Pulling Back the Curtain on VA Foodie — An Interview with George Dearing

Pulling Back the Curtain on VA Foodie — An Interview with George Dearing

This episode is a bit different, with regular host, and VA Foodie Founder, George Dearing in the hot seat. Abby McAllister interviews George, and in this episode, we get to know the woman behind VA Foodie. George talks about her journey into food marketing and her passion for helping small brands through Water Street, her manufacturing-focused brand agency.

We discuss her approach to marketing and how she helps her clients get in front of the right people. Small companies often feel as though they have to cater to everyone, but when you are trying to talk to everyone, you are talking to no-one. With the rise of conscious consumption, consumers are voting with their dollars more than ever and want to align with brands who resonate with their personal values, so it is crucial for marketing to tap into this.

We discuss this along with the understanding that social media is a marketing tool and should not be looked at as the only way to connect. George’s passion for her work, Virginia, and food is tangible, so tune in to hear more from the ultimate VA foodie.

Key Points from This Episode:

  • Get to know George, what her company, Water Street, does, and when she started VA Foodie.

  • George’s journey with marketing and how she came to food marketing specifically.

  • Two ways that working in a small agency is different than a larger one.

  • How the state of Virginia supports businesses by helping them sell overseas.

  • Where George went to college and where she was born and raised.

  • What drew George to Virginia and why she chose to raise her family there.

  • The advice George gives her clients: Act like you are special because you are!

  • Understanding the difference between marketing and social media.

  • Seeing social media as a marketing tool, not marketing in and of itself.

  • How social media can act as real-time market research.

  • The most rewarding part of having a small agency and working with small brands.

Links Mentioned in This Episode:

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Click Here for the Full Transcript

Abby McAllister 0:00:
My dog is staring at me like, “Who are you talking to when you're not talking to me? Why are you looking at that?”

George Dearing 00:00:09:
Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the good food, good people, and good brands that you know and love. If you’ve ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered, “How do they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business,” then we’ve got some stories for you.

Georgiana Dearing 00:00:36:
Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast. I’m George Dearing, Owner of Water Street Marketing and Founder of Virginia Foodie. And today’s episode is honestly a little weird for me because my friend, Abby McAllister, has turned the tables, and she is interviewing me. So, if you’re interested, here’s a little of my history and a bit of the backstory to Virginia Foodie.

Georgiana Dearing 00:01:04:
All right, Abby. What do you want to ask me?

Abby McAllister 00:01:06:
So, I think people want to know more about you because you have created such a wonderful brand with VA Foodie and, of course, your marketing firm. I want to call it a marketing firm. So, I just thought I could interview you because you interviewed me, and it was lovely, and I’ll just start by asking you to introduce yourself.

Georgiana Dearing 00:01:28:
I’m Georgiana Dearing and I go by George, which is how most people know me, and then they’re surprised that I’m a girl. But at one point, it was important to me, and now it doesn't matter. I’ll answer to anything these days; Georgie, Georgia, or whatever.

But I own Water Street Design, where we do marketing for manufacturers, and I have been doing that since 1998 and I’m also the Founder of Virginia Foodie, which is an online publication committed to celebrating the good food, good people, and good brands of Virginia. Most people know us as VA Foodie. That’s our Instagram handle, and we have quite a following over there. That’s been almost five years ago that we started that.

Abby McAllister 00:02:20:
And it’s amazing. We all love VA Foodie.

Georgiana Dearing 00:02:23:
Oh, thank you. It’s had its ups and downs, and we're speaking right now in the middle of the pandemic, and so there’s a lot of – We’re seeing a lot of downs out there in the food industry but we’re trying to lift it up and keep it positive and celebrate everyone and give people a voice to talk about local food.

Abby McAllister 00:02:46:
Definitely. VA Foodie posts on Instagram for years now have been some of my favorites because food is why I went on Instagram. Then eventually, it evolved into memes, which is all I see now, so I still get very excited to just see pictures of food which people look down on. But I’m like, “No, you need to follow the right pages and not your uncle’s dinner.” So, you started marketing a long time ago before you started Water Street. I'm just curious where exactly you started with marketing but food marketing specifically.

