well, really what the world sets up from the moment that you take that position is "No."
"F You. And between 12 and 36 months from now, you'll feel the pain of being so myopic."
Right. It's it's a, it's a hard pill to swallow because it's delightful to be in nothing but a creative space.
Walter Biscardi 8:32
Keith Schroeder 8:33
Walter Biscardi 8:34
The creativity, and even the planning is so exciting.
Keith Schroeder 8:39
Walter Biscardi 8:39
it's just kind of.
You got these ideas, you sketch them out, and then it starts to take shape. And that's really exciting,
Keith Schroeder 8:45
Walter Biscardi 8:47
And then you're like, "Oh, this is totally going to work." And then in your case, you know,
Today's a different world. You got Uber, you got Lyft. Who cares about parking today that goes out the window, but the liquor license, you gotta have that liquor license.
Keith Schroeder 9:00
Right, that's right. Yeah. And you have to think about the the pillars of sort of the lanes,
I'm gonna call them pillars, but lanes of knowledge that are required to raise the odds of you surviving.
It doesn't mean you can't be bold or you can't be creative if you spend time trying to understand the fundamentals of accounting, right.
So the way I started to think about it is I'm not going to open another business.
until I could sit with the leader of each of these lanes.
The finance lane, the marketing lane, the sales lane, and be at very least, a competent assistant or associate to said person, right.
So if I can't have a fluent respectable conversation between myself and the CFO
I shouldn't own a business.
If I can't have a conversation with a CPA firm, that leaves them going,
"I think this guy's going to make it." Keep learning. Keep learning.
Don't just jump in with nothing but your creativity. You have to be a business in and of yourself.
Walter Biscardi 10:29
Yeah. So education. I mean, we talked a little about that in the past. And I'm going to just backtrack just a little bit.
You know, I made the leap from employee to entrepreneur, and I know there's people listening and watching this right now.
You talked a little bit about the naysayers, pragmatism. How do you know?
What's your advice for knowing when you actually have an idea that it's worth pursuing.
Because the naysayers are going to go "that's a dumb idea. You've got a great job. Don't leave. Leave your job."
People who love you're gonna feel it. "That's awesome, man, you should just go do it. That's a killer idea."
But looking taking the rose colored glasses off, is there it may be from your own personal experiences or something that just tells you.
"Yeah, this is a good idea. Yeah, this really does have potential to make it."
Keith Schroeder 11:16
So I take a different approach, then the the entrepreneurial thought that I think becomes pop clickbait headlines enticing to read,
which is all of this, "believe in yourself" bullshit, you know,
Which see, that's de facto, you know, when you wake up in the morning and you want to put your pants and your shoes on,
you should believe in yourself and go out into the world.
But when it's all said and done is not it's not necessarily about ideas,
there's ideas everywhere. And most ideas are good ideas right
They're beautiful, they're inspired, they're, they're human, they're creative. They're interesting. They're they're
They're anywhere from bold to just the slight improvement on the status quo, all of them. Most ideas have merit.
And so the challenge is, do your ideas attract commercial activity?
Will someone actually buy what the hell it is you're trying to put out there in the world
and the person that I think, is absolute genius relative to this, and I am a giant fanboy of is Steve Blank.
And his I don't know if you would call it a book or a white paper or research paper, but it's called the Four Steps to the Epiphany.
And I think it's probably the most important work in in my generation relative to how to think about
understanding what your business model should look like.
And I think If you're not emerged or I'm sorry if you're not immersed in business school or you know
entrepreneurial podcast or you think she's what is the business model? What the hell does that mean? Right?
If I'm a, you know, a nurse or an automobile mechanic or a custom motorcycle cycle builder that gets into business
and you say, well, what's your business model?
"I don't know I i really good at this motorcycle thing."
Yeah, but what's what's your niche? Right.
And so, between Steve Blanks' work and then the beautiful work that became, I think the company now is called Strategize
they're the biggest business model canvas and the value proposition canvas.
There are thought models that help you
put some meat on the bones of the original idea,
such that you can go out to potential customers and get feedback.
