To scale or not to scale. To grow, but how far? What's the right choice for your brand?
Many brands choose co-packing as the next best step for increasing production to meet market demand. But choosing a co-packer can be a nerve-wracking process. Handing over your recipes to someone else feels like you are relinquishing control over your business. So it’s not surprising that many food brands delay the decision until it’s almost too late. Many times, the rush to increase your production in a hurry causes unsatisfactory results.
In this episode, Ashley Sutterfield joins me and talks about how co-packing helps businesses scale their production and how you can determine if it’s the right move for your business. Her team at Sage helps calm the chaos surrounding brand growth by crafting specific solutions for each food business as she guides them through a new, and often confusing, aspect of the food industry.
One takeaway you shouldn’t miss from this episode: not every brand follows the same path for growth, and that is okay!
Virginia Foodie Essentials:
We need to change how food gets to us from the ground to our families. - Georgiana Dearing
We really work to support a brand for as long as they need us, whether that's eight weeks or a couple of years. - Ashley Sutterfield
The biggest thing with small brands is that it's personal. It is your business so you get to make the decision about it. - Ashley Sutterfield
When companies first come to us, they think that co-packing is the solution. And that's simply because that's what the industry talks about. We want companies to know that they have other options. - Ashley Sutterfield
I was seeing this very large frustration for entrepreneurs around co-packing. And I want to help ease the lives and make things simpler for food entrepreneurs. So that's really where I wanted to begin focusing. - Ashley Sutterfield
Brands in their first few years are in a period of growth that is a very push-me/pull-you situation. It’s centered around their capacity for supply and demand. It can be nerve-wracking for a brand – you need more sales to grow your business, but you also need to have the production capacity to support those new sales. - Georgiana Dearing
Key Points From This Episode:
Choosing a co-packer can be a nerve-wracking process
Brands don't know what they don't know about working with co-packers
Co-packing is not the only option
Co-packing is great but may not be the right move for your food brand
Many brands decide to increase their own manufacturing capacity, and often end up co-packing for other small brands in their region.
Working with a co-packing coach or consultant helps you understand the next steps to take
Sage's services start with an 8-week Coaching for Clarity program that helps brands assess their real needs for expansion
Coaching isn't a lifetime commitment — you may get what you need in a few weeks or a few months
More About the Guest:
Ashley Sutterfield is the CEO and Owner of Sage, an empathy-based food production coaching and consultancy firm that helps food brands understand their options so they can get the answers they need to feel empowered to act. Sage works with primarily female-owned companies across the food and beverage industry that are starting a new phase of growth in their business.
Follow The Virginia Foodie here:
Note: We use AI transcription so there may be some inaccuracies
[00:00:00] Ashley Sutterfield: What brands often tell us is, I don't know what I don't know yet. So we really come alongside brands and help guide you through the process of explaining what your options are so that you understand what it is that you want for your business.
[00:00:18] Georgiana Dearing: Welcome to the Virginia Foodie Podcast where we lift a lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the good food, good people, and good brands that you know and love.
[00:00:30] Georgiana Dearing: If you've ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered how did they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business? Then we've got some stories for you.
[00:00:43] Georgiana Dearing: Hello again, my foodie friends. It's George during the founder of VA Foodie and a content marketing consultant for the specialty food industry. I'm coming to you from the last stages of spring in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, and we are still having a wild ride with our weather patterns. These past few weeks I have literally been changing from shorts to winter coats and back again, and while these particular weather conditions can't specifically be attributed to the climate crisis, we've had a hard for us right before Mother's Day for as long as I can remember.
[00:01:17] Georgiana Dearing: These extreme jumps and temperatures do remind me of why I shifted my career from supporting corporate manufacturing clients to working with you owners and marketers for sustainable food brands. The work you do is important. We need to change how food gets from the ground to our families. In the last two years, we've seen just how important local food is to our economy and to our communi.
[00:01:44] Georgiana Dearing: Yes, corporate farming needs to change, but they've got the resources to make that change happen if they choose. I'm here because I want you to be successful at what you are doing at whatever scale makes sense for you, your business, and your family. Scaling a food brand is my topic for today. I'm chatting with Ashley Sutterfield from Sage, a coaching and consulting firm that promises that you can find a co-packing partner in scale to profitability in less than a year.
