KANSAS CITY — For fledgling businesses, the food industry is a tough nut to crack, said Julie Busha, the Cramerton, N.C.-based creator of a condiment brand called Slawsa. Three years ago, Ms. Busha appeared on “Shark Tank,” pitching her cabbage-based relish, which she describes as a “slaw-salsa hybrid,” to the television show’s celebrity panel of investors. She had hoped to win financial backing and support for her business venture.
“Getting a new food product seems to be one of those ventures on the show that many entrepreneurs struggle with,” Ms. Busha wrote in a guest post on Shark Tank Blog. “Gaining retailer commitments is often a convoluted and frustrating process.”
A dismal percentage of food startups that even make it to retail shelves are successful enough to remain there, she added.
“You see, making the shelf is not the end game,” she wrote. “That’s only where the journey and hard work begins.”
Of the tens of thousands of entrepreneurs applying to compete on “Shark Tank” each year, only about 100 appear on the show, and fewer receive an investment.
“Deal or not, you just have to keep your sleeves rolled up,” Ms. Busha said.
She and two other “Shark Tank” stars shared business lessons, insights and advice with Food Business News.
“I think many viewers at home assume that businesses that don’t get a deal, especially on the food side, may not have a product worthy of trying, and that is really unfortunate,” Ms. Busha said.
Available in original, spicy, fire and garlic varieties, Slawsa is a fat-free, gluten-free topping for hot dogs or burgers, tacos, deviled eggs and more.
“Because Slawsa is so unique, I would say our main competition right now is pickle-based relishes, most of which still have preservatives,” Ms. Busha said. “Our category as a whole really hasn’t seen much innovation in decades, so it’s time to see a shift. That shift will be driven by more health-conscious consumers, especially millennials, who embrace unique condiments and demand more exciting flavor profiles.”
Prior to appearing on “Shark Tank” in 2013, Slawsa products already were sold in 4,200 stores. Ms. Busha had invested much of her savings and efforts into launching and building the business, and she had committed to buying out a former partner per his request.
“Obviously, that’s a big risk I undertook, so I wanted the investment to help support the aggressive growth of the business while I remained personally responsible for my commitment,” Ms. Busha said. “It also would have been nice to have a partner who could help me scale the business in other ways.”
During her pitch, the investors raved about Slawsa’s flavor and commended Ms. Busha’s work ethic. However, she was not offered a deal, an outcome she had not anticipated.
“I was pretty shocked that I didn’t get a deal, given we already had strong retailer confidence and numbers going in,” Ms. Busha said. “But at the same time, I understand there are industries that the ‘sharks’ feel more comfortable investing within. Look, our industry is based on volumes, not margins, so any investor is going to need to exercise more patience to see that business mature.”
Since the show aired, Slawsa has grown steadily to appearing in about 8,000 stores in the United States and Canada, as well as restaurant chains and professional sports stadiums.
“Our wintertime air dates on ABC were not the most optimal, so we’ve just sort of been at that same pace we were prior to the show,” she said. “It’s been nice that since the airing, many food industry insiders and celeb chefs have embraced and been a voice for our brand.”
With a background in marketing, Ms. Busha is involved in mentoring small business owners and writing articles and giving presentations on various business topics. During the recent Summer Fancy Food Show in New York, she hired entrepreneurs within the consumer packaged goods sector to hand out samples at her booth.
“It gives them experience, and I can answer industry questions they have during ‘down times’ at the show,” she said. “If I’m going to pay staff, why not it be someone who not only has a passion for food, but whom can also benefit from knowledge and experience?”
She added: “I do my best to pay it forward to fellow entrepreneurs, no matter what the industry, and my advice is the same. Find someone in your industry who may be five to seven years ahead of you to serve as a mentor. They’ll be there to give you advice of what works, what doesn’t and give you solid advice to your questions. Someone from the upper echelons of business or from academia won’t provide much support because they’ve likely never been in your position of growing something from the ground up.
“Ask questions — lots of questions. The fact is, if you can avoid those costly early mistakes, you’ll be set on a better path for success.”
Read on for additional perspectives from “Shark Tank” food entrepreneurs.