Like these are not my ideas is what I've learned from reading the work of these genius, humans and organizations.
And by by utilizing these tools and getting getting to know how to how to tune that wrench better
your your hit rate in terms of being able to commercialize the idea improves,
Your approach is more sticky,
Your approach is more likely to attract both the feedback and, and and the buyer, the customer in the long run.
For instance, you have to know if you're starting a business, whether it's,
how are you getting said product or service to someone, what's the delivery mechanism, right?
What's the cost structure? What do your inputs cost? All these things seem on the surface like they're simple,
but when you start to scratch away at there are, I don't want to say hidden costs but less than obvious costs
involved in doing business that requires a tremendous amount of upfront research.
The more the more upfront work you do, the less likely you are to burn money indiscriminately.
Walter Biscardi 15:19
Yeah, and I think a great example, just an easy one for those and food service, get their head wrapped around it like,
I'm going to open a restaurant, it's going to be all organic. and easy to say, right?
And there's two issues that come into one availability of product that you may want to use.
Then two you may not realize just how expensive this stuff is.
So you're serving now $40 and $50 plates of food,
Keith Schroeder 15:43
Walter Biscardi 15:44
instead of you know, $15 to $30 plates of food
and will an audience buy that?
Keith Schroeder 15:49
Walter Biscardi 15:50
So simple research,
Keith Schroeder 15:51
And the answer is probably not.
Walter Biscardi 15:54
Keith Schroeder 15:55
Right. I mean, when you look at, you don't have a genre of organic restaurants popping up all across our great interstate system,
You know, should there be? For sure.
Walter Biscardi 16:05
Keith Schroeder 16:06
But has someone figured out the ideal business model there, probably not.
Walter Biscardi 16:10
Yeah. Probably not.
Keith Schroeder 16:11
Probably not to have the organic equivalent of McDonald's. Right?
Walter Biscardi 16:16
Keith Schroeder 16:17
It will take a lot of work and a great team and eventually it'll be there and it will be like, why didn't we think of that?
Walter Biscardi 16:24
Since we're in the commercial food space and I'm going to guess that a lot of our audiences in the commercial food space
There are certain considerations, let's say "gotchas", obstacles that you may not expect.
You know, we make ice cream here.
You may have those of you listening and watching you may have an idea for an ice cream,
a cookie, a bread or whatever,
Keith Schroeder 16:48
dressing a mustard, whatever,
Walter Biscardi 16:52
or even opening a restaurant, but it's not as easy as "Oh, I made this great mustard now I'm just gonna go start selling it."
What what are some of the considerations and some of the obstacles that people need to understand
before they jump into I'm going to make a commercial food product.
Keith Schroeder 17:06
Food manufacturing in particular, I think I'll focus on that because the restaurant is a completely different beast.
We can do a separate podcast on that alone.
So many states have some kind of initiative, whether it's through their department of agriculture
or through university system that focuses in on Ag and food
They will have some kind of support program, extension program for people aspiring to do small food businesses.
In the state of Georgia. The University of Georgia does an event a few times a year through their extension program,
the Food Science Department called "Starting up a Food Business." It cannot be more direct.
Walter Biscardi 17:52
Look for a class like that
Keith Schroeder 17:54
and they bring in experts.
I went to it while I was getting my MBA. Spent the better part of a day
covering everything from basic regulatory to tax to corporate structure,
to the kinds of support that the state can provide to Small Business Development Center contacts and liaisons
to how to attract low cost loans.
And then life stories of food entrepreneurs talking about their the pitfalls that they had to handle along the way.
And they their path, either success or failure.
You know, when we started High Road, I was it was a fortunate opportunity to talk to someone who had just failed in the business
who is really, really built brilliant and the person shared with me one really important bit of information,
she said, I would so focused on having the most gorgeous packaging
that I went with very expensive packaging that was not industry standard for the product type that I was creating, right.
And so as a result, I had delays on packaging. My packaging didn't fit on retailer shelves properly,
we created all kinds of problems for the consumer.
