Candice has over 20 years of experience as a top-level fundraiser. In this capacity, she has...
Kristin Varela, Founder of Kristin's Farm Stand
After retiring from automotive journalism and focusing on healing her chronically ill daughter utilizing food as medicine, Kristin Varela is excited to be shifting gears. Kristin's Farm Stand - Beyond organic, nutrient-dense food fresh from our farms delivered to your home.
Q: If you could explain yourself in a couple of sentences, how would you do that?
A: I'd say that I'm curious. I'm passionate. I love to learn. I'm a mom of two young adult daughters, and that role has really played a major part in all of my businesses throughout the years. I'm also a serial entrepreneur.
Q: Great. So how did you start Kristin’s Farm Stand and what was the moment you decided to do it?
A: I was actually in a different business before this one. I was in automotive journalism. I had started a company back in 2004 before the days of mom blogs. And essentially it was a mom blog, but it was car reviews geared specifically to women and moms. That company was acquired by cars.com three years after I started it, and I continued working for them, running all of their family-centric content for an extended period of time.
Then in 2015, my oldest daughter became very ill all of a sudden. We didn't know what was wrong with her, but she lost 36 pounds in two months. She was down to 82 pounds as a teenager. And it was really scary because nobody could figure out what was wrong with her. We were taking her to specialists all over the country. Nobody could figure out, it was just this medical mystery. But what was strange to me in seeing all of these doctors, is that nobody was asking her about her diet. Nobody was asking about what she was eating. And just intuitively that felt wrong to me. So we started keeping a really detailed food journal and ultimately came to find out that she had celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten.
So we started cutting out gluten, but it just wasn't enough. We had to cut out grains, dairy, eggs, it still wasn't enough. We'd switched to this whole foods diet so that we knew exactly what was going into her body, and what we discovered is that anything that we were feeding her that was non-organic and sprayed with pesticides was just undoing any gut healing that we were trying to do with this really clean whole foods diet. So we had to switch to everything all organic.
Now, at that point in time, my husband was actually in organic agriculture and he had a farm and they were growing regeneratively. So we had access to food this clean, but a lot of friends and family members and neighbors wondered, "How do we get access to your food?" And at that time, we were growing organically, but we were growing on a very large commercial scale. We were selling to large grocery stores and health food stores nationwide. And there wasn't an easy answer, because once it was out of my hands, I no longer had control over the branding, the messaging, the labeling. I had just become so frustrated, needing to utilize food as medicine for my daughter's life, the more I learned, the more I learned how much I was being misled by companies that I used to trust. I felt betrayed honestly, and I just felt disturbed at this lack of transparency in our food supply system.
So, we came up with this concept like, "Gosh, we really want to keep growing this food. We want to get it to other people who need food this clean, but we want to just do it direct to consumer. We want to cut out the middleman. We want to have that direct line of communication, total trust and transparency, with our customers so they can see exactly where and how and who is growing their food."
We started in Colorado in 2018, and we just expanded into Idaho and Utah, just this past April of 2020.
So here we are a few years later, my daughter having changed nothing else other than just food, is now doing incredibly well. She's back to her pre-illness weight. She's just finished college. She's moving to Italy and she is working in nutrition as well. So it's kind of intriguing to see when you make that connection between the power of food as medicine, it becomes a lifelong lifestyle. I was going to say habit, but it's way more than a habit. It's a lifestyle.
Q: What was your first year like?
A: It's funny, because I compartmentalize this almost into two stages. We had our first year in Colorado, which we were really just viewing as it was kind of a test market. We were doing a lot of farmers markets in person. We were using that as a way to test our branding, our messaging, to have that direct one-to-one dialogue with the customer. Understand really what they want and need in their food choices. So, the first year was farmers markets, which are very labor-intensive. I was doing a lot of them myself, because I wanted to have that hands-on approach. I wanted to speak to our customer. I wanted to see our customer. I wanted to build the relationship with them, and they're physically very grueling. We were doing seven farmers markets every week. And so yeah, the first year was exhausting.
Then we switched to this online model. We take orders online. We deliver directly to consumers' houses. So this allows us to operate year round. We're not confined to just specific farmers markets. We can have a much broader demographic area. And we can serve our customers all year regardless of the weather.
Right now, I'm in the midst of our first year in Idaho and in Utah. And it's a totally new ballgame. It's all about customer acquisition. This time around, we're dealing with investors. So there's a lot of juggling that goes on trying to run the business, but also communicate everything that's happening to the investors. So I would describe this year as a juggling act.
Q: Tell me about your role within Kristin’s Farm Stand?
A: Well, I think as a founder in any business, you wear pretty much every single hat. So I've done a little bit of all of it. Right now, I'm lucky enough that we have a great staff to handle a lot of areas that I am able to delegate. So mostly I'm focused on PR, social media, marketing, customer acquisition and customer relations. Which sounds like a lot, but that's actually a focused role for me compared to what I have been doing over the past couple of years.
