The Taste of Montana: An Innovative Business Model for Made-in-Montana Products
Radd Icenoggle and Vida Rasoolzaeegan are co-owners of The Taste of Montana in Lolo, Montana, an innovative business model for a unique time in made-in-Montana history. They sat down with the Montana Press recently to talk about how their love for Montana, food and brews all came together in a project to elevate Montana brands.
Montana Press: What was the inspiration for your business model and how did you first get it started?
Vida: We noticed a need for a website that introduces made-in-Montana products and presents them in a better way to people who may not have access to made-in-Montana products. We have a lot of friends who were producers and what they would do all day long is spend their time with their craft or refining their craft. At the end of the day, they would have little time to market their product and sell it. And that’s where we decided to step in and take care of the other end, the social aspect, the marketing aspect of things.
MP: What are your backgrounds? Did either of you have backgrounds in sales and/or marketing?
Vida: I have a Bachelor’s in Biology and I moved to Montana from Canada. I’m actually Iranian. I grew up in Iran. My family immigrated to Canada and then my dad was a university professor at MSU. That enticed me to move to Montana and that’s where I met Radd. Radd’s a sixth generation Montana. And I’m a first generation.
Radd: I’m a Wildlife Biologist by education and I worked as a Bird Biologist for a while, and then I worked in the environmental nonprofit sector. I actually ended up working for RightNow Technologies in Bozeman, where I was employee number 18. It was very early on. I got involved in marketing a little bit through the software sales end of things. I started off with small and medium-sized business and then graduated to divisions of Fortune 1000 and Federal Government accounts. I was a Sales Engineer, which is basically a two-person sales team, one with the gift of gab, and the other guy, which was me, I always said my job was either to make the salesman’s lies true or keep him or her from lying.
The first gist of it was providing knowledge to customers so they weren’t calling your call center. So they go online and then ask the question like how do I fix widget A? It’s going to give me the answer, which is part B. So I’m not calling and tying up a real person for that. It was that kind of ongoing communications. Then the idea after that is as soon as you’re answering people’s knowledge base, well, then why aren’t you presenting the knowledge base to your customer service reps? So then once you’re in the call center, the next phase is actually doing marketing to those customers. So you kind of develop a customer lifecycle which is one thing and then we tacked on sales. So we were what was called a “Customer Relationship Management Suite.”
MP: So now you’re doing that for made-in-Montana Goods, in a way.
Radd: Yes. And then after that gig, both Vida and I actually worked in the beer industry. I worked for a brewery as their marketing and media person and then we had a radio show, a syndicated radio show for a few years, “The Last Best Beer Show.”
MP: What was the real genesis for you guys to jump off into starting Taste of Montana?
Radd: We were looking for an opportunity to do something. I had started another business and that was kind of up and going, self replicating and we’re like, well, what’s the next thing we could do? So Taste of Montana came from just a brainstorming session that Vida and I had.
Vida: I had cancer for a very long time, so I was really sick. I was getting over all my treatments and I was feeling much better. I had actually time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. And the idea sort of popped in my head. I think it was pooling our resources together and putting that to good use.
MP: What have been some of the challenges of running the business and what do you count as great successes?
Vida: Actually, the social media aspect has proven to be a challenge. That’s something I hadn’t accounted for. To be honest, I thought it’d be super easy and it proved itself to be completely the opposite. But other than that, our producers are solid, our website’s running fine, and we have the social skills to interact with customers and have them interested. What we’re working on right now is figuring out Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and all these different platforms, how they operate and what they actually really want from us as a third business partner. It’s becoming a little hectic, a little more expensive and a little frustrating all at the same time.
MP: So, Taste of Montana basically now works to promote premium Montana-made products by featuring them on an aggregate website and on social media?
Vida: Yes. We test all the products ourselves, mostly because we are fans of our friend’s work. It’s just kind of natural. We were friends with Bitterroot Bison, for example, with Troy and Candy Westre. They contacted us out of the blue. Candy must have seen us on Facebook or on social media. And she actually sent us her samples and that’s how the ball got rolling. People either contact us or see our work here and there.
Radd: After a producer contacts us, then what we do is we do the sampling. And then we just talk about the product or we do a Facebook Live. From there, we actually started doing re-development, which is an interesting piece of content. It’s a no-cost piece of content, but also gets that product out there as part of something larger.
Vida: We don’t just work with the people who have expressed interest in us. We try to promote all local producers. If we go have a beer over at the Kettlehouse or at the Draught Works, we definitely do a little video or photography with chocolate and beer pairings and all that. So we try to spread the love.
MP: So you two test drive all the recipes. What were some of the first products you promoted? Some of your favorites?
Vida: The first one was Bitterroot Bison. The second one was Vi’s Mustard Sauce, a dipping mustard sauce from Dell, outside Helena, Montana. They are in a town of 35 people max.
MP: So you’re really helping to elevate her exposure.
Vida: Yes. For someone who doesn’t have access to internet, she actually does a very good job. She’s very prompt, she’s very responsive. We love working with her.
Radd: Also, Headwaters BBQ Sauces and Rubs from Bozeman.
Vida: And Doggy Style Gourmet Treats from Billings. They’re sisters, Jo and Jen. They came up with the idea. One’s the producer, the others one’s the marketer. So they have a team of two.
MP: When people go to your website to look at some of the products that you feature, can they order them directly from you or do you send them to the producer?
Radd: They order through us and then we process the order. We handle all the credit card and we also handle all the shipping.
Once the producer receives an order, they get an email with three pieces of information. They get a copy of the invoice, a pick list for what they need to pull out for the shipment and then the shipping label. So for them, they don’t have to handle a lot. They just pick up the product, put it in the box, put the preprinted shipping label on it, and off it goes. As soon as that tracking number hits the system, they receive their payment.
So it’s relatively a one-off and ad hoc, which is great for the producers.It’s kind of a modified drop shipping. I think it’s really important with our producers that they set their price, what they need to sell it for. We do the marketing. We’re not trying to negotiate with the producer, trying to get them down to the lowest price possible.
Vida: And we don’t charge them any upfront fees or any marketing fees. So basically even if we don’t sell anything and neither of us makes money, they still get a lot of marketing from us.
MP: Tell us about your cook and your photographer.
Vida: That would be Radd. He’s the talent; he’s a photographer and he’s also the foodie.
Radd: I’d rather be the good looking one (laughs). I helped to formulate and come up with the initial menu for Lolo Peak Brewing and the beer concepts as well. We helped them get off the ground when it was still a patch of bare ground.
Vida: Yeah. He has a lot of experience so he takes charge of that aspect, the menus and productions. He also pairs dishes with local beers. So a couple of our recipes have craft beer in them, included in the form of sauces and whatnot. And then at the end we also pair them with another local craft brew.
MP: How can more Montana made businesses get involved with what you guys are doing?
Radd: What we do is really simple. They can contact us. The only thing we ever ask a producer is we have to be able to sample your product before we take you on or not. Luckily for us, almost everybody has been obsessed with quality.
Vida: We have to try the products before we sell them. It’s better for their marketing because we can be more descriptive on our page when we’re trying to describe it to the potential customer. The more product they give us, the more we can include them in our recipes and more recipes will contain their footprint.
Find an exclusive Taste of Montana recipe below and find more information at TheTasteofMontana.com.
Photos courtesy of Radd Icenoggle