Once upon a time, in Condiment Land, coleslaw met salsa. As the old saying goes, first came love, then came marriage, then came Julie Busha with Slawsa in the baby carriage. She identified a need we didn’t know we had, and filled it with her product that we can’t seem to get enough of.
We interviewed Julie and spoke about the inspiration behind a new condiment business, the amount of work it takes to build a successful brand, and what the future might hold for her and the company.
So, tell us about your business. What is it that you do and who are your customers?
We are the makers of Slawsa, which can be found in thousands of grocery stores across the US & Canada. Really, anyone with a mouth is our customer. While it sounds different, in essence, Slawsa is a primarily cabbage-based relish with addictive heat undertones, or slaw-salsa hybrid. Slawsa is healthier, more versatile and far more flavorful than traditional pickle-based relishes, with roughly half the sodium and 20% more vitamin C than the average dill relish. Slawsa is all natural, fat-free, cholesterol-free, gluten-free, low in sodium and kosher, and many foodies, celeb chefs, and registered dieticians alike have heralded it.
Slawsa comes in 4 flavors (Original, Spicy, Garlic and Habanero Fire), and can either be found in the relish section or in the meat department. While Slawsa is a great topper to grilling fare such as bratwurst, burgers, pulled pork, hot dogs, or fish, it is a great ingredient in many recipes (think deviled eggs, egg/potato/tuna salad), or as a dipper for tortilla chips. Not only is Slawsa available in many grocery stores, but it’s also on the menu of Toronto-based HERO Certified Burgers, many independent restaurants and stadiums alike.
What led to you to launching Slawsa?
I actually spent over a decade marketing, primarily in the sport of NASCAR, so I am very thankful that I had that professional background in marketing. I was very fortunate to not only being involved with building a small business (I was one of 2 people tasked to start the sport marketing agency for NASCAR champion, Bobby Labonte), but also in having several Fortune 500 clients. In fact, a major food manufacturer was my primary client for 9.5 years. While launching a brand is very different than working to grow some of the most iconic brands, I did absorb knowledge, especially about how the industry works, that I do use today. I know that I am a better entrepreneur because I’ve had those professional experiences in my previous career. I’ve always been very passionate about food, so launching a food product was right up my alley.
They say that to be successful you have to be passionate; why do you love what you do?
I have always been a very self-driven person. I grew up knowing that if you wanted something, you had to earn it. I would run many times twice a day, while working hard on my grades, so I could earn scholarships for college. The responsibility of milking cows and feeding livestock led me to be able to buy my first car from my savings. I’ve always been motivated to get ahead and that came with a focused worth ethic. I really don’t know any other way, and thank my parents immensely for instilling those values in me. While you need to be self motivated to start a business, times will be tough, and thankfully, people who surround you will lift you up, sometimes when you need it the most.
I vividly remember one morning where I knew I had a rough day ahead, but in opening customer emails to our website, one customer told me a story about how their household comes together to have family meals more often, and how much they all loved Slawsa and they had turned other people onto our product. Now, that person took time out of their day to write a simple note to express their love for our product. That blows my mind. How could I not look at that simple act of kindness and not use that to fuel my own passion and excitement for my company?
Has it been smooth sailing or have you overcome adversity to get where you are?
I don’t think any successful small business owner can say the journey has been smooth. My journey has actually had a few more bumps in the road than I care to admit, but with each hurdle you take, you’ve hopefully learned a lesson that will help you make wiser decisions moving forward. The biggest adversity I faced was when my former partner requested that I buy him out. To be honest, I never saw it coming, and perhaps that is my fault. Here I had invested nearly $50K of my life’s savings to get the company off the ground and fund inventory, plus did the legwork involved with sales and the bulk of the day-to-day operations.
To go from 0 to thousands of stores, and then to get that shocking request, provided many sleepless and tearful nights. Could I even afford buying that partner out, yet grow the business at the same time? For a woman in her early 30’s, it was about as serious as it could get, especially considering there was no family or bank to borrow money from. Being the first in my family to graduate from college – debt free I might add – I’ve always lived a very fiscally responsible lifestyle living well below my means. Putting everything you’ve worked so hard for your whole life into one basket is very risky. But, in the end, I believed in myself and I believed that even though the hill would become steeper, my vision was still clear. I was very aware I’d have to go without for longer to make it possible.
We all know that crazy happens. What’s the wildest thing that’s happened on the job?
Thankfully, I don’t think I’ve experienced a lot of crazy…at least not yet. But, I do have a story of one of the crazy things you just have to do. We had a retailer want to do a case-stack display program with us where we have 12 jars of Slawsa in a custom corrugated tray to merchandise in store. It has to have special wrapping and personal handling because multiple flavors are involved. While it was a multi-pallet order, it wasn’t enough for us to outsource to a facility we’d have to freight to. I spent all day building those things myself and figured by the end, I must have lifted nearly 10,000 lbs. of Slawsa that day. Being a small business owner isn’t glamorous, but you do what you have to do.
What do you do with your time off? Are you familiar with that concept?
