ThrottleUp! Finalist: SummerSett Foods focused on making a product founders could not find in local market

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of six articles describing the companies that will make pitches during Tech 20/20’s “Entrepreneurial Imperative 2012” conference November 12 and 13 at the Knoxville Marriott.)

If you cannot find the product you want in the local market, maybe your best option is to start your own company to make it available.

That philosophy could very well describe two University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) students from Ohio who will be pitching their one-year old company – SummerSett Foods – during next month’s “Entrepreneurial Imperative 2012” (ei2012!) conference.

Jake Rheude is from Cincinnati; Cedric Brown, his fellow co-founder, calls Columbus home. These cities are frequent rivals, but Rheude and Brown have come together to build a company around a food deficiency they found in the local market.

We recently talked with Rheude about the company, how it came to be, and the exciting plans that the partners have for it. Rheude is focused on management and operations, while Brown is handling marketing and sales.

The story starts when Rheude moved into a UTK dormitory in 2010 as a first-year business management student and “only had a mini-fridge and microwave.” As an out-of-state student, he was sensitive to costs and wanted to be able to prepare some of his food or snacks in the dorm. He recalled being able to purchase frozen, pre-packaged chilidips in Cincinnati, something that he could not find in Knoxville.

Fast forward nine months. It’s Rheude’s 2011 summer break, and he is attending an angel investing seminar in Cincinnati where he learned more about two well-known Ohio companies – Gold Star Chili and Skyline Chili – that were not only selling their dips locally, but also packaging and shipping them nationally for just the sort of dorm room need that Rheude wanted.

“I realized how much profit you could make on each pre-packaged, microwaveable carton sold,” the business school undergraduate said.  Rheude admitted that “food is not a passion,” but “I want to start making money before I graduate in 2014.”

When you can meet a personal need and also make money at the same time, why not? And, thus, the idea for SummerSett emerged – taking the concept of a frozen, pre-packaged dip, but applying it to a wider range of dips with the first being a line ofchicken dips.

Rheude hit the entrepreneurial trail big time when he returned for his sophomore year in 2011. SummerSett Foods won $1,000 in the UTK Vol Court competition and competed, but did not win the Boyd Venture Fund contest. The co-founders did get good feedback from the judges, and won $10,000 when they again entered the competition during Spring Semester 2012.

One of the deficiencies they had to overcome was the lack of a recipe for their buffalo chicken dip.

“We needed an inexpensive way to evaluate recipes (by using people) with culinary expertise,” Rheude said.

Their solution was to work with the Chef’s Academy, which trains future chefs, and stage their own competition for the best recipe among the students at the Academy’s Indianapolis school. The duo did not have much money to offer as prize money, but Rheude said they learned that “aspiring chefs prefer recognition.” Marcie Douglass, who won the competition, will be featured on every package of their new dip.

SummerSett Foods also was dinged in the Fall 2011 competition for not having a website, social media strategy, and federally-approved packager for its foods. All of those were addressed, allowing SummerSett Foods to secure the $10,000 from the Boyd Fund at the end of Spring Semester 2012.

“We could not go any further without the money,” Rheude admitted.

SummerSett Foods is working with Knoxville-based House of Thaller, Inc., as the packager for the initial buffalo chicken dip that will come in three stages – mild, medium and hot. The buffalo sauce is the company’s “secret sauce,” and Rheude says that the idea is to allow the customer to add other ingredients to meet his or her tastes.

“We will offer a convenient product that tastes great at a low price,” Rheude says, adding that the target market is college students and large families that have time challenges.

How quickly will it be in the market?

“I would love to spend my Christmas break making presentations to grocery stores,” Rheude says in response to the rollout timeline. “We hope to be on store shelves early next summer . . . but we are at the mercy of grocery stores.”

For now, Rheude and Brown are focused on their college work, finalizing on their sales pitch to grocery stores, and preparing for the ei2012! competition. Rheude admits, however, that we “have a lot of ideas for other products, but the focus for now is on this first family of dips.”

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