By Colleen Leonardi
Corrie Callaghan and Peter Schmidt have recently moved from Chicago, Illinois to Athens, Ohio to start a local, organic, non-GMO tofu production company in partnership with Shagbark Seed & Mill. Their purpose goes far beyond tofu, though.
Both Corrie and Peter are passionate about food. They love tofu, follow a plant-based diet and are committed to regional local food production. While their business is in its nascent stages (they’re not yet producing or selling the tofu but hope to be up and running in less than a year) they’re collaborating with Shagbark and other businesses in the region. Their mission: to build out their business in a smart, sustainable way, nurturing local relationships and their vision first to make sure their company is resilient over time.
Read on as they tell their story and offer advice for other food entrepreneurs looking to start their own local food business and build out regional economies one bean at a time. —Colleen Leonardi
Q: What’s the original story? How did you get connected with Shagbark and where did this idea come from?
Corrie: We got interested in tofu kind of from Peter’s background. He grew up on a soybean farm in Minnesota, and had the experience of seeing his parents grow soybeans.
Peter: I remember as a kid my dad being like, “Yeah, some of our soybeans go for tofu.” We never ate tofu. I don’t think I had tofu until I was in college, maybe after college, and then started eating tofu later in life and enjoying it, and getting into healthy, sustainable foods. I had this interest in making tofu from something we grew on our farm and making it edible as opposed to shipping off the soybeans for feed, or overseas to make tofu.
So I just started making some and enjoyed the taste, flavor and process. And then I got really interested in how I could start doing it for a business. We were in Chicago at the time when I was experimenting in my kitchen, making a block or two at a time. We had the idea of starting a tofu company, wanted to get out of Chicago and go somewhere smaller, and that led us to Athens.
Corrie: Athens seemed like the natural fit for us. I went to college here and I always loved it. I’m from Cleveland. The local foods community here is so strong along with the networks and resources and supports.
I emailed the info@Shagbark email address and asked them if they sell soybeans, thinking if we go to Athens and they make a soybean product, we’re definitely going want to purchase our beans from Shagbark. Michelle wrote back and said soybeans isn’t a part of our product line, but if you were interested in say, oh, for example, starting a tofu company and buying lots of soybeans, then we should talk about that. So I wrote her back and said, “That’s funny because that’s exactly what we want to do.”
It really took off from there. Michelle was super supportive, saying we can help you with things and let’s think of ways we can work together. This was all at the beginning of July 2015. And then there was a local foods conference happening in Athens, so we came down for that and we were able to meet with Michelle in person and meet with the folks at ACEnet (Appalachian Center for Economic Networks) and just a bunch of different people in the region doing local foods.
We came out of that week saying, “We gotta do this. There’s a lot of support here, a lot of interest and people who would appreciate fresh, local tofu."
Q: How are you working with Shagbark to build out the foundation for your tofu business?
Corrie: They connected us with some farmers and we did purchase soybeans from one of their farmers. They’ve cleaned the beans for us, and are storing them for us. Peter is working at Shagbark right now, too.
Peter: I’m a miller there.
Corrie: So he actually got to clean some of the beans and bag them for our business, so that’s cool. They’re working with us in terms of thinking through the business structure and offering resources and support on that.
We went up to Ann Arbor [with Michelle and Brandon from Shagbark] to meet with some folks from Zingerman’s. They’re a local food business that is also a business incubator, so they help people start their own local food businesses. So one of the thoughts that we’ve had in terms of talking with Shagbark is the question: “Are there elements of that model that would make sense for us?” We’re two people who are entrepreneurs and share a lot of the same values and vision as Shagbark, and some of the same processes and products, so what makes sense in terms of our work together.
Q: As you build out the business day-to-day, what are some of the challenges you’re facing as entrepreneurs?
Peter: One is equipment. If you want to start a large-scale tofu company producing hundreds of blocks a minute, 1000 pounds a day, you can get that equipment and it’s expensive. But that’s not the scale we’re at; we’re a very small scale, local, regional company. They make some equipment for that, and most of it you have to ship overseas from India and China. So it’s hard to find smaller scale producers. I’ve talked to some food companies and it’s the same thing. That small to mid-sized food manufacturing is hard. We don’t have it. We have to build and find other ways to do it. It’s good because then hopefully you’re finding and building pieces locally—not everything from China—and you’re including local folks in the building process. Like the tofu presses, it’s not like you can go to your local store and buy a tofu press.
Corrie: To make tofu on a mid-size scale—it is happening, it’s just not happening often enough in the U.S. for anyone to be making that equipment. The reason it’s in other countries like China and Japan is because they do have it, they have little local tofu shops where people are making tofu on a smaller scale. It’s starting to happen here. We talked to some folks in Iowa who are starting a tofu company there, and they had the same challenge.
Q: Who are some of your other key collaborative partners in Athens and outside of Athens?
Corrie: Well, obviously Brandon and Michelle. We’re connected with ACEnet. They offer a wealth of information and support to local businesses. We’re planning on starting production out of the HAPCAP Regional Food Center in Logan. They have a commercial kitchen there, so that’s one of our partners. Since we haven’t been producing yet we haven’t hit the pavement in talking to local restaurants. We’ve started those conversations. Athens is the kind of place where if a local restaurant can get it in Athens, they’re gonna buy it in Athens.
Q: What is one of the main takeaways from the Zingerman’s visit that you would share with other food entrepreneurs looking to start a food business?
Corrie: I really appreciated how they kept saying it all comes back to your mission and vision. And that is why we’re doing this. We’re passionate about food. I see myself a food activist. The reasons why we’re doing this run deeper than providing tofu, although that is part of it, that it tastes good!
We’re committed to helping grow, sustain and contribute to a regional food system that makes sense and that is sustainable. So listening to Zingerman’s, which is a huge company and I’m sure gets slammed all day with so many details, financial reports and other decisions they have to make, and how much and often they go back to their mission and focus on that was pretty inspiring.
Peter: Another thing that comes to mind that he [one of the entrepreneurs who just started his business with Zingerman’s] said was, “You’re going to be f**cking fine.”
Corrie: He said that over and over again, and we did walk away with that. His point was that you’re doing the work you need to do, you’re thinking these things through, you’re having these conversations, you’re talking to partners, you’re not thinking you’re going to do this on your own. You’re thinking through these hard questions, and really trying to set this up in a way that’s going to be sustainable.
So advice for entrepreneurs: for us it was we just want to give this a shot. We’d rather try something and have it not work than never try it.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and updates about when Corrie and Peter will be up and running and where your can find their fresh, local, organic, non-GMO tofu at a store near you.