Women Entrepreneurs on the Rise: Interview with food business consultant Mary Gassen, an operations and finance expert with a passion for artisan food producers, restaurant owners, bakers, food truckers and all around food people.
- The #1 thing that Mary did that transformed her business.
- Mary talks about her two biggest business challenges and how she overcame them.
- What she believes is the most important part of any business and how to focus on it to become more profitable.
Video Transcript: Interview with Mary Gassen, financial and Operational Consultant to Artisan Food businesses
Sherold: Welcome, everyone! I’m Sherold Barr of SheroldBarr.com and I’m an entrepreneur, business coach and mindset expert. I’m interviewing women entrepreneurs about the story of their business and having them talk about the challenges, the successes and lessons learned in building their business.
Today, I’m interviewing Mary Gassen, who is an operations and finance expert with a passion for artisan food producers, restaurant owners, bakers, food truckers and all around food people. She helps her clients better understand their businesses so they can grow and become more profitable.
Mary began her career as a professionally trained chef and spent the last 20 years fusing her love of food with her analytical strengths to make the operational and financial side of food businesses run a little smoother. She’s no stranger to operations large and small, having led major restaurant brands, like Il Fornaio, through openings and expansions as well as owning and profitably managing her own small business, the Noe Valley Bakery in the San Francisco area.
Mary’s company is called Launch, which is her sweet spot, representing the very best of her love of learning and her natural sense of empowering others.
Mary has a huge passion for funky and unique people, believing that they make our city’s wonderful places to live.
She understands the daily grind of being a small business owner and she knows the value of quality consulting, delivering it without the sticker shock.
She can usually be found hunting for new food finds, geeking out on efficiency systems and cooking at home for friends while drinking excellent wine.
Mary, it’s such a pleasure to have you here. The food people in our cities need someone like you to help them thrive.
Mary: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Sherold: I live in Portland, Oregon and many of you know that. We have a thriving food community here. Mary, you’re down in the San Francisco Bay area and it’s a food mecca down there.
I think you’re fairly unique in that you’re really specializing in financial and operational business systems. You also have a keen sense of strategy as well. Tell us why you started Launch and how long you’ve been in business.
Mary: I’m super passionate about food businesses succeeding.
I don’t want the whole world to get taken over by Starbucks and Chipotle and the chains.
I love… when I go to Portland, I love going to the little coffee shop where they’re spinning vinyl records and making canneles and amazing cappuccinos and they’re 25 years old. You know?
That’s what I think makes cities great places. But, frequently, those people that go into a business for the passion like that don’t necessarily know how to run the finances of their business.
My idea is to bring the two together and teach them to not be afraid of the financial piece of it and to really make a success out of what they love doing.
Sherold: I’m sitting here listening to you and thinking that your work crosses over into any business area. Anyone who’s a small entrepreneur. This is the most important foundation of any business. It’s the financials, tracking the numbers. Yet, it’s one of the things that’s most avoided. I see this with women and money — the same thing there.
Why did you decide to help other entrepreneurs? How long have you been doing this?
Mary: I’ve been doing it about five years. In the midst of that five years, a friend hired me to help them open a restaurant in Napa Valley and I couldn’t resist.
I’ve been doing it, really in earnest, for about two years. I think I got into it as a way of giving back to my community at this point in my life.
Sherold: Basically, what you’re doing with these entrepreneurs — some of them are different sized businesses than you’re working with now. Tell us what you’re doing. Are you grooming them on these systems? What kind of systems? Let’s talk about that.
Mary: I think the foundation of a lot of what I do is creating accurate financial statements, firstly. Then looking at them regularly and analyzing them. The third is to create plans from that process.
Depending on where the person is in that process, it could be a person that doesn’t even have their business entity set up or know how to track their receipts — or anything like that — and getting them set up initially from the beginning. Or, it can be somebody that’s already got a business that’s operating successfully, but they aren’t up… The food business is a very low margin business. It means that you have to be ever vigilant. I’m teaching people how to look at their financial statements and how to know where to spend their time — where the time will be best spent — to effect the bottom line.
Sherold: Yes, because there’s a lot of waste in the food business. You’ve got to know — and be watching — profitability.
Mary: Yes. In the bakery business, we dream of shelf life. We’ve got no shelf life. Everything we make is one day and we’re done. A lot of it has to do with anticipating what the demand is going to be and then making that just exact thing. But each business is different. Some businesses have plenty of shelf life, but they need to work on pricing strategies or they need to negotiate new rates with shippers. There’s just all kinds of different things.
My philosophy is every single line item on the Profit & Loss statement needs some attention in the food business. That’s how you make it work. It’s tiring. I mean, we’ve been doing the bakery for 20 years. Sometimes you just feel like, “I don’t want to pay it right now. I want to pay attention to something else,” but when you come back to it, it’s still the same fundamentals.