Georgiana Dearing 00:03:23:
Well, I started actually on the creative side. I was a fine arts major and then became a graphic designer and worked in the print industry, and I ended up in my current role, which literally was actually a different company in 1998. Then we became Water Street in, oh, my goodness, 2000 something. Sorry, my brain is dead on that. But we changed the name and kept all the same players.

Two things that were different about the way we work in a small creative agency is that we’re very collaborative, which means we connect with more than one–It’s not a lone person in the corner. So, we try and work with our clients but we also try and work with the best source we can find to solve the problem. The problems that we’re solving over and over again is not, “Can you make me a brochure?” but, “Can you help me sell my product?” and that's really what marketing is -- it’s helping people sell their products.

So, we focused on our niche of marketing for manufacturers because we had a lot of clients like that, and it was kind of freeing to say, “Actually, we’re going to focus on this niche in the industry.” We’re very, very fortunate to have some really big name brands in the food industry that we worked with. We work with National Fruit, which is White House applesauce, and we worked with not just their main brand but a lot of little small niche brands they were creating for specific markets. We also worked with Pierce Food and then ConAgra and some Butterball products.

Abby McAllister 00:04:58:

Georgiana Dearing 00:04:59:
Yeah. We worked with some restaurant chains and a few other things. But what really made me kind of flip to working specifically for food was a relationship I had with the Virginia Department of Ag and Consumer Services where Virginia, first of all, is a great state for business. The state is really trying to make any business, food or otherwise, grow and they have a lot of great opportunities for that.

But I came in contact with them because they had, at the time, this program where they would put Virginia brands in front of buyers overseas. At the time, it was like 600 bucks and your airfare and they would send you in a – You have two people and your 10x10 booth and get you into a tradeshow overseas. They have a team over in Europe. They have them in Asia, Latin America. They have a lot of places where they were sending people, and it was so easy for a brand to take advantage of that. Then they found out that the brands weren’t ready, so they started doing some “prepare yourself to sell overseas” programs.

I had done a lot of international marketing, and so I had a little 10 or 12-minute shtick that I would do and talk to people about the things you need to think about when you sell overseas, and it is not just translate your ingredients. So, I had worked for some really big brands and I was seeing these emerging brands. They all have the very same needs that my big corporate clients had. So, I started thinking about ways that I could package what I'm doing into systems that these brands could take advantage of.

Then the other thing that I wanted to do is I really, really am just a foodie. I love to cook. I’m a Williams Sonoma fan – like I devour their catalog and think of all the things I should have in my house, and I like the passion that comes behind food brands. Secretly, I really, really want there to be a hugely thriving local food system, and this is my contribution to it. I can make a place for these brands to talk about what they're doing. I knew how to get an audience, so I made an audience. Now, I talk to those people about local food.

Abby McAllister 00:07:36:
I like that.

Georgiana Dearing 00:07:37:
Yes. So that’s what we’re doing, and I always envisioned Virginia Foodie as being an echo chamber for the industry. We’re just talking about it and pushing the stories of these good brands out to an audience that cares about it. We get contacted all the time. I mean, literally just today, somebody said, “Hey, can I send you some food that we sell in Kroger?” I was like, “No. You’re missing the point of our audience.”

Abby McAllister 00:08:08:
Right. So, to backtrack a little bit, where did you go to school?

Georgiana Dearing 00:08:12:
I went to women’s college out in Missouri, and I was a fine arts major and liberal arts. My degree is in liberal arts, and then I went on to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and got my technical trade which is early–there weren’t a lot of computers. I’m old, so lots of hands-on training. My career has evolved while the industries evolved. When we talked about how big my company is right now, we’re actually a two-person agency. But I have between 10 and 12 contractors in different subject matter areas where they’re experts, and we just call the experts in to solve the problem.

Abby McAllister 00:08:52:
That’s great. Absolutely. So, are you originally from Virginia?

Georgiana Dearing 00:08:57:
No, I’m not. My family – I was born in Bethesda, Maryland. My family is from down in the DC area, and my husband and I both grew up in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, and we ended up here in Winchester, Virginia. That’s where we’re headquartered. But Virginia Foodie covers the entire state.

Abby McAllister 00:09:17:
What made you fall in love with Virginia, as opposed to the city and Missouri and all those places you’ve been in like Pittsburgh?

