Guide: How to Find the Right Customers for Your Food Business

October 31, 2022
October 31, 2022

Rachel Smith of Cakes by Rach never intended to turn her love of cake decorating into a full-blown business. The first cake she ever sold was a wedding cake for her cousin (the cake is still with her every day, as part of her business logo!). Talk about going from zero to one hundred in no time.

“I did not have any intention of having this all turn into a business,” Rachel said. “I experienced postpartum depression after giving birth to my first daughter. I was looking for something with instant gratification, something I could be proud of — and I baked my daughter’s first birthday cake. I really just wanted to create with my hands.”

“I had been a health teacher before having a baby, and I was truly heartbroken to leave teaching,” Rachel said. Despite describing herself as someone who was never creative, Rachel found an outlet in cakes. 

“I completely fell in love with the decorating process. I just started with an Amazon kit for cake decorating,” she said. “I started with an Instagram account, and it slowly grew. I didn’t try to ‘do anything’ with social — my growth really came from word of mouth.”

Rachel has been baking as a business for more than three years now, producing seven or eight custom cakes per week. She crafts her cake flavors, fillings, buttercreams, and frostings from scratch to make her customers’ dreams come true.

Over the years, she’s narrowed her audience down to a very specific segment of the population. She’s no longer trying to serve everyone in her community — she has an ideal customer, and she knows exactly who they are. 

How to Find the Right Customer for Your Food Business

The process of narrowing in on your ideal customer doesn’t happen overnight. When most bakers (and food business owners in general) start out, they want to serve everyone. And rightfully so! When you’re just getting your feet under you, you need all the practice and learning you can get. The beginning is the best time to be “everything to everyone,” but it shouldn’t be your permanent state in most cases.

For Rachel, the ideal customer is the bride who’s having their wedding at a specific venue near her. “I’m a preferred vendor with them, and it’s a higher-end venue, where the people planning a wedding really value a quality cake,” Rachel said. “Most of my favorite cakes that I’ve done were for those brides.”

“My ideal customer is obsessed with flavor, and is a lover of design, but they also know that they need a good tasting cake. They come to me for the flavors,” Rachel said. “They want something unique but elegant. Flowers, pearls, special items. They let me do my thing, but we work together — they’re not just telling me what to do. I get to understand their point of view, and I allow their input, but there’s a level of trust.”

How did she decide that those brides were the right buyers for her business? It took time.

She started wide, like most food business owners do. She didn’t feel confident in her skills — she just wanted to practice baking and decorating cakes. Rachel began her business by selling to friends and family only, charging just for the cost of her ingredients. From there, she grew her customer base largely through word of mouth. 

“A lot of moms want to provide a beautiful, yummy cake for family and friends for any occasion. I wanted to keep my cakes affordable for them, the budget-minded group. But I found that people in that group got picky, asking for intricate cake designs that they weren’t willing to pay for, or last-minute requests that showed that they weren’t respecting my time.”

“I needed to find people who were willing to pay for my time. Brette helped me get out of being the cheap cake lady, actually. I raised my prices and I lost a lot of difficult customers. I also attracted higher-end customers. I had only had been doing cakes for a year and a half at this point, but these high end clients meant I was getting introduced to high end venues, and the venues noticed my cake flavors and started putting her as their preferred artisan, and it grew from there,” Rachel said.

At the end of the day, Rachel’s price increase helped her attract the customers she wanted to serve, and it meant she could take on fewer orders and free up more of her time.

“I had to do it,” Rachel said. “I was getting 10 or 15 orders a week, and I couldn’t keep up with the demand. I kept my product pricing as-is, but increased my hourly rate, so the increase truly meant more money in my pocket.”

Identifying Bad-Fit Customers

For Rachel, a bad-fit customer is one whose order she isn’t excited about. 

“If you’re making an order and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘I don’t love this,’ that’s when you know,” she said. 

To get ahead of this problem, Rachel takes calls with all of her prospective customers to find out more about their event, their needs, and the type of cake they’re looking for. For example, if a customer requests fondant on their cake, she knows they’re not a good fit for her business, because Rachel doesn’t work with fondant. This allows her to weed out the order requests that she’s not passionate about, freeing up more time for projects she can put her heart into. 

“Another category of customer that I’ve moved away from are influencers,” Rachel said. “They are typically hard to work with, because they want free work, but they don’t really do anything for my business. If you want to gain followers, influencers are great. But they’re not aligned with my goal, which is making beautiful cakes.”

“Clueless husbands, too,” Rachel said. “If they aren’t thoughtful enough about their cake, something that I know the bride is going to care a lot about, I’ll ask if there’s a better person to talk to, or I’ll pass on the order. People who select ‘Other’ on my order forms are typically not a good fit either, because they either don’t know what they want or their needs don’t align with what I offer.”

How to Know If Someone is the Right Customer

If you’ve narrowed in on a target customer type, when you come the right customer, it’s evident almost immediately. 

“I can tell as soon as they fill out their form,” Rachel said. “I know so quickly if they’re going to be a good customer. I’m always looking for someone who’s open to being collaborative, but who also has a light plan outlined. They have an idea, but they’re willing to negotiate with their design.”

Determining your own criteria for identifying the right customer for your business is something that takes practice. With more experience, you can better determine which orders will bring you joy. 

The Benefits of Choosing an Ideal Customer

If you don’t choose an ideal customer, one thing is almost certain: You’re going to burn out. 

“I did that for a long time at the beginning. I wanted to help budget customers and high end customers, which at the beginning might not be wrong,” Rachel said. “I had to explore to figure out the right path and what I loved.”

Over time, Rachel developed a sense of what she liked to do, and what she wanted to do more of. If you’re not an allergen-friendly baker, don’t advertise that you make gluten-free cakes. If you don’t want to make cupcakes, don’t offer them. “It’s simple advice,” Rachel said. But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be everyone’s ideal baker, either.

Narrowing her target audience has helped Rachel do more of what she loves. 

“I’m passionate about accommodating my customers’ needs within their price range, but I won’t bend my prices,” Rachel said. “I love coming up with solutions within a customer’s budget, providing what they want and need, at a high level of quality.”

Catering to her bridal customer is a never-ending process of research. “I listen to the venue owners and hear what they need as a venue, and I listen to what they see that the brides who use them need,” Rachel said. “I listen to the brides and their moms. It’s really all about identifying what the customer wants, what they need, and how I can make those two come together into a beautiful wedding cake.”

Listening is key to operating a successful business — one that grows beyond friends and family, Rachel said. 

“Bakers get hung up on being me-focused, but it’s a two-way street. We’re taking customers’ money, which means they’re deserving of top-notch service. We have to make them feel valued and think of them as a partner, not lower than us because they can’t make their own cake,” Rachel said.

How to Find the Right Customer For Your Food Business Today

Finding a customer base is daunting. For food businesses, competition is everywhere — whether it’s the grocery store’s prepared foods section, a drive-thru, or one of the many other bakers in your area. Thankfully, there are enough customers to go around… if you know who your ideal customers are. 

If you’re ready to narrow your customer base and start fulfilling orders that bring you joy, you need to think through what your goal is, Rachel said. “Dream. Pushing yourself to new levels. Invest in yourself and your business,” she said.

“Figure out who you want to come to you. Match your product to that. Make the investments needed to attract who you want. That may mean making extra cakes to advertise. Put that ideal customer in your head and never stop thinking about them.” 

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