Locally grown success
Nov./Dec. 2007 California Country magazine
By Christine Souza
A young entrepreneur grinds, sifts and creates products from corn that she is proud to say was grown just a short pickup ride away.
Entrepreneur's corn products connect customers to the land
A hands-on entrepreneur, 30-year-old Erin McGowan creates a cloud of cornmeal as she prepares gourmet corn mixes and flours in her quaint kitchen in the heart of Arbuckle.
Ridgecut Gristmills owner Erin McGowan takes a hands-on approach to business from checking the crop with her father to packaging the final product.
At the butter-yellow shop located on the same block as Herb's Bar and the local taqueria, the young entrepreneur grinds and sifts corn that she is proud to say was grown just a short pickup ride away.
"My corn travels a grand total of eight miles from the field to my shop to be cleaned and milled. I find that if the consumer knows the grower or knows the story behind the products, a relationship will develop. I think consumers have become more educated on the growing process but still have lost sight of where their food physically comes from," McGowan said. "I believe people respond well to my products because I care about the freshness and quality of the ingredients. I think that is a lost characteristic of eating these days."
McGowan, a full-time schoolteacher at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish School in Colusa, owns Ridgecut Gristmills Inc., a company she officially started in 2006 but has been in the planning stages for several years. Ridgecut Gristmills specializes in homemade mixes and flours.
McGowan's line of gourmet products is expanding all of the time, but currently includes Jimmy's Cracked Corn (polenta or grits), two cornbread mixes, buckwheat buttermilk pancake mix and a new product--a blini mix. She also mixes various flours for the wholesale market. Her mixes are featured on the shelves at Nugget Market grocery stores, Newcastle Produce in Placer County, farmers' markets in Napa and on the menus of various Napa restaurants.
"People love my products," McGowan said. "One of the greatest compliments is when they buy the product and at the next farmers market they'll say, 'Had your pancakes. They were awesome.' That is great because you never imagine that people you don't know are going to buy and like your products."
McGowan contracts with local farmer Sam Reynolds of Williams, who provides her with yellow corn, the foundation of her mixes. In recent months she has substantially increased the size of her corn order to meet a growing demand.
"When Sam and I discussed the amount of corn I would need early this year, it was 3 to 5 tons, and that amount has increased to 12 to 15 tons just because my business has grown," she said. "Every time I set up a contract with a grower I tell them what I need is basically the amount of corn that falls off the back of a trailer, but now I almost need my own trailer. It is refreshing."
Reynolds, who met McGowan through the Colusa County Farm Bureau's Young Farmers and Ranchers program, said he was not interested in growing corn several years ago when she asked him to provide the crop for her products.
"Years ago I didn't want to grow the corn because the price wasn't there. Well, now the price is there and she wants to buy it local," Reynolds said. "Her product is getting more popular, which means she will require more corn. She is selling what people want--a product that is locally grown."
McGowan got her entrepreneurial drive honestly. The Davis native and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo graduate grew up in a family of business owners. After several years of researching, seeking advice from other entrepreneurs and spending hours in her home kitchen developing recipes, McGowan decided she was ready to jump feet first into the world of business with her homemade corn mixes.
"To get started in business, you've got to be willing to sacrifice yourself, your credit, your money--everything--for three years. You have to understand that these are things you have to be willing to sacrifice," McGowan said. "You can't be skinny on your numbers. If you think it will cost five, it is going to cost 15."
The idea for her line of corn mixes and flours originated from a long-ago conversation she had with her father, Jim McGowan, a certified public accountant who grew up in rural Indiana playing and working in the rolling fields of grain.
"Dad mentioned how the absence of corn growing in the country makes him nervous because it means that the land is not growing one of the nation's staple crops and that people are losing sight of where their food comes from," McGowan said. "So we thought, what can we do to make corn pay so that people continue to grow it?"
The elder McGowan's upbringing taught him to appreciate agriculture, the outdoors and open space, a trait he instilled in his daughter. He admits with a smile that he often finds himself living through her, since over the years she has taken on such challenges as driving oversized tractors and welding farm equipment. It is her tenacity, he said, that has contributed to her success.