Georgiana Dearing 00:09:24:
Well, honestly, it's the landscape and the space. And the reason we have that landscape and space is primarily due to agriculture. We have a very strong agricultural industry, but I liked Winchester because it was so close to family, and we can still get into DC in an hour and 15 minutes. My kids had all of that DC experience that I had as a kid, and we came home at night and still lived in a small community.

Abby McAllister 00:09:56:
Sure, yeah.

Georgiana Dearing 00:09:56:
Hey. You’ve got some good questions, girl.

Abby McAllister 00:09:58:
Oh, thanks. Thank you. You have some great answers. So, all of the brands that were going to Virginia’s Finest, were these brands that were already in distribution nationally in the US or at least on the East Coast? Or were some of these brands small, like had not ventured into distribution yet?

Georgiana Dearing 00:10:21:
There are some super small brands.

Abby McAllister 00:10:24:
And I assume that’s what got you into, “Hey, I could really focus on these small brands based out of Virginia and help them grow.” Not necessarily into distribution but as a brand and brand themselves because I think we see a lot of these small businesses, and they’re not necessarily a brand. They’re just a product that shows up sometimes at the local farmers market or what have you and basically helping them turn that corner. I assume you were in Virginia at the time. You had your family at the time?

Georgiana Dearing 00:10:56:

Abby McAllister 00:10:57:
Okay. So, you’re already passionate about Virginia.

Georgiana Dearing 00:11:00:
It's just when you own a small business, you wear a lot of hats. Even some businesses, brands where you...we can see them all over the place, the owner still has a lot of roles that they play–that is different from a corporation. Corporations have entire departments devoted to marketing, but they’re still trying to do the same thing, which is get their product to the right customer, and that means you need to know what your product really, really is and who is your customer. When I say that, I think of snack foods.

Okay, we did some work with Abuelita. The family has – I think someone else is running it. I'm not really sure. I may be talking out of turn. But the thing that they knew was that they were making – They were not Tostitos, right? There’s two different things and there is a place for these big national brands in our food market and in our system. But there’s also a place for specialty food brands.

The thing I always tell my clients is, “Yeah, you’re special, so you need to act special and you need to talk about what your specialness is so that people who want your –” It’s not even just flavor but your aesthetic and your approach to business and the way you do your thing. There is somebody out there who wants that, and so that’s the connection that you have to make. I always say it’s the right products with the right shoppers. It’s not every shopper. Walmart is not for everyone.

Abby McAllister 00:12:47:
Right, yeah. And I think now more than ever, people vote with their dollars, and they’ll support the brands and the people behind the brands. You know, it’s not just the tortilla. It’s the family behind the tortilla. It’s their business policy behind the tortilla – I mean, how many times recently have we seen a brand go down just because of how they treat their employees. I mean, people are very, very vocal nowadays, vocal with their dollars.

Georgiana Dearing 00:13:15:
With their dollars. Yeah, sure.

Abby McAllister 00:13:18:
And I love that you brought up it’s not for everybody but it's for those who – There are people who want your product not just because of the product but because of who you are. And, I think marketing is lost not just for myself sometimes because I am not a marketing professional by any means. But on some small brands because they say, “Hey, you know, I’ve got social media, and it’s grown so much, and I’m everywhere on social media now, which is great.” But they may not see that transfer into dollars.

And I'm wondering if you ever have that “aha” moment with your clients. Do you have “aha” moments where they’re like, “Oh, this is why we do marketing and focus on the brand outside of social media and why there’s actually a plan behind it.”? I feel like it gets lost in translation sometimes. Marketing versus social media marketing can be two very different things and for two very different reasons exist.

Georgiana Dearing 00:14:14:
Well, I will say this. Social media is a tool the same way your fax machine and your telephone is a tool. These are communication tools, and you use them for different reasons. I say the fax machine and I think his name is Chris Brogan who used to say, “You never say I'm an expert at faxing.” You can understand the current tool, which right now we have some big guns in social media, but they aren’t going to be around forever. It’s going to be some other platform. So that is one thing.

I think the thing that happens the most when brands come to us is they’re overwhelmed because they know they’ve got to do something. They know that there's all these choices out there, and I’ve got to do something. And they'll see these things go by in their Instagram or their Facebook ads, and they go, “Oh, my God. I’ve got to do that.” Then they just start doing stuff.