I’ve learned I have to make time for myself, as typically, a small business owner works 7 days a week, myself included. As a former college athlete, physical activity has always been a big part of my life so I schedule in time to run, play tennis or squeeze in an Insanity workout. It helps keep me sane and I fully believe makes me more productive. I try to focus what little time I do have as being more quality time where I am present with those that I love. I haven’t had a vacation in over a decade, but honestly, I’m not too bothered by it because I love what I do. There is nothing more fulfilling than growing a brand from its infancy so I’m eager to work every day. My previous career I traveled a great deal and that time away was dictated by the industry I was in. While I may work slightly more hours now, even without traditional vacations, I feel more balanced because I control my time.
This is the age of the social network. How important is social media to your business and how do you make it work?
I think as technology advances and more people are taking to social media, if you’re not active on many platforms, you’re falling behind the competition. Social media really has leveled the playing field for the little guy because the voices of your customers are far more impactful to your business than any paid commercial or advertisement. Should I be creating more content like recipes? Yes. But we definitely stay as active as possible based on the budgets we do have, and I’m planning on several social media driven promotions in the coming year.
Why did you realize that you were going to embrace e-commerce?
When you look at many affordable items in the grocery store, you know that due to its affordability factor and weight, 99.5% of your business is going to be wholesale to retailers. You want people to go to your store locator because it is going to be easier and less expensive to purchase locally, and of course, purchase often. Your e-commerce business will be considerably less in volume, but no less important. Being able to ship product nationally allows your fans to try flavors they may not be able to get locally, or bridge the gap until Slawsa is available locally to them. Plus, we have many e-commerce customers that will buy in bulk, and thus share our flavor with others, so that’s always a bonus to turn on new fans.
How did you find Shopify and why did you decide to try them out?
We primarily needed a platform that we knew would not crash with traffic spikes and I have often heard from others that Shopify would never fail in this regard. From being featured on Shark Tank, Today Show, Food Network and others, the last thing you want is for thousands of people to hit your site all at once for them to not be able to access your store locator or general details of your brand. There’s nothing worse than a site failure or freeze.
What does this enable you to do as a small business owner?
With everything else you have to juggle, it’s nice not to worry about your bandwidth. Peace of mind is the biggest benefit. In the case of our Today Show shout-out by a host earlier this year, it was a complete surprise with no advance warning and you just cannot prepare for that.
How are you involved in your community?
We do our best to be involved in many communities, not just our own, because hunger is a national problem. Recently, we’ve made significant product donations to Atlanta, Des Moines and Dallas area food banks. We also donate product to fundraising efforts as much as we can to benefit those charities focused on bridging the hunger gap. Our product donations far exceed what we can legally deduct through the IRS, but hunger is a real issue that isn’t ending anytime soon, even here in the US. We want to do what we can to help all communities in need. Plus, for those who do use the support of food banks, having a product like Slawsa is a nice bonus to many of the very institutional staples they are used to receiving. Slawsa is sort of the gourmet gem in the bag.
Personally, I give back as often as possible to fellow entrepreneurs as I know how hard it is starting out and knowledge is power. I mentor about a dozen other food start-ups, write business articles and serve as an administrator of an entrepreneurial group of over 17,000 members, to which I support daily. If knowledge I can provide will help someone else avoid early, costly mistakes, then they too will have a better chance at success. There’s nothing more fulfilling than paying it forward to others.
What does supporting local mean to you?
Small businesses typically only get media attention twice annually: National Small Business Week in May and Small Business Saturday in November. Generally, the focus to most consumers through those media efforts is to support local restaurants and the storefronts on Main Street, USA. Most people don’t consider that there are hundreds of products on the grocery store shelves or inventions within major retailers that are indeed the sweat and tears of small business, so I hate when people avoid major retailers altogether. No matter where they are shopping, people need to just make more informed choices.
There are also many service providers that are often forgotten in the media and that is a shame as well. Small business creates nearly 2 of every 3 new jobs here in the US so I really do my best to make sure I’m supporting local and small business in general. The best thing that ANYONE can do, which doesn’t cost a thing, is to be a voice for small businesses you love. I tell our customers all the time that their voice in sharing the word of Slawsa with others is truly the best compliment we can ever hope to receive.
What does the future look like for you and your business?
Obviously, we want to continue expanding Slawsa, not only the traditional retail business in grocery stores, but with foodservice opportunities as well. Having a more unique relish, educating the consumer to Slawsa being a healthier, more versatile and far more flavorful option is key. Being able to have Slawsa available in restaurant chains and concessions in stadiums will really help us continue to grow trial, and thus brand awareness/retail sales. I do have a secondary line to launch but taking focus off of Slawsa too early is not advisable. Ours is a slower moving industry and I am most definitely committed to growing the company the smartest way possible for long term success, not short term gain.
Do you have any advice for aspiring business owners just starting out?
The very best piece of advice I can offer is to really seek out mentors from within your industry who are 5-7 year ahead of where you’re at in your journey. Don’t ask an academic or someone from the upper echelons of industry, but rather someone who has rolled up their sleeves and launched a product from the ground up. Learning as you go is not advisable and having a mentor to help lead you through the nuances of your industry will undoubtedly save you time and money.
There’s nothing worse than making costly mistakes because you don’t know what you don’t know. Believe it or not, because others have been in your shoes and know the hurdles you’ll face ahead, you’d be surprised at how willing people are to pay it forward and serve as a mentor. At the same time, it falls on you to be proactive in asking questions of them, while still being respectable of their time.