When did you have your “light bulb” moment for Natural Cuts?
Vipul: I think we really had two “light bulb” moments, one related to our technological breakthrough and one related to our target customer. On the technology side, I came to do my Masters at Cornell Food Science with Dr. Syed Rizvi, a leader in the Food Process Engineering space. My research under Dr. Rizvi served as the basis for what we now call Natural Cuts. It took us 6-7 months of dedicated work to devise the novel process we use to extend vegetable shelf lives. Given my background in potato cultivation and processing, we decided to start there with our research. Luckily we struck success!
On the business side, we undertook a lot of customer development work to see who might benefit from our shelf-stable, pre-cut vegetable product. We found that restaurants, that are always strapped for time and money but have to deliver high quality to consumers, might be a great initial fit for our product. We spoke to dozens of restaurant owners who validated this hypothesis and really set us on a good path to move forward.
What is this technology? Would there be side effects? Would it alter taste?
Vipul: Put simply, we do not use any preservatives or chemicals, and we are not adding any additives so there are no chances for side effects. And at the end of the day, if you are buying a Natural Cuts potato, it will taste like your average, run-of-the-mill potato. Two long-tenured Cornell Food Science professors who we have worked with closely to develop this process can attest that this is the case.
What would your pricing model be and would you align it to the frozen aisle potatoes, or fresh potatoes?
Mike: Our objective is to sell a branded product of Natural Cuts potato through the restaurant menu/channel as an addition to their existing sides. So there’s hand cut French fries for $3.99, or there’s Natural Cut French fries for $4.99. Once we build brand recognition, gain a better understanding of the degree of price sensitivity and get the restaurant owners on board, our expansion should take off. In addition, we have close to zero inventory risk compared to other fresh fruit and vegetable providers because of our shelf life. We have the flexibility to take payment upon actual sale to the end user, something we don’t believe other manufacturers or distributors are offering en masse.
How would you make people know you before hand, and trust you that they would go for you?
Mike: We would have a subtitle on the menu that says “locally grown and produced fresh cut potato product here at New York for $4.99. Never frozen, always fresh.” It will give the customers an opportunity to ask; “what’s the difference between these two fries? Why are they both here?” And that’s essentially cost-effective marketing in a nutshell for you. To elucidate, think back to the last time you went to the bar. Did you hear people ask for a lager or were they asking for a “Bud Light”? People buy the brand. You say the brand’s name. That is what we hope we can do for potatoes and other vegetables. We want to be synonymous with a product that is locally-produced in an eco-friendly and sustainable way.
Are your targeted consumers more of these restaurants or will you be hitting store markets as well?
Mike: At this time, we are trying to prove the concept to the restaurants due to our limited scale. Also, we need to try the concept and let the consumer accept our product. And eventually yes, we plan to have this online and on supermarket shelves once we’ve proven the concept and developed early brand recognition.
What’s your five-year plan? Or even further?
Mike: Our five-year plan would be to become the new standard for fresh cut produce. We would definitely expand from potatoes. We have actually started doing some early research on other vegetables, including avocados and sugar peas. We recognize the potential to grow the entire market and be able to revolutionize the supply chain and what the consumer understands and accepts as fresh. We also see potential applications in the military and airplane industries. The impact we can have on food waste is immense. About two thirds of the food waste in U.S occurs at the consumer level. And approximately 40-50% of that occurs because it spoils before people can use it. So, at five years we want to do a whole suite of vegetables that are provided to both, the food service industry and consumers as their ready made and convenient solution for pre-cut vegetables.
Vipul: Interestingly, we’re also able to naturally flavor the vegetables using our process. But we’ll save that for another interview!
What are the greatest challenges in a start up culture?
Mike: I think the toughest part is having to go forward with a vision and strategy for your company in the face of uncertainty knowing that that feeling will never go away. If you are in school, regardless of whether you answer a question and right or wrong, you will get the answer key later. The only answer is business is profit and growth. So nobody has a real answer until you do it, until you get out and start selling. That is the hardest thing, you work hard at school because you know you will get a grade at the end of the day. There might be nothing at the end of the tunnel here for us. It might work for 2 or 3 years and we may have to ultimately shut down due to lack of profits. The important thing is that as an entrepreneur, you are on this journey so enjoy that and enjoy the idea of building something with your team that might have a lasting value.
What are the key characteristics all entrepreneurs share?
Mike: Key attributes of a successful entrepreneur, I think Vipul embodies that. He came here with a single-minded focus and he works 16 hours a. I think it is all about being a self-starter, someone who can take responsibility with no guidance and and say that this is what we need to be doing and reason why. But they are also willing to compromise when people give advice or feedback. So, it takes that self-starting nature.
Vipul: I would define an entrepreneur as someone who is unafraid of being wrong or viewed as different. They are ready to throw themselves out into the world, get beaten up in all sorts of ways and are still ready to stand back on their feet and figure out a solution. You have to have a lot of courage in yourself and a deep drive to learn from each and every person you come across. If you think you are smarter than everyone else, then I would not say you are an entrepreneur.
How has Cornell’s resources helped with the development of Natural Cuts?
Mike: I would say having the support of the faculty in the Johnson School has been crucial. The class we took Entrepreneurship and Business Ownership (EBO), is where it all started. The class is taught by Professors Steve Gal, Tom Schryver, Kenneth Rother, and Brad Treat. They run EBO and really push students to do lots of customer development. Then, students are expected to build their business plan around what they learned by talking to customers. Additionally, I think it is the culture at Cornell, which encourages people to go outside the traditional bounds of education and start something on their own. And finally, the Cornell network and getting access to eLab (the Cornell accelerator) and people who are so willing to connect us to other relevant people has been priceless.