To ring in the new year, Moon Meals CEO and Chef LaForce Baker shared his very best entrepreneurial advice in an interview with the Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, Yitzi Weiner.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I always say that I never choose to be an entrepreneur, but being an entrepreneur choose me. I grew up poor and fat on Chicago’s far Southside, so nothing was ever given to me. This pushed me to fight to forge a different path than those around me, so that I could make it easier for someone coming up behind me. I wanted to lose weight, so I self-taught myself how to use vegetables from my grandmother’s garden in a healthy way, that tasted good, to drop the pounds.
Fast forward to my corporate career, I ended up helping large food companies, like Kraft-Heinz, ConAgra and Nestle launch new products. However, I became frustrated that these companies were slow to push adoption of products of healthier fresh options that tasted good. While working late at night, at my office, I had the epiphany that I could deliver people healthy meals that tastes good when they are working late as an alternative to pizza. I pulled together my best recipes that I used to train for marathons; moved back home and saved half of every paycheck and liquidated my 401K to get the company off the ground. We started doing late night catering to individuals, then pivoted to catering to companies and then started wholesaling top sellers like the “Fiesta Wrap” to major retailers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When we first started the company I was 23-years-old. I had no family members that were executives at major corporations. Therefore, in a lot of early meetings with major retailers, I had to prove my worth, since I had no family in the business or a broker to bring me into deals. I represented myself. In one of my first meetings, a senior retail executive said “your not exactly who I expected”. I said, “that’s funny because you are exactly who I expected.” We then proceeded to have a successful meeting even though the executive was baffled how I could start a company so young and with no family in the business coming from the background that I did. The executive was so moved by the product and my story, that we got a “yes” and the product went into stores.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A big lesson I learned is that just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come. What I mean is that you really have to build a product and a service while listening to the customer that will buy your product. In the first version of Moon Meals, we didn’t have enough resources to reach the end consumer and get the word out about this late night healthy meal delivery service. So, on the first night we launched, I spent thousands of dollars on rent, inventory and staff only to get 2 customers. One of the things I had learned is that we need to partner with larger institutions to access the end consumer instead of us trying to target them directly. So then we made the shift from delivering to just individuals that worked late night, to corporations; then opened up to daytime delivery for company events and lastly we started supplying major retailers via wholesale grab & go versions of our products.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
I think what makes our company stand out the most is that while there are a lot of companies that make sub components of a plant-based meal (bread, meat, cheese). We make and combine them all into a tasty grab & go option, like our Fiesta Wrap, to save consumers time and money. I met a customer in one of our stores that said she was considering going vegan, but she felt it was too time consuming. She then tasted the Fiesta Wrap and instantly feel in love. She said “wow, you don’t have to cook it?” I enthusiastically said “no and that the bread, meat, cheese, veggies and sauces were all prepped and combined, so you can just eat it out the pack.” She asked” how long does it take to make vegan meat?” I said “6 hours total” She said “I will take 5 and I am going to try going vegan this week.” This story took place in a mainstream grocery store, so it demonstrated to me that we are the first company to make it possible for the average person to enjoy a full plant-based meal on the go at least once a week while enjoying the taste.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Right now we are working on trying to spread the impact of the Fiesta Wrap, by getting it into more mainstream grocery store delis across the country. We have the infrastructure setup for national distribution, but we just need other retailers to give us a shot, so we can go from hundreds to thousands of locations. This will give the average consumer access to a healthier version of one of the most popular entrees in the country — the burrito.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees thrive?
I think the number one piece of advice I would give to other CEOs is to make sure you deliver information in multiple formats to employees, since everyone learns differently. One day, I discovered that one of my employees became twice as productive when I started to give assignments verbally, because that is how they process information the best. My taking a little extra time to present my ideas in multiple ways I have doubled my companies revenue potential and you can too.
What advice would you give to other CEOs about the best way to manage a large team?
To get our finished products to consumers, we have to manage a complex supply chain of different companies with thousands of employees. One thing that I think is important to making sure that the end consumer gets a great experience is creating win-win experiences for all employees and partners. For instance, some of the employees don’t’ have time nor the finances to regularly get a healthy meal, so we provide free healthy snacks and meals to decrease time out the office which helps our bottom line while making sure they stay healthy.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?
Darryl Abernathy, who is a long time restauranteur in the Chicago land area, was a critical sounding board when I first decided to work with major retailers. During my first negotiations with a major retailer, Darryl encouraged me to fight for what would benefit not only the retailer, but my company. At the time, the traditional payment terms that the retailer wanted would have put us out of business. My intuition told me to establish a new payment system to ensure a win-win scenario in retail for Moon Meals. Darryl encouraged me to follow my intuition. With that system we were able to go from three to over twenty locations in a short period of time. So now at almost 200 locations, I still remember to follow my intuition and create win-win situations for both Moon Meals and its partners.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When I was growing up on the southside of Chicago, I did not see a lot of people encouraged to be a chef. Therefore, as the Executive Chef of Moon Meals, I illustrate that someone from a community like my own can be successful at pursuing culinary arts. In fact, we recently hosted a cook-off where local community members could have their dishes highlighted on a public platform instead of just their Thanksgiving table. The winner of the competition seemed to be encouraged that she could now start her own culinary business based on the competition we sponsored. I feel that most people will pursue their highest potential if they feel they are being heard. Through the success of our business, we want to continue to provide platforms to everyday people to highlight healthy, tasty alternatives that we can all enjoy.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO,” and why?
