Craft foods calling: nationwide schools, seminars and workshops teach you how to launch your own business

craft foodsMost children don’t dream of selling cheese or hacking apart animal carcasses when they grow up, but it’s a popular fantasy for many adults. Like most romantic-sounding culinary vocations, making craft foods and beverages can be hard work, and a risky business enterprise. “No matter how passionate someone is about their product,” says Heidi Yorkshire, founder of Portland, Oregon’s Food by Hand Seminars, “without business skills, they’ll never survive.”

Yorkshire, a small business consultant and former food and wine writer, was inspired to launch Food by Hand in 2009 because she saw a niche. “Our courses are mini-apprenticeships in running a sustainable business.” Past curricula have included butchery and craft distilling.

Food by Hand offers two-to-three-day intensives that teach the “craft and business of artisan food.” While the courses are designed for prospective business owners, they’re open to anyone wanting to know more about handcrafted foods.

[Photo credit: Flickr user mystuart]craft foodsFood by Hand has an artisan cheese program that teaches everything from tasting, buying, storage and shop design to creating a business plan. The course is led by esteemed Portland cheesemonger Steve Jones, the son of a Maytag Dairy herdsman. Additional instructors include an expert on business planning and a tax specialist.

Jones has been in the business for over 17 years and is now on his second retail cheese venture, Portland’s Cheese Bar. He’s an industry badass and the winner of the 2011 Cheesemonger Invitational (yes, it really does exist and let me tell you, as a cheesemonger, it’s a pretty intense occupation and competition).

Food by Hand’s fourth annual seminar on The Craft and Business of Retailing Artisan Cheese will be held in Portland from May 30-June 2, 2012, and costs $1,795 per person; a $1,595 early enrollment tuition fee is available if paid in full by April 1. Click here for details on how to register.

In Spokane, Washington, Dry Fly Distilling’s aptly named Distilling School teaches their “farm to bottle” ethos (they use only locally, sustainably-grown raw ingredients in their vodka, gin, bourbon and whiskey) in two-day and one-week courses designed to “provide a variety of hands-on training opportunities to aspiring distillers.”

Opening in Oakland’s Jack London Square in April is the Food Craft Institute. Supported by sponsors and partnerships with some of the Bay Area’s most renowned artisan food organizations, farmers and food artisans (some of whom are also the instructors) the new school aims to “reinvigorate the creation and success of artisan food craft business in the U.S. through a combination of…training courses steeped in technical techniques along with a rigorous entrepreneurship program.”
craft foods
It’s easy to poke fun at the overuse of words like “artisan” and “handcrafted,” and even I cringe when I hear naifs dreamily speak of quitting their six-figure tech jobs and buying a goat dairy. The reality is that unless you put in the hard time doing internships and learning the business end of things — and that’s assuming you have real, honest-to-god talent and passion — you’re not going to succeed at any food business. Having seed money or disposable income doesn’t equal good product.

On the positive side, my former employer, a Seattle cheesemonger, did her homework and spent two years interning, developing a business plan and taking Jones’ workshop as well as making him her mentor. Her business has been a success from day one. If you’re serious about getting (food) crafty, you can run a viable business. Just don’t think it’s going to be easy.

Kickstarter
and incubator kitchens such as San Francisco’s La Cocina have helped many craft food businesses get off the ground. If you’re considering a career in this industry, I highly recommend these and similar programs as resources. And don’t forget: craft foods make excellent travel souvenirs.

[Photo credit: lamb, Laurel Miller; cheese, Flicker user Mitchmaitree]

Why start a craft food business? Because you “can pickle that.”