As my regular readers know, the Success Story Series features (mostly local) business owners and citizens who are making a difference. When I meet someone who is doing something interesting with their lives and their businesses, I share his or her success story to inspire and energize the solopreneur spirit.
This month’s success story features Gypsy Achong, an international woman of style and substance whose business, Gift A Feast, provides local artisan food gifts to a national audience. Here’s what Gypsy and I chatted about:
Anna Colibri: Tell me a bit about Gift A Feast.
Gypsy Achong: It’s simple, really. We shop for handcrafted treats from the San Francisco Bay Area’s thriving gourmet food scene. Then we wrap each product by hand with our customers’ choice of luxurious paper and festive ribbons into a gorgeous food gift box set and include a handwritten note card with your personal message.
AC: Sounds wonderful! How would you describe your services?
GA: We’ll send you a photo of the gift before it was boxed, an email with a tracking number for the gift, and then we’ll send you a delivery notice once your package has been delivered. If there’s a slowdown in shipping, and we don’t think your gift will arrive in time, we’ll send another one at our cost.
AC: What is the philosophy behind your business?
GA: I could say a lot about this! At Gift A Feast we believe that food gifts root us in long traditions of family and community. They convey well wishes more sincerely than any words we can find. We want to delight from the moment our friends open the food gift box to the time they enjoy their feast.
AC: What can people expect when they receive a gift from Gift A Feast?
GA: They can expect delicious foods made from the highest quality ingredients, and an interesting story to go along with each one. Our producers and partners are a “find” for the recipient of any of our gifts.
We also believe that packaging can be beautiful and sustainable, and our packaging is easy to recycle – almost all paper. No baskets to get rid of.
Our customers are busy, so we strive to make the process as easy and pleasant as possible.
Everyone says that customer service is important, but we take this very seriously. We take responsibility for your gift until it is received by the recipient. We’ll send you a photo of the gift before it was boxed, an email with a tracking number for the gift, and then we’ll send you a delivery notice once your package has been delivered.
AC: What makes Gift A Feast unique?
GA: All of the foods we sell are hand-made by someone who is passionate about what they do. Everything we sell is only found at the maker’s website or at specialty food stores.
AC: Now that we’ve learned about Gift A Feast, let’s hear about Gypsy Achong. What brought you where you are today?
GA: I was born in Trinidad, where lived until I left for Pasadena, California, in 1992, and then went onto the Bay Area, where I earned my doctorate at Stanford University. After working for several years, I started a family and wanted to work in a way that would give me the flexibility to spend time with my two children.
AC: What inspired you to create a specifically “foodie” business?
GA: Growing up in Trinidad in the 1970s, all I knew was ‘local’ food. From the cacao plantations that we visited on weekends to fishermen who planned their catch around families’ dinner plans, fresh food was an everyday part of my life.
AC: Talk about how you like to interact with the Bay Area business community.
GA: On the philanthropic side, we support charities that resonate with us. For example, during the holiday season in 2013, through Heifer International, we contributed a flock of ducks for every holiday gift that was purchased. Our suppliers are small food manufacturers and we loved supporting new food manufacturers to get their start. We’ve supported Dress for Success SF’s gala for the last two years. We are a woman-owned business, and love to help women get on the path of financial independence. We’ve also contributed to the Red Cross, Sakhi for Girls’ Education through A Good Deed Tea and the National Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation.
On the operational side, we are supported by many local small businesses from our graphic designer, printer and food photographer to our suppliers.
AC: What challenges have you faced as a new business?
GA: Toffee Talk’s recent hiatus is our most recent challenge. They were one of our biggest suppliers so we’re tasting alternatives now. We’re always looking to add excellent products from enterprising foodpreneurs.
AC: Like you, a lot of mothers are leaving the traditional workforce and starting their own businesses. Some women find it difficult to balance work and family life, while others find it liberating. Will you share your thoughts on being a working mother and how to make the most of it?
