Happy Valley is a hotspot for food-based startups

06/17/2024

by Holly Riddle

For its size, Happy Valley boasts an impressive food scene. There’s a wealth of locally owned restaurants, a wide variety of international cuisine, and a thriving farm-to-table focus spurred by the county’s abundant agricultural resources. Not to mention, just when you think you’ve tried every eatery Happy Valley has to offer, another one pops up.  

Entrepreneurs interested in pursuing a food-related endeavor, whether that be a restaurant, food truck, catering business or anything in between, are finding a wealth of resources — just like all entrepreneurs who call the region home — and a hungry community more than ready to welcome them. We spoke with four food-focused local entrepreneurs to learn more about their journeys.  

“The people here were instrumental in making my business grow” 

Nick Freed is the owner of Inside Out Cookie, a business that quickly grew after it got its start just a few years ago specializing in oversized, stuffed cookies. Since formalizing the business, Freed said the experience has been “a whirlwind” — and that the Happy Valley community has been instrumental in his growth.  

“No business, or really anything in life for that matter, can succeed without community,” he said. “This place has small-town roots and a strong community of people that help one another more often than not. The community here has been extremely supportive of me and what I've tried to do. Without that, I'd have failed long ago.”  

That community support, he noted, has grown beyond Happy Valley, stretching into Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania, where he’s been highlighted by two CBS affiliates.  

One community resource has been particularly instrumental in Freed’s growth. The Old Gregg School Community and Recreation Center has shared and inspected kitchen spaces, open to food-related entrepreneurs who’re not yet at the level that they need to invest in their own production spaces. 

“Having a home base inspected kitchen is super-helpful,” Freed said. “I started in [a] shared space and grew into my own dedicated bakery space in the same building. The people here were instrumental in making my business grow, and very kind to take a chance on me.” 

Inside Out Cookie Facebook

And that growth continues. Freed expects to outgrow his current space within the year, which will necessitate the purchase of a building and allow him to hire more employees and better realize his company mission of hiring formerly incarcerated people. If he can get funding, Freed would like to offer formerly incarcerated individuals not only a job but also housing and other support. 

Penn State’s built-in customer base  

For some, Happy Valley’s large student population can help drive a new food-related business’s growth. When asked about the factors that have helped them stay in business, especially in the food industry, where it can be notoriously difficult to keep a new business going, Heather Heverly and Sarah Ehrlich, co-owners of Ahhmazing Graze, said, “Penn State students! We love them!”  

Ahhmazing Grace Facebook

Undoubtedly, Penn State students love Ahhmazing Graze’s trending products (the business, which got its start in 2021, specializes in charcuterie grazing boards and boxes), and affordable, “family friendly” prices, which the two say are made possible due to the low overhead costs that come with working out of a licensed home kitchen rather than in a brick-and-mortar location. 

Still, the two say their long-term dream is to have a storefront in Happy Valley.  

“While we all run very different businesses, we face similar challenges” 

Amanda Cruz, the owner of The Gourmet Girl personal chef service, has long been a member of the Happy Valley entrepreneurial community, but her business has evolved over the last decade-plus, to meet the community’s changing needs. 

The Gourmet Girl Facebook

She described, “I started my business while I was still teaching elementary school. I never set out to run a business or work in the food industry, but my little hobby business grew by referrals and I eventually left the classroom in 2011 to run my business full-time. When we began offering charcuterie boxes in 2020 during the pandemic, the whole direction of my business shifted…I always had a passion for food and teaching and now I combine the best of both worlds, helping people pull off killer parties with grazing tables and teaching charcuterie workshops.” 

Cruz said her Happy Valley relationships have been crucial for growing and sustaining the business, particularly within the WiNGs (Women’s Network Group) organization, where she serves on the board as a membership chair.  

“The group of female entrepreneurs meets monthly for education (covering topics such as marketing, personal development and professional development) and socials. While we all run very different businesses, we face similar challenges,” she said. “It's great to connect regularly with other women who are further ahead on the journey and welcome in and offer support to women who are just starting out.”  

The blessing of Happy Valley  

Nick Barger, co-founder of Brazilian Munchies along with Flávia Barger and Yama Castilho, which has long been a staple on the Happy Valley food truck scene, mirrored this message of community support in discussing the business’s journey.  

Brazilian Munchies social

“At first, we were selling cheese bread at local farmers markets as more of an opportunity to make some cash and improve Flávia’s English, chatting with the locals. We had faith in ourselves and what seemed like the blessing of Happy Valley,” he recounted. “[The Penn State Small Business Development Center] helped us a lot, with some guidance [on] how to register the business and with a ribbon cutting ceremony and some other things during our journey. Through our perseverance and the guidance of other business owners, Brazilian Munchies has grown its roots in Happy Valley.”   

Top tips for other potential business founders

Of course, we couldn’t talk to these successful business owners without getting their advice, on top of their stories. Here are their words of wisdom.

Amanda Cruz: Connect with local resources. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Do your market research. Figure out what sets you apart and maximize that strength. 

Nick Freed: Take advantage of the local markets to showcase your products. It's where I started, and where many people I know started. Get your Serve-Safe; everything requires it.

Nick Barger: If you want to be a future vendor, ask for help when you need it and get ready — because Happy Valley people are foodies and they support small businesses! 

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