Sherold: I think that’s so wise. It’s true for any business, what you’re saying about profit and loss statements. It’s so important.
You’ve been doing this now for a couple years. What are the challenges that you’ve faced and that you see your own clients facing when they’re doing a startup?
Mary: I think, for me, there were two really big challenges at two different stages. At the very beginning, I said, “I’m just afraid that nobody will hire me.” That was my thing. I had a coach at that time who said to me, “Change it to, ‘My people will hire me.’” Just changing that sentence made me feel totally different about it. Like okay, it’s not no one will hire me, it’s the right people will find me. My people.
the biggest challenge was being able to charge my value.
I remember when I first started, I couldn’t even say I charge $100 an hour. I couldn’t make the words come out of my mouth. I’m way beyond that now. I remember somebody coaching me — a friend. I reached out to a mentor and she made me roleplay. She made me say, “I’m going to come to you for consulting and I want you to tell me how much you charge,” and I could barely make the words come out of my mouth.
The next stage was I had some initial success in my consulting firm and then I ran out of clients. Everyone had run their course. I had done a couple of great budgets and I’d had some word-of-mouth and I had one regular client. Then, all of a sudden I had none. That was when I came to you. I just was seized up in a panic and fear was my worst enemy. I just thought, “I need to quit. I can’t. I’m at this point in my life and I can’t do something eight hours a day that is not making me any money at this point in my life.” It was fear; getting over the fear, I think, at this point.
Sherold: Actually, what you just said about your clients and you is exactly what I see in my work. I remember going through it. I think that, what I’m hoping is, the value of you sharing your story is that others out there say, “I’m not the only one who feels this way.”
Mary: Sherold, you know you said to me in our very first discovery call together, I said, “I don’t have any clients. I have this business that’s fully functioning and ready to go and I’ve got nobody to do it with. I’ve got nobody to work with.” I said something like, “I’ve lost my confidence.” You said, “Oh, we all lose our confidence when we lose our clients.”
All of a sudden, I was not alone. That was a big, meaningful… that was a big ah-ha for me.
Sherold: I’ve seen you transform so much and move to confidence. Then, as we’ve talked, it’s this saying, ‘New level, new devil.” Now you’ve got your clients, you’re at this whole new level and we want you to move up and it’s almost… you’re almost too busy.
There’s always this edge of moving and moving forward. The fear is the biggest thing that you’re going to go through as a new entrepreneur. Also, just staying put — staying in the game — and not quitting. I see how we can rationalize ourselves out of being in business. “This is not my comfort zone. I don’t like to ask for money. I don’t like to do this.”
I see it all the time. I think the ones that just can stay and work through whatever the dragon is on your journey at this point, that’s what it is.
The other thing I want to say is I loved it when I heard you say, “I couldn’t ask for the value.” What you did is you had teased apart your self-worth from the value of your services.
I see that as a very muddy, mucky kind of thing with entrepreneurs. Even I used to say in the very beginning, “I’m going to charge what I’m worth.” Well, that’s a lot of money in my game. If I really look at what I’m worth, it’s priceless. What I’m charging is the exchange of value for the services that I’m giving. I want to applaud you for that and note that.
If anyone watching is saying, “I’m going to charge what I’m worth,” stop it because you’re worth more. It’s, “I’m going to charge the value of my services.”
What would you share to others that maybe might help them?
Mary: The biggest thing I learned from you was that I need to have an income goal all the time. That’s one of the things I learned from you.
Sherold: I’m glad you brought that up.
Mary: You need to say, “This is where I’m going,” because when I had zero, it didn’t seem like it was possible for me to get to $5000 a month. But, we set that anyway. You said, “How much do you want to make?” I said, “I want to make $5000 a month as my first goal. You said, “Okay, there’s our goal.
Then we were using tools to get to that goal and we’re not going to stop until we get to the goal. That, I think, has really been important because if I just said, “Oh, I want a client,” that doesn’t mean anything.
I learned that and then you taught me that doing workshops and having speaking engagements and networking and constantly making those connections and getting people to sign up for my email newsletter is very important because then I’m providing content to them and you never know when one of those people will then pull the trigger and become a client or refer me to somebody. I’ve been remembering that.
There’s a really cool place in Oakland called The Food Craft Institute. It’s just perfectly in my wheelhouse. They do things like beer classes and beer making — the Business of Beer, it’s called. What can be more fun than that?
I reached out to her a couple of times and she hired me. She hired me first to come speak to her class, which was like a basic artisan food business class. I came and just told my story, essentially.
Then I reached out to her again recently and said I would love to teach a workshop. Of course, she said, “Perfect timing for this email to land in my inbox. I’m thinking about doing some smaller classes. I’d love to have you do it. What would you like to teach?” Then I presented stuff to her.