[00:02:15] Georgiana Dearing: I've known Ashley for about a year because we've worked together to help a brand do just that. I've been impressed with her depth of knowledge and the way she has guided our client through what is often a scary period for a food. Ashley and I both start with clients who are at about the same sage in.
[00:02:34] Georgiana Dearing: We look for brands who are in their first few years and have begun to grow beyond farmer's markets and are looking to establish or grow their sales through retail partnerships. I help brands get into stores and get onto retail shelves, and Ashley helps brands solve how they will keep up with the production demands that retail relationships often.
[00:02:55] Georgiana Dearing: This period of growth is a very push me, pull you situation that is centered around your capacity for supply and demand. It can be nerve-wracking for a brand. You need more sales to grow your business, but you also need to have the production capacity to support those new sales. What I love about Ashley's business is that she is such a voice of calm in a chaotic time.
[00:03:19] Georgiana Dearing: I'm very happy to introduce her to my clients because she is a wealth of information and a sector of the business that I know nothing about. I always learn something new from her each time we speak. And as you listen to our conversation, I guarantee that you will learn something new from her today too.
[00:03:42] Georgiana Dearing: Ashley, hello and thank you for joining me on the podcast today.
[00:03:46] Ashley Sutterfield: Hey George. Thanks for having me. I'm
[00:03:48] Georgiana Dearing: so happy to have you here because you are working on something that crosses my client's paths all the time. So I thought I'd let you introduce yourself to our listeners and then we'll take a dive in.
[00:04:01] Ashley Sutterfield: Yeah. Well, I'm Ashley Sutter film and I help food entrepreneurs. Scale their product and understand what their production options are to grow their business. And I've been doing this for the last four years. I've been in the food industry as a food scientist for, gosh, 15 years before that. And so this is where I've been focused for the last four.
[00:04:24] Ashley Sutterfield: Oh, I'm so
[00:04:25] Georgiana Dearing: happy to have you. So when you say scale and production, the reason I asked you here is because the word co-packing comes to mind. Is that really the primary focus of what you're doing? Yeah. We
[00:04:37] Ashley Sutterfield: find that most companies come to us and start working with us initially because they have questions about co-packing.
[00:04:44] Ashley Sutterfield: I think where brands typically think or hear that they should scale their business is with a co-pack. And so that's generally where our conversation is initiated is when somebody's thinking about co-packing. But what we like to give them a frame of reference for is they actually have options outside of co-packing to scale their production through self manufacturing or building their own co-packing facility.
[00:05:10] Ashley Sutterfield: And so we really want companies to understand what their options are and make the best choice for them and their business. Oh, that
[00:05:19] Georgiana Dearing: sounds like a much needed service. Many of the small brands that I work with, they so often have nightmare stories about co-packing. And so can you tell me how you ended up in this spot?
[00:05:33] Georgiana Dearing: You said that you were a food scientist for 15 years. Can you tell me how you ended up moving out into this consultant?
[00:05:39] Ashley Sutterfield: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I grew up with parents who are entrepreneurs, and so entrepreneurship has always been in my blood, I think. And in college I was very fortunate to work in the food product center at university, and I worked with a family.
[00:05:55] Ashley Sutterfield: We offered services to the state to help companies launch and start their food business. And so I got to work. My first exposure to research and development and developing a product was with the Latin family developing a black bean soup, and they wanted to share their recipe with the world, and so I got to work through that process with them.
[00:06:18] Ashley Sutterfield: And then had the opportunity with other companies to do the same thing. So whenever I moved into my career as a food scientist at the corporate level, I loved what I got to do, and I loved being in production and in manufacturing floors, and realized that I was very skilled at that. But there was always this tug back to entrepreneurship.
[00:06:41] Ashley Sutterfield: And I knew that I wanted to own my own business, but when I thought about also where I could serve, I knew it was with food entrepreneurs and that's really who my heart is for. And so that's how I worked my way back into working with food entrepreneurs on co-packing.
[00:06:58] Georgiana Dearing: Oh, I so understand that tug. I mean, I've worked with large corporations and you run across these people who have the same needs and how can I adapt this for
[00:07:09] Ashley Sutterfield: them?
