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Business Observer Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 2 months ago

Entrepreneurial couple starts, grows food business amid pandemic

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With years of industry experience to guide them, a think-big couple aims to grab a large bite of the food products industry.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

The proof is in the pretzel. Or at least it is for entrepreneurial couple Jenny and Mike Schenk.

The Schenks are co-owners of Bradenton-based Pineapple Kitchen, a company that sells appetizers, snacks and dips. Its main product — so far — is a pretzel bite and dip combo in several flavors sold on the company’s website and at gourmet markets around the U.S. “We pride ourselves on delivering a gourmet high-end appetizer,” says Mike Schenk.

Courtesy. Today, Pineapple Kitchen products are sold in over 100 gourmet stores nationwide, from Sarasota and Naples to New York and California.

The Schenks established the business in May 2019 after decades in the food industry. “Mike and I had been talking about having our own brand of products for a long time,” says Jenny Schenk.

Now, after taking some early hits in the pandemic followed by some big wins, the couple believe they have significant momentum to build on in 2021. One key lesson in their first 18 months in business: move quickly to seize opportunities. “Pretzels were just kind of the springboard,” says Mike. “It was never our dream to just be a pretzel company. We think our long-term goals will be to launch other products under the Pineapple Kitchen label.”

Jenny previously worked as a foodservice broker calling on major accounts, such as Disney Aramark. Most recently, she was a director of sales for a major poultry company, selling to foodservice and retail accounts. Mike worked for three Smithfield Foods companies in management positions and in major retail bakery sales. He launched successful deli and bakery programs to Publix, Albertsons, Safeway and Whole Foods Market and was responsible for soft pretzel sales to Walt Disney World parks and resorts.

Now the Schenks are using their years of experience to grow Pineapple Kitchen. “I think that’s what’s accelerated us for sure,” says Jenny.

‘You’re only as good as not just your second order but your third order. Your third order is an indicator the customer who tried it is probably coming back to buy it again.’ — Mike Schenk, Pineapple Kitchen

From May to November 2019, they considered potential products. A trip to Sarasota-based Detwiler’s Farm Market provided an a-ha moment. The Schenks were talking to the bakery manager, who was selling large pretzel twists. The manager said, “I could really use a dip to go with this — a good mustard or beer cheese.” There was the starting point for Pineapple Kitchen, right in front of them. “As we were walking out of the store, both of us looked at each other and said, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’” says Mike. “We said, ‘We need to do this.’”

The Schenks went to work, figuring out how to package a product that included pretzels and dip in flavors such as chocolate hazelnut, beer cheese and sweet Bavarian mustard. Having worked in the food industry, the Schenks already knew manufacturers and had an advantage on sourcing.

On March 1, the Schenks signed a lease for a wholesaling facility off Lena Road in east Manatee County, where the company packages products and fulfills orders. Days later, when the coronavirus gained traction in the area, Pineapple Kitchen faced a major hurdle: it had signed up to participate in a fundraising catalog for Florida schools and already received a large order, but one phone call changed all that. The fundraiser was on hold, and Pineapple Kitchen had to pick up the items it had delivered. “Jenny and I decided we can’t give up — we have to forge ahead,” says Mike.

To move forward, the Schenks, who decline to disclose how much they’ve invested in the company, focused on generating online sales. “We created a nice fan base through that — local and elsewhere,” says Mike.

Courtesy. In October, the company opened another line of business — a tasting room at its wholesale warehouse that now serves customers.

Then Pineapple Kitchen got some good news: orders from gourmet stores. “I’ve been selling for more than 30 years,” says Mike. “I did sales and marketing for large companies — Fortune 100 companies and small startups like ourselves. I told Jenny I’ve never had this happen: Every customer we went to and every retailer said ‘yes.’ Most never even tried the product. They saw the product and said, ‘This is unique.’”

Today, Pineapple Kitchen products are sold in over 100 gourmet stores nationwide, from Sarasota and Naples to New York and California. It’s already receiving reorders. “You’re only as good as not just your second order but your third order,” says Mike. “Your third order is an indicator the customer who tried it is probably coming back to buy it again.”

In the coming months, the Schenks plan to expand the wholesale business. “We don’t want to stop at 100 stores,” says Mike. “We love gourmet stores because I think they really appreciate us, but obviously I’m not going to say no to a Publix or a larger chain.”

In October, the company opened another line of business — a tasting room at its wholesale warehouse. The tasting room is similar to a craft brewery, Mike says, in that it creates curiosity and gives customers a place to enjoy and connect with the products.

Customers can also buy grab-and-go breakfast and lunch items, pastries and items from other local vendors. “No one has really walked out without purchasing anything,” says Jenny. “We get excited when new people come in. We want them to have that great customer service experience, meet the owners and feel like they have a connection.”

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