We’ve Lost Connection with Food. This Founding Mother is Recovering It
By Polina Pinchevsky | January 3, 2020
There’s nothing quite like food as an avenue to culture and community. We love to share meals and recipes, and we believe the link between nourishment and nurturing is one that spans business and family life. So we were thrilled to get the chance to talk with Jennifer Piette, the CEO and founder of Narrative Food, for our Founding Mothers interview series.
Jennifer’s career is one of constant reinvention and long stints living abroad, so she brings a wealth of different experiences to her current role and a deep commitment to B Corp ideals.
Jennifer, can you introduce yourself and your company?
Jennifer: I founded Narrative Food in 2010, so 10 years on we are one of the oldest remaining independent farm-to-table companies in Southern California, and a proud Certified B corp.
What brought you to farm-to-table as a concept for a business?
Jennifer: Part of it has to do with the 25 years that I spent living abroad, where people have a very different relationship to food. When I lived in France and Portugal in particular, I found a very strong food culture. This is where I learned how to cook, and learned the seasonality of things. When I moved back to the US in 2008, I collided into a culture of Big Food and convenience, where so much of this food culture has been abandoned, and with it I think our health has suffered, and our connection to family and friends too. The family meal is so important as a time to connect with your kids or loved ones, every day, and this is being lost…
Your company is very much about the cultural aspects of food. Can you share more about that?
Jennifer: In Europe, food and seasonality are an integral part of the culture. People really enjoy getting together to cook and spend time around the table. Having friends over for dinner doesn’t mean a trip to Whole Foods to buy prepared dishes. Some of my best memories are spending time with friends and family, shelling beans, chopping veggies, and then chatting and laughing around the table late into the night. These memories transport you through time. The smell of food cooking in your home when you were a child, moments in your life that were celebrated around a certain meal, these memories stay with you forever — and food is one thing most people can enjoy throughout their lives, creating new memories as they go… One day I hope to do this with my grandchildren too!
“I have modeled something fundamental to my kids (and particularly my daughters). Whether I succeed or fail, they will have seen their mother build something from nothing, fight for something she believes in, and hopefully this will show them they can do this too!” – Jennifer Piette
Tell us more about starting the business.
Jennifer: When I was a young mother, living in the UK, I was a drop-off spot for a local farm box, where my neighbors could come pick up their boxes. On a practical level, I was thinking to myself, couldn’t the weekly box include not just the fresh produce for the week, but the fresh local foods I need, from all the food groups? And a few recipes? It would be so much simpler…
I researched all the local purveyors in my area, and wrote a whole business plan for this box concept — and then I had second thoughts. “What am I thinking? I’ve got three young kids to take care of (all under 5), and in England there’s basically nothing but root vegetables all winter long.” I put the plan in a drawer and then when we moved to California in 2008, in the middle of the economic meltdown, the release of the film Food Inc., and my own personal culture shock, the idea came back to me. As I settled in to my new home, I realized California has a yearlong bounty of amazing food, and in the context of what was happening at the time, with the economy and the environment, it came to me that this was the time and place to pull that plan out of the drawer.
So, it was timing and circumstances as much as experience that made you take the leap from screen writing to food?
Jennifer: I arrived in California as a screenwriter on a project about the founders of Greenpeace, but this subject matter — writing about environmental activists who wanted to change the world — was getting to me. I wanted to act, not just write about action. All around me there were small-scale food makers and growers who were really energized by the food movement — this “Occupy Your Food” energy felt like one of the most uplifting things to come out of the economic crisis. I plugged into that feeling, and decided I wanted to be a part of that. Now, that concept I had as a young mother, was about more than just convenience for families, it was also political and environmental.
So how did you get started?
Jennifer: We started with a handful of people that we delivered food to and it just grew from there organically. I had no outside investors, but luckily was able to buy a refrigerated van. That was the big startup cost!
You’re a mission-driven business, so when it comes to the kids, did you talk about that aspect of it?
Jennifer: I remember when they were home schooling, we looked at Food, Inc. and my youngest child, who was seven or eight at the time, wrote a letter to McDonald’s about their animal welfare practices. They sent back a canned answer which she wasn’t satisfied with, so she went back with a critical response. She never got an answer to that one, but I was proud of her for pushing back. One of my bigger overarching goals is food literacy for children, and modeling a healthy relationship to food. As a culture, America has lost so much by outsourcing our food to convenience and grocery stores. Creating lasting memories for young people, and building their food literacy, these are such fundamental things for parents to gift to their children. If we don’t model a healthy approach to food, it is highly unlikely that our children will develop this on their own, and then this unhealthy paradigm just continues. Eating seasonal, fresh foods, developing basic cooking skills, valuing time spent around the table connecting. These are basic skills to model for our kids.
“Creating lasting memories for young people, and building their food literacy, these are such fundamental things for parents to gift to their children.” – Jennifer Piette
Yeah, that’s a good point. I grew up that way, as we lived in a place where there was no supermarket that sold everything at all times. So seasonal eating was normal, but it’s also a thing that can be taught. Do you deliberately add an educational element to your boxes?
Jennifer: Well yes, this is what the “Narrative” in “Narrative Food” is all about. Telling these stories of where the food is from, what to do with it, and then how these stories become part of customers’ own stories. Elevating this story-telling aspect is part of why we are currently raising money with a WeFunder campaign (Wefunder.com/narrative.food). Also, we want to transition to zero waste packaging and create prompts for dinner conversation. The idea being that during mealtime you can ‘leave your cellphones at the door and explore some interesting topics around the table’.