[00:07:10] Ashley Sutterfield: Yeah, and just seeing, I think from the view of co-packing in part. It's such a challenging area for entrepreneurs. There's not a lot of information out there on it. And so I was seeing this very large frustration for entrepreneurs around co-packing. And for me, that came very naturally with my experience prior.
[00:07:30] Ashley Sutterfield: And so it seemed like just something I could help ease the lives and make things simpler for food entrepreneurs. And so that's really where I wanted to begin focusing and where we've been in the last four. So
[00:07:44] Georgiana Dearing: the two questions that I saw on your website that really spoke to me is have you tried to find the right co-packer and gotten stuck, and are you nervous to even start looking for a co-packer?
[00:07:55] Georgiana Dearing: Can you talk about the experience that a brand would have when they sign on with you, and what does that look like? Is it long term or is it went off? What happens when someone comes to you looking
[00:08:06] Ashley Sutterfield: for. Yeah, we really know that the process of moving to a co-packer or scaling your own production can seem very daunting, and what brands often tell us is, I don't know what I don't know yet.
[00:08:19] Ashley Sutterfield: So we really come alongside brands and help guide you through the process of explaining what your options are so that you understand what it is that you want for your business. And once we have clarity around that, we're able to write your formulations and work through you through volume projections and ingredient sourcing, and then into the phase of searching for a co-packer.
[00:08:44] Ashley Sutterfield: So we do the search for companies and help narrow those results and sit in on interviews with co-packers. And then we help you finalize that process of testing with a co-packer and launching, and then all of the systems that come for the processes that we want in place to have a successful relationship with a co-packer.
[00:09:04] Ashley Sutterfield: And so we start with companies in our eight week coaching program, and it's simply that we meet every other week with a brand to talk through their challenge. And to work through this framework of how we develop true partnerships that are trusted with co-packers. Mm-hmm. , learn how to develop your own manufacturing facility.
[00:09:24] Ashley Sutterfield: And typically we get to the end of the eight week program and companies choose to continue working with us, and we just work month to month with companies. We have some clients that have been with us for a year or two, and we have some that have gone through our eight week program and feel empowered to tackle co-packing themselves, and that's excellent too.
[00:09:43] Ashley Sutterfield: We really work to support a brand for as long as they need us, whether that's eight weeks or a couple of years.
[00:09:51] Georgiana Dearing: So once they get out of that eight week program, does it kind of change one way or the other? Like it may just be once a month that you're with them, or is it really on whatever the need is?
[00:10:01] Ashley Sutterfield: Yeah, we tend to stay with that at least every other week schedule. And then depending upon where you're at in your business, there's different times during our work together that we may be on a weekly basis just because we're trying to scale up manufacturing or we're in the process. You've developed your own co-packing facilities, so we're working through those systems and so it's fluid, but we really want to support a company how they need it throughout our work together.
[00:10:28] Ashley Sutterfield: Mm-hmm. , how
[00:10:29] Georgiana Dearing: does a small brand know when it's time to seek a co-packing relationship? What do you want to see them be triggers for them? Yeah,
[00:10:37] Ashley Sutterfield: really good question. Typically, I like to see a brand that's been on the market for a year to three years. Typically two to three years is a good timeframe, but we do work with brands who come into that sooner, and we want you to be in that phase of you've outgrown the farmer's market scene and you're moving into retail chains or whatever the channel is that you're looking.
[00:10:59] Ashley Sutterfield: And maybe you're in a few stores already, but you're filling the strain of production yourself, or you're being proactive to move towards the future of production. And so we want you to be in that mindset of growth and have a strategic plan laid out for how we're going to start moving forward into. But I think some of those triggers are really around, are you sleeping at night or is production keeping you awake?
[00:11:28] Ashley Sutterfield: Is, I mean, that's often a really big trigger for a lot of brands that we work with is all I think about is production and not having enough inventory. And if you're in that space, it's time to start thinking about how do I scale my product?
[00:11:42] Georgiana Dearing: Oh that seems like, see, I thought, I imagine that a lot of people are coming to you with that hair on fire, feeling like, oh my gosh, how am I gonna do this
[00:11:50] Ashley Sutterfield: You know, it's funny, we work with so many brands that I think people are calm and cool and once we get into it, it's really about like, oh, I just didn't know how to go about this either. And I wanted to be proactive cuz I feel the strain of production or I want to be able to grow my brand and I just can't right now because of my, I.
