From developing one of the first Candy Chemistry Classes to being inducted into the Candy Hall of Fame, Michelle Frame’s journey as a food chemist and entrepreuner is nothing short of inspirational. In this candid Q&A she opens up about how she got her start, the setbacks she experienced along the way and the advice she has for others just starting out or looking to make a pivot!
Q. Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up? What inspired you to start a career in the F&B industry?
A. I grew up in the country outside of Chesterton Indiana; and come from a long line of farmers from both sides of the family. My dad was also an engineer at Midwest/National Steel until he retired, and my mom was “The Kitchen Lady” at my elementary school – all the kids loved her! Both my parents were all about trying new things, testing our skills, and learning new ones. My mom, aunts, grandma, and sisters sharing the arts of cooking and baking led the way. I learned the making of food as a shared experience where there were a lot of laughs, tons of singing, and a bit of dancing. My inspiration for Food Science specifically came from my mom, who was always testing if a different brand of brown sugar, or a different ratio of eggs would make cookies better and she encouraged me to constantly experiment in the kitchen too.
Q. Can you share what your career journey has entailed and how you decided to become an entrepreneur?
A. An internship at M&M/Mars solidified my passion for the confectionery industry and led to my first role in the industry. That was followed by JustBorn, where I was blessed with opportunities to learn from the best consultants in the industry. I realized then my heart wasn’t attached to one manufacturer as much as it was the whole industry. The women and men who consulted with us knew the technical chemistry side, and the application production side equally well. I loved that! And I knew I could provide a different but equally important service by taking that same skill and knowledge and using it for product development and technical training.
I also saw so many brilliant women scientists whose insights into products, customers, consumers were dismissed because they didn’t match the wants of a board of directors that didn’t look like them. It boggled my mind that when women are the decision makers for 80%+ of household purchases, companies weren’t using this in-house user expertise! I learned if I wanted to see this change, I would have to start from the ground up with a company that was designed around the values I held as important.
Q. Can you share a bit more about your business and the type of people/businesses you help today?
A. Our clients are Biotech/Pharma, VMS, Confectionery, and Ingredient companies. They range from visionary entrepreneurs, to the some of the largest CPG, Healthcare, and ingredient companies around the globe. We function in several ways including:
- Product Development – All of our Technical Managers have years of production experience, so when we design it’s with a mindset of not only tasting good, but food safety and a robust recipe that can withstand production, distribution, and storage stresses as well.
- Taste Modulation – We take our product development to another level because of our skills in flavor masking and making the off-notes of supplement and pharma actives palatable. Sometimes a masker will work, but often it’s about the whole base recipe of a gummy, chocolate, or chew that must contribute to provide a pleasant eating experience.
- Pilot Plant Show Room – We are thrilled to be partnering with high end equipment companies to build our pilot plant and act as their Americas Showroom! Specifically, the VMS gummy market has grown by double digits for over 20 years – with no signs of slowing down. Because of the actives, it requires a new kind of gummy manufacture instead of the traditional starch molding.
- We will soon have Hänsel’s Batch Cooker, WDS’s Lab Depositor, and Pinco SA’s Conditioning Cabinet at our lab. We are so excited for the capabilities this equipment set will bring! Clients will be able to test new formulas on a small line that performs like a large line. It will also give our partners’ clients the opportunity to understand how their equipment will work.
- Technical Training – We are also excited that we are designing a full set of coursework for technical training on confectionery chemistry, technology, and technique. We expect to start rolling that out this summer.
Q. The road to success is rarely easy, what have been some of your most memorable and impactful career achievements?
A. The most recent was being inducted into the Candy Hall of Fame! Along with being an incredible honor to be listed with some of the biggest names in candy history, it has brought me additional friendships and business partners because of the credentials it imparts.
But my “achievements” haven’t all been so lovely. I was at M&M/Mars at their Dove Ice Cream factory in the 1990’s, when there was a recession. That led to an announced layoff. I went to the Plant Director and asked to be part of the layoff. I knew it was not mentally healthy for me to stay, and the severance would help me take a breath and better consider my future. It was a horribly painful conversation, and the day they announced those who were being laid off was equally awful. Even though I had requested it, seeing my name on that list was crushing.
My next role at JustBorn was the exact opposite! My skills, personality, and vision for how we could improve and innovate was celebrated and rewarded. As an example: I noted that the plant personnel didn’t have a strong understanding of the ingredients they were working with every day, so I developed a “Candy Chemistry” class. Watching people transform from scared-to-walk-into-the-room, to being excited about what experiments we would be doing; and finding products on the store shelves to bring and discuss in class was incredibly fulfilling. I had amazing mentors and managers at JustBorn to whom I will always be grateful.
Reaching the $1 million mark as a woman owned business was achieved through many sleepless nights, panicked prayers, and family dropping everything to come up and wash dishes for me or package samples. I could not have done it without them. Only 4.2% of women owned businesses have reached that benchmark, and I’m pleased to have built a team of such capable, wonderful people.
Q. What are your areas of expertise for Females in Food members to connect with you on?
A. I mentor a few women who are starting their own businesses in the food industry, and happy to take time to talk to others who are starting out or established and looking to vent about the trials and tribulations of owning a business. Of course, celebrating and cheering successes is key as well.
Q. What do you enjoy doing most in your free time?
A. Being quiet. Reading. Enjoying restaurants, museums, and festivals in Chicago. And being with family and friends. I’m also learning how to swim. Check back in a year to see if I can kick and breath at the same time…
Q. What advice would you give your younger self? Or What advice do you have for those who are just coming into the food industry?
A. The advice I’d give myself is two-fold: One, find out sooner that girls with mild Tourette’s present differently than boys – and medication for the related OCD can help. At Victus Ars, no topic is sacred if approached respectfully, and we recognize and make accommodations for hidden conditions. Secondly, I’d say start your business sooner – you are going to be fine, and LOVE that you get to live your values at work. People are waiting – stop making excuses and go for it.
For those just starting, stop apologizing for your existence. You were meant to be here.
Q. What is your favorite “on the go” breakfast?
A. ProBar Chocolate Chip Oatmeal