From Growth to Stability: Bootstrapping a Food Startup

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“Starting a business is a lot of hard work,” says Natalie Sheild, “and the thing you should work on the hardest is consistency.”

As the owner and executive chef at Sheild Catering and the Pig and Turnip in Springfield, Oregon, Sheild would know. After graduating college with a liberal arts degree in 2009, Sheild decided she wanted to explore a long-time love of cooking by opening her own catering business. Instead of going to culinary school or relocating to a major restaurant center such as New York or Paris, she stayed in Oregon.

“I began collecting experience with jobs I took intentionally to learn different parts of the trade,” says Sheild, who describes herself as a self-learner. “I consider my jobs as parts of my education.”

Job by job and skill by skill, Sheild consistently absorbed the trade and the building blocks of a successful food business: menu planning, customer service, managing staff, understanding sales and finances, and creating a solid business plan. The end result? Her consistency is paying off.

Sheild started as a one-woman operation in 2014. After six months, her husband quit his full-time job to come on board to manage human resources and public relations. Today, Sheild owns and operates two separate yet companion businesses, with 12 full-time and part-time employees.

2017 has been the best sales year so far for both companies—so much so that Sheild  is switching her focus from growth to stability. “One of the first things a CPA said to me, is that there are businesses that are making it, and there are businesses that are viable,” says Sheild. “We want to transition from making money and succeeding, to becoming viable.”

Don’t fly blind

After college, Sheild worked as a sorority chef and kitchen manager in nearby Corvallis. Her superior was an executive chef based in Eugene, and he gave Sheild autonomy and latitude to put her ideas and vision to work with minimal direct supervision.

“It’s the job I kept longest because it was so versatile for learning,” says Sheild, who was in charge of the kitchen, a budget, and eight employees. “I got to build the team, create the menus, and it was so helpful for recipe creation. I got to try whatever I wanted, and it was formative to cater twice a day for 50 to 100 people. We also did some cook-to-order food, so that gave me line cook experience.”

Sheild also saw more women in leadership roles in the industry. She realized that instead of cooking and managing for other people’s operations, she could start and run her own business. Inspired, Sheild began drafting a business plan.

“I have always been the kind of person who wants to know how to do something before starting,” says Sheild. “Starting a business without a business plan didn’t make sense. It’s the first thing I did before I’d even booked my first event. Everything I had researched and had heard said: don’t fly blind. Your business plan will change and morph and come out different, but have that blueprint. I have found that to be so true.”

After years in the industry, Sheild left work for a while to have a baby. She kept sight of her business plan though, and by the time her son was two, Sheild was ready to go back to work—but this time for herself.

Small start heats up to fast growth

Catering a friend’s wedding was Sheild’s first solo gig—it provided the capital to cover her startup costs. From there, she worked around her husband’s schedule and the needs of their son. Six months later, the catering business was at least breaking even, and starting to show small profits. Sheild’s husband, Joe, was now working with her.

When she wrote her initial business plan, Sheild had a vision for growth: “We wanted to build a food cart into a restaurant through a five-year plan. We wanted people to see us on a daily basis with customers coming through the doors at a brick-and-mortar location.”

Catering, though, is based on individual, sometimes one-time clients. Having a restaurant as part of the catering business is a great marketing tool because people get to know you and your food. “That makes it easy for customers to become catering clients, and they see that we have lots of flexibility with our menu,” says Sheild. “It’s harder to market that flexibility without the restaurant. It’s better if people can come and taste the food.”

One day in 2015, Sheild was on Craigslist and found a cart for sale in Portland. “I said, ‘It’s my kitchen on wheels!’” It also meant bumping up her cart purchase time frame by four years. Instead of sticking strictly to catering focus and her business plan framework, Sheild contacted the owner immediately. It took four months to arrange financing for the $25,000 purchase.

“We went to every bank, every community lender, every credit union,” says Sheild. “We presented, had done our homework, but no one would fund us because we didn’t have two years under our belts.”

Sheild ultimately found funding through Community LendingWorks, an affiliate organization of NEDCO (Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation), an Oregon non-profit that helps people find safe and affordable housing, develop and maintain businesses, and revitalize neighborhoods. Along with her $7,000 down payment—drawing in part on credit cards—Sheild financed the remaining $18,000 through Community LendingWorks.

Now in possession of her kitchen on wheels, Sheild concocted Pig and Turnip. It would offer German-inspired food: house-made sausages, schnitzels, fresh breads, and pretzels. Sheild hired someone to run the cart so she could focus on catering. After ups and downs with locations, a food cart space opened up at Sprout!, a business incubation, commercial kitchen, and public eating space in downtown Springfield, which is also where Sheild Catering leased its kitchen.

In February 2016, because the cart was seeing more success and the public was responding to Pig and Turnip’s food and brand, Sheild opened the Pig & Turnip Café at Sprout!. However, six months later an electrical problem put the food cart out of commission for eight months. “By then our business had exploded in both areas, so we have yet to get the food cart back out,” says Sheild. “At this point, it would need its own team.” Looking at her business plan, though, Sheild sees a role for the cart and wants to reopen it in 2018.