[00:12:10] Ashley Sutterfield: So
[00:12:11] Georgiana Dearing: what are you seeing with small brands that is different from your work in your corporate life?
[00:12:17] Ashley Sutterfield: I think with small brands, the biggest thing is that it's personal. It is your business. So you get to make the decision about what production option makes the most sense for you. And I think there's a lot of pressure, even when companies first come to us, they think that co-pack.
[00:12:34] Ashley Sutterfield: Is the solution. And that's simply because that's what the industry talks about. Mm-hmm. . And we want companies to know that they have other options. But I think the biggest difference from small business to corporate is simply that you can make decisions that are very personal. You can make intuitive decisions about which co-packer to go with and which one do you actually want a relationship with.
[00:12:57] Ashley Sutterfield: Mm-hmm. , I think that's part of the privilege that's a bit different than working in a corporate environment. So you think in
[00:13:04] Georgiana Dearing: the corporate environment it's much more numbers driven? Yeah,
[00:13:07] Ashley Sutterfield: I think so. And I think there's a point in business where that makes sense, but for small businesses it's just not at that point yet.
[00:13:15] Ashley Sutterfield: And we want to build relationships over having a numbers game because it's going to be much more fruitful. And when you're one of the only people in your business, it's very impactful to make decisions that are healthy for you as a person. Yeah, that's
[00:13:32] Georgiana Dearing: probably a huge difference is that it's like you own all of it, and so you gotta find the things that make this a rewarding life for you.
[00:13:42] Georgiana Dearing: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. That's funny. Sometimes when I'm working with my marketing clients, sometimes there's a piece of the marketing that this is where they get their joy. It's like, I'm not gonna take that away from you. So let's figure out how we can work that into expanding your reach and putting processes in place and taking some of the burden off of the owner's shoulder.
[00:14:03] Ashley Sutterfield: So yeah, and I think that's where it gets exciting too, is that's why we become entrepreneurs, I think, is so that you can design a business that you love and have a day-to-day life that's really fulfilling. And so I think it's important to take those types of considerations into. Do you ever have a client
[00:14:20] Georgiana Dearing: that decides not to scale?
[00:14:22] Georgiana Dearing: Yeah,
[00:14:22] Ashley Sutterfield: actually, it's something that when someone gets into the phase of deciding on what's next, sometimes that can be a very personal decision. Actually, I'm kind of second guessing how I want to grow and actually my gut's saying I should stay this size, or we have a lot of companies that we work with that being a nationwide brand is not their.
[00:14:43] Ashley Sutterfield: Being a regional brand is more important and having raving fans is much more important and so, mm-hmm. , we very much have subscribed to the mentality of the small giants book of you can be whatever size serves your client and your family the best. And so we see that a lot with the brands that we work with.
[00:15:02] Ashley Sutterfield: Oh,
[00:15:02] Georgiana Dearing: that's good. That's good to know that you're out there. Not always just saying grow, grow, grow. I know of at least two brands right here in my neighborhood where they both said, no, I want to live within a space. I want my brand to extend within a space where I can make deliveries and I can be home at night, and I just wanna figure out how to make the income in the life that I want based
[00:15:21] Ashley Sutterfield: on this.
[00:15:22] Ashley Sutterfield: Yeah, and I think that's beautiful to realize what your values are and how you want to live your life and how your business fits into that. And for some companies that is being a large company and a huge brand, but for some that's not the case. And that's wonderful too.
[00:15:38] Georgiana Dearing: Well, I'm gonna segue right into what do you want for your business?
[00:15:43] Georgiana Dearing: What kind of businesses are you hoping to serve? Who would be your ideal clients?
[00:15:48] Ashley Sutterfield: Yeah, so we work with companies across food and beverage, and we love working with female owned businesses who are starting out in this phase of kind of a second career in their. We work with a lot of females who are into their forties to sixties, and I think there's a wisdom in that age of what you want your business to be, and we love getting to serve individuals in that group and help you grow your business.
