Meridian Capital LLC recently hosted, “No Longer Just a Matter of Taste: Strategic Innovation in the Food Industry,” a panel discussion featuring some of the Pacific Northwest’s most innovative food brands. The panelists included:

Manny Chao, Co-Founder and CEO of Georgetown Brewing: The namesake of the iconic Manny’s Pale Ale, Manny has been brewing outstanding craft beers since 2002 and his brewery is currently the largest independent brewery in Washington State.

Kurt Dammeier, Founder & CEO of Sugar Mountain (Beecher’s Cheese, Pasta & Co. and The Butcher’s Table): Starting from a Pike Place Market storefront selling some of the best cheese (and Mac ‘n Cheese) in America, Kurt has expanded Sugar Mountain into restaurants, packaged goods, books and social ventures.

Kevin Klock, Former CEO of TalkingRain/Sparkling ICE: Kevin Klock has more than 21 years of experience in the food and beverage industry. He helped lead Talking Rain, a 27-year-old business and one of the world’s fastest growing beverage companies, to its most successful year yet. Klock grew Talking Rain’s branded business by 500 percent in revenue in the first two years after taking over as President.

The panelists had fascinating insights on how brands can stay competitive in today’s ever changing landscape. Here are some interesting takeaways:

  1. Invest in an innovative culture. Creating an innovative business requires building a culture of innovation—an environment that encourages creative ideas on an ongoing basis. Kevin Klock of Talking Rain/Sparkling Ice explained that small businesses can teach much larger companies a thing or two about innovating. While large businesses often have to spend months or years evaluating new ideas and passing them through multiple departments, smaller businesses can make quick decisions and launch products to consumers on a faster timeline. Innovative small businesses can therefore leverage their size and unique culture to quickly develop and apply creative ideas. This rapid action is what shakes up an entire industry and forces competitors to play catch-up.
  2. Practice what you preach. Use your own products every single day and learn the ins and outs of your products firsthand. Manny Chao of Georgetown Brewing explains that drinking his own brews puts him in the mind of the consumer and allows him to improve the strategy and direction of his business. It allows him to develop a closer bond with his customers and serves as a gut-check to ensure that his beer remains the best choice.
  3. Know when it’s time to push pause. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, sometimes an organization needs to slow down in order to accelerate growth. Kurt Dammeier of Sugar Mountain explained that growing a business too quickly can negatively impact the customers’ perception of the business. There’s a feel to family businesses that consumers appreciate. Oftentimes, consumers don’t like to see their favorite local, independent shops grow too quickly or sell off entire divisions. Therefore, it’s important to focus on speed optimization and know when going too fast will hurt the business.