Starting a food-based business is hard, and once up and running, food is a demanding business that requires constant nurturing and attention. Long days that begin at the crack of dawn with shopping for fresh ingredients and end with next-day prep are the rule, not the exception.
Food is also an exciting and rewarding business. A chance to deliver flavorful experiences that excite, satisfy and connect people is uniquely fulfilling. For foodies searching for ways to turn their passion into profits, there is no shortage of ways to break into the industry. The 10 ideas below represent something for everyone seeking a future in the food industry. However, finding your niche and developing a unique selling proposition need to be the guiding principles of your business plan.
Meal kit subscription service
The meal kit delivery market is expected to reach sales of nearly $20 billion by 2027. With more and more consumers looking for safe, healthy and convenient alternatives to supermarket shopping, your community may be a great testing ground for you to build a meal delivery service. Quality, customization, flexibility and value are key. You can shop and support local farms and suppliers and offer either prepared meals or the ingredients and recipes for customers to cook themselves. Whichever you choose, be mindful of and market to the main reasons why meal kits have become so popular—they are healthier and fresher, they reduce more food waste than most take out or delivery meals and, of course, they’re great timesavers. See what some of the top-rated services have to offer when considering your product assortment, packaging and pricing.
The closure of restaurants during the pandemic has led many chefs to pursue opportunities for personal clients. A pandemic-sparked interest in healthy eating has led a segment of the population to seek personal chefs to create and provide dietary-based meals. It’s a perfect storm of sorts. Currently there are approximately 5,000–6,000 personal chefs working in the United States. A personal chef owns their own business preparing meals for multiple clients from a commercial kitchen, a client’s home or an event venue. They plan and customize menus for meals ranging from nightly family dinners to intimate brunch parties, shop for ingredients and clean up afterward. Many also host fun and educational cooking classes to subsidize their income, which can vary widely by city, experience and training but averages $24 per hour. For those with cooking chops, The U.S. Personal Chef Association offers various certification and training programs to support the industry and provides resources for acquiring essentials like insurance and exposure via its Hire A Chef platform.
Alternatively, a private chef, likely the least expensive food business to start, is generally employed by a single client and is considered part of a household. For many, the allure comes from a desire to be part of a close, long-term relationship that often evolves to feeling like part of the family. It also means a steady, predictable income, estimated to be an average of $85,000 annually in the United States. The best candidate for a staff position as a private chef is someone with formal training and a creativity that will keep meals varied and interesting. You will also need great resourcefulness and solid time management and organizational skills. Finally, establishing boundaries is important for a private chef who, unless a document is drawn up clearly defining the role, can be pulled into incremental duties like babysitting and shopping for more than just food-related items.
Food truck operator
A food truck can be a great way to both satisfy your dreams of owning a restaurant and lean into the appeal of everyday adventure. Rather than waiting for customers to come to you, you bring the food, and a dose of novel fun, to them. Know what’s trending in consumer tastes and preferences, like the current demand for global-inspired cuisine, flour alternatives and plant-based options. While overhead costs are typically lower than a fixed physical space and the staff to run it, food trucks do come with some hefty financial considerations including the costly initial investment in a truck, plus licensing and permit fees, liability insurance and fuel costs. Make sure you plan to operate in a food truck-friendly city, as there are many places that make the food truck business highly bureaucratic and particularly costly.
The closure of restaurants during the pandemic has led many chefs to pursue opportunities for personal clients.
An estimated 32 million Americans have food allergies. For those managing one of the eight major food allergens, whether they have a sensitivity or a life-threatening allergy, walking into a bakery or enjoying desserts at a party is typically not an option. Considering that those who are allergy-avoidant tend to spend $19 million dollars more annually on substitutions, catering to this underserved segment could be highly profitable. Start by researching and understanding food allergies and consult with allergy advocacy groups. Reach out to and learn from businesses in the bakery space that are dedicated to those with specific allergies and focus on a transparent and nuanced approach to manufacturing, communication and marketing.
