A new series celebrating creative, resilient Americans that entered the food business for the first time during a global pandemic.
By Sally Smithwick, Managing Editor, SupermarketGuru.com
Back in the summer of 2020, while the world was reeling from shock and fear of the global pandemic, fear of not only losing lives but also their ability to work and support their households, the White House released a campaign encouraging Americans of all ages to “Find Something New.” And although this campaign may have felt like a punch in the gut for many who have spent their entire adult lives building careers, many were forced to make hard choices regarding their employment.
This new series is a celebration of creative Americans that took their skills and business savvy and dove into specifically the food business, proving that although they may not give big brands or big box retailers a run for their money yet, their innovation, closeness to their neighborhoods where there’s a driving passion in consumers to support local food, and their community pandemic-bond are all things the entire food industry should be paying attention to as a potential disruptor — or at best, will teach us something valuable about the driven and innovative risk-takers pivoting into the food world without any prior experience.
In 2010, at only 24 years old, Clay Blair, recording engineer and musician in Asheville, North Carolina, moved to Los Angeles to open his own recording studio, Boulevard Recording Studios, where since then he has worked with artists such as The War on Drugs, Dawes, Mandy Moore, Andrew Bird + Jimbo Mathus, The Watkins Family Hour and many more. Now, on what is hopefully the tail end of the COVID crisis, Blair has established in a short period of time a popular, growing “come and get it” business model (as he calls it) serving up authentic Carolina BBQ and named after his grandmother, Edna Jane’s Bar-B-Que.
“I started Edna Jane’s Bar-B-Que because I came to a crossroads last year with my studio. I owed a lot in rent and expenses and was denied a PPP loan, and the only thing I could logically think worth pursuing was something else I was pretty good at doing. I’ve been smoking meat for over a decade and grew up around it in NC for as long as I can remember. BBQ is a way of life there,” says Blair.
From Edna Jane’s smoked meats to homemade sauces, side prepping, and pickling of the Carolina vinegar, the entire process is meticulously scheduled out and can take up to two weeks or 3-4 days at a minimum. And it's truly worth the time if you want authentic southern fare.
In the beginning, Blair created an order system for pickup from his apartment in Hollywood, but after facing a building violation, he had to find another way. Finding a kitchen space in Downtown LA, he started offering weekly or bi-monthly pickups and deliveries and hosting popups, which Blair says is his personal favorite way to serve Edna Jane’s, where he can interact with his customers.
With no prior experience in running a food business, Blair says he faced a very steep learning curve. Coming from the music business, he says, “Being in the studio requires creativity, and so does making delicious BBQ.”
However, in California, he faced having to pay for a commercial kitchen in order to receive a health permit, since he no longer could operate out of his home. Crafted Kitchen, a company that helps new, small food businesses get off the ground came to the rescue. In addition to that hurdle, he needed a crash course in operating a food business, which he credits to learning from friends already working in food.
Blair says he was lucky enough to have good friends like Johnny Moezzi (owner of Osteria La Buca) and his brother-in-law, Josh Rosenstein (owner of Hoxie Spritzer) to help him with things like, “What is a Cambro container, and where do you buy produce?” Blair says, “You soon learn that buying meat and produce at your local grocery store will greatly reduce your profit margins. Wholesale is where you need to be in order to make it all work on paper.”
For marketing, Blair credits, in the beginning, his neighbors in the Beachwood Canyon community of Hollywood that became his first customers and quickly spread the word for him. One of those neighbors, a writer for LA Magazine, wrote a feature on Edna Jane’s and demand started to grow quickly. But from the beginning, Blair has relied on social media and even old school posters and flyers. In fact, he says they rely on social media reposts from their other customers to help spread the word.
“That has gotten us more business than almost any marketing campaign I could dream up. And much the same for the studio, 95% of my top paying clients in the last 11 years are repeat customers. Loyalty is how I have survived the ever-changing music business in the 21st century and how my bbq business has blossomed in the middle of a global pandemic.”
Blair offers advice to anyone starting up a food business, but his experience and observations are crucial to any size business competing for sales.
“You have to continue to work just as hard all the time to keep up. It’s not a forgiving industry, and things change quickly. You have to pay attention. Trends are very important especially in LA. People who are serious about food in LA have FOMO, and that’s a good thing. That keeps everyone on their feet, and it keeps things exciting.”
Stay tuned for next week's installment of this exciting new series. We have some fantastic new food businesses to tell you about.