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How to Start a Food Business

Before you get cooking, here are some tips from folks who built their business from scratch

Who: Sue Sullivan, 51, was a caterer.

What: Hot Squeeze makes and sells all-natural, fat-free sauces for dipping, grilling and marinating. Its signature sauce: Sweet Heat Chipotle.

Where: Atlanta

Started: 2007

AARP: What are your top tips for someone 50-plus who wants to start a food business?

SS: 1. Everyone has a great family barbecue sauce, pickle recipe, great granola and special cake that everyone raves about. But that's not enough: You need to understand the competition out there and be able to differentiate yourself.

2. Research the business. Talk to folks who are already in it (I have found that everyone is extremely open and willing to share knowledge in this business). You can find these folks selling at farmers markets and offering samples in stores.

3. Don't spend your retirement money.

AARP: What's the best piece of advice you ever received?

SS: That anyone can sell anything. You just have to have a good story and be passionate about your product.

AARP: What's one thing you know today that you wish you'd known when you started out?

SS: I wish I really understood the profit margins and cost structure. It is important to know just how much everything costs and what your expenses will be.

AARP: What was your best day at work?

SS: When I received a phone call from the Whole Foods buyer for the mid-Atlantic telling me she wanted my product in all of her stores. Up until that point I had produced all of these bottles of sauce and I didn't know if I'd have to give them all away!

AARP: The worst?

SS: Realizing that by expanding so quickly and without a strategic plan, I was really losing money.

AARP: What is a pay range someone might expect?

SS: Honestly, don't expect to really turn a profit for at least three to five years. I am saying this about a food business, not a hobby. If the route you want to take is to sell your cakes at a farmers market every weekend, you will have cash in your pocket immediately. If you want to build a food company, it takes time and money.

Next: How should you approach your finances? »

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Meet Carla Hall and find out about her philosophy of food and cooking.

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