Q: So it sounds like your daughter was the one who inspired you to start this path. But was there anyone else in particular that inspired you or encouraged you to become a business owner?
A: It's interesting that you pick up on that because that's been the case, not only for this business, but for my previous business as well. I needed a new car when my children were in preschool. I needed to be able to carpool, and I couldn't find any information about cars geared specifically to women and moms. And back then, that was an $83 billion industry that literally nobody was tapping, not a single person was writing about cars for women. So I think in both of my businesses, they've been born out of necessity. And in that necessity, it has been my role as a parent. So I think, yeah, you're right. It's been my children that really have inspired all of my businesses.
Q: And it sounds like you're creating the solution to the problems you face, which I love.
A: That's exactly it. I think after my last business, I kept thinking, "Oh, I feel like I'm not done yet. I feel like I still have more in me, but I just don't know what it is." And I felt convinced and 100% certain that it would come to me when it was ready. So people were like, "Oh, what's your next business? What's your next business?" I just said, "I don't know. I'm not going to force it." I will know it when I see it and when I feel it, and that's been the one thing that's been consistent across my businesses is that they've been born out of necessity 100%, and I have been my own target market.
Q: So how do you define success for yourself both personally and as a professional?
A: Professionally, success for me is about ending the day and feeling accomplished. Not only for myself, but also feeling like I've helped others. Right now with Kristin's Farm Stand, the amount of satisfaction that I get in knowing that I have helped people who need food this clean as medicine, gain easy access to it. It's pretty remarkable to see the transformation in some of our customer's lives. We have one customer that has gastroparesis, which is essentially when your stomach muscle is paralyzed. She was on a feeding tube for a really long time. When she came off, the only thing she was able to eat were our pasture-raised eggs. A: because they're pasture-raised, and B: because they're corn-free and soy-free, which is really unusual. It’s very difficult to find corn-free, soy-free eggs, because those are such easily accessible and inexpensive ways to feed animals, which we don't even venture into, because it's just too prevalent in our food supply chain.
But physically watching her transformation from being just pale and gray, to just a little bit more color coming into her life, eating literally only our eggs. That's the only thing she could consume. Little by little, she could eat a little bit more, like some of our microgreens. And it's just remarkable to see this drastic physical transformation happen in front of my eyes. I've seen it with my own daughter, but to see it in other people's lives as well, and understand that that level of health is as a direct result of what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis. That feels like success.
Q: What has been the most important skill that you've developed to be a good business owner?
A: The first is task batching. Years ago in my previous business, I attended an automotive media event and they had a guest speaker come, Tim Ferriss, from the 4-Hour Workweek. And I don't know if you've read that book but, you should put it on your reading list.
Some of the information is probably a little bit dated now, because it is an older book. But, it was really remarkable to me to understand how much time is lost. How many productivity hours are lost just in shifting gears. When we're sitting down to do one task, and our email pings, and our text pings, and if the phone rings and someone comes to the door, every time you're distracted, there's an actual physical amount of productivity lost. And so, Tim essentially advocates for task batching, which is blocking out specific time on your calendar each week for specific tasks. That's been really monumental for me. So, Mondays I sit down, it's just social media. I do all my social media for the entire week on Mondays. Tuesdays is when I work on PR. I sit down, I write press releases to try to schedule media interviews. So I have this weekly framework. And then within that, a daily framework, and it just helps me stay focused. It helps me feel less frazzled and less distracted. So that's been hugely important for me.
The other thing is the ability to shut down, and the knowledge that I need to shut down. When I first started my own businesses, it was very difficult. I always felt that draw like, "Oh, if I miss this one email, that one email could either make or break the success of my entire professional career." In reality that's just not true. It can wait until the next day. Not only can it wait, but if I shut down at the end of the day, then the next day I'll just be more refreshed, more focused. So, I have to have those kinds of rituals to power down, to shut down, to transfer my energy from work life, to home life.
Sometimes that's a walk in the evening. I'm out in nature. Sometimes it can mean smudging with dried sage, lighting a candle, taking a bath. For me, having a physical ritual to end the day, the workday, and start my personal evening, that's become really important to me.
It's interesting, I worked from home for most of my career, and I always had doors on my home office that had a chalkboard sign with, "Open" or "Closed." And something as simple as leaving the office at the end of the day, my home office, closing the doors and flipping the sign to "Closed," it was just a physical barrier, a physical reminder, "Okay, we're done for the day and we're moving on."
I've done the opposite with COVID, because I had always worked from home. But now my young adult daughters have come back home because of COVID. So I actually had to rent some office space nearby. One is working as an EMT. One finishing her college thesis. And me trying to run my business. All within this 10-foot area. It was not healthy. We agreed we all needed more separation.
Q: Have you ever thought about quitting? If so, can you tell us the story?
A: I haven’t thought about quitting so much, but I will admit to fantasizing about some really long vacations. Sometimes, honestly, that's what gets me through. At the end of the day, when I lay down to go to sleep, if my mind starts racing, if I even start thinking about work for a minute, it's just really difficult to shut that racing mind off. And the way that I cope with that is just about visualizing and sort of fantasizing about taking a break, about being on vacation, and it just helps my mind shift gears. I see and I feel that what I'm doing is life or death for people. I've seen that with my own daughter's life. So I know that that's the case and I wouldn't be able to leave that, knowing how important it is for our customers to have access to food like this.
Q: What do you do when it feels hard to be a business owner?
A: Take a day off. I might not be able to take a long vacation right now, we're just really in the trenches. But, I can delegate enough to take a day off. I take my weekends off, but if I really need something in the middle of the week, I can delegate to other people and shut down for a day and just give myself a break. Again, it might mean going for a hike or treating myself to a lunch date with my daughters. Giving myself space and permission to take care of myself and put my own personal needs ahead of work for a moment in time, is refreshing enough that I can then come back to it the next day with a clear mind and with an enthusiastic outlook to get back into the trenches.
Q: That's a great reminder for everyone, I feel that prioritizing yourself when it's needed, so that you are refreshed to tackle the next day.
A: You can feel when you start really running down. And if your battery gets too empty, it's just too difficult to recharge. But, if you're queued enough to realize like, "Oh, I feel this coming on. It's time to refocus my energy and it's time to give myself permission to just treat myself kindly." I try to fend that off before it gets to the point where it's like, "This feels like an emergency."
Q: That's a super important reminder, thanks. How has COVID impacted your business?
A: Well, it's been very interesting because, as I said, we launched in Idaho and in Utah in April, which was right at the peak of the COVID food hoarding issue. All of the meat processors and commercial meat processors were shutting down because of COVID infections. We don't work with large commercial meat processors, we work with small, family-run, local butchers and food processors. So we still had access to butchering, which meant that our customers had access to clean, pasture-raised proteins through us. Unlimited access, when they couldn't get it through their normal grocery store food supply chains. So it was really interesting to see because we're trying to determine consumer behavior and it was just bizarre COVID-related food hoarding. And we're still in that mode. At least some people still are, the shortages are fresh in people's minds.
It's one thing when it's toilet paper, but when it comes down to feeding your family and not being able to access enough protein to put dinner on the table for the entire family, that becomes a different level of awareness and concern. So, it's been beneficial, because people really came to understand pretty quickly, "Where's my food coming from? Who is processing it? Who is handling it?" And so they were seeking out local food sources. Also people didn't want or couldn't go to grocery stores or farmers markets. Farmers markets were closing down or operating on revised schedules.
And because we deliver straight from our farm to our customers' houses, we do everything ourselves. We grow it. We harvest it. We process it. We package it and we deliver it. We don't outsource anything. And our deliveries are no-contact deliveries. So we leave a bag of a person's order at their door. They receive a text message from us with a picture of their order at their door, and that's it. So the timing was ideal and helped us gain access to a different customer base than we would normally. I believe that they are really, really happy with the quality of our product and the quality of our service. We're just so excited that we get to continue providing this to them all year.
Q: Leading off of that, what does the future of your company look like?
A: Well, we're really excited to be looking into expanding onto farm properties and hyperlocal farms in other parts of the country. So the goal is to allow customers from all over to have access to this food. We don't ship. We want everything to be local. We want it to be grown on our local farm. We want it to be harvested by our local team. We want it to be delivered by our local delivery drivers. Also, produce that is harvested loses 30% of its nutritional density within three days of being harvested. So if you think about what that means for produce that you buy at the grocery store that's been sitting on the shelf for weeks, and then from there it was transported however long before that. It was harvested underripe. So it's really important to us to deliver nutrient-dense produce, which means it has to be local, so that we can harvest it super-ripe, and get it immediately to our customers' doors, often within 24 hours of harvesting. So that they're getting the most nutritional density out of their food. We’re really excited. Pending future investor funding, we’re looking into other hyperlocal farms to bring Kristin’s Farm Stand into other areas of the country.
Q: Wow, that's exciting. I have my last question here for you. What would you want to learn from a community of other women business owners?
A: We talked a lot about balance, and the ability to shut down. And as much as I understand those lessons and I've learned those lessons, I also know there's a lot of ways that other women manage that and juggle that, that I may not necessarily know about yet. That’s the biggest benefit of tapping into a network of other like-minded business owners. Learning about how they balance a very passionate and exciting work life, without letting it overcome everything and become your entire life.