Stephen Caldwell of Swiss Rösti™ knows the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship all too well. After picking himself up after countless falls and switching career paths multiple times, Stephen has finally pursued his childhood goal of becoming a chef with the Rösti™, a delicious and crispy handheld filled potato snack originally from Switzerland.
Read more about Stephen the snack you didn’t know you needed below.
The spark that inspired the birth of your concept: I was traveling in Brazil on business in 2014 and tasted a Rösti™ for the first time at a private event. As a recreational chef/foodie all my life, I have had opportunities to taste different foods in over 30 countries, but this one stood out above them all. Simple and delicious, I knew I had found something special. When I returned to Portland, I could not find them anywhere. Searching online I found that the Swiss Rösti™ was created in the early 1800s in the Canton of Bern, Switzerland as peasant food. Wives would fry shredded potatoes and fill them with leftovers from their supper the night before and then cover with another layer of shredded potatoes. This would sustain the men in the fields all day.
I secured visas for the two chefs who prepared the Rösti™’s for me and flew them to Portland for a week of creating the snack every day. Since then and until May of 2018, I have passively created different flavor profiles in my kitchen. I was approached by Sarah Masoni at the OSU Food Innovation Center to have them develop our final flavors. We went into ideation in October 2018 and launched at OSU FIC’s Winter Tasting Event. The next day we signed Market of Choice and have since been receiving vendor agreements from around the country for retail, food service and major airlines. Our co-packer in Dallas, Texas will produce our first production run in April for delivery in stores in May.
The problem it solves: Problem: There are NO handheld, filled potato products in the market today. At our ideation session, Sarah Masoni and team spent several weeks before our session to find “like” products in our space and simply could not find anything. We found that there are no filled potato products in the market today. At that point, we knew we had something with the Rösti™.
How you came up with the name: A Swiss Rösti™ is a “filled potato snack or entrée”. Branding “Rösti™” seemed to be the key to educating as well as having a name that describes exactly what it is.
How you are different than your competition: We have no competition in our space. The closest product on the market (and there are no others behind them) are Bantam Bagels which are nothing like a Rösti™ but simply a filled bagel ball.
How you make money: We currently have over 300 stores as of today (February 25, 2019. By the time our first production run is delivered, we will be closer to 500 stores with projected revenues for first deliverables exceeding $100K our first month.
The best thing about being an entrepreneur: The best thing about being an entrepreneur for me, that I have cherished my whole life, is the freedom to create and continue creating. I started working for my father at the age of 9 washing cars at his dealership in Eastern Washington. I understood early that the harder I worked, the more I received. I learned at that age to never set a limit on what I can do. From then on, I have always believed that what I can perceive, I can achieve. That led me to a few bankruptcies along the way, but looking back I would not have changed anything. Through all of my adversity, I got stronger, learned more and can now admit that “I know what I don’-t know”. Because of that, it is easy for me to become a “connector” and reach out to people who know more than me and have more experience in the different areas of food development, marketing, production, distribution, packaging etc. That alone is such a huge advantage – to be able to let go and let the experts step in and make magic.
The biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date: The biggest surprise, after owning businesses in other industries, is that the food industry is so welcoming! There has not been one person or group that has heard our story and has not wanted to genuinely help us in any way they could. It seems that every time I turn around, there is another successful entrepreneur in the food space offering assistance, giving advice, or introducing me to one of their connections.
Your biggest success: My biggest success next to having 5 incredible children and finding my lifelong partner & soulmate, is finally following my true passion in the food industry and developing a first-to-market product that brings people joy when they eat. Everyone is already eating potatoes – now they can elevate that with our Rösti™!
A failure story and what you learned: Where do I start?? At the age of 16, I graduated high school. Before that, I had started my own rock band at the age of 11 and started booking gigs at 12. I booked us out 1-2 months at a time for 3-hour shows at $400 each. I was recognized by an older local band that had just secured a contract in Seattle to do an album and tour. My parents, after writing a business plan for their review and acceptance, allowed me to pursue this opportunity. I played guitar and sang on tour until I was 18. I came back home, bought my first rental property when I was 17 and added four more homes by the time I was 20. I got married young, went to work for my father, divorced and lost everything at 22. I moved to Seattle, bought two travel agencies, franchised them, then learned there isn’t much margin in travel. I also found out the person I purchased them from knew that too, and there simply wasn’t enough revenue to make it work, resulting in my first bankruptcy at the age of 24. I got back up again, became the national sales manager for Ford Motor Company, got married again and had my first 3 beautiful children. I then divorced again and lost my property close to Mt. Rainier on 5 acres.
