Starting a Food Business on a Shoestring – the Sequel

Yesterday I shared some easy, practical ways to get a food business (or any kind of business for that matter) started without spending a lot of money. I am back today to share more money saving tips, this time with two areas that cause many new food businesses angst; packaging and labeling, and marketing – specifically advertising and promotion.

Packaging. Food packaging must be food grade, or food safe. There is no wiggle room here. You don’t want to find out down the road that your packaging is leaking toxins into your food product. Start with a packaging product that is made out of a FDA or USDA approved material. Luckily there are many options, but some are very expensive. Packaging can cost more than the food product that it contains. If you are seeking a high end market, it might make sense to package your product in an uniquely shaped glass container. But even if this is your market, I urge you to start with a less expensive and more easily sourced jar. Conversely, consider using a plastic container while you are testing your market. This is a good place to practice your creativity too. Explore unexpected, but not necessarily pricey, packaging, like take-out boxes, clear tubes, and stand-up pouches. Search ebay or Craigslist for other businesses selling excess inventory – that way you won’t have to purchase 1000 coffee bags only to find out after using 10 that they don’t work for your product.

Labeling. If you are selling food, you must have a label that includes your business name and address, ingredient list and an allergen statement. Most of us want our labels to be more than just the facts though, and to be a visual representation of our business itself. You can hire a graphic designer to design your labels and have them printed in large quantities. This saves money over the long run. But once again I urge you to start small. If you have any design talent at all you can design your own label on the computer using copyright free stock photography. If you are just putting together some food product samples, you can even print out your own labels on a laser printer. Home printed labels won’t hold up to wear and tear though, so when you start selling a product in any amount over 10, have your local printer make up about 250 labels. When you start using 250 labels a quarter, you may want to re-consider and go the graphic artist route, which can cost up to $4000 for 1500 labels (includes set-up fees and designer fee).

  • Marketing. Marketing, or to be more precise, advertising and promotion, can eat up your entire budget in minutes – and still not provide any results. It comes down to this – you cannot out advertise the big boys. Large food companies spend millions every year to paint the airwaves and magazines with pictures of their products. They pay grocers a slotting fee so that their products are on the grocers shelves. It’s kind of a scatter shot approach – by having their product everywhere it’s bound to find its market. Small food companies cannot play this game. We must already know who our market is and promote directly to them. Luckily there are many ways to do this inexpensively or even for free. So don’t start by putting together even a local TV advertisement or a big ad in the local paper. Think low cost:
  • Place a notice on Craigslist.
  • Put together a web site, even if it is just a basic site that explains who you are, what you make, and how to contact you.
  • Write a blog that lets your potential customers in on the “secrets” of your product.
  • Use an old-fashioned sandwich board outside your store.
  • Send a monthly newsletter to your customers, either by mail or email.
  • Offer classes using your products at your location.
  • Teach a class using your products at your local community education center.
  • Host in-store demonstrations and free tastings.
  • Plan a special event around your product and invite the local newspapers and TV stations.
  • Get people talking about your products either through using social media or online forums.
  • Sponsor a local Little League or soccer team.
  • Donate products to further a special cause, but only if you know how it will be promoted (unless it’s a cause you would support anyway). I was “courted” one year and asked to donate quite a bit of product to promote a worthy cause. That was fine and dandy, except that the product was put into individual gift baskets which were then auctioned off. The basket winners didn’t know that those products had been donated, and there was no press release issued about the donations. So while donating can be a wonderful way to both support a cause you feel strongly about and get your business name out there, it can also be an expensive lesson in what-not-to-do.

That’s the brief version of starting a business on a shoestring. Of course, every business industry has its own rules and regulations that must be followed, but you can start a business with little up front cash. How did you save money with your business start-up?

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About the Author

Renee Pottle, an author and heart-healthy educator, loves to explore and write about the Mediterranean Diet. She blogs at and

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