And we always try and dial it back and say, “I’m just going to go back to the right product for the right buyer, or customer.” Let’s talk about who you are and where you’re trying to get, and then we’re going to like break it down into little pieces if we’re going to say, “Okay, these are the steps you take to get there.” When you figure out the story that you need to be telling, then you're going to tell it and then just modify it for all the tools that you're using.

That is probably the thing where it kind of clicks like, “Oh, this is why I need social media.” Then they’re like, “Oh, do I need influencers?” I’m like, “I don’t know. Let’s talk about what you're doing. Let’s talk about where your gaps are.” Then instead of just sort of – Influencer marketing is a thing that’s like come up and on its way down, and it's because there was this sense that it should be free because you gave somebody stuff, and it’s like, “Well, you are going to get the quality that you get when you just hand products out to a random person on the street and then say go talk about it.” You have to have a plan. You want to know who you're talking to and then you want to grab the tools that will help you amplify your story and extend your reach. So, I hope I answered your question. Maybe I wandered off a little bit.

Abby McAllister 00:16:37:
No, not at all. It kind of leads to my next question–where do you have a difficult time explaining the other arms of marketing when people can be so hyper-focused on social media because of it’s at least at first glance the size of its reach? Do you have a hard time saying like, “Yeah, that’s great, but we also need to do these things to make your brand successful, and it’s just as important.”?

Georgiana Dearing 00:17:02:
I think that social media gets attention. But when we connect with brands that get what we’re doing, then they – It kind of takes that noise and you kind of dial it down to, “Oh, alright. This is what I’m going to do now.” One of the things that I have done with these emerging brands is you do need to talk about yourself. I do some coaching. So, when I have a very small brand with very small budget. I’m just going to coach them through the steps of getting their brand story put together. The thing I like about a social platform is it’s sort of lather, rinse, repeat. You can talk about yourself over and over again until you get the rhythm right and you get your story right. It does – You can fail fast, and it’s fine because that is the nature of the tool you're using is that the ones where you said it not so quite right are going to fall away.

The other thing that is nice about social media is you can see what they're responding to. You can see if it’s connected and you can also get a sense if you're connecting with the right person. One of the things about Virginia Foodie was we picked Instagram specifically because our manufacturing clients were kind of slow to move to these new tools. So, we started Virginia Foodie so that we could test some of our theories out, and we learned a lot, and we know a lot about our audience now. But one of the things we learned early on is we were trying to do some work for the Virginia Spirits Board and we are trying to send a message out through Facebook, and Facebook lets you specify, “Oh, who do you want to reach?” We kind of made this description.

Well, if you put people who love whiskey in that profile, the people who see your ad skew way over on the masculine cigar-smoking side and it’s like, “Whoa, that is –” They’re not interested in the flavor and tone of Virginia Foodie. Not to say that there are not women which is primarily, “Yeah, we love whiskey.”

Abby McAllister 00:19:30:
I love whiskey.

Georgiana Dearing 00:19:31:
Yeah. That’s not it. That’s not it. It’s just like if you think of demographics the way the advertising industry does, it’s just these great big buckets and the venn diagram of women you love whiskey, and who would be the core demographic for Virginia Foodie is just so small. That’s a thing where social media is real-time market research if you’re using it correctly.

Abby McAllister 00:20:03:
You can kind of cast the net out wide and then start pairing it back based on the feedback you receive or the analytic you received.

Georgiana Dearing 00:20:10:
Yeah. Sometimes, you are really wildly successful for all the wrong reasons. It’s like that is not – Well, my whiskey example, right? Got in front of a thousand whiskey drinkers and two of them cared. Okay, that wasn’t a great spend, right?

Abby McAllister 00:20:31:
Right, yeah.

Georgiana Dearing 00:20:32:
So, you have to look behind the likes I guess and see what's really happening.