[00:16:15] Ashley Sutterfield: There's an aspiration to work with. People who are intuitive and make decisions based on gut feeling and simply needing the information at their fingertips to make the right decision and to go with their gut. And so we feel like that's really important in the way that we operate as a business. And we want to work with companies who are also in tune with who they are and what their values.
[00:16:41] Ashley Sutterfield: Well, that
[00:16:41] Georgiana Dearing: was a lovely answer and not at all what I was expecting. , I was thinking, oh, we, you deal primarily in bake goods or something like that? . ,
[00:16:49] Ashley Sutterfield: yeah. And you,
[00:16:51] Georgiana Dearing: you actually gave me a great customer persona, which I recognize that person in the marketing materials that you put out because you speak to them in a way.
[00:17:02] Georgiana Dearing: Mm-hmm. , that personality might be responsive. The intuitiveness and the personal aspect of running a business, so good job on that. Thanks. Surprised
[00:17:12] Ashley Sutterfield: me. We really want companies to feel hope and to know that what we do is relationship based from working with ingredient suppliers to having a manufacturing company or a co-packer in place.
[00:17:26] Ashley Sutterfield: We want you to fill all of that to be relationship based, and that's who we enjoy working with those brands that believe in having a relationship.
[00:17:35] Georgiana Dearing: So that sounds really kind of small and personal a bit. Talking about brands not scaling, but is there a time or a spirit behind when a client would be the right fit for building their own manufacturing facility?
[00:17:50] Ashley Sutterfield: Yeah, absolutely. We've worked with several clients that are in this boat and it gives me an absolute thrill to get to work in this space. And I think for clients that, for any brand owner who loves production and maybe has a very strategic way of thinking about production, we see some of our clients that we've loved working.
[00:18:13] Ashley Sutterfield: Go through this phase of wanting to grow their own brand, but also seeing a gap of, well, I'm not finding the co-packer that I want and I actually love what I'm doing in production. I was just being told that a co-packer was the solution. So I wanna grow. But I also really love being an entrepreneur. I kind of wanna have a second business with this, cuz that's how we view co-packing is that if you're building your own manufacturing facility, You have a completely separate business now that's producing product for your brand, and we think that those brands that go that route, it's often another challenge for them.
[00:18:50] Ashley Sutterfield: It's a new business to start. It's a new creative outlet, but it's around still loving production and wanting to be able to produce their own product and serve other entre. So you said we
[00:19:03] Georgiana Dearing: a lot and so I'm always curious how big is
[00:19:07] Ashley Sutterfield: your team? Good question. So there are three of us, I would say three and a half.
[00:19:11] Ashley Sutterfield: We're actually adding a fourth team member now, and so we have Laura, who is our systems and processes wizard, and she works on everything within our own system of automations and templates and creating things for sage. But also she develops a lot of systems and process. For the brands that we work with.
[00:19:32] Ashley Sutterfield: And so anytime we have something that we need to think about, how do we do this on a daily or a weekly schedule, she helps us put that into a functional system. And then we have Kristen, who is our copywriter, and she is working on everything from our blog to how we communicate with clients and potential brand clients.
[00:19:54] Ashley Sutterfield: And so she's really phenomenal at helping us craft. And then Jackie is our newest team member coming in, and she's been a longtime friend of mine that focuses on food production and regulation. And so she's actually coming into our team as a co-packer search specialist Now, Oh,
[00:20:14] Georgiana Dearing: okay. Do you have other people, like industry specialists that you tap from your former life depending on your client needs?
[00:20:22] Ashley Sutterfield: Oh, absolutely. We work with a lot of, especially on the ingredient and packaging side, that we will tap into those resources to find out if there's a source for an ingredient or a type of ingredient that a client's looking for. Or on the packaging side, we need a new box or a new printed packaging. We're constantly trying to tap into those and always developing new relationships around distribution and storage and things like that as well.
[00:20:49] Ashley Sutterfield: Well, it sounds
[00:20:50] Georgiana Dearing: like you, I mean here it sounds like you're a great resource for your clients and it's a piece of the industry that I didn't really think about is having consultants in, but I butt up against it a lot when my clients are struggl. And of course on the marketing side, budget is always something that we discuss.
