CEO Stories: Sara Hurst, Bella’s Kitchen
Sara Hurst, CEO of Bella’s Kitchen, talks about starting her food business during the pandemic, being a female entrepreneur, and the example set by her mother and her grandfather.
Healthy Foods for Kids
When Hurst’s own daughter, Isabella (for whom the business is named) was transitioning to solid foods, Hurst was frustrated by both lack of guidance and the paucity of fresh, healthy food choices. After reading up on a method called baby-led eating – which is about the child making choices from a variety of foods rather than literally being spoon-fed – Hurst decided that was the method she would pursue. She soon realized that preparing three meals and two snacks a day was enormously time-consuming, and rightly guessed that other mothers shared her need for convenient, healthy food for their children.
Timing Isn’t Everything
After testing recipes on her own children, friends’ kids, and even adults, perfecting her business plan, putting her marketing background to work, consulting with the Arkansas Small Business Center, Hurst planned to open her business in the spring of 2020. Covid hit, and she put it on hold. After a month, she decided to forge ahead, finding a commercial kitchen where she does all her food prep and cooking. A big advantage to the commercial kitchen: The informal networking with like-minded entrepreneurs.
Hurst’s mother and grandfather were entrepreneurs; Hurst says seeing her mother run a business while also pursuing a successful career in telecommunications was a powerful example and inspiration. She says people need to take women entrepreneurs more seriously: Too many people view what she does as a “hobby.” She points out no one would tell a man it was “cute” if he wanted to start a business.
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This is Capitalism: Sara Hurst, Bella’s Kitchen
POC: Hi, I’m Patricia O’Connell for CEO Stories with This Is Capitalism. Today I’m talking to Sara Hurst, who is the CEO of Bella’s Kitchen. Sara, welcome to CEO Stories with This Is Capitalism.
SH: Hi Patricia, thank you for having me.
POC: We are delighted to talk to a mom who is an entrepreneur, a first-time entrepreneur who has started a business based out of a need that you yourself saw in the market. And really interesting timing to start a business, Sara. First, tell us a little bit about Bella’s Kitchen.
SH: Bella’s Kitchen is a service that offers healthy, convenient meals for kids and families. It’s based on the concept of baby-led feeding, which means you led the kid decide what they want to eat and how they want to eat. And so whether they grab the spoon or they grab with their hands but the idea is that they try different foods with this method.
So let’s say they are done eating and they still have half a plate. They can choose to stop and that is a cue for the parents to know okay, they are full, so we don’t need to over-feed them. When you feed them baby purées, you are probably overfeeding the baby because you keep pushing the spoon although they don’t want to eat anymore.
POC: How did you start the business, Sara, and when?
SH: I started the business April this year, right at the beginning of this crazy pandemic. The idea started a year ago, it was when I started feeding Isabella. Isabella is my daughter. She now is 21 months old.
POC: And I assume that’s where the name Bella’s Kitchen comes from?
SH: Yes, exactly, she is Bella. And it started because when she turned four months our pediatrician told us it was time for her to start eating solids. But that was about all the instructions I got – except it was a bottle of oatmeal – and they said, “Okay, here you go, here is some oatmeal, start feeding her vegetables, and then feed her fruits.”
There was no real timeline, there was no real method. And that’s how my research started. I started reading a lot, and I came across this method called baby-led feeding. And that’s how I decided to feed Isabella that way.
I also realized that baby-led feeding is a lot of cooking, it’s a lot of meal prep. So a kid eats three meals and then two snacks a day, so that’s five meals. You multiply that by seven, that’s 35 different dishes you have to come up with. You give them real whole foods that you could either mix together at the beginning, you could give them separately to know if they have an allergy or what they like, but yes, that is a lot of cooking.
POC: That is pretty daunting.
POC: So you wanted to feed your child a certain way and you found that there weren’t products available to help you do that.
SH: Yes. Again, there’s different choices; every mom makes a different choice. And when I went to the grocery store there were either canned or pouches for foods for babies, and frozen meals. I didn’t feel that any of those choices were fresh; it was also mostly pureed food. So this is why it involved a lot of cooking because I wanted to feed her real food that was fresh and get her started on building her palate so she could eat different vegetables and not become a picky eater.
POC: Is Bella your first trial customer?
SH: It was about two months after I started feeding her solids. And I was cooking a lot and at the time, we were all going to the office – something that we haven’t done in a while – she was going to daycare. She would wake up at 6 AM, I would make her breakfast, get her ready for school, get me ready for work, drop her off at daycare, come back, pick her up at 5PM, she would have dinner and have her in bed by 7PM.
So as you can tell, there is not a lot of time. So I would make a lot of food in advance and I just thought okay, this is just a lot of food, it’s a lot of meal prepping. There has to be something better.
And that’s why I thought this would be a great business to have, but it was just an idea. But the more I talked to friends of mine, they were having similar struggles where the busyness of life and you just don’t have enough time to do everything you want to do, including feeding your children or your family healthy meals, because sometimes we just have time for takeout, or we just have time to reheat a meal in the freezer.
And we’d have parties and have people coming over to the house and I would make…of course I’d make a meal for the parents but I always had something special for the kids, whether it was broc-tots or homemade chicken nuggets, just different little meals for kids. I mean people come to parties and there’s no food for the kids. And not every child is going to eat pimento cheese, you know?
POC: Yes, I know that’s a southern favorite, pimento cheese. And I have to say, even as a northerner, I like my pimento cheese.
SH: Yes. So a lot of parents tried it and their kids tried it and they liked it and they thought okay, this is really great, healthy food for my children. The broc-tots are still one of everyone’s favorites and we have it on our menu. But it’s really broccoli and cheddar and some garlic but it’s broccoli, not a lot of kids eat broccoli, but they would eat the broc-tots because it was presented in a different way and it tasted good. So I thought, “Okay, this is a viable business.”
So I had a lot of people try it along the way. But yes, Isabella was my trial user but also my friends and their kids. When we did our first photo shoot, I had seven kids, different ages, ranging from babies to 11-years-old. And they all tasted the food for the first time and surprisingly they all liked them. That was one of my scariest moments because kids can’t lie and if they lie, you can tell.
POC: You can certainly tell if they want to eat something or not.
SH: Yes, exactly. It doesn’t matter if it’s for a photo shoot or not, they don’t care about photo shoots. They’re like, “Okay, let me try that and see if it tastes good.” And they liked it. So that was a good moment.
But I had friends try different recipes that I had created to see if the kids liked it; if they liked it; if they thought it was an appropriate amount for their kids; if they thought they would be interested in a product like that. My background is in marketing so I did do a lot of surveys just trying to make sure that I’m not just serving myself but I am also serving the needs of other parents.
POC: Let’s talk about how you go from idea to an actual business. You make a really good point that it’s a lot of work, 35 meals, that you’re preparing. And you are also working full time. So how do you say, “Okay I’m going to go from thinking this is a great idea to I’m going to be the person who’s going to make this great idea work?”
SH: It was one of those ideas that I…I couldn’t sleep. Like the more I thought about it, the more things came – like, “Oh, I could make this product, I could make this.” My husband and I obviously would talk a lot and it’s something I would share with him and he said, “Yes, I think it’s a great idea. I think a lot of parents would like that.” And he just really encouraged me.
And the more I talked to more people everybody kept saying it’s a great idea and I don’t know that there is anything in the local market currently that serves that need. So really it was just a lot of encouragement from different people. You know when you have that nagging thought that it’s just there and you cannot hide it? The more you try to forget about it, it’s there.
And like I said, I kept thinking about it and it got to the point where I said, “Okay, I am going to try this out.” And my husband told me — he said, “The worst thing that could happen is that it bombs.” We did the pro forma, see how much I would spend upfront. And I said, “Okay, I can afford losing this much money. We could give a try.”
POC: How much time were you able to give yourself to say this is going to work? Was it a month, three months?
SH: I told myself I would at least give it three months and see. If I have no sales this is how much money I would lose and if I was okay with it. And my husband said, “The worst thing that could happen is we lose this much money and your pride will be hurt.”
October last year I started really working on it, working on the branding, working on the marketing plan, working on the recipes, working on packaging, looking at all the permits. A big thing was finding a commercial kitchen that one, I liked, that I could afford and that was up to standards. I just made sure that I could financially back it.
And then I thought, okay, I’m going to launch in March. But then Covid hit. So I thought, “Okay well, I don’t think this is a good time for me to launch a business This is just not going to work out. I’m just going to put it to rest for a little bit and see if I can get back to it at some point.”
And then I was working from home with my husband and our daughter and our son and our puppy for a whole month and it was just crazy. And we both looked at each other and said, “I think Bella’s Kitchen needs to happen.” There is really not enough time in our day to make meals for a toddler, work, get the house in order. So I decided to launch in April.
POC: If you were feeling stretched for time as it was, how do you then add on the time of “okay but then I’m going to start a business on top of everything else?” Correct me if I’m wrong, you still work full-time?
SH: Yes, I still work full-time. And you’re right. I make up time as I go.
POC: That’s where the real money is, Sara. If you figure out how to invent time you can sell that for a lot of money, I’m sure.
SH: Well when I talked to my husband I said, “Okay, know that I’ll be working on weekends because all of our orders need to be made on the weekend and they will be delivered on Sunday and picked up by Monday, so I’m going to need help with the baby.” he is awesome and he is taking care of that part.
The time hasn’t really been an issue because my mom got divorced from my dad when I was one year old. And I have two other siblings. So she has three children. And she worked full-time at the biggest telco company in my country. I’m from El Salvador. She built an amazing career there for, gosh, I think she worked there for 40 years, if not more.
And she also had a business of her own and she worked every weekend. I remember she would work all week at her company and then she would go to her business and work on the weekends. I have never not worked on weekends.
POC: What kind of business did your mom have in addition to her telco career?
SH: Her business was or still is, because she still has it, it’s a two-part. One part they distribute baked goods. So they don’t make them there but they sell baked goods for a big brand. And then on the other side they sell school supplies, which I don’t know why she thought about this mix but somehow it works. When people come and get baked goods, they decided they need some school supplies and then they buy that too.
POC: Notebooks, pencils, crayons, whatever?
SH: Yes, whatever. So it just worked out for her. But she has had it for over 30 years now and that’s how she got us through private school. I obviously went to school here in America and so did my sister. I think I learned it from her that there’s 24 hours in a day, there’s a lot I can do.
POC: Even though you had this great example of your mom being a career woman as well as an entrepreneur, did you ever imagine that you would be an entrepreneur?
SH: Yes. I feel like I’ve always thought I’ve wanted my own business. I didn’t know exactly what business I wanted it to be. I have always loved cooking but I knew I didn’t want to have a restaurant.
So I have worked in the food industry before and I have noticed that there’s not a lot of margin when you have a restaurant. So I thought, “No, I’m not going to do that, but I do want to have my own business.” And then I thought of Bella’s Kitchen and I just knew that this was my business.
POC: Did you ever feel as you were putting the business plan together, that it was going to be difficult for you as a woman? Did that factor in at all?
SH: No, I don’t think it was hard as a woman to put it together. What I have encountered though, sometimes when I do tell people that I have my own business – and it’s not just men, it’s also women – they just say “Ohh, that’s cute!” Or, “Do you have time to do that?”
And sometimes it just doesn’t come out as a concern, it’s more of “but you’re a woman.” And I think if my husband were to say “Today I’m starting a business” I don’t know that he would get the same commentary.
POC: People think it’s a cute, fun little hobby that you have?
SH: Yes, exactly. And I think that’s the difference. And women, we also do a disservice to ourselves because I think the commentary comes from a lot of women too where it’s like I said, “It’s a hobby. Oh, that’s cute.” But they don’t consider it a business when it actually is.
POC: And there’s this odd paradox because you’re doing something that you love and you’re doing something that people have to do as a basic form of care for their families — feeding their families. So I can see where people would get the idea, “Well it’s really not a business, Sara, you have to cook anyhow and you like doing it so what really makes it a business?”
SH: Exactly. And that’s when I go on to explain, one, a big misconception is you make it out of your kitchen. And that is something–we have a commercial kitchen I go and work at. And I think that’s not just for my business but for different caterers too, people have the assumption that they cook in their own kitchen and they do it on their own time. But it’s not, it’s really a business.
I looked into the pricing, it’s not something that I just think like “oh I’m going to charge $7 per meal because that sounds good.” No, I have to think about, time, insurance, and time in the kitchen. So there is a lot that goes into it that I don’t think people see unless you’re behind doors.
POC: You said you have a marketing background, which I’m sure was really helpful in terms of you figuring out how to package Bella’s Kitchen and the branding. Though I hope Bella’s not getting credit for the cooking. You deserve the credit for that, Sara, obviously, and the recipe preparation. How did you know how to put a business plan together?