The cost input was too much packaging and not enough money left over for the product going into the package
so that that thing ended up being on shelf for $10 - $11.99
Where if I would have used industry standard packaging with good graphics, it might have been $6.99 on shelf
and I would have driven more velocities.
This is your, this was the most important killer of my business.
If I can make one bit if I can give you one bit of advice. If you're thinking about doing really cool packaging don't.
And we were right we're like the ice cream pint is boring. We're going to come up with something cool.
I'm married to a product and graphic designer. Well let's do this, you know, origami box,
and we'll put ice cream in the shape of a star on the shelf. And that should be easy.
You know, and and we didn't. And we put it in a regular old paper pint.
And that little bit of advice just from going to the starting up a food business course at the University of Georgia
for I mean, I think it might have been $100 to do it, and they included lunch, you know, was amazing.
And so it's that kind of stuff. So and then you just iterate.
Okay, I met this guy, let's, and you should be writing down questions constantly. What? And then ask the experts.
What other questions should I be asking that I'm not because I'm a novice?
That's the best question ask an expert.
Walter Biscardi 20:49
Yeah. What should I be asking?
Keith Schroeder 20:51
Yes, because too many times entrepreneurs want to tell you how brilliant their ideas are, and you just sit there going.
It's barbecue sauce. It's not that brilliant.
Walter Biscardi 21:01
It's not rocket science
Keith Schroeder 21:01
"Well my grandma made the best barbecue sauce" I'm sure she did.
If you would like to get into the barbecue sauce business and you're so confident that your barbecue sauce already tastes delicious
ask all the other questions that you're not yet asking.
Walter Biscardi 21:20
wow wow wow is there I mean what what obstacles would I face, okay you just brought up barbecue sauce
so I want to make I want to bring a barbecue sauce to market. And I'm asking some questions now
but what about just physically making it. How how do I approach just getting it made
We haven't even gotten into the finances or anything yet but just so person watching this understands
like how I'm actually going to get this barbecue sauce made?
Keith Schroeder 21:49
This is highly dependent upon how friendly your state is to start up small or homestead type food businesses
Walter Biscardi 22:01
Keith Schroeder 22:01
Cottage industry, micro whatever you want to call it
Different states for instance allow production of jams and jellies in the home
Up to a certain dollar figure of sales. So effectively gives you permission to sell at local farmers markets
up to a certain point. And and the reason that the states allow that is they don't feel it's a giant risk to the public health right?
If something goes wrong we can contain this really quickly and ask you know, said jam producer to stop.
When you want to scale up and become a million dollar plus business, your path
if you don't have the funds to lease and build out a space is to find an incubator, kitchen
with a with the right certifications, regulatory oversight reputation
to go into with the state's permission so that you can get licensed to make your product at scale.
And the state of Georgia, there's a handful of them, they've been successful. I also
have noticed from talking to folks in the regulatory environment that
the regulatory agencies tend to get bogged down with small upstart food businesses and then the
It gets voluminous for the regulatory agencies to try to regulate everybody's barbecue sauce.
Everybody's jam, everybody's pancake mix.
And so I think there's some, depending on the state, again, there may be some fatigue, right
or there may be simply a lack of resources to help get you licensed.
So your best bet is to focus on your own brick and mortar space in which to produce the product right.
Maybe I think it could be done on the most entry level way for a dry goods blending type you know
I want to make barbecue rubs instead of barbecue sauces probably a little bit easier to get into the game.
You get something that you can lay down a quarry tile floor and a three compartment sink and
you know the the the appropriate paneling on the walls and the right you know sanitation infrastructure,
you could probably do it pretty cheaply.
We took the original High Road space we were able to build out and I know I have photos for you so
I don't have to do stick drawings in this one for $40,000
So we got the place clean-up ready. So we call it in this industry clean room, right
So can I wash down the walls? Can I spray down the floors? Is there the proper drainage?
Do you have the right three compartment sink?
Do you have the fundamentals in place so that when you go put your equipment in
the regulatory agencies will say will greenlight your your operation.
And you go, there you go. And you go. I remember in the state of Georgia when we started High Road
before we were permitted to actually sell our product, the the Department of Ag agriculture allowed us to move in.
