From the September 2002 issue of Startups

(YoungBiz.com) -Want some food for thought? See if you recognize yourself in any of the following situations:

  • Your idea of a great afternoon is sitting in front of the television watching a Good Eats marathon on the Food Network while everyone else you know is tuned in to Britney on TRL.
  • Your friends are always over at your house because there might be a chance that you (not your mom) might whip up one of your famous recipes.
  • You're on a first-name basis with all the employees at your neighborhood grocery store.

If you found yourself nodding in response to any of these scenarios, then a career in the food industry might be on your menu. As the following young entrepreneurs will tell you, however, there's much more to being a chef than serving your creations to an adoring crowd.

Icing on the Cake
The Cakery is a custom cake business created and run by Rudy Montoya, 15, of Mora, New Mexico, who says he learned everything he knows from his mother. "She taught me how to really bake," he explains. "I do mostly everything from scratch and use mixes only for the really hard cakes."

Big or small, Montoya will bake them all. He even made a three-tiered cake for his grandfather's 73rd birthday. Baking, his says, often requires some quick thinking and good planning. This is especially true during graduation season, when Montoya has been known to bake six cakes in one weekend.

Then there was the time, he remembers, when the electricity went out while he was trying to decorate a cake for a farewell party. "I had to finish decorating by lamplight," he recalls.

Montoya counts himself lucky to have a small, homebased business that's not subject to many rules and regulations. "Because I don't cook foods other than my cakes, I only have to have a certificate to sell baked goods," he explains. "If my kitchen were bigger or I sold other food, I'd have to get a license."

Chad Williams, on the other hand, has to keep up with and comply with many rules and regs. Williams, 19, of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, runs The Juice, a seasonal restaurant and juice bar he and his father started five years ago. Since taking over the business two years ago, Williams has added sandwiches, Mexican food and gourmet pizzas to the juice menu and began to experience the more mundane aspects of running a food business.

Williams must file renewals with the city for his business license each year and pay a monthly 5-percent meals tax. And while he was installing a pizza oven last year, he had to comply with fire and building codes and have a gas inspector give his stamp of approval on the ventilation system.

Williams also has to contend with surprise visits from local health inspectors. "They usually come out at the beginning of our season because they know when we open," he explains.

In addition, Williams had to take a course called Serve Safe, which is required as part of new health regulations in Massachusetts. The state requires that one person who has passed the two-week course on safe food handling and preparation be on call at each restaurant at all times, and it expects that person to train co-workers. Luckily, Williams lives in an apartment above The Juice, since he's the only one who has taken the course so far. "I don't get to leave this place very much," he says with a laugh.

Farm Futures
Like Williams, Elise Macmillan knows a little about how time-consuming a food business can be and how many other aspects you have to tend to besides the product. Macmillan, 14, owns The Chocolate Farm, a thriving Internet business in Denver.

When she started the venture at age 11, it was a modest business selling homemade chocolates with a farm theme at places like the Young Americans Bank, Young Entrepreneur's Holiday Marketplace and Kid Biz Day at her local mall. Customers at the events sampled products such as Pigs in Mud (marshmallows dipped in caramel, rolled in pecans, and covered in chocolate) and cows (chocolate molded in the shape of a cow and served on a lollypop stick). They couldn't get enough!

Macmillan soon realized the importance of a recognizable brand name and turned to her older brother Evan, now 16, to help her gain a strong Web presence. The gamble paid off big time. Customers can still order Macmillan's one-of-a-kind candies from her Web site, www.chocolatefarm.com, but now they can order just about anything else having to do with chocolate as well.

In addition to The Chocolate Farm Cookbook, customers can buy chocolate-making kits, raw chocolate, flavoring oils, lolly sticks, molds, cellophane bags and gift baskets. Macmillan even offers group classes at her office to teach others how to make the sweet treats.

Success has been sweet for The Chocolate Farm. Owner/president Macmillan and her brother, who is in charge of finances and information management, aren't planning to stop anytime soon. "I am still experimenting with new products," she says.

Montoya, Williams and Macmillan all agree that whether you run a homebased food business, a restaurant or an Internet business, working with food isn't always a piece of cake. The hours are long, researching and complying with rules can be tedious, and keeping your customers happy isn't as easy at it seems.

So if it's so difficult, why do it? As Montoya says, "With a dash of creativity and a pinch of hard work, I have the recipe to success." In other words, all your efforts could have you rolling in the dough.