Tips for entrepreneurs

Neita Wiese of Neita’s Charleston Vinaigrettes & Marinades offers some advice for small businesses that want a big chain to carry their goods:

Write a formal business plan.

Seek help through the local SCORE chapter; score285.org is the website.

Be prepared to fill out a lot of paperwork.

Once a chain decides to carry a local product, there are three ways manufacturers can get their items to the store:

Deliver the goods themselves.

Use the store’s warehouse system.

Hire an outside distributor.

Christopher Ibsen of Piggly Wiggly recommends self-delivery for firms that are starting out. That way they can get to know store staff and get customers to sample their products. Also, it’s typically cheaper. “That’s another bite of the apple. When you are first starting out, you need every penny of profit to plow back into the business.”

Lowell Grosse of Charleston Coffee Roasters said getting on the shelf is only the beginning. Execution is critical. “If you have a great product and can’t produce it or package it, then it’s not going to sell. If you get it on the shelf and it’s not a great product, it’s not going to sell. If a product doesn’t move on the shelves, you aren’t going to last long.”

Warren L. Wise

Weekend after weekend for about six months, Lowell Grosse handed out fresh-brewed samples of his Charleston Coffee Roasters coffee blends inside Costco’s West Ashley store.

He logged 10-plus hour shifts, from Thursday to Sunday, so that customers could sample his Huger Street company’s products. All the while, the membership warehouse store studied how much he sold and evaluated the feedback from its customers.

For up to two years, Grosse talked with buyers, submitted his product, passed out more samples, refined the packaging and figured out a price that was profitable for his business and for Costco. After all that, the membership-club retail giant finally decided in 2010 to stock the bagged beans on its shelves. The coffee is now carried in five Costco stores in South Carolina and North Carolina.

As Grosse’s experience shows, getting a local product on the shelf of a high-volume national retail chain like Costco or Sam’s Club isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes stamina and can require months or even years of dogged persistence.

And no one retailer shares the same road map.

“The route is different with all of them,” Grosse said.

But the journey is a must for any business owner looking to boost sales by transforming a locally made product into a regional or national brand. It’s also one that should start close to home, according to business owners who have been through the process.

Grosse knows. Before winning over Costco, locally owned Piggly Wiggly in 2006 agreed to give his Charleston Coffee Roasters shelf space at its upscale Newton Farms store between Kiawah and Seabrook islands.

After that, his products were picked up by select stores in the supermarket chains of Earth Fare, Whole Foods and Harris Teeter before the long-awaited Costco deal came together. Later, Bi-Lo picked up his coffee line. It’s also carried in Burbage’s Self-Service Grocery in downtown Charleston.

‘Fine line’

Neita Wiese has taken a similar path with her Neita’s Charleston Vinaigrettes & Marinades.

It started with a gesture: Wiese liked to hand out old wine bottles filled with a special salad dressing from a family recipe as gifts for friends and clients.

People loved it, and she occasionally would get requests for refills.

Before June 2005, salad dressing remained a hobby for Wiese, who was just starting a career in real estate. That month, the seemingly fit Wiese suffered a major heart attack and flat-lined three times before emergency responders and medical staffers saved her life.

During the months of recovery, she started thinking about her future. A friend suggested she turn her salad dressing into a full-fledged business.

The next year, Wiese walked into the Piggly Wiggly supermarket at Seaside Farms in Mount Pleasant and asked the manager if he would be interested in carrying a product she was about to launch.

She remembered him saying he would try it and if he liked it, he would stock it. He did, and Neita’s Charleston Vinaigrettes & Marinades was on the shelf, where it remains.

Now, her South Carolina-made products also can be found in select stores of other grocery chains, including Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, Earth Fare and Dean & Deluca.

She agreed that the process varies from one grocer to the next. In contrast to her dealings with Piggly Wiggly, for example, it took her nearly a year for Texas-based Whole Foods to carry her line as she tried to sell them on her products.

The process can be a delicate dance, Wiese added.

“The more proactive you are, the more successful you are going to be, but there is a fine line between being proactive and irritating,” she said.

Local connection

Both Wiese and Grosse agreed that a key element to their ability to expose their products to a broader audience was Charleston-based Piggly Wiggly, whose “Local Since Forever” advertising campaign seems to ring truer now than ever.

“That’s been a part of our culture for 66 years we have been in business,” Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. Inc. spokesman Christopher Ibsen said. “We have worked with local food manufacturers and local farmers throughout our history.”

The company’s focus on locally produced products grew sharper in the past three or four years as the locally grown and locally made movement among chefs, retailers and farmers blossomed.

“There are a lot of exciting new products being produced,” Ibsen said. “We have invested a lot of energy in helping those folks and serving as a platform for giving those local entrepreneurs their start. Our goal is to set them up for success.”

The grocer can put a product on the shelf in about two weeks, Ibsen said. But that’s only if a local producer has everything from production to bar codes and distribution worked out, along with liability insurance and approval from the Food and Drug Administration,

Otherwise, it can take a lot longer.

“It all depends on where you are in terms of your product development,” Ibsen said.

As for Wiese and Grosse, they’re both still looking to expand into more stores.

“My goal is to increase my footprint, distribution and interaction with existing retailers,” Wiese said.

Grosse said he’d like to expand into more Costco locations in markets like Charlotte and Atlanta. He also hopes to make a deal with Publix, which has a dozen supermarkets in the Charleston region and 1,068 company-wide. He’s been trying to get the Florida-based chain to carry his coffee for more than five years.

“I’m still trying,” Grosse said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.