Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price chatted with Eat IN Connecticut LLC Co-Founders Jeannette Punsoni Dardenne and Kristen Fritz about their startup ambitions and Connecticut’s growing food and drink scene.
NAN PRICE: Eat IN Connecticut originally started on Facebook in 2015. How has it evolved in the past two years?
JEANNETTE PUNSONI DARDENNE: The Eat IN Connecticut Facebook Group began as a way for restaurants, foodies, and the community to connect. The Facebook group really took off—it currently has well over 6,000 members and is growing daily. The Instagram page has also gained a lot of momentum with nearly 9,000 followers.
KRISTEN FRITZ: Last summer, with the help of our good friend Cheyney Barrieau, we started working with a client who hosts food-related and other events in West Hartford. And the agency side was born. We got our LLC that summer and we slowly began to bring in more clients. Now we’re working eight accounts in the area and we specialize in culinary and food-related events.
We recently decided to move the marketing side of the business under INGroup Creative, a subsidiary of Eat IN Connecticut, to help differentiate the agency side the social influencer side of our business.
INGroup Creative is our marketing/PR agency that specializes in food and drink and lifestyle brands.
The Eat IN Connecticut brand—which now includes the Facebook Group, an Instagram profile, and a website—is its own media brand. The Instagram account serves as the social media influencer brand, where we feature great eats and drinks from around Connecticut. The website highlights stories about great restaurants and events happening throughout the state, while shining the spotlight on some incredible food and drink brands.
JEANETTE: In terms of evolution and growth, our business was growing so fast that we needed help. We used services from Untapped Potential to help match us with a professional. Through that organization, we were connected with Christine Dixon, who became our office manager. We’ve grown to the point where we now we have five part-time employees and three contractors.
NAN: Tell us about your entrepreneurial and startup experience.
JEANETTE: I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I’ve always tried to reinvent myself. I launched six or seven startups throughout my career from a young age. What’s always made me successful in each of my businesses is my marketing background.
I worked for United Technologies Corporation for about seven years and I went through their leadership development program. I always say UTC really helped me because I worked in human resources, operations, finance, and marketing. So I went through the four main areas of business and that really helped me to become an entrepreneur.
KRISTEN: This is my first startup venture and I feel grateful that I got the opportunity to dive into this with my closest friend. Before I moved to Connecticut, when I was working in Manhattan, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at Dentsu Communications, a boutique public relations agency under the Advertising giant, Dentsu America. I primarily worked with large restaurant, food and beverage accounts, which is what spring boarded my career in the hospitality field.
NAN: How did you two come together?
JEANETTE: We’re both busy moms. We met at our kids’ preschool. Kristen has always been more interested in the beverage side of things—especially wine and beer—as she worked on many international beverage accounts in New York City. And I had been working on some food accounts with local restaurants.
We had always talked about doing something together with marketing eventually. With both of us having different backgrounds—hers in PR and mine in marketing and social media—and both of us having the same passion of trying to get that story out about what we’re doing, it was a natural fit to launch an agency together.
I still remember the day we were in the preschool parking lot and Kristen said: We are doing this! So we just kind of formed this marketing agency and it just took off from there.
KRISTEN: I remember that day!
JEANETTE: What I’ve learned from working with Kristen as an entrepreneur is we have such different skill sets, yet it really helps when we’re working together. We are able to bring different experiences to our clients.
It’s hard to be out there on your own. And it’s really challenging to find someone who compliments your work style so well.
KRISTEN: For me as an entrepreneur, I don’t know if I could truly do this without the help of our friends and our community. I feel like the community is what really launched us. Because that’s where it all started. Especially with the Eat IN Connecticut Facebook group.
We’ve worked really hard to build a brand to support the community. And I feel like, in turn, the community really does support us.
JEANETTE: And it’s important for us to give back, too. Just about every event we do has a charitable arm to it.
NAN: How are you marketing and promoting your startup?
JEANETTE: I had been doing social media and marketing before Eat IN Connecticut. A good friend of mine is a well-known restaurateur and was looking for social media help. He asked me to do it and I did.
My friend referred me to another well-known chef in Connecticut. That was the big catapult for me to really grow. I remember people asking: How did you get these clients? It was purely because of relationships. Once I started the work, they saw how hard I would work for them. And then merging with Kristen, she was able to offer so much more to them as well. That really helped us promote our brand.
KRISTEN: I feel very fortunate that our clients come to us on referral. We’re not out there actively promoting ourselves for new business, but rather find that new business is generated by word of mouth.
JEANETTE: That has been a blessing, but one of the challenges for us is that we don’t promote ourselves enough because we’re so busy promoting our clients’ brands.
KRISTEN: This interview is a step in that direction! We get to tell our story!
NAN: Would you say your company is making a social impact?
JEANETTE: I would. Everything we do is really for the benefit of others. We are all about promoting our clients—many of whom are our friends. We are trying to make people really recognize the food and drinks scene in Connecticut. It’s phenomenal.
NAN: It’s also helping to promote the region. Connecticut is becoming a destination for food and drink.
KRISTEN: How lucky are we? I feel like it hasn’t even peaked yet.
JEANETTE: There’s so much the state has to offer and we’re so excited we get to be a part of that.
NAN: The two words that are really resonating with me are: passion and balance.
JEANETTE: You nailed it. We have so much passion for what we do and for helping others.
KRISTEN: And we work incredibly hard for our clients while trying to balance our personal lives of being wives and moms to two young children.
JEANETTE: As moms and entrepreneurs, you really have to know how to balance that whole side and your business. It’s really hard to do, but probably our greatest learning experience is figuring out how to balance that time budget.