“Shef” Tori Brown, Founder of Breakfast Belle, is one of 11 Connecticut-based startups taking part in the reSET 2022 Impact Accelerator. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Tori about her entrepreneurial journey and what she hopes to gain from the accelerator experience.
NAN PRICE: Have you always been entrepreneurial?
TORI BROWN: I have. I come from a bloodline of entrepreneurs that includes my grandparents, my uncles, their siblings, even their children. Even though I’ve worked 9-5 jobs, I’ve always had that burning desire to own my own business or have something of my own on the side.
NAN: How did this particular company start for you?
TORI: I’ve always been inspired by my love of cooking. I grew up in a multi-generational home with my grandparents and my mom, who all loved to cook. We had big family events and were very involved in our church community in Norwalk.
Professionally, I come from a corporate planning background. I was organizing corporate events and regional and national conferences and planning the catering and event orders. My favorite part of the event was always the food.
I had my own event planning company, Lady Fancy Events, on the side for a little while, which satisfied that entrepreneurial spirit. Once I had my daughter, I decided it was too much commitment and traveling. So, I thought: let me take a stab at cooking.
NAN: When did you actually launch Breakfast Belle?
TORI: I launched out of my home in 2015 and legalized in 2016. I walked into Theresa Dozer’s restaurant Mac It in Norwalk and asked if we could share kitchen space and I could offer breakfast and brunch three or four days a week—hence the name Breakfast Belle.
She agreed and I started serving out of there. People loved my Southern-style breakfast and brunch. It was a way for me to figure out if I wanted to own my own brick-and-mortar restaurant.
I did that for about almost two years and decided it was too much. I was the cashier, the boss, the cook, the waitress. It was a lot. But it was a great learning experience and a way for me to build my clientele when I transitioned into catering.
NAN: Tell us about your business evolution.
TORI: I was doing a lot of corporate catering for big companies like Datto, Henkel, Laticrete International, Southern Connecticut State University, Wells Fargo, WWE, and Yale University. But when COVID-19 hit, everything really shut down.
I’m a member of the Women’s Business Development Council. One of the council members advised me to pivot into e-commerce and provide online cooking classes. I took that advice and, even though financially I took a downhill turn because I couldn’t cater, I was able to stay afloat during the pandemic.
Theresa had become a trusted mentor. She told me I had great recipes for the hot sauce I use to make my Bamma wings and batter I use for fish and grits, and she suggested I package them. So, during the pandemic, I focused on refining and packaging those two products and getting them out to market.
Theresa had gone through the process with a cheese sauce recipe she created, so she helped me. The process entails getting your recipe down to a science and then sending it to Cornell University to have them refine it. If you do decide to mass produce your food product, when you send it to the co packer, they need to have the pH level, the acidity, and the bottling information. It was a whole learning experience.
Also, in summer 2020, I sent some of my products to vegan Whole Foods ambassador Tabitha Brown, who got really big during the pandemic. Almost a year later, she posted the product twice, which was a blessing within itself because my sales skyrocketed.
NAN: How did you become involved with reSET and why did you apply to be a part of the accelerator?
TORI: I was referred by Ramon Peralta of Peralta Design, who is designing my new fish fry packaging. He had circulated an email seeing if any entrepreneurs would be interested in the reSET accelerator program. I said: me!
I think he assumed because I had been in business since 2015 I wouldn’t be interested. I told him, like I told reSET Managing Director Sarah Bodley and Impact Program Coordinator Nichole Hawkins, I’ve been in the kitchen doing the operation and the business side of things, but I haven’t really been able to focus and home in on and that aspect of it. So, this year I promised myself I would join every program I could. This is the year I call myself the student.
My end goal is not to be “switching in the kitchen” forever. I really want to build this product line. I have so many ideas for other food products and I want to continue to grow my brand. I’m at the place right now where I want to learn everything and learn from everybody. This program is definitely it.
NAN: What have you gained from your involvement in the accelerator so far?
TORI: The biggest thing for me is the business plan aspect. It’s also been helpful talking about where we are in our business regarding things like marketing, sales, exit planning, and building a customer segment base. I’ve been so busy switching in the kitchen I never really had time to sit and focus. I’m learning a lot about the business. I know about my customers, but to really look at it from my end standpoint is awesome.
NAN: It’s great that you’ve designated 2022 as your year of learning. What comes next?
TORI: What comes next is solidifying that business plan. Then I plan to release another new products in April and September. I’m also in the process of redesigning my packaging so it’s more store shelf ready.
Part of the reason I wanted to get involved with reSET is the social enterprise aspect. It’s important to me to give back in some way.
My hot sauce is co-packed at Premier Packaging, which is a woman-owned manufacturing company. I’ve always wanted to own my own manufacturing facility. Somewhere down the line, I plan to have a small manufacturing company where I’m bottling my own products and helping other entrepreneurs. Because honestly, if I didn’t have a mentor who helped me. I would’ve been lost in the whole process.
So, my goal is to help other food entrepreneurs, especially women. That’s the reason why I spell “shef” with an S is to emphasize the S-H-E because I want to help other women coming up in the food industry.