Start Up Stories: Those Girls at the Market
Everyone who has a food business dream looks around at businesses and wonders "How did they do it?". It seems like such a big project to take an idea and turn it into a successful restaurant, catering business, food product or food truck. It's easy to speculate that these people are different, that the founders had something the average person doesn't and that's why they are where they are. We hope showcasing some successful food businesses in our city will prove that, with hard work and a plan, anyone can be successfully running their dream business.
For our second edition of Start Up Stories we're visiting with Julianna and Ying, founders of Those Girls at the Market. They produce and sell organic raw chocolate that is vegan-friendly, free of dairy, nuts, gluten, soy, and white refined sugars, AND TASTES A-MAZING. Incredibly, they also use ethically and sustainably farmed ingredients and produce all their goods right here in Saskatoon. So this is about as responsible of a treat you can get, whether its for yourself or as a gift.
Julianna and Ying have chocolate making in the bag but it's their use of their other talents that make these tiny powerhouses into entrepreneural leaders. Ying's quiet demeanor hides a sharp eye for marketing and branding and she successfully operates multiple small businesses. Julianna's is a realistic and candid leader on how to live a purposeful and healthy life, working hard while taking time to enjoy the things you love. Both women are very health focused and Julianna puts her thoughts onto a nutrition focused blog that's worth checking out. You can find it here: https://www.thosegirlsatthemarket.com/blog-1
Alright lets get to know Ying and Julianna a bit better!
TLK: Hi Julianna and Ying Tan! Thanks for joining me today and letting us in on a bit about how and why you started Those Girls at the Market!
For starters, how long have you been in business?
TGATM: Thanks so much for having us! This month marks the start of our 5th year! It’s crazy how fast time can fly!
TLK: Wow, five years is pretty impressive. Is this your first food business?
TGATM: Yes and No. This is my first business (in food, as well as in general) but Ying is quite the entrepreneur. When she was much younger, one of her first businesses was a food prep business. We both used to compete in Figure/Bikini competitions, so this was a natural fit given our passion for both food and fitness!
TLK: Did you have restaurant/food business experience when you started?
TGATM: Our parents own a restaurant, so growing up we spent a lot of time doing everything from washing dishes to packing orders. We started very young- I remember standing on a milk crate to wash the dishes because I wasn’t tall enough to reach the sink! Being in the food industry myself wasn’t even on the radar until the summer of 2014 when we decided to join the Farmers’ Market as a little summer gig while we were both full-time students.
TLK: What made you decide to go into business for yourself?
TGATM: At first, it was just a fun idea that we had one day. As students, we tried to think of a fun way to spend the summer doing something together. We had been making a health-focussed raw chocolate for ourselves for a few years at that point and thought we’d be able to make a couple bucks, but mostly have fun by setting up a booth at the Farmers’ Market. We sold out the first day and ended up pulling an all-nighter so we could return the next day to sell some more! It was never meant to be a long-term business, but over 4 years later, here we are...
TLK: We totally found the same thing when we were selling The Local Bars at the Farmer's Market- it was so much more profitable than we expected! It's such a great place to introduce your product or business to the public, see what they think and tweak the product till it's perfect.
So what inspired you to select the type of business/branding you have?
TGATM: We’re sisters so we wanted that to be a strong focus. Ying is a lot more business/branding savvy than I am, so she did a lot of the leg-work in getting our business name, logo, and graphics together. I remember sitting down every evening trying to brainstorm business names, then one afternoon Ying just said, “I’ve got it. Let’s keep it simple. We’ll just be ‘Those Girls at the Market’!” We’ve kept simplicity as an important principle of ours, from the ingredients we use to how we package our chocolate. You’ll see our cartoon faces on a lot of our branding (i.e. our banner at the market, our website, our profile on our social media pages). Everything we do is an expression of ourselves- that means we handcraft every single chocolate bar, stamp every single bag, and create all of our own content.
TLK: We totally love your branding, it suits you both so much. Do you work with an outside marketing and branding company now or do you still do it all yourself?
TGATM: We do it all by ourselves!
TLK: No wonder it so perfectly suited to you then! Haha
What was your start up process like? How long did it take?
TGATM: I would be lying if I said our start up process was simple. Perfecting the product itself as a shelf-stable (tempered) chocolate that we were confident in took hours, days, weeks! It took a combination of my sister’s experience making homemade raw chocolate and my experience during Food Science classes to figure it out (the internet also helped out a lot!). We played around with our recipes in our mom’s kitchen and to this day she still doesn’t let us forget how much chocolate we made, how much we ate, and how much ended up all over her kitchen!
