Deena Jalal’s visit to Community Table at Babson last month was rich with lessons around how to build a food business. It got this Examiner thinking, and led to six new questions for a food entrepreneur – all about growth. Naturally, Deena and her alternative ice cream business FoMu would be the first subject. This interview is part of the questions for a food entrepreneur series for Examiner.
Rachel Greenberger: What was the seed for your business?
Deena Jalal: A desire to do something with purpose with one of my favorite things in the world, which is ice cream. Having had the chance to dive into the industry and study it closely, I saw the opportunity to create a product with more integrity, using unique ingredients. FoMu is made with exclusively plant-based ingredients.
RG: Growing with or without investors —what are your thoughts?
DJ: (Laughs) That’s the topic of the century, right? We’re at that pivotal point now. We have to decide how accessible we want FoMu to be. It’s hard to be everywhere on your own. We are self-funded at the moment. The sense of integrity that comes with knowing you have control to make the best decisions you can for your company – because it’s only your money on the line – that is the spirit of where we want to be. Ultimately, it depends on how much you want to grow and how fast.
RG: Big versus small – which is better?
DJ: I love the trend to shop local. That’s how the world was for most of human history and, I do believe, where it should be. People who buy small are ensuring the local economy. Quality often comes with it. We certainly see this in the food industry. Small can cost more, but people are demonstrating a willingness to put their dollars there. People who buy FoMu and other products like us share the same values. The more awareness there is, the more local businesses will thrive. I hope the trend continues.
RG: Fast versus slow – which is better?
DJ: You could argue that we’ve done a lot in a few years, but we didn’t go in big. We built this business ourselves, organically. Without investors, without a formalized business plan. Every decision had our full attention, and we took the time to choose the best option we could with the information at hand. We’ve been incredibly fortunate… So I like the idea of slow and steady—especially when you really, truly care about your products. Those first years, when you are setting up the infrastructure for your business, are so important. It’s a completely different story when you move fast right from the start.
RG: How do you navigate failure?
DJ: If you were to ask anyone who works for me, I think they’d say that I don’t believe in failure. Everything good that has happened in my life was preceded by a struggle or difficulty of some sort. Seeming failures led to incredible things down the road. So failure doesn’t exist – except when something doesn’t work out and you don’t learn from it.
RG: What is the biggest fallacy about the food business?
DJ: There’s definitely this awesome energy around food right now with celebrity chefs and food entrepreneurs getting great publicity lately. But as cool as it sounds to be an entrepreneur and to work in the food industry, there are a lot of non-glamorous aspects. It’s also quite fragile in the sense that your customers can almost define you. Social media allows almost anyone to weigh in and say hurtful things that destabilize you or your efforts. It’s intense. You have to be okay with that level of exposure and uncertainty.
You can find FoMu at their shops in Allston and Jamaica Plain (a third location is opening soon), in a handful of restaurants around New England, and in assorted Massachusetts and Rhode Island retailers.