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something. There has been a lot of times over the past few years of me being a CEO where I did not have enough information to make an informed decision. I’ve discovered that being patient and gathering the information saves our company a lot of resources because we don’t have to backtrack. As an entrepreneur that can be hard because you’re constantly focused on moving the company forward. One question that I ask myself now is would I regret my decision tomorrow? I’m reminded of a situation where I acted but regretted the decision shortly thereafter. When we first started I was quoted an astronomical price for insurance. Instead of shopping around, I bought the insurance because I felt time was of the essence. When it was time to renew the insurance, I shopped around and secured coverage for 1/10th of what I previously paid. In that instance I realized never to make a decision when you don’t know what’s going on, just to save face. Had I admitted that I didn’t know, I could have saved us a lot of time and money.
- You have to constantly reaffirm your value proposition. I’ve learned that partners, investors employees, press, and customers constantly need to be reminded why what we do is valuable. As a CEO, it is your responsibility to set the vision. No one else can see the finished vision but you. So every day, you have to convince those that support you to see the world from your point of view. For example, we have to constantly reiterate to our partners and investors why it’s worth doing things differently than our competitors. They can already see what has been successful from others, so its easier to follow that path. However, to go where we are going we can’t completely follow those paths because we bring different strengths to the table. Ultimately to be successful as a CEO you can’t be afraid to fight for your vision.
- Take time for yourself. When you become a CEO, time becomes very scarce and everyone wants access to it. However, you only get one body. And if you’re not operating in peak health, then you won’t be able to efficiently lead. That means setting boundaries between work and leisure time. For example, sometimes I will take a day away from the office to complete personal tasks. In doing so, I found that it makes me a better resource for my employees and partners because I am fully engaged in the work instead of worrying about what is going on at home. For personal relationships I’ve had to add more structure when hanging out with friends and family, so I maximize my time spent with them. That has meant saying “No” when other friends and family might have been able to say “yes” to an event. However, when I do hang out with people, the quality of our time spent together is more valuable now because of this.
- I’ve learned not to create tasks, but to create systems. One conundrum facing the CEO of a growing company is to make a big impact with not a lot of resources. To do so, I’ve learned to create systems for critical parts of my business and teach others around me how to use them so should something happen to me, the show still goes on. In the past I used to carry out a task, but I quickly learned if I wanted a team to have more impact, we all had to understand why we were doing what we were doing, and there had to be systematic ways of getting things done so that people didn’t get burned out from tasks. For example one of my tasks use to be to make our Fiesta Wrap. Instead of just telling my team to create a Fiesta Wrap, I created an assembly line system that produced a consistent finished product without being heavily reliant on one individual.
- The only person who truly know when it’s “your time” is you. One of the things I’ve learned as a CEO is that individuals and institutions will try to put their limitations on you. However, the only person who is truly going to put in the work is you. Furthermore, the only person who will win or lose is you. So, if you feel you have the resources, passion, and talent to carry out your vision today, then you should try it! Because everyone can work, but no one can work like you do. For example, there were those that felt we would not be able to launch our product without more financial backing or institutional support. But I felt that we had what it took to have a successful launch. And we did just that. In the majority of our stores we not only surprised, but delighted the customer and had a higher “sell through” rate than brands that had been around for decades. I was able to maximize what we had to get the results that everyone wanted. That reaffirmed to me that the only person that truly knows when it’s time to take a chance is you.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
If there were any movement could inspire, it would be to expect more out of your food. I believe that food should nourish you, taste good, and provide an opportunity to bring people together. In the world we live in today, food is an afterthought. We mostly focus on getting the tastiest option at the cheapest price. I would like there to be a shift where people take time to think about whether the food they are consuming is good for them, taste good, and its bringing together people around them. Food fundamentally is fuel for your body, therefore your food should nourish you. I try very hard to discourage people from mindlessly eating food with lack of nutritional value but just tastes good. However, I’m not encouraging people to eat food that doesn’t taste good. As a chef, I can make the healthiest dish taste good, and I want to encourage others to find or make healthy meals that taste good. Because I’ve learned that if the food doesn’t taste good, you won’t regularly eat it. So to be sustainable, you need to find options that taste good and are good for you. Lastly, food is best enjoyed with others. So, I believe it’s important to try to share meals with those close to where you live and work — It makes for a more prosperous and happier community.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
One of my favorite life lesson quotes was from the longtime owner of a popular restaurant here in Chicago in the vegan food space. He said that he always watched his mom bake with a pot that was too small for the loaf she was cooking, so she had to cut the butts off to enable it to fit. He never thought that made sense. One day he asked her why she did that. She said that she did it because her mom taught her to do it that way, but she would go ask her why. After being asked by his mom, his grandmother explained that she always used a smaller pot because she could not afford a bigger one. The lesson was that you should never blindly follow what everyone around you are doing if you don’t think it make sense because you can be wasting valuable resources when you don’t have too.
This has been so relevant in my life because there have been so many times when I did not think traditional systems worked and I came up with a better system. If I had follow everybody else, I would have never created my company that now creates and markets products in a new way that sells better than traditional products.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would love to have lunch with Beyonce. I love that she is a supporter of vegan meals and innovation in general. She has taken her industry to the next level and that’s what I am aiming to do in mine. I feel that I could learn a lot from her about how to create systems and hire people to expand that impact of my work. I also think I could make her the greatest burrito she has ever had.
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