GA: Balancing work with young children has been one of the toughest challenges I have faced in my career. Knowing that I have limited time at work, I am continuously prioritizing my to-do list, and delegating to-dos to my team. At home, I focus on spending quality time with my family. I delegate as many chores as possible, and I don’t peek at my computer or my phone when I’m with my kids. When I feel like I’m falling too far behind, I trade a night of single parenting with my husband. The good news is the balancing act is continually getting easier as my kids are becoming more independent. Now they want some time after dinner to play on their iPads, and they are content for me to to work on my computer then.
AC: What do you love most about living in the Bay Area owning a business like Gift A Feast?
GA: I love everything about the Bay Area! I love that it is a food culture. I can walk less than three blocks and find a great restaurant. I am less than three hours from Lake Tahoe, three hours from Yosemite. An hour from wonderful road biking. There are so many diverse of activities in the Bay Area that make life interesting.
My business would not be possible almost anywhere else. There are so many great food suppliers here, but there is also FLAX art and design that allows me to test new packaging ideas.
AC: Speaking of bike trails, many of my readers spend their days at their desks, in front of computers. Any tips for keeping your body healthy and feeling good when you’re at a desk all day?
GA: Eat less. Exercise more. It’s really simple, but it’s what works for me. I find that every ten years I need to reduce how much I eat. I have not found exercise to be an effective path to weight loss for me. Of course, I feel better when I exercise, but the big sledge hammer for weight loss for me is food consumption.
On the exercise front, I do regular yoga. It keeps my body supple so it can cope with the bad habits that are involved with my work.
AC: How do you manage that in a delicious food business like yours?
GA: Everything I eat is of the highest quality so I feel sated by the number of calories that my body needs. If I have one of the truffles from Neo Cocoa, it just explodes in my mouth. I don’t need another one.
The answer for me to eating less is to eat well. Basically what I want is to feel sated.
AC: With all the moving parts, Gift A Feast can’t be a one-woman show. Who else is involved in your business?
GA: Michael Nguyen is heading up order fulfillment and managing what comes into the website as well as the email we get. We hire on additional fulfillment staff as demand requires. And then I work with a bunch of consultants to do almost everything. I have a graphic designer and a photographer who have been with me from even before Gift A Feast was born. I also have a software developer, a few search engine optimization resources, a copywriter and someone to manage my social media. Everyone I work with, I have worked with for a very long time.
AC: As a successful business owner, what are your thoughts about how to make sure a business idea becomes a success story?
GA: Everybody says that they do great customer service, but we really work hard to make things right for our customers. Like I said, we keep track of all packages and, for example, at Christmas, if we saw that a package wasn’t going to arrive on time we would send another one. If we say it’s going to get there, it’s going to get there. Even if we have to ship it at our own cost.
We also had a client who was ill and needed food that could be frozen. We don’t sell frozen foods, but I pulled information together for her. We had an event planner who wanted some of our products and some from another vendor and we put all of that together in gift packages.
We want people to consider us a resource. If it’s gift-related, we want our customers to think of us first. We’ve advised customers on everything from our favorite flowers – Farm Girl Flowers – to local suppliers for baked goods, and more. As a result, we even get written thank you cards from our customers! That’s what we aspire to.
I also think you have to think about your business in stages. I always have a goal for the year and that’s what I focus on. Of course I get other things accomplished, but I focus on one goal so I don’t kill myself trying to get everything done at once.
For example, the first year we didn’t do social media. At that time we were trying to build up our product portfolio and we were working hard to get attention from the press.
The second year, we were more on our feet and I found my social media manager. We’re only 2 1/2 years in, so there are still plenty of things to focus on.
But every year we are hitting the priority goal we set for that year.
AC: Speaking of social media, how do you use social media and online marketing in your business?
GA: We think of social media in terms of customer service. We strive to provide useful information for our customers and be a resource for them. We scour the web to find articles we think would be useful to our clients. For example, a lot of our blogs include information about kids because many of our clients have children. I have a guest blogger who is a mom and shares great information about being a mom.
AC: What do you think is most important in life — and business?
GA: In both life and in business, you have to be true to yourself. I treat my customers, my suppliers, and my employees how I would like to be treated.
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