It’s one thing to concoct a new favorite recipe in your kitchen, but it’s something entirely different to build a business around those ingredients. Meet Willow King, co-founder and CEO of Ozuké - the gal who did just that. In an effort to provide good quality nutrition for her children, she and a girlfriend refined a recipe for pickled foods to create Ozuké - the latest organic food brand making its way on to tables across the country. Equal parts mother to two sweet boys, business owner, and farmer's market purveyor, Willow’s life exists somewhere between the down home living and cut throat entrepreneurialism that define Boulder, CO. From her sweet definition of success to her admirable work ethic, she may just be one of the most authentic fermentos we’ve ever met!
Read her inspired conversation with creative director Kassia Binkowski:
Where do we start? With connections to the local food movement, organic agriculture and physical health, you’ve been able to build so many dimensions of personal and social wellbeing into Ozuké’s business model. What did your path from a wholesome meal to a socially responsible business look like - and what sustains you to keep it growing?
Well, I would not say that it was a straight and narrow path. Loving food and food culture was certainly the seed for starting this business but I have had to learn many things along the way. There are so many pieces to running a business. Financials and accounting, tax law and incorporation status, marketing, logistics, certifications – you get my drift. The learning curve has been steep, but it has been great to add things to my toolbox and there are so many rewards. I love seeing the pigs from a local farmer gobble up our compost, I love the pickle jokes and jovial vibe of our staff in the kitchen, I love knowing that the food we make supports organic farmers and in some small way helps back that movement in this country. I love hearing from people that the food we make helps them feel healthy and good. I love the slow food, slow money, slow ferment ethos that we have grown our business with: linking the pleasure of good food with commitment to the community and the environment.
Let’s talk about that “we”. Your business partner is a professional chef and expert fermento (chef of pickled foods), but she also happens to be a close friend. How have you balanced being business partners and friends?
It’s true - I have an awesome partner, which has made a big difference for me. Mara and I have the same last name – which is just a coincidence, but we joke that we really are married now. She and I have spent many hours bouncing ideas back and forth, scratching our heads and encouraging each other when the paperwork, accounting or logistics felt overwhelming. We share the ups and downs of having a business and it can get very stressful at times. I think our history really helps us out - we have seen each other through many phases of life, which gives us perspective.
No question that you two make a great team! Ozuké is a huge success, being sold from farmers markets to Whole Foods across the western United States. We’d certainly say that you’ve made it, but was there a moment for you when you felt like you "made it?"
To be honest, I think I am still waiting for that moment. There are always so many moving pieces to a business that I never feel like it’s all sorted, but we have had triumphant moments. For us, success is really having a thriving culture around our business – people we love working with, farmers whom we support and who support us, and a platform to talk about health and nutrition on a larger scale.
Speaking of that platform, you built your business in Boulder, CO which is one of the nation’s hot spots for natural food start ups. How has geography influenced your professional pursuits?
We really do live in a very supportive community – both for food and for entrepreneurship, which is a huge factor in the successful growth of our business. From day one we have had so many people offer to support us with knowledge, networking, investment and business acumen – many of whom have grown natural food brands in the past. We realize how fortunate we are and try to support new businesses in whatever way we can as we know what a helping hand can do early on. In the end it really is about who we are surrounded by and how we relate. It takes a very diverse group of people to make something a success and we have reached out many times to members of the community to answer questions about technical issues, distribution, sales, food safety. It really does take a village.
It’s amazing to see how far you’ve come since those early days, and now it’s safe to say that the benefits of pickled food are as diverse as your skill sets as a successful entrepreneur. With so much new research coming out about the benefits and consequences of different diets and food groups, how can young women navigate the endless aisles of information to make the best decisions for their health?
I really think simple is best. It’s true that there are so many fads, diets, trends and shifting tides that it can be hard to keep up - but in the end I believe it is about clean, nourishing foods, drinking lots of pure water, getting outdoors and pumping your heart, laughter, rest and breath. The rest is just frills.
Despite your no-frills ethos, you’ve lived a life packed with adventure. Before co-founding Ozuké you traveled the world working for international organizations. How do you balance your sense of adventure with your desire to put down roots for your family?
It has been a bit of a push-me-pull-you as far as laying down roots goes – I’m the mother of two boys and can’t resist the character reference to Dr. Dolittle! But it’s true. After my first son was born we moved to Asia for a teaching stint. It was such a rich time for me - wandering the streets of Ho Chi Minh City with my little son, taking in the smells, sounds and tastes of the markets. It was wonderful but I could also feel a new desire to be closer to the source of my food, my water, my community and my family. We continued moving about until after my second child was born and then we moved back to Boulder, at which point it felt like time to dig in and do something that could work with family life and still have branches. It is a juggling act and we would certainly like to spend time abroad again but for now we are super happy to be elbow-deep in cabbage here at home.
Tell us more about that jugging act. On any given day you’re a mother, wife, business owner, taste tester, marketer, and sales manager just to name a few. What habits have you built into your daily routine to keep you feeling healthy?
Some days are better than others. I work odd hours sometimes – very early or very late so I can have down time and meal times with my family. I need yoga, I need good novels to disappear into and after that it’s just pedal to the metal.
Speaking of pedal to the metal, I can’t imagine how much you’ve learned building a business in an industry that is evolving so quickly. What have you learned about yourself on that journey?
What a good question. I have learned that nothing I do happens without the support of a whole web of good people. I have learned that doing something the right way does not always make it the most sensible, profitable or practical, but it is worth it. I have learned that I love old farmers and the vernacular of the earth and above all I have learned that letting go can be just as difficult as holding tight to one idea - and often has a far better outcome.
Alright, we have to ask - if you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Warm bread with really good butter!
p.s. Want to hear from another entrepreneur changing her world with food? Meet the baker.