Going to plan—just not to pace

Between the cart, the catering, and the café, the business has gone to plan—but it has grown faster than expected, as Sheild managed to pivot quickly to take advantage of opportunities. Now, in the midst of a busy 2017 wedding catering season, Sheild is balancing being on site for catering operations with stabilizing the business, streamlining operations, and ensuring healthy finances. Going back to that advice a CPA once gave her, Sheild’s focus is making sure that not only is the business successful, but viable and steady.

For starters, there’s the debt from the food cart purchase. Community LendingWorks helped Sheild consolidate her business debt; instead of credit card and other payments, she now she has a fixed-rate payment and, even better, a finish line. “In five years we’ll be debt-free,” says Sheild. “For a bootstrapped startup, I think that’s pretty amazing.”

Sheild credits their financial health in part to a low overhead, which began during that first catering gig. “Our expenses have gone up drastically since then, but we still work to keep our overhead to a minimum so we aren’t over-extended.”

Image via Shield Catering.

Taking care of their own

With a dozen employees now on the payroll—including chefs, a café manager, a catering and sales manager, and three banquet managers and delivery teams who can be on-site at any time for catering operations—Sheild is also making sure she takes good care of her people.

“Until the last six months, we’d had some rocky times with employees,” she explains. “That’s been hard, and that’s why we so greatly value the employees we have. High turnover is expensive. People move on from a position after six months, or even a month or two, and then we have to recruit and train again. We’ve literally had people take the trash out and never come back. Staffing and employee retention—we knew it would be difficult, but didn’t foresee the curveball of how hard that would be.”

Employing good people in a good company has been a high priority for Sheild, who knows first-hand that finding work in the Eugene/Springfield area is not easy. “It’s been in my mission since day one to create viable positions in the community,” she explains. “I won’t risk someone’s family. I wanted to make sure our financial base was solid so our employees would know that it was as stable as a restaurant startup can be.”

Managers now oversee day-to-day operations, and the catering manager handles sales, contracts, administrative tasks, client meetings, and customer satisfaction. That frees up Joe to manage a now-busier HR workload, as well as being the regular primary parent for their son Zeke, now four. Sheild can focus on updating the business plan, reviewing finances, revising and creating recipes, and managing the kitchen.

They also have an unofficial front-of-house host. “Zeke is awesome, high-energy, and he thinks he’s the manager,” says Sheild. “He’s like the old Italian chef who comes out and invites you to sit down, then later checks in with you to see that you like the food.”

Regular meetings and new systems

To stay on top of her business’s day-to-day status and short-term direction, Sheild reviews income analyses, budgets, and the sales pipeline for both the café and the catering operation.

“We’ve grown a lot these first few years, so right now we want to see if we can hold it steady,” says Sheild. “We don’t really want to slow growth, but we want to temper it. We want staff to be fully utilized, meeting their full potential, and doing their best in the company. We want to make sure this is a sustainable level of growth that holds before we start looking at where to go next.”

Weekly meetings with individual managers, plus quarterly management team meetings provide a framework for discussing financial projections, staffing concerns, and ideas for further improving the business. In catering, their data and feedback are based more on each individual job, since they can serve a range of price points, clients, and types of events, from weddings to business functions. Most day-to-day data comes from the restaurant side, and Sheild is evaluating new systems that will provide better data.

“We currently use Square, but with the loan consolidation, we can invest in a restaurant point-of-sale system, which will give us much more accurate numbers,” says Sheild. “The back-end of Square can be clunky, but it has given me numbers on top sellers, when they sell, and even some of why they sell.”

Sheild also understands how to take into account on-the-ground cultural and circumstantial factors. Thursdays have been a common day for area restaurants to do burger-and-brew specials, and Sheild sees that burger bump in her numbers too. After a local running group’s weekly Wednesday run, pretzels and beer are in demand. Weather is a factor too: “On a hot day, we’ll see more salads being sold. If it’s going to be hot, we’ll shave extra brussels sprouts and make more apple cider vinaigrette.”

A new relationship with food distribution network Sysco also gives Sheild access to their inventory analysis and meal-costing tools. “That helps us calculate what we need, what’s on hand, how much we’re using, what we’re spending. That can help us make better decisions.”

The future

With the security of a four-year lease, Sheild also has the flexibility to move to a different location if needed, but she wouldn’t go far. “We want another fun, cool, restaurant in the downtown Springfield core, to keep that energy and momentum,” she explains. Eventually, there could be other locations, but expansion isn’t a priority right now.

“The next couple of years are about policy creation, stabilization,” says Sheild. “I want to be able to say that we have established a heartbeat. Aside from a big disaster, this isn’t going away. It’s growing and changing with the city and finding its place.”

Advice for others starting a restaurant or catering business:

  • Do the hard work and focus on consistency.
  • Find what works and support it with the right operations, logistics, staff, policies, and equipment.
  • Write a business plan, expect it to change, and update it as part of your normal operations.
  • Know how to scale if things take off. Businesses often plan to account for failure, but it’s important to plan for success too.
  • Think strategically. Combined catering and restaurant operations can offset a commercial kitchen’s high costs, and mutually support each other as marketing and referral vehicles.
  • People first, tools second. Bring on good people and work with their strengths so that both they and the business can excel. Then upgrade or add equipment.
  • Have a mentor. They provide advice, accountability, and motivation.
  • Find your place in the community. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Sheild. “Do people want what you do and want you to succeed?” Once people trust you’re sticking around and they like what you do, your operation can become “part of the backdrop of the area.”

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Posted in Growth & Metrics