Food tour guide
Food tourism is the exploration of a local culture through food. It’s something tourists spend one-quarter to one-third of their travel budget on. If you’re passionate about food, love people, have an expert knowledge of your city and geek out about cool anecdotes tied to its history and culture, being a food “tourpreneur” just might be your calling. Food tour guides organize tours of a city’s best-in-class food, drink and markets. Consider a training course or pursue certification and make sure to choose a specific niche, something unique and different from what’s being offered. Research anything you think people will find fascinating and incorporate little-known details into your storytelling. Support local establishments and get to know the proprietors of featured businesses to get them on board with entertaining and enlightening guests. It’s the special details and behind-the-scenes view that will leave guests with a lasting impression. Finish with the true secret to food tour success: encouraging every tour group member to write an online review.
Craft beer brewer
Craft beer is in high-demand, with a shift among bar-owners and beer enthusiasts to support and embrace small breweries that capture local flavors and values. While not an easy skill to learn or business to start, craft brewing can be lucrative—the sale of craft beers is expected to nearly double to $200 million by 2026. Millennials are the market to capture, so explore their preferences and spend time scoping out outdoor beer gardens and surveying grocery shelves, which are carrying an increasing variety. Shadow craft pros for insights and best practices and experiment with one of the many craft beer-making kits on the market. As bar patrons continue to be wary post-COVID, community outdoor spaces, direct-to-consumer sales and subscription-based brands are becoming increasingly popular, with low-and no-alcohol options and additives like CBD infusions gaining in their appeal to those looking for healthier alternatives. Craft culture is also one of camaraderie, with competing brewers constantly looking to each other to elevate the beer artform and quality of brews.
Bubble tea shop
The popularity of bubble, or boba, tea, the beverage craze that originated in Taiwan and has become a $2.4 billion business and growing, has given rise to shops all across the United States. It is a category predicted to have an estimated worth of $4.3 billion by 2027, with lovers of the blend of flavored tea, milk and chewy tapioca beads flocking to shops to try out the newest flavors and reap the health benefits many offer. Boba has also become a social activity, with shops hosting group study sessions and acting as date destinations. If getting into the beverage game sounds appealing, start by hitting up bubble tea shops near you to sip, sample and survey the varieties. Experiment with your own unique flavors (matcha is trending in a major way) and offer a high level of the customization that boba fans have come to expect—you can offer variety in everything from temperature to sweetness levels to the types of tea, milk and fruit juice available.
Ready-to-drink cocktail mixologist
The ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail industry grew by 80% in 2019, representing $100 million in sales. The category is expected to overtake the entire spirits industry as trends like hard seltzer expand into new categories like hard kombucha and hard tea as well as non-alcohol craft cocktails. If you’re a bartender or aspiring mixologist drawn to the idea of your own brand, identify a niche, choose a base, know what ingredients are shelf-stable, find the best natural flavors and work with knowledgeable packaging engineers. Among the trends shaping the future of this booming beverage category: clean, organic ingredients and cane sugar with subtle sweetness. Distribution is key and having the ability to market and sell in bars, supermarkets and other convenient outlets means understanding the regulations that govern alcohol sales by state. With an anticipated return to bars post-pandemic, expect to see bars and festivals selling RTD canned cocktails and consider marketing to community businesses that like to support local.
Craft and small-batch ice cream maker
If you believe there is never a bad time to enjoy ice cream and are always on a mission for the newest and coolest frozen dessert, you may have just found your dream job. Ice cream is the ultimate comfort food and, while seasonal in nature, the market is $11 billion strong with the average American consuming 23 pounds of ice cream each year. Generating significant buzz is handcrafted ice cream in unique and indulgent flavors made in small batches and containing real, fresh ingredients and natural sweeteners. With vegan lifestyles on the rise, non-dairy, plant-based frozen treats are also capturing a larger-than-ever share of the ice cream market. Whatever your niche, you will want to invest in the right equipment, which includes commercial ice cream makers, freezers, mixers, menu boards and furniture as a starting point. Check out the National Ice Cream Retailers Association for best practices, food safety courses and additional resources.
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Published April 22, 2021