The best thing I found was that my children will always be my children and they are my life. I got up again and started a concrete curbing company using a machine I helped develop that extrudes concrete landscape borders around lawns (my father had it done around his lawn where I grew up) I asked what he paid, how long it took and what kind of machine was used. The next day I started Curb Appeal of Oregon and had never touched concrete in my life. Lory and I exhibited at the Yard & Garden Show and booked close to $50K in business in 3 days. At that point, I knew I had something. After two years of operating my own curbing business, we partnered with a company that made large commercial curb machines to complement the machines I had since begun manufacturing overseas. That is where my next failure occurred, as our partner had a drinking problem and took us for over $2M in 2014. I got back up and told Lory that food has always been my passion so let’s take the Rösti to the masses. In the short time it has been alive, the Rösti has become the buzz I always knew it would be. I have never stopped following my dreams and none of these failures have defined me, but only empowered me to learn more and to not repeat the past.
What keeps you up at night: The excitement that the next day will bring. I feel like every night I am a 5-year-old version of myself on Christmas Eve in anticipation of the next day. I have learned that if I can truly say I have done all I can do that day, then I have done my job. If anything carries over, and it does often, I will tackle it the next day.
The best entrepreneurial advice you have received: Interesting question as there have been many along my journey, but one sticks out. There was a gentleman who detailed cars for my father. I asked him when I started working at 9 if he had fun running his business. He told me that it gave him the freedom to spend time with his family. He looked at me and said, “Jr, there’s nothing to it but to do it”. That stuck with me. Since then I have always seemed to remember that there really is nothing holding me back from anything. The trials along the way were teachings and to get passed them has been so rewarding.
Your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur: Don’t give up. Analyze your product, service, and idea with everyone you know and people you don’t know. As much as you love your friends and family, take their input with a grain of salt. There are always those who are not risk takers and will always give you a reason to stay safe and comfortable making a paycheck. It’s up to them to decide to step out of their comfort zone, surround themselves with people that know more than they do. And get a mentor ASAP!
The #1 book you would recommend for a budding entrepreneur: The Travelers Gift by Andy Andrews. An absolute must for any and all entrepreneurs. The next one is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. To me, they go hand in hand.
The song that best describes your entrepreneurial journey: The Who: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” / Journey: “Don’t Stop Believin’”
What wild success looks like: We are in every major city and state in the country and Canada. We have launched food carts on every major university and have students working them offering Rösti as well as being our brand ambassadors to bring awareness to the hunger issue that plagues our country.
Lory and I partnered with the Oregon Food Bank in August 2018 before we even went into ideation. As a family, Lory and I have always let our children know how important empathy is, and to truly put themselves in other people’s shoes. This is something that is paramount to be Rösti ambassadors. Since August, we feed over 100 families per month here in Portland and once we launch, we will be partnering with food banks across the country to continue to do what we can. 44M people every day go hungry. We just want to be a part of the solution. Of course, we have an exit strategy and our advisors who have developed national and international brands tell us that we shouldn’t take anything less than $200M in 3-5 years. Whatever we take, as we will be acquired, will give us even more freedom to feed even more people.
Your favorite local business: Khao San Thai Restaurant in NW Portland. Bud, the owner, welcomed me five years ago when they first opened to sit with him and get to know me. We spent four hours talking about him growing up in Thailand, meeting his wife and starting his restaurant. He prided himself on how they use only the best rice from Thailand – all their ingredients are homemade and quite frankly the best Thai food I have ever had. I ended up doing a TV commercial for him to promote their restaurant. Incredible family with great values.
What you wanted to be when you grew up: I wanted to be a DJ on the radio, a news anchor and a chef! I have done all three on some level throughout my life. I have been a freelance voice and on-camera talent for over 35 years.
Is Oregon is a good place to start a business? Oregon is an amazing place to start a business. The people here are amazing and welcoming. There is an entrepreneurial vibe here that I simply haven’t felt anywhere else. It has helped me specifically because of the OSU Incubator program. The challenges are few, to the point that I cannot think of any right now!
Fun Facts: Along with creating food experiences in our kitchen, Lory and I love to golf, snow ski, and wine taste. Oh….and we love to spend time with our five children which keeps us always on the go!
Swiss Rösti: www.swissrosti.com