Serafina Palandesh and her wife Chef Jen Johnson are on a mission to have their company’s organic chicken nuggets in every household freezer in the United States one day.
This is an ambitious goal for a young start-up company. However, Hip Chick Farms—an organic frozen poultry brand that Serafina and Jen bill as “ethical, organic and tenderly delicious”—is already making huge progress, thanks to a $2 million investment in August 2016 from Advantage Capitol Partners.
Serafina and Jen operate the organic company based in the Bay Area in California. The investment they received last year came in part through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Communities program championed by then Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack. It has provided monies to help build their supply chain, fund research and design, build infrastructure, and tell the story of organic. The two, who call themselves the Hip Chicks, explain, “Folks still don’t know what organic means, so we are going out there trying to tell our story.”
Their story began after Chef Jen worked for Alice Waters, renowned chef and proprietor of Chez Panisse, and became passionate about cooking with sustainable, organic ingredients. She subsequently worked as a private chef in the kitchen of Ann and Gordon Getty, where she often cooked meals that were a big hit with the children attending the school at the Getty’s home.
Hip Chick Farms was born when Jen and Serafina chose to raise their daughter, Rubyrose, now 6 years old, on a farm. They bought their family farm, the Ramblin’ Rose, in the small town of Sebastopol, California, and started raising organic chickens and preparing “incredibly clean, beautiful products” such as chicken nuggets, chicken wings and meatballs that provide healthy and convenient options for busy families.
They manufacture their products in two factories—one in Oregon certified organic by Oregon Tilth and their factory in California certified organic by CCOF.
Running a start-up frozen food company is quite different from being a private chef, Jen says. “It’s a whole different beast, which has been a steep learning curve for me. It’s not cheap and it’s not easy, but it’s so wonderful. I love every second of my job.”
Their first real recognition came in 2015, when they received the “Most Innovative Women in Food” award from Food & Drink Magazine for their work with Hip Chick Farms.
An important part of the identity of Hip Chicks Farms business model is transparency. This applies on many levels – both being honest about where the food they produce comes from and how it is raised, and about being an openly lesbian-owned business.
It was no small feat to gain this grant, Serafina admits. “I have the tenacity of a bulldog. Our latest funding was a culmination of 500 different pitches to investors.” It takes this type of perseverance to overcome the odds Serafina and Jen face with a lesbian-owned start-up business. Only 5 percent of investment funds typically go to women, and of that 5 percent, only one-half of 1 percent goes to lesbian-owned businesses.
In October 2016, Chef Jen cooked for then President Obama at the White House.
Preparing a meal at the White House was something neither had imagined. “I never thought I would ever be invited to go there. Being at the epicenter of our nation was amazing,” Jen recalls, adding, “Everyone was so kind.”
The brand has also launched in 1,200 Kroger stores nationwide in response to growing demand for organic poultry.
Earlier this year, the company hired consumer packaged goods and natural foods veteran Randy S. Bulow as its new Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Bulow previously worked at Annie’s, The Hain Celestial Group and Jamba Juice. He also has entrepreneurial experience, having successfully launched and sold his own natural foods brand.
Serafina and Jen are confident and optimistic about striving to meet their goals. “People are really starting to change their investment focus. There is now more and more interest in impact investing in the natural and organic food space,” Serafina says.
There are obstacles, particularly the organic supply chain. One is in locating the organic farmers they need to help produce the poultry from which they source their products. Tied in with this is ensuring they can deliver the supply to meet demand. Forward buying as a start-up can be challenging because of cash flow issues. However, the grant has helped ease this strain, both for the business itself and the farmers they work with.
Organic and humane certification are two basic foundational principles for their business. They note that the chicken and turkey in their products are humanely certified, free range, natural and organic poultry raised without antibiotics or added hormones. They source their chickens from farmers across the country who meet their standards, including Mary's Chicken, Pitman Family Farms, Ozark Mountain Poultry and Petaluma Poultry. They also partner with Global Animal Partnership to promote higher welfare for animals in agriculture.
Going forward, they plan to ramp up the amount of their products that are organic, with 14 new products hitting the supermarket shelves in 2017. Summing up their vision, Serafina explains, “We want to be providing chicken nuggets for every kid in every school. We also want to be even more in grocery stores, changing the variety of what kids have access to.”
This year, the Hip Chicks are even going into the tasting business—chicken nugget tastings, that is. They are creating the world’s first “Chicken Nugget Tasting Room”—a physical café made for tasting delicious chicken nuggets and pairing them with only the best local wines. Their new shop launches this summer in downtown Sebastopol on Main Street.
Their advice to other start-ups when seeking supporters? “Look for like-minded people. These investors really want to make a difference,” said Jen. “Our investors are committed to organic initiatives. We also have mentors to advise us as we make our way in the organic industry.”
One of their marketing messages shows why they believe their success will continue to grow. As their website declares, “Our products are picky eater approved.”
On a personal level, Serafina strives to be a spokesperson for why organic does matter. “We are looking for ways to participate in creating a healthier and better living,” she explains. //
Cover photo caption: Chef Jen at work in the kitchen.
Photo caption: Serafina Palandesh and their daughter, Rubyrose, work in the gardens.