“Leave your cellphones at the door and let’s explore some interesting topics.” – Jennifer Piette
With each of these ‘Founding Mother’ conversations, I love hearing the unique stories that everyone has to tell. Can you share a uniquely ‘Narrative Food’ story with us?
Jennifer: Like many people, I was very upset when the Muslim ban happened. At the time, I had been following a beautiful food blog by an LA-based Iraqi American, called Add A Little Lemon. I reached out to the author and we created a box specifically around Iraqi food, in the hopes that people might think about Iraq in a new context. A few weeks after we did that, one of our customers sent us a beautiful letter. “…During each night of cooking and eating we talked about how the food was from a far away country named Iraq. My 3 year old has recently taken a keen interest in maps and finding countries/states/etc. He showed me a doodle of a map he had drawn declaring, “This is Iraq!” So I just love love love that his first associations with Iraq – just as Sara was hoping – will not be violent or terrible, but delicious and wonderful instead.
Jennifer: It really made my year, knowing that for this one small child we’d succeeded in changing the paradigm. Telling stories, sharing culture, sharing food, sharing organic healthy ingredients. That one story is really everything that my business is about.
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How do you feel about being called a Founding Mother? Is that something that resonates with you? I have found that some people are not so comfortable with that title. I think it’s the word “mother” that’s so loaded for people.
Jennifer: Well, I’m a bit confused with what you mean with founding mother. The mother of my company? A woman B Corp CEO? A Mother who is a Founder? I remember being uncomfortable identifying as a woman founder — people were all telling me “Oh, yeah it’s really edgy right now to be a woman founder.” I was like, “Why does it matter if I’m a man or a woman? Isn’t it my mission which is important, not my gender?” But then I veered more into that identity because I have felt so supported by the community of women business owners that I have since connected with — there’s some really genuine support and solidarity among the Women B Corp CEOs and I’m so proud to be a founding signatory of #WetheChange. In the realm of sustainability, women are incredibly nurturing not just of family and children, but also of our planet.
“But then I veered more into that identity because I have felt so supported by the community of women business owners — there’s some really genuine support and solidarity.” – Jennifer Piette
As I connect with this community I’m finding that this is a time where women are on the cutting edge of regenerative economies and are deeply committed to change. That leads to an amazing level of solidarity and a shared purpose. That’s why I have embraced this group of people. Now, whether we’re women or mothers, the term founding mother is a bit confusing. Maybe it should be reversed: “Mother Founders.”
For me I think it comes from somewhere deep inside, this really deep rooted belief that women, particularly mothers, have a set of skills you develop that are similar to running a business. You’re managing adults and raising kids, and you’re thinking about time management and values, what you put into the world, and long-term impact. I do feel like for a lot of women when they become mothers that’s when they start their business because suddenly going back to the structured corporate world is really unappetizing and for a lot of them turning to business is that other path. But a lot of them don’t go far enough and don’t take themselves seriously enough.
Jennifer: Yes, there’s a lot of truth to that. And the goals that I have with my business are very connected to mothering and being a woman. Providing food is often a mother’s role, and in my case I’m doing this for my greater family. That desire for my greater family to engage in this nurturing experience and connect around the table is a pretty maternal instinct! I don’t want to say women own that space because of course it’s a shared thing but I do think it is a very maternal role.
As women, we also tend to be really hard on ourselves and often second-guess our decisions or what not. Do you find that translates also into how you raise your kids?
Jennifer: One skill set women definitely develop is multitasking. I’ve had to apply that to everything that I do. Sometimes it actually works against me because it limits the bandwidth I have to really focus on growing the business. I do the customer service, I do the accounting, I’m overseeing production, etc. I do think that it takes a certain kind of personality to be able to do that, but it is also important to realize that carrying too heavy a load can limit our potential.
What’s the biggest barrier for you?
Jennifer: Well I have zero budget for marketing and very little bandwidth to focus on growing the business because I’m juggling everything myself to keep it running. There’s just so many hours in a day…. I mean if you could give me a 36 hour day instead of a 24 hour day, I might be able to do this. This is why our Wefunder is so important.
Tell us a bit more about that.
Jennifer: With the Wefunder, my thought was that if our customers are investing in our growth and success, then it’s a win-win for all of us. That way, Narrative’s business decisions will never be compromised by external investor pressure, which might not benefit all our stakeholders. Wefunder’s a new type platform though — many people think it’s a Kickstarter, but it’s not. I’m selling SHARES in my business, to its beneficiaries, so we can thrive together. I can only hope we will succeed. If not, it’s because, as usual, I’m early to the game. We have worked so hard for our B Corp certification and nobody knows what it is. We have worked so hard to create a crowdfunded equity raise and people confuse this with a Kickstarter. But it takes early adopters to move these ideas to the mainstream. Five years from now, all of these things will be much easier, as people learn more about these new approaches to business. I hope so! And meanwhile, I sleep well every night, knowing I have stayed true to my ideals. : ) And maybe even more important: I have modeled something fundamental to my kids (and particularly my daughters). Whether I succeed or fail, they will have seen their mother build something from nothing, fight for something she believes in, and hopefully this will show them they can do this too!