Breakroom heroes: Foodzie.com makes it easier for small food producers to make a living

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"They're really good at making whatever they make; that's what they want to do," explains Foodzie cofounder Emily Olson. "But as a small business owner you get sucked into so much else, marketing, managing a website." As a brand manager at Fresh Market a few years back, she saw how difficult it was for the small guys to break into the market.


Maybe they didn't produce enough quantity to justify carrying the product. Maybe they weren't able to promote their food on their own. Olson discovered that there was a lot of tasty food out there that wasn't finding its way to people who could enjoy it.


That's when, with the help of some friends, she started Foodzie, which launched just over a year ago. The concept is familiar to anyone who's visited etsy.com: small producers aggregated into one large, easy to navigate site. In its first year, Foodzie has accumulated over 250 different vendors. All little guys.


"We have some filters in place to better understand what they do," says Olson. "Is it mass-produced? Is it sold across the country? Is it an owner-operated business? Is there an interesting story that goes with the product?" Small vendors with their hands in every aspect of the business, sure, but these aren't just people cooking brittle in their kitchen. The vendors need insurance and appropriate state and local licensing before they'll be considered.


"Then we get samples and taste everything," explains Olson. "We personally vet everything on the site." The website is organized by category and tag, so searching is easy enough. Dig a little deeper into the lamb rub or caramel popcorn and you'll find the cute story Foodzie looks for behind each product, photos of the people who make the food, and even maps that show which of the site's vendors operate near where you live.


Order a product and it's shipped directly from the producer to you. Foodzie collects 20 percent off the top for its troubles, leaving more money in the hands of the person who cooked your candy than they'd likely receive if they sold to a retail store, and with a lot less risk.


"When you order chocolates, they're made after you order, as fresh as it gets unless you eat them off the pan," says Olson. There's no need for producers to carry inventory, and shipping is charged to a Foodzie FedEx account, taking one more worry out of the producers' hands.


"What we've realized is that the opportunity is not just connecting to consumers, it's also connecting these vendors together," says Olson. "There's this whole ecosystem where they can help each other ... sort of like the co-op model, pull them all together and it acts as one big company."


Although the site has thousands of products — from prepared foods to meat and seafood — Olson sees cheese as one of the areas that Foodzie can grow, since there are so many small, artisan producers around the country. And, well, people like cheese.


What does she buy from her own website? Right now Olson is partial to Skinny Crisps, flavored crackers made from chickpea flour, and maple-honey caramels made from just maple, honey, butter, cream and salt.


Like any good Internet start-up, Foodzie is based in San Francisco, and a lot of the vendors hail from California. When I ask her where most of the site's customers come from, she admits that urban areas generate a lot of business. "But there's also a lot from more rural areas, where people may not have access to this kind of food," she says. "Everyone feels the need for something tasty."


Photos courtesy foodzie.com

At church socials and in office breakrooms, we've all tasted it: food, made by someone you know, that you'd actually pay money for. You tell the creator of the secret recipe cookies or spice-blasted nuts how good they are and they nod, knowingly. They've been told before. In the midst of daily problems and the weekly grind, they cling to their pride and daydream about sending their food to the big time.

Sometimes, they even make it a reality, often with a stand at the local farmers' market or a few choice stores willing to take a chance on something tasty from a local. Big businesses have started this way, but it's always a tough road from breakroom hero to cookie magnate.

Foodzie.com makes it a little easier.

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