Recently, Dan's Gourmet got to sit down with Chris Grissom, owner and founder of Alfresco Pasta located right across the street from our office in Wedgewood-Houston. He told us about the challenges of starting a business in the food industry and gave some solid advice to those looking to get a start in the biz.
What got you into fresh pasta?
I've been in the restaurant business and a chef for a long time. I got the idea when I was working in San Francisco at a restaurant. There was a guy who made fresh pasta and sold it out of the back of his truck to restaurants. I bought from him and it was the best pasta I had ever had. I had no idea fresh pasta could be that good.
That kind of stuck in my mind, and I moved to Nashville in 1996 and helped re-open the Hermitage Hotel and worked in various restaurants. I had always wanted to do a food manufacturing business and thought it would be a lot of fun and I could continue to cook and be creative.
Pasta was a need in Nashville. There wasn't anybody doing cutting-edge fresh pasta on a larger scale in the southeast. I knew everyone in town so the sales part was easy.
Alfresco uses the freshest ingredients, including succulent lobster tail.
What's the hardest part about being a small business in Nashville?
It's just hard. The most difficult part for us was branding. It just took a long time. We're pretty well-branded now and people know who we are, but in the beginning, no one knew who we were. That's a tough part of any startup, especially in the food business. There's so many food startups now that you have to figure out how to get exposure.
There continues to be challenges. We've shifted in a lot of different markets—people know us in Tennessee and Georgia, but if we go down into Miami or south Florida where we have a distributor, people don't know who we are. We have to create that branding all over again.
Making the product wasn't the hardest part; getting it out there was.
What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
I'm just wired to be an entrepreneur. I could never work at one job for very long. I need to be my own boss and need to be making my own decisions and running things.
I think my risk meter may be broken or skewed. Just talking to some of my friends, I don't have a problem taking risks and I think you need some of that to be a successful entrepreneur. It's risky.
One of the biggest payoffs is that there is always a new challenge. Everyday it's something new. I get bored easily so that's really exciting to me.
What advice would you give someone wanting to start a food business?
It takes a long time. Don't give up. Someone told me that when I first started this company and I couldn't get anybody outside of Nashville to look at our products. People just weren't interested. This guy was in the food manufacturing business and had been doing it for 20 years and was just getting to the point where he was really starting to grow. If you do it the way we did it—kind of grassroots—it just takes a long time.
What's your favorite pasta shape?
People ask me that all the time and it really changes every week? What are we doing this week? Bucatini. It's hollow thick spaghetti. The texture is a little rough, but it's basically a large piece of spaghetti with a hole in it. The chefs really like it and the texture is great in the mouth.
What's coming up for Alfresco?
We're growing like crazy. I sold the company four years ago and bought it back two years ago, and that was a wild ride. We developed a new website and rebranded with a new logo. We've got a lot of new shapes of pasta that we're doing and branching out with new partners in new states.
It's an exciting time to be in the food business right now. There's been this movement and awareness for high-quality specialty foods sweeping retail and the food service industries.
One of our largest areas of growth is in the meal delivery services like Peach Dish and Blue Apron.
Our favorite question: If you had to eat at one Nashville restaurant for the rest of the year, what would it be?
I can't pick just one. Moto is at the top of my list. I love Husk and City House. There's so many more who are our customers that I'm leaving out but those are a few. They do a really good job there and they're good folks.