The Smaller Potato Became the Answer
“One of the more powerful blessings I experienced was the blissful ignorance I had of the potato industry. Because of this I believed there was nothing I couldn’t do, nothing I couldn’t change.”
By Catalina Margulis
Twenty-five years ago, Angela Santiago fell in love with potatoes and wanted to make delicious, healthy food. Now she is the successful CEO of a thriving business — The Little Potato Company.
When her dad approached her with his business idea, however, Angela hesitated. “I didn’t study agriculture. I was a poly-sci major, and had a business diploma. I had no thoughts of growing potatoes,” she says.
Still, his idea of starting a business intrigued her, and so she decided to give it a try. “I ended up falling in love with potatoes and making good healthy food. And now we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary this year!”
Like many startup business owners, Angela experienced several ‘aha’ moments while trying to figure out which ideas would be viable for the business. First, that starting a business would mean hard work — and lots of it.
“In a startup, I had to do everything — the sales, the marketing. We actually had to wash the potatoes ourselves and deliver. There’s nothing you’re not doing. And on top of it all, I had to earn a living outside of starting the business.”
Angela found, however, that her lack of knowledge and experience in the field actually benefitted her.
“One of the more powerful blessings I experienced was the blissful ignorance I had of the potato industry. Because of this I believed there was nothing I couldn’t do, nothing I couldn’t change. I had my fair share of challenges, including having to hear naysayers; those who believed no one would buy small potatoes. Fortunately, the cheerleading squad has grown over the years.”
Early on, Angela and her father found that the larger potato and the bag it came in were not answering the customer’s need. “Consumers now have more of an intention with their potato purchases,” she explains. “If you look at what consumers want, the potato category in general has been in slow decline in the last decade (last year with COVID-19 was an exception); people are buying and eating less potatoes. It’s not a fad; it’s a long-term trend. We want smaller portions, and we want it to be healthy and more convenient.”
The smaller potato became the answer. Not only were the portions more appealing to the modern consumer, but the skin could also be consumed, meaning customers would not have to spend time peeling and preparing and could enjoy all the nutrients found naturally in the skin.
At the same time, there were challenges in growing smaller potatoes. The genetics were not yet in place, as she explains.
“Dad said we need to look for genetics, so we searched the world for it — to find little potato varieties that just grew small. We came across a couple and started the breeding programs,” Angela says.
Today, the little ‘creamer’ potatoes are now being bred in South America, Europe and Canada through natural breeding, with no GMOs. “The smaller potato is what makes us unique; it’s our number one and only focus,” Angela says.
Another challenge the company experienced was having to lobby for packaging a variety of potatoes together — in particular, mixing red and blue. Bag specifications also stated that producers couldn’t pack less than three pounds. “We had to lobby for changes in the government,” Angela says. The company’s product lines now include one-pound trays. The primary supply comes from family farms.
Like many other businesses, The Little Potato Company was affected by COVID-19, but fortunately in a positive way. “People stopped eating out and started eating more at home, which meant that what business was lost in foodservice was gained in retail for the company. It took a lot of effort on our whole team to pull it off, but we saw one of our best years ever,” Angela says.
To Angela, taking time to celebrate achievement is important, especially being a woman in the industry.
“(When I was starting out) I was discounted before I could even open my mouth and speak.The agriculture business in particular is male-dominated, so I felt I had to be bigger, better and smarter in order to be considered an equal. It was frustrating but it didn’t take the wind out of my sails. I was anchored in the belief instilled in all of us by our parents that there isn’t anything we can’t do. My dad taught me trades, and my brothers learned to cook and clean. I was very grounded with my family that way.”
Values go a long way for Angela, who says that her principles have steered her through the ups and downs of running a business. “Whether you are a farm or sole proprietor, anchor your company in your purpose and values first. It’s what helps you make the really hard decisions: why you started the business in the first place. What are the things you’re not willing to compromise on.
“Usually, traits like compassion and kindness are ones associated with a woman. At first, I was defensive about that but then grew into loving and owning that, because it’s part of what I bring into this world. I stopped making excuses and apologizing for that and attracted like-minded people, culture and purpose to the company.”
To Angela, working in the agriculture industry has been a humbling and gratifying experience.
“What we do is such an amazing and humbling job: growing food for people, bringing communities together. It’s a passion and a gift that we live every day, growing healthy food. It’s one of the reasons I get up in the morning and do what I do. We truly provide something of value.”
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