At the start of 2020, Saffi Foods had built up a solid business providing gourmet oils and vinegars to the restaurant industry. Owner Sascha Dhanjal was gearing up to launch her products in the bulk departments of 100+ groceries. Her vision of combining high-end ingredients with zero-waste packaging had become real. Then COVID-19 shut down both her sales channels.
Finding a new way forward
Sascha faced two major problems in redirecting Saffi Foods from wholesale to retail sales. Because she had worked primarily through foodservice distributors up until now, Saffi Foods didn’t have much of an online presence, let alone ecommerce capabilities.
Then there was packaging: by selling from the bulk sections of grocery stores, Saffi Foods had been able to keep the amount of packaging it used, and packaging waste it created, to a minimum. That would be hard to do bottling products for individual sale.
So, Sascha turned to the connections she’d made through the FaBcap Accelerator program run by Food and Beverage Wisconsin (FaB) and the University of Wisconsin’s Food Finance Institute (FFI).
“Those groups have been incredibly helpful,” she says. “They’re the ones who really introduced us to how to source things. But they’re also the ones who have talked to us weekly to make sure we’re staying on the right track and keeping our heads above water.”
Facing a sourcing bottleneck
Sascha solved the problem of retail-sized zero-waste packaging by turning to recycled wine bottles. She had been collecting and sanitizing wine bottles on a small scale to use when giving away samples at grocery stores. Now the challenge was sanitizing and filling them at scale.
Networking made all the difference. Another producer in her warehouse pointed her to a vendor that leased commercial dishwashers that could be outfitted with a bottle-sanitizing attachment. Finding a bottling machine was harder—the available supply had all been bought up by small-scale producers of hand sanitizer. Again, it was an industry mentor who came through, getting her an extra bottling machine from one of his facilities.
A good support system to lean on
By June 2020, Saffi Foods had launched a website with ecommerce capabilities, but Sascha says it took six months to get a handle on inventory levels, ecommerce and retail marketing, even with the help and recommendations of her peers, mentors and industry groups like FFI and FaB. We’re All Innovating grant funds helped pay for the new equipment and covered the cost of designing new retail packaging.
Although she expects another tough year, online sales have been steadily increasing, and she’s confident she’ll be able to build back her wholesale business.
“Mentors that could help with forecasting and financing have been so, so important, and I really can’t stress enough the importance of having a good support system,” she says.
Encouragement from her peers gave Sascha the breathing room she needed to think about innovative sourcing for retail sales; guidance and material support from her mentors helped her quickly launch a whole new business model without sacrificing her vision for the company.
“In situations like this you just want to go into a cocoon, hide yourself and never come out. But Wisconsin’s strong history of food processing means there is a lot of support for us here. When people know you are struggling, the entrepreneurial community here in Wisconsin, especially the food community, is so supportive.”