Gourmet Growth: How I Took My Small Business to the Next Level

A 10x10 kitchen, a few employees and a passion to improve the quality of school lunches in the Chicago area -- that's how Gourmet Gorilla began. My husband and I started our business because we saw a need that we wanted to fill. As our first son was about to turn one year old, we were given the colorful lunch menu from his school. Being healthy eaters at home, who regularly shopped at Whole Foods and farmers markets, we of course started investigating the ingredients in the meals! We were discouraged with what we found and approached the school, only to find that there were no options in the area at the time for sourcing healthy, cooked-from-scratch meals, that used organic and/or local ingredients. As is the case with many small business owners, we had a desire to fix this problem! We began calling other schools in the area to find that there was a real demand for this type of service and so we hired our first chef named Elvis and started cooking!

That first year, we partnered with our son's school and an additional two other schools, quickly growing out of that 10x10 kitchen and into our first production space. We were now producing about 1000 meals per day and secured another 20 contracts for the coming school year. We were enjoying the success and growth, and positive feedback from schools and parents (the kids were eating their vegetables!) and we knew we were on our way to building a sustainable business. With this growth, however, we found ourselves leading a much different company than we first started, and needed guidance on how to take us through the next stage. We wanted to serve more schools, and surprisingly, we found the answer was to leave the kitchen.

Small business owners often feel the need to be a part of every aspect of the business. For me, that was overseeing meal production, arranging delivery and directing food prep and cleanup. When I learned I had to pull myself away from the business -- I needed to work on it instead of in it -- our business started to expand rapidly. We hired a director of operations to allow both my husband and me to stop focusing on the day-to-day management. This change allowed us to obtain additional contracts, increasing our production by almost 50 percent year over year. And the best part: I haven't chopped a vegetable in months!

I learned to step out of the daily management through my participation in Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. I applied because of the promise of practical business knowledge. Our company had grown from a few employees serving 100 meals a day to more than 30 employees serving 7,000 meals a day to 90 different schools. I wanted to learn how to successfully continue this growth.

The program delivered on its promise of a practical, actionable business education. I learned how to better analyze the company's finances and cash flow, be an effective leader and make the right hires. This included hiring the right accounting team to prepare us for the next stage in our business growth and create the indispensable position of director of operations. Our mission is to provide healthier eating options for our children. Today, we are serving over 7,500 meals per day throughout Northern Illinois. We are making an impact in all communities, and our students are eating their fruits and veggies and enjoying it! I look forward to improving the lunches at many more schools and, eventually, around the country. I look forward to seeing the impact we will make on helping grow healthier bodies and minds. And I know now I'll only accomplish this if I stay out of the kitchen!

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.