Your Best R&D Is Totally Free

Most food and ag entrepreneurs start really small, selling their products mainly, or even exclusively, at farmers markets, community festivals, and other local events. Or they might have just one or two retail accounts that command their sole focus in the beginning. While scaling up is usually the ultimate goal, it often takes a few years, sometimes several, of really working these early sales channels to dial in their business strategy and ensure they can execute well.
What young entrepreneurs may not realize is that in-person sales opportunities are excellent avenues for market research, product development, and consumer insights work. Having a close, involved partnership with a local retailer can provide similar intel.
Many startups spend big bucks on market research, R&D, consumer surveys, and other informative tactics, which can certainly be smart expenditures. But through in-person selling or continual interactions with one or two retailers, food and farm entrepreneurs can get this stuff for absolutely free.
We’ve touched on this concept in our two most recent podcasts. In Edible-Alpha® podcast #103, Noah Munro, MBA, founder of digital marketing consultancy Taste Profit, says that one of the biggest benefits of doing events and in-person sales is the ability to keep your customer close and ask them questions.
“You can test out new products, new pricing, new messaging even,” Noah says. “One day you could ask people ‘would you like to try a sample of fudge?’ The next day you could ask ‘have you ever tried fudge with honey?’ Then see how many people take you up on the offer each day.” Best of all, at the exact same time as you’re gleaning this free intel, you’re also making sales—double win!
In Edible-Alpha® podcast #104, Sweet Pea’s founder Rachel Smith discusses the valuable R&D that came with growing her homemade pie business slowly over a decade. She got to learn from customers which flavors they liked, and she saw the proof play out in the varieties and volumes she sold both directly and through a local meat market.
Even now that Sweet Pea’s has pivoted its business model to include a retail treat shop in Mayville, Wisconsin, Rachel still makes it a priority to interface directly with customers. She knows it’s important to break from baking pies and otherwise running her growing company to spend time on the sales floor. Out front, she can watch people peruse, see which items they’re responding to, and hear what other types of sweets they’d like to see in her shop.
For example, customers kept asking for lemon meringue, a flavor she’d never enjoyed making. So, instead of struggling to deliver on expectations, Rachel just tweaked her lemon bar recipe to create a dessert that’s reminiscent of lemon meringue but totally unique—and customers have gobbled it up.
When selling in-person, customers will share their opinions, likes, dislikes and desires with you whether you ask them to or not. And while it’s important to listen to their ideas, keep in mind that not every idea is a good one—or at least not a good one for your business.
In the podcast, Rachel stresses trusting your strengths and intuition and having boundaries for what you will and won’t do. “Just know your target audience,” she says. “And be OK with the fact that you can’t be everything to everyone.”

After slowly growing her homemade pie business in Minnesota, Rachel Smith took a huge leap and opened a treat shop in tiny Mayville, Wisconsin, while continuing to make pies for wholesale. In this podcast, learn how Rachel pivoted the business, secured financing, and got her new community behind Sweet Pea’s, as well as how she’s now refining her business model and setting the stage for further growth.

And now, our roundup of the best food and beverage finance news, events and resources from around the web…

Business Model Insights

Raising Capital

CPG/National Brands

Market Trends

Farming and AgTech


Industry Events

Virtual events:

In-person events: