Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Turning a boar's ear into silky prosciutto

Okay, that title is a bit of a stretch. I do not know that Herb Eckhouse and La Quercia actually turn pigs' ears into anything good for us to eat, but I do know they make delicious prosciutto and coppa from humanely-raised, antibiotic-free hogs. I don't know how they do it; I think magic is involved, but, boy, is it good. That's Herb and his wife and partner (partner and wife?) , Kathy, in the photo to the right.

Despite being up to his elbows in cured meats, Herb recently visited our Entrepreneurial Leadership class at Drake University and shared his thoughts on starting an entrepreneurial business later in life. Herb also wondered about the concept of teaching entrepreneurship; he suggested it is not a classroom subject, but a mindset that requires action. Notwithstanding his initial reluctance (also driven by genuine modesty) he shared his story and a number of great lessons. First, his lessons:
  • It is NEVER too late.
  • Timing is everything.
  • There is NO substitute for obsessive implementation.
Herb had been dreaming about prosciutto for a long time, after having lived in Italy for several years while working with a Pioneer Hi-Bred. When DuPont acquired Pioneer in 2000, Herb cashed in his employment chips and started working on his dream. He found a commitment to economic development in the Des Moines metro and a demand for value-added food products. Despite job offers, he spent five months studying the feasibility of his dream. Other people thought it was a cool idea; there was a growing interest in artisanal food; there was nothing like it in Iowa, or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter, and it was an easy way to add value to a readily accessible commodity: pork. He realized he could take a highly perishable commodity and turn it into something delicious and non-perishable. He also figured that he could do that with a cut of meat the market undervalued. Seeing no "red lights" and a feasible business he founded La Quercia.

He didn't want any partners or investors, other than Kathy, because he didn't want to argue about how to fulfill his dream; he didn't want to answer to anybody about how much to invest in making the best product. Oh, and he didn't get paid for seven years. Instead he invested his own money and put his entire net worth on the line. Already motivated by his dream, he could not let the business fail.

He spent ten days with a leading Italian producer who produced a first class product in a clean facility with no dangerous waste by-products. After successfully importing prosciutto for a couple years, Herb and Kathy started making prosciutto in their home. Of course, their Italian contacts said it couldn't be done: the Appian Air was crucial, the whey the hogs ate was different; the local water was no good, and of course the hogs weren't Italian. Despite all those "hurdles", people liked the product; they REALLY liked it. Enough so that by 2003, the Eckhouses decided to buy some land and build a curing facility. They continued curing meats in their basement and further developed their relationship with Niman Ranch, an organization of family farmers who raise livestock traditionally, humanely, and sustainably. The building opened in 2005, the same year La Quercia was introduced to the Whole Foods Market juggernaut.

As Herb moved up the corporate food chain at Whole Foods, everybody loved La Quercia's products. In fact everybody really did love La Quercia's prosciutto: Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and The New York Times all raved about it; even Jeffrey Steingarten, the "grumpy old man" of food critics, said it was the best prosciutto he had ever tasted. But (there has to be a but, this is a story about hogs, right?) Whole Foods didn't seem to really get it. They had an exclusive for the only U.S. made prosciutto from humanely-raised hogs and they weren't telling anybody. Having bet big on Whole Food's commitment, La Quercia found itself between the hog and hard place. With more than his toes hanging over the brink, Herb gritted his teeth, tapped out his credit line and hung on until he finally was able to get Whole Foods to wake up and smell the curing smoke. In nine months La Quercia sold out its inventory. They were finally really in business.

As for the lessons Herb shared:

  • It's never too late. Herb was 50 when he started La Quercia. He had spent 20 years in corporate America before starting his entrepreneurial adventure and fulfilling a dream.
  • Timing is everything. People had tried to make prosciutto in the U.S. in the '80s and failed; others tried a down-market approach, and failed. A new food era arrived in the 2000s. Also, the time was right for Herb personally. He had gained start-up experience working at Pioneer, and, importantly, he could afford to put his lifestyle at risk.
  • There is no substitute for excellent performance, or as he puts it, "obsessive implementation." When he entered into the relationship with Whole Foods, he did not have a back-up plan. He had to make it work, so, he did.

I've know Herb for some time, and I had read about his business. I did not know the whole story though. I am truly impressed. He and Kathy exemplify the entrepreneurial imperative that sets us apart from the rest of the world. It is never too late to make a great product. La Quercia's products are absolutely delicious; try them. And if you ever bump into Herb, after thanking him for making such delicious treats, tell him he has a great head of hair.

Thanks for sharing your story, Herb.

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