Q&A With Grow-NY Mentor Heather Sandford

Heather Sandford headshot

Q&A With Grow-NY Mentor Heather Sandford

Grow-NY finalists participate in a Business Development phase where they are given the tools and connections needed to make a plan for their startup to flourish in the region. A key to our success during this phase is the skilled mentorship we offer. This week we are talking with one of our newest mentors, Heather Sandford, who shares her perspective on the competition and food and ag entrepreneurship.  

Heather joined the Grow-NY team as a mentor during last year’s competition. She was a founding partner in The Piggery, a category-defining farm-to-table butchery that launched a successful line of nitrate-free deli meats, cured meats and house-made charcuterie that was wholesaled to grocers and restaurants throughout the northeast. She had a successful exit from The Piggery but remains active in the entrepreneurial and food systems spaces in Upstate NY. Heather is passionate about creating just, sustainable, diverse, and delicious food systems. 

Question: Can you tell us what inspired you from your first year of mentoring a Grow-NY finalist?  

I love this question!  After the isolation of a couple of years of global pandemic, I felt so inspired by, and reconnected to, the New York agricultural food and tech community by being a Grow-NY mentor in 2021. I was reminded of the vast resources New York State has available to support the agriculture food and tech community to establish successful businesses in our region. It was so inspiring to see this level of support and opportunity!  Additionally, working with the team at Food Nerd truly reawakened my entrepreneurial spirit and I felt impressed by the creativity, tenacity, and depth of work this team put into preparing for their pitch. 

Question: Why do you think the Grow-NY region is a powerful place to launch a food and ag startup? 

It absolutely is!  I’ve said for years that my farming and value-added CPG business would not have had the support, market penetration or success if we had started it elsewhere. The consumer interest in regionally grown products, the manufacturing facilities, distribution infrastructure and myriad of supporting programs makes starting and developing an agriculture centered business in the Grow-NY the right choice.  

Question: What advice earned during your own experience of entrepreneurship do you think it is essential food and ag startups to know?    

I wish that I had more than a few sentences for this question as I have so much advice to share. Here are my top three bits of advice:   

  1. Know your market!  Is there market demand for your product?  Are there competing products on the market?  Can you enter the market competitively on price?  What type (if any!) distribution is available to you?  
  2. Copack whenever possible – I’m a huge advocate for businesses leveraging the manufacturing capabilities in our region versus investing in infrastructure in the beginning stages.  After proof of concept and market acceptance has been achieved, a business can then run the numbers to see if there are benefits/cost savings to internalizing manufacturing.  And it’s not just about money. It takes a tremendous amount of time to run a manufacturing facility. That time and focus is better spent on developing and selling your product.
  3. Have a runway – I’m a huge fan of DIY, small scale businesses. But I’m also a fan of businesses having enough resources to execute their plan and take advantage of opportunities critical to their growth when they occur.  

We were grateful for Heather’s time – both as a mentor, and answering these questions! Stay tuned for an announcement about the timeline for our 4th round of competition in the coming weeks.