A Journey Through Food: From a Teenage Vision to a Thriving Vegan Business
By: Valerie Williams, CEO and owner of Foodies Vegan
Food has always run deep in our family—it’s at the center of all we do. I’ve worn many hats in the food industry, from owning a restaurant to working as a personal chef, from owning a catering company to managing a food market, and now, operating a food manufacturing company.
Food is more than just sustenance for us; it’s a way to connect, bond and share our love with others. As I look back on this incredible journey—from a passionate teenager with a dream to a thriving business owner—I am filled with gratitude and awe.
This journey has been a testament to the power of determination, love for what you do, and the deep connection that food creates among people. But, let me take a step back and start from the beginning.
Imagine Cincinnati in the 1970s, a city known for its love of meat-centric dishes, particularly those of German origin. In a place where sausages, schnitzels and bratwursts reigned supreme, it was unusual for a teenager to embark on a journey toward veganism. Yet, that’s precisely where my adventure began.
My teenage years were marked by curiosity and a yearning for something different. During this time, I stumbled upon a book that would forever alter the course of my life. The book was authored by Dick Gregory, a political activist and controversial figure, and it bore the intriguing title, “For Folks Who Like Cooking with Mother Nature.” I became a fervent researcher, diving headfirst into the world of health and healing through diet. I poured over anatomy charts and kept a copy of Gray’s Anatomy by my bedside. Every book related to this topic found its way into my hands.
What fascinated me even more than the dietary aspect of veganism were the holistic principles that often accompanied it. The books I devoured didn’t just focus on healthy eating; they intertwined it with broader concepts like yoga, meditation, organic gardening and various spiritual practices. These holistic approaches to life captivated me and called to me, as if I had found a path that was not just about what I ate but how I lived.
The Birth of Five Star Foodies (Now Foodies Vegan)
After spending time in San Diego, California, I returned to the Queen City and with the support of my mother and significant other we launched a thriving vegan restaurant. During those seven years of restaurant operations, I not only nurtured the restaurant but also raised three of my children, each of whom had their daily meals at our establishment.
Years passed. And one day, my three older sons approached me with an idea rooted in nostalgia. They wanted to manufacture some of the cherished food products from our restaurant’s earlier days. These dishes held fond memories from their childhood and were a vital part of their upbringing.
As it turns out, I had raised five food enthusiasts. Cooking and sharing meals had always been our way of connecting, whether for big family dinners, holiday feasts or picnics. Food had become our love language—a way to celebrate happiness or offer solace during difficult times. For me, food was more than sustenance; it was a source of healing.
In 2007, we embarked on a new journey, starting Five Star Foodies with a generous $500 gift from my dad. Balancing our full-time jobs with weekend endeavors, we committed ourselves to the farmers’ market circuit.
However, as the winter months rolled in, challenges arose for people trying to access our products. This led us to seek a more permanent space. In those days, incubator kitchens were scarce, so we set out on an independent path.
Our journey began at the Shriners on McMillan, where we transformed a worn-out commercial kitchen into a functional workspace. This marked our initial step toward expanding our distribution to local stores, including Biggs and Whole Foods, Cincinnati Natural Foods and other independent retailers. Yet, as fate would have it, Shriners eventually closed its doors, prompting us to relocate to a church on Central Parkway.
A Look Back
Reflecting on those times, it’s hard to believe I had the vision to keep going despite the odds. Nevertheless, I persevered. The journey brought its share of lows, but every morning, I woke up eager and ready to tackle whatever challenges lay ahead. I made a swift decision to keep moving forward. I knew this was what I wanted to do, and I would find a way to make it work.
As we navigated this pivotal period, my mom and sister stood by my side, just as they had from the beginning. Together, we charted a path forward. In addition to our work with Foodies, we began supplying our local Whole Foods deli department with hundreds of pounds of different food products. I also ventured into catering, which helped us generate extra income to invest in better ovens and equipment for Foodies. I was working more than ever, but I was driven by a passion that knew no bounds.
We reached a significant milestone when two major store chains decided to carry our products, adding approximately 2,000 stores to our distribution network. It was an intense period of work, but it paid off.
Soon after, we invested in our first two pieces of automated equipment, and later, a third piece. This marked the birth of our first real production line. I also hired a production manager, brought in my niece as a full-time office manager and called upon my children for help. They all returned to contribute to the family business, and our journey of building the company together truly began.
The Pumfu Era
During this period, we created and launched our flagship product, Pumfu. It wasn’t long before we expanded our product line to include Pumfu Sausage and Chorizo.
After seven fulfilling years at HUC (Hebrew Union College), we decided it was time for another change. We moved into our own building on Este Ave in 2019, following years of searching and planning. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused some delays, but I remained steadfast in my resolve. Giving up was simply not an option—I was committed to seeing this through, no matter the obstacles.
The move was a meticulous process, down to the last detail. Once we settled into our new space, it felt like we had always belonged there. We fell in love with our new home, and it provided us with ample room for growth.
Pioneering the Way
Building a vegan food company posed unique challenges, especially because we had no mentors to guide us. Along the way, we reengineered equipment originally designed for meat production to suit our plant-based burger production. Currently, we’re designing a new process for our Pumfu production.
While we’ve learned many lessons the hard way and made our fair share of mistakes, we’ve also accomplished a great deal.
My passion for health and wellness remains as strong as when I started this journey. I wholeheartedly believe in our mission—to offer delicious, healthy, clean ingredients, minimally processed, convenient food products. Our goal is to help people eat healthier, feel better, and live higher quality lives.
* REDI Cincinnati partnered with Foodies Vegan to support the company with a JobsOhio Inclusion Grant in 2020. The grant supports businesses with underrepresented ownership or are located in distressed zip codes. For more information on the inclusion grant, please visit our dedicated page or contact Cierra Clymer, REDI Cincinnati director of international business development & inclusion (firstname.lastname@example.org; 513.579.3103).
**This blog is part of REDI Cincinnati’s effort to empower minority-owned businesses by providing them with the knowledge and resources to effectively represent themselves through personal blogs. Our goal is to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the business world by helping minority entrepreneurs enhance their online presence.