Since we decided to put most of our energy into the product itself and focus less on fancy packaging, we started off using 100% recycled brown paper bags with a stamp of our logo on it. If you stop by our booth today, you’ll see we haven’t changed a thing! We’re still dedicated to putting our energy into the quality and creation of our chocolate and our little paper bags have become a part of our branding image. From the moment we had our idea to the first day of sales took about 4 months- but those 4 months had a lot of long days!
TLK: We hear ya. Did/do you work with an investor for your business?
TGATM: Nope. We started with next to nothing and grinded pretty hard for the first little while until we were able to generate enough revenue (about 4-5 months in) to finally invest into our own business and get the appropriate equipment. Our parents immigrated from China and, as a lot of immigrant families experience, it runs in our family to make something out of nothing. We used the money from our own pockets to start small, and in a few months we were able to recover all of our start-up costs. At this point, our company is such a big part of who we are and we are happy with the organic growth we’ve experienced over the years that we aren’t considering working with investors.
TLK: What is one thing you would change if you could go back and do the start up process again (if anything).
TGATM: I never know how to answer this question- it’s tough to say because every challenge we faced was just as, if not more, valuable than every win we’ve celebrated. I don’t have a business background, but I feel like sometimes you just have to jump and build the parachute on your way down. Things are never going to be perfect. You’ll experience a lot of mistakes, like not figuring out how to properly check your business email for the first month… I did that and may or may not have (I definitely did) broke down and ugly-cried when I finally figured it out and saw so many missed opportunities in our inbox. I would just be easier on myself and look at challenges as hurdles to overcome rather than obstacles in the way. Look at starting up a business like playing a game- it makes everything so much more fun!
TLK: Hahaha If you don't break down and ugly cry at least once are you even in business?
What did you find to be the biggest of the challenges starting up and what’s the biggest challenge you face day to day?
TGATM: The biggest challenge in getting started was knowing when we were ready. Sometimes it feels like there are 1000 more things you could do to improve before you get started, but it’s far too easy to keep ‘working on it’ instead of actually doing it. Thankfully, Ying’s former business experience gave us enough confidence to just jump and improve as we went along. It allows you to gather feedback and be forced to improve quickly.
Today, the biggest challenge we face is what direction to take now. There is a lot of pressure to expand outside of the market and we definitely have the potential to be a lot bigger than we are now. We are aware there are demands that we could be meeting (i.e. selling our product in retail stores, supplying restaurants, starting franchises), but it would require us to outsource a lot of the production and behind-the-scenes work. Our business is a lifestyle business to us- it’s something we really enjoy the process of doing and we derive a lot of joy from knowing our customers face-to-face and cultivating meaningful relationships with them. To us, moving outside the realm of what we do now at the local Farmers’ Market isn’t what we personally want to do. Everyone has an opinion about what we should do- but at the end of the day, I think it’s important to reflect on what components of your business bring you joy and whether expanding in a certain direction will increase or take away from that. But who knows what we will do! It’s a constant challenge.
TLK: Isn't it funny how once you've started a business before every one after that seems so much less intimidating to start? Do you plan to expand your business or focus on improving the systems you have now?
TGATM: I guess I spoke a bit to this in the prior question- but we are consistently always growing our customer base and getting to know more and more customers every year that passes. We have and we will continue to organically grow and make as much chocolate as we can! We are constantly ordering more chocolate moulds, investing in larger and larger equipment, moving from smaller kitchen spaces to larger kitchen spaces.
TLK: Hardest question ever: what’s your favourite type of chocolate that you make?
TGATM: Oh boy. Let me start off by saying we taste-test every batch we make. Every single batch. So we eat a lot of chocolate! I laugh at myself sometimes because every time I taste our Cranberry Sea Salt Bar, I always take seconds and usually thirds. It’s definitely one of my favourites. We come out with new flavours every month, so we’ve had a few good bangers! Sea-Salted Avocado and Chunky Monkey (Raw banana spears and hemp hearts) also make my top picks (sorry- I just can’t pick one!). As for Ying, she’s dedicated to our Classic chocolate. She’s pretty Plain Jane, but our Classic really is divine for people who appreciate the simplicity of raw cacao. Everyone seems to have their own favourite so we always offer samples of any kind at our booth! You’ll have to stop by and pick your own favourite!
TLK: Oh we'll see you there for sure. Thanks again, ladies, it was fabulous chatting with you and getting to know Those Girls at the Market!