SH: I did take some classes for entrepreneurship, so I have learned about a business plan and all that. But I just really like to read a lot. I listen to a lot of podcasts. Just a lot of research.
There’s a lot of good services here in Arkansas too. I worked with the Arkansas Small Business Center. What they do is they help small businesses like mine. So I did my business plan and I brought it in and they looked at it, they helped me look at market research locally.
They kind of just guide you through the way too on just knowing things that I probably wouldn’t know. Like, when I was trying to get my license that’s where I went for help and asked them, “Okay, the website of the Health Department is really confusing, so which license do I need? Do I need a manufacturing license, do I need a food permit?” There’s like five different permits you can get. And they guided me into telling me “Okay, this is the food permit you need, this is the phone number of the person you need to call.” So they made it easier.
POC: What advice would you give to someone as a young person thinking about a career, as a working mother thinking about starting a business, as a woman starting a business? First of all, what would you say to someone who has an idea for a business?
SH: Well, first of all I think it needs to not just be an idea for a business, rather be a problem and your idea should be a solution to that problem. Because I think that sometimes people have a great idea that might not necessarily serve for a purpose, if that makes sense. So you may not be able to find the customers that you need. It might be a really cool idea but if it doesn’t serve a purpose or it doesn’t solve a problem there’s very little chances of that working out, I think.
And then also I think now that you’ve found that problem and that solution, try to think about it in different perspectives and not just yourself. I know I cook a certain way, I like to eat certain foods, but that doesn’t mean that my clientele will just like that, you know? So I think it’s really important to do market research and see what your customers really want.
POC: That’s one of the paradoxes, isn’t it? Because so often entrepreneurs start businesses based on meeting their own need, but you have to make sure that your need is a common one.
And how do you solve the question of “if this were a good idea why didn’t someone else think of it?”
SH: Yeah, I completely think that about sometimes. And I think sometimes people don’t give enough time for their business to flourish. Sometimes they think, “Okay, I’m not getting enough orders today so maybe I just should close and not do it again.” Or maybe they are just close- minded where they are only thinking “Okay well I’m feeding my child vegan so why are you not feeding them vegan food?”
So I think that it is mostly not giving it enough tries on why that business probably hasn’t succeeded. And sometimes some ideas are just not meant to succeed, maybe. I think there’s just so many ways to answer that question.
POC: Is this the first business you have put together?
POC: Do you think it will be the last?
SH: I don’t know. Probably not.
POC: This could be a sensitive subject so let me know if it is because I know you are working full time. How big do you imagine Bella’s could get and how do you make it bigger while still maintaining the quality, the control? You’re developing the recipes. Are you doing the actual cooking as well in the commercial kitchen?
SH: Yes, I’m doing the recipes, I’m doing everything. Right now I’m CEO but I am also a cook, I’m also… I do everything except for delivery. I have a service that does that, so I don’t worry about that.
I want it to get as big as it can get. I am also very, very thankful to work at First Orion and it’s an amazing place to work at and I love my career as well. But they’re also a place where you can grow. And I’ve had this conversation before with our CEO and he is an entrepreneur himself. He understands having a passion of your own. And if this gets bigger than it is and I have to leave, so be it.
But I am not trying for them to compete against each other, if that makes sense. I am still giving my all to First Orion, I am still giving my all to Bella’s Kitchen. I am trying to fill my buckets with all the time I have available with each one of them. They all have a different bucket ad they all get my full attention when I’m in that bucket.
POC: It sounds like something that matters a lot is also being very organized.
SH: Yes, yes.
POC: And I imagine you are very organized and very thoughtful about when you are concentrating on each bucket there isn’t a lot of opportunity to waste time.
SH: Exactly. It’s funny, my husband makes fun of me because when we go to El Salvador or anywhere else for vacation I come up with this spreadsheet, I organize our time, this is what we’re going to do, this is what I have planned for each day, these are the reservations I have made. Because I really hate going somewhere and just not having a plan for something.
And what’s crazy is at our company, at First Orion, they did a personality assessment, it’s the Birkman test. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. So there’s four different personalities and there’s different colors that you have. And you can have different colors, one is analytical, one is a communicator, the other one is a doer, and the other one I think is a thinker or something like that. I can’t remember which one the yellow is. But you can have three different colors in your personality and most people have three different colors.
My colors are all red, which is the doer. So that’s why I explain. You say it like you mean it, you do as you say and you just do. And I think that’s why it works out.
