Kevin Kirshner Talks About What it Takes to Run a Wholesome, Indie Granola Business

It takes a certain kind of person to whip up a good granola recipe and decide to take on the market at large. Kevin Kirshner is one of those rare types. In this interview, he openly discusses the challenges and rewards of producing and marketing Berkshire Grain, and how he expects environmental changes to affect the industry in the future.

How long have you owned your own business? What came before Berkshire Grain?

Berkshire Grain was started in Spring of 2008, and prior to this I had another business, Forerunner Promotions, that specialized in temporary staffing of models, live performers, actors and actresses, and even stay at home moms for outsourced marketing assignments.

Tell me a bit about how Berkshire Grain came about?

Even before Forerunner, I had another natural food company called Happy Heart Foods. We produced granolas and decadent vegan desserts. So, about 15 years ago I had first met my current business partner Sandy Montag, who discovered and fell in love with our granola while at Canyon Ranch Spa in Lenox, MA.  He loved it so much he used to order it direct and in bulk every few months.  Sandy did that faithfully for several years until I got out of the granola business, which I thought at the time was for good.  Over a  five year period Sandy would call me every now and again looking for his favorite Cinnamon Toast Granola.  Occasionally if I had some granola around for my own personal consumption I would oblige him and send  some.  Then in early 2008 Sandy called and we got to talking and I was about to tell him there was no granola and there would never be anymore granola, but then I switched conversations and shared with him details of a project my wife Barbara was involved in called Doggity's Diner.  Doggity was a children's entertainment project that was attempting to deal with good lifestyle choices and food, as ‘edu-tainment’.  Sandy is a senior manager at a very large and well known media company – and I asked him if he would be interested in taking a look at the project.  As we continued our conversation about edu-tainment, it became increasingly clear that we were both passionate about diet and excercise. We decided to work together on a healthy granola recipe – just as a part time thing – and here we are now. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience that I am sure will continue to grow.

What are some of the challenges, both of being a business owner, and of the food industry in particular?

The food business is one of the most competitive industries.  Just think of all the choices we have in all our markets. Distribution and sales are probably the two most difficult things I deal with at Berkshire Grain.  As a new, young brand, the challenge is to find outlets for our products and to connect with consumers who become repeat customers.  Berkshire Grain relies on a contract manufacturer for our production needs, however there is constant monitoring and communication that goes into that operation side.  Negotiating with vendors, government compliance issues, marketing and sales are some of the other areas that are always in need of attention.

Another challenge all entrepreneurs face is how to keep from wearing too many hats. It’s essential to build relationships that allow you to be the conductor, rather than to do each job, and to find people or vendors that share your ideals.

Did the global financial crisis make things especially difficult? How did you cope?

In 2008 it couldn't have been a worst time to start a new business.  However, since our venture has been partner funded and not reliant on financial institutions, all it required was for us to move forward slower than we would have liked.

Globally though, the food industry is under siege right now due to fires, severe weather and environmental conditions that are causing financial pressures in all commodity food groups.It is too soon to tell how long these conditions will prevail, or whether these current conditions will snowball. Right now the western countries have plentiful food supplies – and we do grains, seeds and nuts from the USA – but we live and operate in a global economy.  The value of our commodities are impacted by world supply. In the future, I expect to see some erosion in food supply and a rise in prices. Food companies will react by re-formulating products in order to maintain a reliable supply at affordable prices.

What is your typical day like?

Most days run 10-12 hours. There are no 9-5 type days.

The typical day?  There is no typical day.  As a young company, my schedule may start out dealing with problems in manufacturing, checking in with our sales team, and finish with customer calls.  Yesterday began at 7 a.m. on the road, and through the miracle of wireless phone service I spent the next 2 hours making a variety of phone calls as if i were still in my office.

My first actual destination was with one of our largest customers to discuss a new private label product for their stores.  Since I was in a particular area where one of our smaller customers was located, I chose to hand deliver a case of granola to them and meet the owner.These face to face meetings always prove to invaluable and almost always lead to something positive. By making this effort, I learned of plans to open a new location and an opportunity for Berkshire Grain to do something to be part of the opening. I stopped into two schools as well, since Berkshire Grain is embarking on a very special effort to offer our products to school systems and fulfill one of our missions to become part of the solution and fight against poor nutrition and childhood obesity.

The rest of my day was filled with visiting with store owners and managers.  I returned home at 7pm, some 250 miles later.

Who is involved in the Berkshire Grain team? How many people does it actually take to make this sort of business happen?

It takes hundreds of people. However all of our people work in virtual, freelance environments.  Key people include: manufacturing staff, packaging vendor, graphic designer, writers, sales staff and distribution staff.  We run a very lean business without any full time employees and find it easier to hire freelancers to do various jobs on an as-needed basis.  Like any scenario, it has some advantages, which is to keep our overhead low and free of lots of other government compliance labor issues, and expenses.

Do you find that social media makes a difference in your marketing strategy, or is it simply a matter of getting your goods onto the shelves at major grocery stores?

The answer is all of the above.  Of course it is getting your products onto shelves whether it be at a retailer, a restaurant, a school or corporate cafeteria – it all starts with moving product out of our warehouse where they can be consumed and enjoyed.  Social media definitely makes a huge difference in the types of communication you can achieve with customers and in getting messages out.

What advice would you give to others who are entertaining the idea of starting their own company within the food products sector?

Read From Kitchen to Market – it is an excellent primer. And interview lots of people, everyone from store owners to other business owners.

Photo credit: Berkshire Grain