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Yuba foothills entrepreneur markets meat substitute
• PROPRIETOR: Freja Nelson
• ADDRESS: 9185 Marysville Road, Oregon House, CA
• PHONE: (530) 933-9506
• WEBSITE: http://frejasfoods.com
It's the new business owner's lament: "It's just me right now — I do everything. I cook it, I pack it, I deliver it."
For Freja Nelson, that only starts to describe all she does in her vegetarian meat business. She also keeps the books, designs the packaging and makes the sales calls while studying everything she can to ensure she's doing everything to be a success.
The seeds for Freja's Foods VegiMeat business started in Strawberry Valley, where her parents were dedicated vegans.
"My mom — having no soy milk, no tofu, no veggie dogs (available) on the market — began to develop recipes for protein for her family," Nelson explained. "And beans are great, they're awesome, but they get boring, especially in America where people barbecue. So she developed this recipe (for VegiMeat). This is one thing she taught me how to cook. Over the years, I've made it for people at family functions because people have always loved it — even meat eaters."
But the idea to take her mother's recipe and turn it into a profitable business didn't happen for years when she was living in Santa Cruz where she was a wife and mother of two young girls. She said she knew she wanted to start a business, and after looking around she decided to make and market VegiMeat because she felt there was a tremendous need ready to be filled.
"I think the greatest challenge I actually had was going from wanting to start this business to really doing it. It's much more fun to just sit around and talk about it — then there's the brutal reality of coughing up the money and doing the research and development," she said.
That might have been the biggest challenge, but it wasn't the only one. She had no business experience. The only thing she had going for her in the early days was that she had a lot of experience in running a kitchen.
"I started out in Santa Cruz and hit roadblocks," Nelson said. "The problems there were that the availability of commercial kitchens was very limited and very expensive, so I was priced out. For instance, I'd have a two-hour slot and it'd cost $800, and I had to pack everything in and out every time. The other piece of the puzzle was my baby-sitting was going to be very expensive too."
Both problems were solved when she moved back to Strawberry Valley in the Yuba foothills and found a working base in the Alcouffe Community Center in Oregon House. It fit her work and financial constraints, plus her mother volunteered to take over the baby-sitting duties.
THE PRODUCT: "The basic ingredient is a product called seitan. It's been out there for probably a hundred years. It was developed in Asia by, I think, Buddhist monks who — as the story goes — were getting invaded by samurai. The samurai weren't trying to hurt them — they just wanted lodging. The problem was that the samurai weren't happy with the food, but the monks were vegetarian. So the monks, in order not to get killed by the samurai, developed a meat alternative."
Seitan, also called "wheat meat," "wheat gluten" or simply "gluten" is similar to the look and texture of meat when cooked.
At this time, Freja's Foods products include barbecued chops that come with a package of barbecue sauce that is designed to be grilled or cooked on a stovetop. "It smokes and sizzles and comes out like meat," she said. And a product that Nelson calls Meal Makers, which comes packaged in bite-sized pieces, can be used to replace meat in soups, chili, fajitas, lasagna, kabobs — anything that calls for chopped-up meats.
GETTING STARTED: "I started out in Santa Cruz about two years ago by going to every small-business development event or class that I could find. And when I landed back here, I did the same thing. I'm heavily involved with the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) in Chico.
"I've taken every class they have to offer — some twice," Nelson said. "I didn't know what a business plan was, I didn't know what a profit-and-loss statement was, but I knew I was ignorant.
"I took about two months off to develop the product. But I knew I needed to learn more about how to run a business — or I was going to get squashed, even though I knew my product was great. I knew that I didn't know stuff. The problem was I didn't know what I needed to know."
She said her biggest mistake was her marketing. After attending the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade's Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco last January, she scrapped her whole packaging design and brand name. "I went there to get educated — and I did get educated. Boy, was it horrifying," she recalled.
Nelson said she learned her business' original name, Wholesome Delicious, and look were all wrong — it was too "greasy spoon diner-ish." But after attending every seminar at the show she could fit in and talking to everyone she could, she scrapped all her labels, business cards and everything else that had the wrong look and started over.
"What I did wrong was I developed my business identity first, before I learned about the market," she said.
It was after the Fancy Food Show that she said she really started getting on track as a business.
Once she had her eyes opened at the show, Nelson went home and pored over business books, especially those for specialty foods. Next, she made contact with people in that business line and read over books by people who have been successful in marketing in this niche — cheeses, teas and the like. She said she discovered that business is very different than the major food sellers. She now meets with the various SBDC professionals who keep her going in the right direction.
Despite her early missteps, her basic plan hasn't changed. Nelson's objective is to "offer meat alternatives that will actually satisfy people who like meat, but want to eat less or none of it."
OREGON HOUSE: "I came back (to Yuba County) because I wanted to be able to succeed in this business," said Nelson.
"When I researched kitchens here, this place (Alcouffe Community Center) was one of the places I came across." She said it's very inexpensive for local people and not much more for people from out of the area. She added that the center's managers are very helpful and flexible, which is different than other places. "They were kind enough to let me have my space here so I don't have to pack all my supplies and equipment in and out."
HITTING THE MARKET: "It was extremely hard to make the leap to say, 'OK, the product is ready and I'm going to sell it to somebody now.' So, jumping off that cliff and making that first sales call was really, really hard for me, but every single sales call I've made, I sold it.
"We have been on the market for about four months now. In that time, I've placed my products in nine local stores — the first was Chico Natural Foods. The others are S and S Market in Chico, California Organics and Natural Selection in Nevada City, Mother Truckers in North San Juan, The Briar Patch in Grass Valley, New Earth Market in Yuba City, Oregon House Farm Store and the Oregon House Store."
The latest grocery to sell Freja's Foods is New Earth Market in Yuba City and it's also the first one to sell her products in bulk.
Nelson said she picked most of these stores because "I'm very conscious to not be pigeon-holed into the vegan market or the hippie market, because I think there's a giant, gaping demand for delicious alternatives to meat for people who like meat."
PRODUCTION: "There's not a day that I don't work on my business," but right now it only takes a 12-to-15-hour day once a week to do all the complex steps — mixing, cooking and cooling — to give the VegiMeat just the right consistency, which is vital to making the product feel right when it's eaten. Then she's back at the center for a second day to take care of the packaging.
Making the sauce that's included with the chops is "a wonderful combination of barbecue and steak sauce" that isn't as labor-intensive. She said that once or twice a month she makes about 45 quarts which she sets aside.
The rest of the week is spent doing the bookkeeping, deliveries and all the other details that make a business successful.
THE FUTURE: Nelson said that in two years she'd like to have two more people working with her, one doing the cooking and packaging and another the deliveries, while still working out of the Alcouffe Community Center. Those extra people would be important to meet her goal of being in every health food store in Northern California.
She said she also wants to have two or three more products on the market by that time.
"In five years, I'd like to have at least six different products available; and I already have an idea what those are going to be," Nelson said."I also want to be in my own facility, probably here in Oregon House, that can be operating constantly and have grown to a four-person staff."
"And in 10 years, I think I'll be in mainstream stores and health food stores all across California with meat-alternative products that are organic, soy-free," she said.