POC: What does your mom think about your success?
SH: I think she is proud of all of us. I think all her three children are doing well. I think she set a great example for us to follow.
POC: Is anyone else in your family an entrepreneur?
SH: My grandfather is an entrepreneur. He was an orphan growing up. He knew who his dad was but his dad passed away when he was little. So his grandfather used to own a coffee plantation in El Salvador, so my grandfather went from working as a tailor, he learned how to drive, eventually bought a bus, and then he bought different buses, so he had a public transportation company.
Then he eventually owned trucks where he was doing different transportation of different goods. And eventually with the success he had with that company, he was able to buy the coffee plantation that his dad once owned. And now that’s what he does and he still does. He grows coffee and sells it.
POC: Is that your mom’s father?
POC: So obviously there is an entrepreneurial streak running through that side of the family for sure.
SH: Yes, definitely. Yeah, he has been a big entrepreneur his whole life.
POC: And then your mom was an entrepreneur and now you’re an entrepreneur.
And Bella is how old now?
SH: She is 21 months old now.
POC: She’s got a little time before she picks up the family tradition.
SH: Yeah, you know, but she is already working for her money. She’s taking pictures, she’ll grow up and she’ll be like, “Mom, why did put my picture everything?”
POC: But if you didn’t use her picture it would be, “Mom, why did you use another baby instead of me?”
POC: What advice would you give to another young entrepreneur? People talk about, especially unfairly I think to a large extent in terms of women, having it all. It’s really about doing it all.
SH: I think a lot of people say, “Oh it’s just a balancing act.” I don’t see it that way. I think you can’t have it all. And that includes… I mean I think as a person you just… you have friends, family, you want to work out, you want to have a business. There is just not enough time in the day.
I think there’s a couple weeks where I’ll do great, where I’ll be working out and working on my company and I’m working on the family, but I’m not working on my friendships. And then there’s the next two weeks and I’m working on my friendships but I’m not working out. So I think it’s just about what you devote time to that matters at that moment. And not that your friends don’t matter but you know that they are always going to be there.
But sometimes you also need time for yourself and I think you have to make time for yourself or you’re going to lose it. I need time for myself every week, at least an hour just for me to just think about something else that’s different and not just think as a mom or think as a wife, just time for myself if that makes sense.
POC: It sounds like you have a very strong support system. It sounds like you have a supportive husband, who said. “Look, the worst thing that’s going to happen is you lose a little money and your pride will be hurt,” but also, on the other hand, encouraged you to go for it. It sounds like you have great role models in your family.
POC: Between your mom and your grandfather as being another great example of someone who did things. You talk about friendships; you also talk about the support you got from…
SH: It’s the Arkansas Small Business Center. So I think yes, you’re right, I think I have a really great support system in my family. And I don’t think I mentioned this but my sister also has a baby that is six months younger than Isabella. So right now, he’s about 14 months old. So he was also a trial user. But she is probably my best customer. She loves being able to have food available for her child. But she has been a great support to me.
My family, my friends, I have a book club that we meet once a month, except now during the pandemic we meet not as frequently. But it’s a great group of women. There’s entrepreneurs, there’s people that work at different businesses, there’s some stay-at-home moms. But I think it’s great to have those friendships that you can toss ideas with and they can be honest with you and tell you “No, that’s not good” or “Hey what about this?” And just being able to talk about everything.
POC: Speaking of a book club, any chance we’ll see Bella’s Cookbook?
SH: Hopefully. Hopefully one day. That would be a great goal of mine, yes.
POC: We’ll look forward to seeing what you do next with Bella’s Kitchen and we wish you great success, Sara. Where can people find you online and on social media?
SH: Thank you. The website is Bellaskitchenus.com. And then we have Instagram and Facebook and it’s @bellaskitchenus.
POC: Terrific. Sara, thank you for making the time to talk to us. Stay safe, sane, and healthy down in Little Rock. Wishing you again all success and thanks for spending some time with us on This Is Capitalism.
SH: Thank you so much for having me.
About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.
About Patricia O’Connell: Patricia O’Connell is one of the original contributors to “This Is Capitalism”, a content site sponsored by Stephens Inc. and is host of the site’s podcast, CEO Stories. Patricia, a former editor at BusinessWeek and a best-selling author, blends her experience as a journalist with her passion for storytelling to her role as editor of “This Is Capitalism”.