"I can remember when she was not even in grade school, going trick-or-treating. She would walk up to a dark house by herself," he said. "She would just walk up and knock on the door without fear. That was her mission--to get that trick-or-treat candy. She's always had this idea that she would do what she wanted to do. She is not going to let people tell her no."
The can-do attitude honed in those early years helps McGowan in business today. Once she developed the corn products and was given the "thumbs up" in the taste department from her ninth-grade students, she applied for and was accepted to sell her products at two farmers markets in Napa.
"Aside from the fact that she has a fabulous product, Erin is one of those great success stories who started really small, and we've just watched her business grow and grow over the past couple of years that she has been with us at the market," said Joan Taramasso, market manager of the Napa Downtown Farmers Market. "All of her products taste great and are easy to use."
McGowan's growing reputation at the Napa market led to her introduction to chef Stephen Barber, owner of BarBersQ, a barbecue restaurant that specializes in a Memphis-meets-Napa-style cuisine. Barber sought out McGowan's products to make cornbread and a shrimp and grits dish for his Napa restaurant.
"Erin's products are great. Her cornmeal and grits that I use have a good grind and a natural kind of sweetness to them. I am very happy with the product," Barber said.
McGowan also delivers her cornmeal to the Rutherford Grill, a well-known restaurant in the Napa Valley that specializes in hearty fare such as cornbread and prime rib sandwiches.
Another big break for McGowan came last year when Nugget Market agreed to carry her products in five of their Northern California grocery stores. At the same time, she opened her kitchen in downtown Arbuckle, where she mixes all of her products by hand.
"I can't tell you how many times I cried over stupid things like, 'I've got to paint the wall and I just can't do this.' And I would have freak-out meltdowns, but then I would pick myself up and it would be OK," McGowan said. "Starting a business is overwhelming, but it is just something you have to do. If this is what you want, there are no other options."
For more information about Ridgecut Gristmills or to order McGowan's gourmet products, go to www.ridgecut.com.
Erin McGowan's tips for success
So you want to start your own business? Here are some tips--in the no-nonsense words of entrepreneur Erin McGowan--that might bring some perspective to the table.
- Don't be afraid to do some of the work yourself: Many new business ventures require some improvements to existing buildings and equipment. Yes, it is easier to pay someone else qualified to do the work, but sometimes it is far cheaper to do the work yourself. There are many resources such as the Internet, books and television shows dedicated to the do-it-yourself person, and remember, Home Depot and Lowe's make millions each year on people who do it themselves.
- It is not what you know, it is who you know: Take advantage of who you know. On average, you know people in the field you are venturing into. Pick their brains, pay attention and ask questions. Even if you think that you know "no one," that "no one" may be an electrician, a plumber or even a machinist who can help build new equipment. People want to see you succeed; let them help you.
- Let everyone give you advice; whether you take it is another story: Monday morning quarterback. Back-seat driver. We have all heard these terms; they are Americans' favorite pastimes. It takes a considerable amount of risk to go out on your own; most people are afraid to do it, but many dream about it. As soon as anyone finds out what you are doing, be prepared for them to tell you when and how. Accept their suggestions. Don't ever tell anyone that their idea is a bad one.
- Be creative with your cash sources: Now this may sound shady, but money doesn't always come from just a bank loan. You may have savings bonds that you were given to you as a child. They were meant to help buy a home, pay for college or start a business. Their purpose is to help you make your life better. Another option is contests. Wells Fargo has a business plan contest and Young Farmers and Ranchers offers three contest options that have cash prizes. (For more information, go to www.cfbf.com/programs/yfr.)
- Be prepared to sacrifice your free time, cash and credit for at least the first three years: Think of it this way, if I am going to fail, I am going out in a blaze of glory and I am taking my credit with me. Bankruptcy is always an option. Now with that said, once you get over the fear that at any minute you can be left with nothing, then it is a breeze or at least easier.
- There is no one else who cares as much about your business as you: This is a good and a bad thing. This is what will keep you awake at night thinking about new ideas and better ways to do things. This is your fuel. It also makes it nearly impossible to find good employees.
Just when you are ready to give up, you are almost there.
Christine Souza is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.