Chief Cook and Bottle Washer
Two years ago, Heather Stouffer was like many full-time working moms in the metro area -- fighting congested traffic, racing home to see her family, sussing out how to deal with dinner and looking for quick and easy ways to make it all happen faster.
Stouffer scoped out area supermarkets and specialty stores looking for products that she could feel good about feeding her infant son on occasion, but often came up shorthanded.
So, she became "very focused" on making her son's solid foods from scratch after she was underwhelmed by jarred baby food. She also was looking for foods she could successfully transport to her mother's house or something easier for the day-care provider to prepare.
"I was working my way through cookbooks and really enjoying making his food," she said.
Soon, parents in her son's playgroup were asking for her recipes, amazed at how her son would eat every last drop.
Stouffer realized there was a demand for healthy kids' food and founded Alexandria, Va.-based Mom Made Foods in May 2006, a maker of organic, frozen foods for children.
Growing Up in the Kitchen
Cooking had been a part of Stouffer's life since she was a kid. Her parents divorced when she was nine and her single, working mom raised Stouffer and her brother.
"My mom never wanted to compromise on our food. It was common practice for her to call us at 5 p.m. and tell us we're having fajitas, for example, and ask us to chop the onions, etc., so that when she got home at 5:45, dinner would be ready at 6 p.m.," said Stouffer. "We were often cooking in the kitchen."
Today, her brother, who still advises her on occasion, is the executive chef at the National Gallery overseeing four restaurants and a staff of 80. Stouffer is the head of a rapidly growing organic food business. "Food and cooking is a big part of who we are," said Stouffer, who quit her information technology-related sales and marketing job when her son Emory was seven months old.
Out of the Office and into the Frying Pan
It took her seven months of "really intense business planning," she said, to launch the firm. She worked with her brother on food operations. She took a business class at the SCORE office in downtown D.C. and worked closely with the Alexandria Small Business Development Center.
"I launched with bits and pieces of knowledge. I called other food entrepreneurs and asked them their stories," she said. "One piece of advice I have for other start-ups - don't be afraid to ask and don't be afraid to tell people what you're doing. The conceptual idea for a business is about 1 percent and the execution is 99 percent or more."
Stouffer rented a commercial kitchen, which she had to have organically certified, and hired a chef and a production team. "We did weekly batches, working for two afternoons and evenings a week and did the weekly production ourselves," she said.
She hoped that other parents and care-givers would see the merits in "not compromising anything by feeding a child something more convenient," she said.
To answer the many people who ask why kids can't eat the same kinds of food as adults, she replies: "Kids eat different portion sizes and their palates are different," Stouffer maintains. "They like certain food consistencies and taste ingredients differently - all of these things play into what will entice a child to eat something."
Setting Up at the Farmers' Market
Mom Made Foods intentionally did a small launch and focused on the Mid-Atlantic region, by selling her baby foods at the farmers' market in Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood on Memorial Day, 2006, and then expanding to eight Whole Foods stores.
"It was terrific and so fun to have the babies come back week after week and watch them get bigger," she said of the farmers' market.
The company's line now includes eight products like a handheld calzone-style pizza that uses a sweet potato and cauliflower binder instead of starch. The products now are sold in 30 Whole Foods stores along with Wegmans, Balducci's and Roots grocers. The company went national this month at the Natural Foods Expo in Los Angeles and expects to announce deals with other major food retailers shortly.
The company also received national attention in February 2007 thanks to media diva Oprah Winfrey. Stouffer was driving home from a sampling demonstration at Whole Foods in Fair Lakes, Va., when she checked her voice mail. She said she "just about ran off [interstate] 66" when she heard the message from the show producer, who was working on a show called Moms Who Made Millions. The last part of the segment featured up-and-coming businesses, including Mom Made Foods.
Stouffer said before the piece aired, she called other small business managers - including local business owner Warren Brown of Cakelove for advice on how to deal with the publicity after appearing on Oprah.
Although Mom Made Foods thought it had made adequate preparation for the spike in interest, "we had over 3,000 hits [on our Web site] in the first minute that the Oprah site was updated with the listing of businesses featured on the show. That was before the show even aired," she said.
The Moms Made Foods Web site crashed.
"The exposure has only been very helpful in every regard. Even over a year later, I still have strangers comment that they remember Mom Made from the Oprah show," Stouffer said.
In April 2007, the company began using a manufacturer on the East Coast and will begin West Coast manufacturing in May.
Stouffer says she is not surprised that her company has grown so quickly. "I really saw a true market need for convenient [organic, healthy meals for children] after extensive surveying, marketing analysis and consumer feedback."
"But what does surprise me is that we're creating a new food category - frozen children's food and more specifically frozen baby food," she said. "It didn't exist at all two years ago. Now it's becoming something national chains are building into their store sets...To be a business that is helping create this momentum is amazing."
While her company has grown exponentially in just two years, Stouffer remains the only full-time employee, although she relies on a wide network of consultants including a creative agency, accountant, lawyer and a pediatric dietician.
Stouffer, who works about 90 hours a week, turns off the phone from 5 to 8 p.m. every day to spend time with her family, but "distributors and anyone else know they can call me before that and up until midnight - and they do."
She sees 2008 as a year of "mass growth" for the company and has been preparing for it since the middle of last year. Hitting the blast-off button may mean adding to her employee roster, but she noted, "with the way we've built the business, it's not about adding people to add volume."
But it's her first customer who really runs the show. Emory will be three in May. "He's our director of taste testing. If he doesn't like something, we don't mass produce it."
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