That’s one of the big things I’ve learned from you is that’s how you just stay in the game.
I just finished a conference — a four-day conference in Charleston, South Carolina — with all kinds of women. I’m part of a group of women in the culinary world called Le Dames d’Escoffier. I just networked my butt off for four days, which was very heart heavy and a lot of shrimp and grits.
I drank a lot of Wente Wines, and it was wonderful.
Sherold: Did you make good contacts?
Mary: I made some incredible contacts. I sat next to a woman who was a producer who did television shows and other things. She’s in her 70s or something. She’s just lovely.
I said to her, “I have this thing that I want to create. I want to create these little video programs for entrepreneurs because I still want to help small food entrepreneurs. They don’t have money to hire consultants. I want to have some affordable things that I can create that they can buy and that will serve them well and help them to make more money.”
She said, “I’ll help you,” and I just almost burst into tears. She said, “I’ll mentor you.” She said, “I don’t know what I can do, but I’ll mentor you. Just reach out to me.”
Mary: This is an accomplished women’s organization and they’re very much in the business of helping each other, which is just amazing. I made a lot of contacts like that.
Sherold: I think that’s priceless what you just said.
I hold the vision that it’s a new day for women. We no longer have this competitive notion where, “I’m going to keep this information to myself,” and we share and support each other.
I do feel like that is changing. I think that’s just beautiful that she said that to you.
Mary: It made me cry. I went up to her the next day and said, “I just can’t believe… That just touched me so deeply that you just said, ‘I don’t know what I can do, but you reach out to me and I’ll encourage you through the whole process because I think it’s a great idea.’”
More than once did people tell me, “Wow. That’s a great idea.” That really encouraged me.
I think part of what it takes to keep going is to get targeted help when you need it.
I encourage my clients to do it all the time. Get a bookkeeper. Don’t do your own books. Get a bookkeeper. Get a CPA. Have a payroll company do your payroll. Don’t be an expert in everything. Reach out and get that targeted help you need and figure out the smart places you need help.
Right now, I want to create these online tools for entrepreneurs. I really don’t know where to start. I mean, I kind of know what it is and I know there’s mechanisms for delivering it and I buy some things so that I know how it looks from the consumer’s point of view, but I need to create it and I need to keep my eyes on the prize and get the targeted help I need. I need help to make it happen.
Sherold: What wisdom would you share to someone who’s struggling and they’re going through fear or the mindset things and they’re isolated? I think that’s a barrier as well to being an entrepreneur — especially a solo entrepreneur.
Mary: Again, it goes back to getting that targeted help exactly when you need it. For me, it was Profit from your Passion because, as I said, I was ready to go, and I had no clients. I was all dressed up and ready to go to the party.
I found I wasn’t alone by joining that group. That made a big difference. Learning to make an income goal, looking at all the time — that was very important. Learning not to quit.
You and I both love that Steve Jobs quote where he said,
“I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
For me, it was learning how to get clients and keep my business going. Now, I’ve got this new challenge that I’m setting for myself, which is learning to make online programs and be able to create them and deliver them. That’s my next new challenge.
Sherold: That’s a way to leverage. You’ve met and exceeded that goal we started for you. There’s something magically, I want to say, about that. When you set an income goal — if you say to yourself, “I want to make $10,000 a month — that’s pretty magical. When you do that, then there’s a system that we put into place so it’s not pie in the sky. We work backwards to figure out how you do that without working yourself into the ground. It’s leverage. That’s exactly the place you are now.
You’ve built this foundation. Now you’re at this leverage point. We call it top-level income. Maybe make digital products that people who can’t afford to work with you or a class, but they’re going to get that first step and help so that they stay in the game, too.
Mary: That’s my ideal clients that I absolutely love. Like those funky guys in Portland making the canneles. I love them, but they don’t know they need a consultant. They think consultants are too expensive.
They’re not going to even seek me out because they think, “Oh, my God. I’d have to pay $10,000 to have that kind of help.” I would like to reach them with something that really would help them. Then, maybe when they do make it where they’ve got four coffee shops, when they would need me for something more strategic or whatever. They’re never going to get to the four coffee shops unless they make the first one successful, right?
Sherold: Exactly. It’s so wise. Mary, it’s been such a pleasure to get to know you and to work with you and to see where you are today. I’ve always told you this: I seem to hold the bigger vision until you can catch up and you’ve caught up. I can see that now it’s the next step. Double that income goal, Mary!
Mary: All right, all right!
Sherold: Because I’m sure you’re going to get to it. Thank you so much. I so enjoyed this.
If you liked this interview, if you want to shout out or say hi to Mary, put something in the comments below and just let us know that you’re listening and that these are helpful for you.