The Sweet (& Salty) Balance of Entrepreneurship and College: Sophisticated Spreads Q&A
It’s not often you hear that the face of a successful charcuterie board business falls on a 20-year-old full-time college student. Emmy Rener established Sophisticated Spreads following her graduation at the age of 18. Now, with over 130,000 followers on TikTok and 32,000 on Instagram, Rener has expanded her business in multitudes like she never expected. This weekend I had the opportunity to catch up with an old friend; this is what she has to say about her business.
Q: How did the idea of Sophisticated Spreads move from paper to business?
I launched Sophisticated Spreads after graduating high school since I decided to take a year off before college since it would be virtual. During the start of COVID and even before it, I always enjoyed making charcuterie boards for my family and friends. During our time out of school, I realized that there was a demand for them. If you needed flowers or a cake, it was easy to order them, but there weren’t any local businesses that provided grazing boards. I had previous experience at a floral shop making arrangements, and there I learned how small events functioned. Sophisticated Spreads started with a small origin as I bought from different wholesale companies online and had no intentions of it blowing up; my website was made through Squarespace. I wanted to cater throughout Palos Verdes (Rener’s hometown) and slowly expanded through Los Angeles and Orange Country.
Q: How do you balance a successful business and being a student at USC?
When I was applying to USC, I understood I would be managing a business full-time while also pursuing an education. I also knew that my clients and customers would be my priority, so I chose a school near the headquarters, a commercial kitchen, of Sophisticated Spreads. When I started my education here, it was interesting that many other students run businesses or are content creators who fall in the same boat. Our professors and SC staff are incredibly understanding of this as well. I also have had the opportunity to work with creators on the USC campus, which I never imagined I could do.
The idea of doing both was definitely more of a mental battle I had to get over; I had to understand that when I am at school, I am at school, and when I am home, I am running my business. My main priority in terms of business at school is content creation on my TikTok and Instagram pages. Now on weekdays, I have hired employees to run orders out, but I drive home to complete the majority of orders every weekend. The business has also grown, and we now cater for bigger events which usually occur on weekends where I can still be heavily involved.
Q: At what point did Sophisticated Spreads take off? How do you feel you accomplished this?
A specific moment I saw the company grow was last December, three months after the company launched. Up to that point, I had been doing everything on my own, from souring out to doing deliveries. Randomly, Jessica Alba had found the company and shared the Sophisticated Spreads account on her Instagram story, which generated a few followers to our account but nothing incredibly significant. I decided to post her following on Instagram which did not generate much engagement, but made a video on TikTok where I freaked out about her following which ended up generating 2.4 million views. After that, our socials increased in following and sales slowly but consistently increased. I think blowing up small but cool successes on social media has helped transform the business. Now we have followers from around the U.S. and even international followers.
Q: How did you find your niche? How do you stay competitive?
I realized when developing this company that many businesses don’t have much personality behind their photos. Everything is a perfect picture, and many accounts have the “perfect” feed. I knew I wanted my company to feel more personal and started to put a face to the company on social media. I think this is what differentiates me from my competitors. On TikTok, I’m incredibly public with how the business is doing and do my best to keep a genuine tone.
Competitors-wise, many companies, and brands go to Costco or Trader Joe’s to find their cheeses; I am well aware anyone can do this. Since I started my business through stalls at local farmer’s markets, I was able to form connections with artisan cheesemakers. We source the cheeses through these farms, where I’ve also gained much knowledge in how everything is produced. I was able to take these experiences and tailor my website to fit the questions people often asked about the boards.
Q: What does managing your brand look like?
When I first began the business, I worked with pretty much whoever was willing to work with the company. I did everything I could to gain as much exposure as possible. Now that the business has grown, I have been able to outsource the things I don’t have expertise in; we have a guy that does taxes, and a student I met on campus who runs and designs my website. I also work with small influencers since they post the best content for my brand aesthetic. I still take trips to creamers and farms where we source many products; it feels true to what the brand should be. I manage all customer service and social media and do my best to work with creators who have aligned values.
Q: How does networking vary from Instagram to TikTok?
Instagram and TikTok function significantly differently from one another in this realm. Instagram networking is rather organic. If I come across an account I like, I reach out by beginning a conversation. Often, networking is through word of mouth, or I’ll find someone through my feed tagged in a photo. I often look through the explore page and see what fits my niche through there. It is much easier to find brands and people more directly applicable to what I do through Instagram.
I was able to reach out to a bachelorette company the other day through Instagram, and now we are working together on events. A friend through Instagram invited me to a cheese event, and there, I was able to make seven new connections. TikTok is different because its explore page is geared to various random interests. TikTok is exciting, though, in the sense that many celebrities comment on smaller accounts. I work with people who are also very good at what they are doing, which is usually something unrelated to charcuterie boards. In this sense, TikTok networking is far less strategic.
Q: Are you partnered with any companies? How do you keep a connection with them?
I am partnered with many other charcuterie companies and businesses geared toward grazing boards. The pepper jam included in all of my boards is a business I met through Instagram. Anytime I have the opportunity to create a connection with someone of value, I do it. Taking action in this business is essential to continue to grow. Every creamery I have visited or worked with receives a thank you card and is sent a card on holidays. I do this to keep the company relevant in their minds. It’s essential to be consistent with them and ensure your business isn’t forgotten. I was able to work with Tabasco, and I continue to reach out to them with new ideas I have. Exposure is also crucial to staying connected with brands and companies; even with this blog, exposure to a new audience is excellent.
Q: What advice would you give to a startup business in the lens of marketing?
Work with people that have aligned values with your company. Staying coordinated and personable will take you far. Every time I send an email out to someone I want to work with or have already worked with, I make sure there is something personalized in their life or brand in it.
2. There needs to be a face of the brand:
TikTok is geared to make videos with someone's face to go viral more often than those without or just a product. Brands today are hiring young people to be the face of their brand even if they have nothing to do with the business.
3. Stay consistent with outreach:
Although renting stalls at various farmer's markets was expensive, it is entirely worth the exposure and connections I have made. Targeting yourself to a diverse audience can help you meet new people.
Follow Emmy’s story on Instagram! @sophisticatedspreads
Or on Tiktok @sophisticatedspreads