[00:21:08] Georgiana Dearing: Cuz I wanna know how much do you have to spend, and that's where we kind of get into this pricing cycle and all kinds of things. So I'm so glad that you're out there as a resource that I can also say, Hey, maybe you wanna talk to Ashley. Because I can't answer these questions. .
[00:21:23] Ashley Sutterfield: Yeah, I think just like you, George, we want to be a resource for companies that we connect them with the right resources too.
[00:21:30] Ashley Sutterfield: And so we're constantly making sure that our clients are working with or talking to the right types of resources. And so again, it goes back to very relationship based and knowing that there's answers out there and we just want to connect you with the right one. That's a great place to.
[00:21:46] Georgiana Dearing: So I know that you just rebranded your business cuz when we started talking about the interview, you had a different name and now you are Sage and I think that's a really exciting move to reinvent yourself.
[00:21:58] Georgiana Dearing: But now that you've written in that process, what's on the horizon
[00:22:02] Ashley Sutterfield: for you? Oh yeah, good question. I think this year, so we haven't. Officially announced our brand anywhere else except for here and all . It's been very new and so we were formally Mezra and Roth and now we are branded as Sage, and we want that to feel very warm and like a wise guide in your process and mm-hmm.
[00:22:25] Ashley Sutterfield: I think for us what's next is just remaining consistent in providing resources for companies and becoming someone that when you think of growing your business with your production options, or you're considering co-packing, that we become the go-to, but really because we're providing so much value for our brands.
[00:22:46] Ashley Sutterfield: For the next year. Our focus is simply on growing the resources that we have, the templates that we use, the questions that we provide, and all of the tools for guidance is really what we're focused on for the future. And so I think as we continue to expand our team, that's been exciting to get to see all the value that we can continue to add and start to build on.
[00:23:09] Ashley Sutterfield: And. I keep thinking of Sage as kinda this 2.0 version and Metzker and Roth was the foundation, and Sage is now we're putting up the walls. As we put up the walls, now we get to build it even firmer and stronger as a house. And so I think it's exciting to think about how we get to continue to add value for brands that we work
[00:23:32] Georgiana Dearing: So in your long run, I'm gonna ask your entrepreneurial question that I didn't forewarn, and that is, are you empire building or are you knowledge just knowledge building ?
[00:23:43] Ashley Sutterfield: Oh, really good question. So we are empire building, but we realize that we're in the phase right now of that knowledge building, and so the Empire build is for the future of being just a very inclusive.
[00:23:58] Ashley Sutterfield: Such tight relationships with co-packers that we can really plug companies in very easily to the right co-packer. Okay. And to grow our business to the point where we have the team members and resources that can support hundreds of clients and not just twenties of clients right now. And so , um, I think that's where we see our scale going.
[00:24:20] Ashley Sutterfield: We build our team in a way that allows us to support more brands through this process in a very empathetic and hopeful way for brands. And so it's really important that we keep the culture as a large part of our business, but that we are able to scale to serve more companies in the future.
[00:24:39] Georgiana Dearing: Oh wow. I like your vision.
[00:24:40] Georgiana Dearing: That's a big vision. . So tell me if we're just now announcing who you are, can you tell listeners how to find you with your website and
[00:24:51] Ashley Sutterfield: social channel? Absolutely. So our website is sage.expert and you can find us there if you would like to schedule any calls with us. That's where you can do it. It's very simple on our website and we are actually not on social media today except for LinkedIn.
[00:25:08] Ashley Sutterfield: And you can find me there just as a personal connection with Ashley Sutter. Oh, that's great. Ashley
[00:25:13] Georgiana Dearing: Sutterfield? Mm-hmm. and LinkedIn and sage.expert. Good win on that. You
[00:25:19] Ashley Sutterfield: are URL . Domain names for the win. Yeah. .
[00:25:24] Georgiana Dearing: Well, it was so nice talking to you and exploring more about your business. We've worked together, but it was so good to take a little deep dive in what you're doing.
[00:25:32] Georgiana Dearing: So thank you for joining me. So nice
[00:25:34] Ashley Sutterfield: to visit with you, George. I really appreciate
[00:25:36] Georgiana Dearing: it. Thanks for listening. And if you wanna learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on Grow My firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are at VA Foodie on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
[00:25:54] Georgiana Dearing: Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people, and good brands.