Abby McAllister 00:20:40:
So, what I’m hearing just in regards to my question about what the importance of other marketing versus social media, I think planning for where you want to go and analyzing data are two very important pieces of marketing that go overlooked, and people don't look at, “Why isn’t my post getting likes? Who’s looking at it?” They just say, “Oh, well. It didn’t – We’ll just keep on posting,” and they don’t tune it. They don’t fine-tune it based on all of that feedback that they received, and I think that’s huge. I mean, I wish I had done that. When I had my place with the farmers market, I wish I had done that because I probably would've gotten more out of it. But that's so helpful and it’s –

Georgiana Dearing 00:21:21:
Yeah. The thing you want is you want your audience, and so you want to be consistent, and we're always taking people back to the foundation. Having a really huge social media audience takes energy. Maybe you don't need 50,000 followers, and people get obsessed with these numbers, and they think, “Oh, I gotta grow, grow, grow.”

Abby McAllister 00:21:51:
Right. Are you growing for the right reasons? Are you reaching the people you want to reach? If you’re not, then why are you even doing it in the first place?

Georgiana Dearing 00:22:00:
Yeah. So, we try to put in balance. We try to work with the brand where they are and where they want to go next. The thing that we're doing that my group that I work with is we’re sort of taking all the overwhelming and we sort of just sit it down and like, “Okay. These things you’re worried about here, they fall into this category. And these things here –” We try and say, “All right. I know you have a limited budget, so let's talk about what you’re trying to do and let's do the thing you need to do now,” knowing that it's just one brick in the wall we’re building. So, we do the right thing right now because we’re on the way to a bigger picture.

Abby McAllister 00:22:43:
Right, absolutely. This will be my last official question, although we’ve been doing a lot of good in between. What’s the most rewarding part of having your interaction at your agency with these small brands and with these amazing people?

Georgiana Dearing 00:23:02:
I think what I want to circle back to is the beginning where I said we’re collaborative. I live for the moments, and it doesn’t have to happen a lot, okay? But I live for those moments where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. I have had eight people working for me, and now I have one person working for me. But I’m still working with creative teams, and there is that moment when three or four people have contributed to something, and we go, “God, that’s right. That is so right.”

The thing I’m doing with small brands now is I want them to have that feeling too. Marketing is overwhelming and confusing, and what I want to do is make sense of it for them and they’ll go, “Oh, that’s why we’re doing this.”

Abby McAllister 00:23:56:
I love that.

Georgiana Dearing 00:23:57:
That’s the thing I’m looking for.

Abby McAllister 00:23:59:
Yes, definitely. I can absolutely understand that feeling. There is nothing like feeling like you’ve come through it. And, well, look at what we accomplished. Now, especially with marketing, it’s like we have the whole future ahead of us, so we can take this foundation that we built together and thing we’ve created and keep growing with it because we have a strong foundation. That’s amazing.

Georgiana Dearing 00:24:24:
Well, thank you. This feels a little weird for me. I’ve talked about myself a whole lot. That’s a little strange.

Abby McAllister 00:24:31:
Yeah. That was my last question. Is there anything else? Any bit of advice or words of wisdom you would like to put out there into the universe?

Georgiana Dearing 00:24:39:
Oh, my goodness. No. I feel like I'm pontificating a little bit too much. But I love what I do and I'm really grateful to be able to do it every day. I'm passionate about food, and I’m looking so forward to telling more and more stories about the brands that are out there doing it right, hoping that somebody out there is going to take a little inspiration from it and go, “Oh, I can do this,” or, “I can do this next thing.” I don’t know. Is that weird?

Abby McAllister 00:25:08:
No. I love that. Thank you so much for letting me interview you. I feel like we got so much great information out of you, and I know you felt like you were talking about yourself. But I doubt very much you ever do that, so I am glad that I got to know George a little better, and everybody got to know George a little better today.

Georgiana Dearing 00:25:28:
Well, thank you, Abby. You’re a good support to me, and we’re going to do a lot of cool things together, I think.

Abby McAllister 00:25:36:
Yay! I love doing anything.

Georgiana Dearing 00:25:38:
All right. Well, thank you.

Abby McAllister 00:25:41:
Thank you for having me, and I guess I will see you next time.

Georgiana Dearing 00:25:45:
All right.

Abby McAllister 00:25:46:

Georgiana Dearing 00:25:48:
Thanks for listening. If you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on Grow My Brand at vafoodie.com. If you’re a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are @vafoodie on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Join the conversation. Then tell us about your adventures with good food, good people, and good brands.