So we're allowed to move into the facility, and we were allowed to start R&D'ing our product but not sell it.
Okay, because what they wanted were finished samples of our product to go to a lab to test for microbiological activity.
Okay, so we're new to the ice cream business at that this time we buy a particular piece of equipment called the batch freezer,
and inside the batch freezer inside the cylinder that where the ice cream spins, there was a valve goes in,
you're supposed to put a culinary grade lubricant on. Put the valve in.
And this this this valve was the thing that drove the Dasher,
which is basically the blades that spin inside the ice cream machine that turn the ice cream.
So I had been making samples all week being really, really vigilant about having the place completely
and utterly spotlessly clean it smelled like a swimming pool, it was incredibly clean.
And I was I kept spinning my samples to send out to regulatory and they kept failing. I said,
What is going on and it had this thing called Aerobic Plate Count which is a you know
it's what they refer to as an indicator organism. Which
is an indicator of whether or not your equipment is completely and utterly clean.
And I lost my mind I was like, do I actually have to have like, a boy in the bubble type type environment?
I could do I have to wear a spacesuit? Can I am I permitted to breathe? I'm so confused.
And then the regulator said that that valve in the back did you did you remove it, strip it
and re-lube it every time you run the machine?
And I went No.Right
So I did a boy in the bubble thing and got something passed but it was legitimately like in a mask
So it's the little things right and so you had to gaskets need to take the gaskets off and clean sanitize
in hot water and then put fresh culinary grade lubricant.
As a chef. I didn't know what culinary grade lubricant was. What is this?
Lube the pan before I saute the egg like I didn't know what's food lube.
First of all, it sounds terrible. Second of all, where do I buy it?
And then can I use Vaseline? Peanut oil?
Right and this is these are things you learn as you're starting on a food business Yeah.
Walter Biscardi 28:12
So while you're right I think we can stop with food lube.
Keith Schroeder 28:18
I think you should put across the screen the various brands of food lube and
Walter Biscardi 28:22
Do we use food lube here?
Keith Schroeder 28:23
Yes! All damn day.
Walter Biscardi 28:25
So we'll we'll get you some food lube
Keith Schroeder 28:26
We'll have a food lube episode.
Walter Biscardi 28:31
We should. Yeah. Because you know that's what people want to hear
the sound, we can do it in slow motion the sound,
Keith Schroeder 28:38
It's the worst.
It feels gross too.
Like imagine imagine Vaseline but like nine times denser.
Walter Biscardi 28:49
Keith Schroeder 28:51
And you have to...
Walter Biscardi 28:53
I apologize for those of you who had to witness that
Keith Schroeder 28:55
It's very medical.
Walter Biscardi 28:56
So Just to recap. If you think you, If you really do you have an idea you want to jump
from being an employee to an entrepreneur
It's going to take research. Nobody's gonna hand any of this to you.
Keith gave you some great starting points to start thinking about.
And I don't know why I'm looking at the monitor, not the camera, but I'm going to look over here in the camera now.
But you know it, nobody hands any of this to you.
The states have great resources, your library has great resources, local universities have great resources.
And I think you gave a lot of good examples, and options for people to start thinking about.
Keith Schroeder 29:41
Yeah, and don't be afraid to reach out to food entrepreneurs.
I think there's a way to approach them though, oftentimes, folks are looking for a shortcut.
And one of the things that entrepreneurs tend to be very proud of is their grit.
And the end see a ton of value in feeling alone. And that initial part of the journey and so
folks certainly want to guide you, but they don't want to do the work for you.
So I would say that, you know, to ask a food entrepreneur who's passionate about the food community
for a half hour of their time,
come well prepared with questions.
And don't ask for anything other than guidance, right?
Because to be an entrepreneur, you have to be able to chip away at your own path.
Super, super important piece of him earning street cred amongst your fellow food entrepreneur community.
Walter Biscardi 30:49
That's a great way to end it. So four Minus Twenty I'm Walter Biscardi.
Keith Schroeder 30:52
I'm Keith, take care.
Thanks for joining us here on Minus Twenty.