Welcome to "Season 2" of Plant Basting Talks, where we interview entrepreneurs in the vegan-friendly space about their story, what they’ve learned thus far, their business model, and how they measure their business's health. Learn the trends and strategies local businesses are using to grow.
In this interview Niki Toscani, co-owner of Fishtown Pickle Project, breaks down:
- How useful her and co-founder Mike Sicinski's combined previous life and work experiences have been to this venture.
- Complexities and detemining factors when deciding product prices.
- The importance of "showing up" in the beginning and continuing to do so even with a more established customer base.
- Why building out a large professional network has been vital.
1. What influenced you to start Fishtown Pickle Project?
We began FPP for fun, after handing out pickle favors to guests at our wedding reception. Many of our guests and even those working the wedding asked how to get more! That was the first time we realized that we had a marketable product.
Coincidentally, "Pickledelphia" came to town a few months later and we signed up, just for fun. Our success at that event was another push for us to keep going. We continued FPP as a passion project until the pandemic hit and Mike was laid off.
Mike is a chef by trade and I'm a Registered Dietitian, so we are both professional foodies with some experience in the retail space. A bit of real life experience and some fate brought us to where we are today.
2. What were the critical steps you took to get the business started?
Logistically, registering for an LLC and finding a commercial kitchen space were critical in protecting the business and ensuring we were taking good care of our customers.
Other big steps included creating our logo, social media pages and building relationships with our suppliers. Establishing our values was also a very important step, but this sort of just happened organically; our personal values are reflected in our professional values.
3. How did you get your first customers?
It was a combination of word of mouth, social media and showing up at doors! At times, it seemed easier than it should have been and other times it was really tough.
In the very beginning, we gave a lot of product away. Since our product is meant to be refrigerated BEFORE opening, we really had to sell ourselves to earn prime real estate in cold cases.
4. How have you continued to grow your customer base?
We are still doing much of the same! We connect with businesses through word of mouth, social media, by knocking on doors and participating in events and farmers markets. We network a ton and form friendly relationships with other food businesses, which sometimes leads us to collaborate.
Our relationship with Jacob and Alex of Kismet Bagels is just one example (Check out their Fishtown Pickle Cream Cheese Schmear)! Recently, we have been branching out to make more connections with our online customers by advertising in local publications, like Philly Current Magazine.
5. What is Fishtown Pickle Project’s business model?
Our business model is to partner primarily with small, independent retailers and businesses that share our values of highlighting local, high quality foods.
We produce and market our staple five flavors, but also get creative with limited batch pickle flavors that feature seasonal produce and interesting collaborations with other craft partners.
6. Other than revenue, what are the most important metrics that FPP tracks for knowing the health of the business?
Other useful metrics of growth and success for us might look like: retailer acquisition and frequency of wholesale reorders and size of orders. Last year was our first year in the e-commerce space, so we are looking at growth metrics like average number of sessions, conversion rate and checkout completion rate.
7. How did you decide on pricing of your products? Have rising prices or shortages of supplies affected Fishtown Pickle Project?
We combined a few approaches to get to our pricing. When we first started, we did market research to compare pricing of conventional and premium pickles. Because we have experience in retail, we were able to consider gross margins in grocery stores to suggest their retail pricing. From there, we worked backwards, also keeping in mind that we need to set our wholesale pricing high enough to cover our supplies, labor, marketing and all other costs associated with running a business.
Like so many, our business was definitely affected by both rising prices and supply shortages, mainly glass!
8. Is it important to you that your business is vegan-friendly?
Absolutely! Because we pickle produce, we have the opportunity to maintain a vegan profile. As a dietitian, I wholeheartedly encourage plant forward eating and want our pickles to support that lifestyle.
9. What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome?
Honestly, a lot of the biggest challenges we've faced have to do with balancing the needs of our business and everything else! It is really, really hard to start a business while working full time jobs.
It's also really hard to go through life major changes while running a business. In the last two years, we went from having very cushy incomes to not. We also had a baby! Plus, my father is unfortunately suffering with frontotemporal dementia, so we have a lot happening behind the scenes and it can be stressful. But, Mike and I are learning and getting better at managing it all every day.
Thankfully, we are now supported by our small, but mighty team at FPP. Dan, Liz and Sam have certainly made running the business easier.
10. Have you found anything (resource, book, skill, habit, or bit of knowledge) that’s been valuable or useful for your entrepreneurial journey?
Our professional experience has helped plenty, but we are constantly learning. Our network of entrepreneurs are also a wealth of knowledge! We belong to the Philly Food Entrepreneurs and also the Let's Talk Womxn groups, where some of the most successful business owners offer support and guidance in many different areas. The larger our network grows, the easier it is to learn and obtain information needed to grow the business.
11. How do you tend to your mental health as business owners?
In the beginning of FPP, when we both had full time jobs, plus the pickle business and no employees, it was really tough. For as busy as we still are, I do think we are better at actively carving out time for breaks.
Personally, I practice yoga and like to dance. Mike and I both love going on bike rides and being in nature. Now that we have a little one, it is really important that we take quality time as a family. We are really thankful to be able to take time for ourselves.
12. Any advice for entrepreneurs just starting out in the vegan-friendly space?
The vegan-friendly space is definitely FRIENDLY! We make a lot of connections with our vegan customers, because they love to share their favorite vegan food finds. Definitely befriend other businesses and entrepreneurs in this category, especially if you need guidance on how to maintain vegan food production.
13. Where can we go to learn more about you and Fishtown Pickle Project?
Interested in learning how to start a vegan-friendly business like Fishtown Pickle Project?
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