A fourth generation Puget Sound native and nascent New Yorker, Kurt has always felt passionately about authentic, full-flavored foods, free of artificial additives. Kurt is the owner and head chef of Sugar Mountain, a creative food company that is home to extraordinary food brands and restaurants, from the award-winning Beecher’s Handmade Cheese to The Butcher’s Table, a swanky steakhouse that features Mishima Reserve, Sugar Mountain’s American Wagyu beef brand. With each operation, Kurt’s goal is to demonstrate how quality ingredients make for delicious meals, without added food colorings, flavor enhancers, or preservatives. Beyond the retail world, Kurt is effecting change in people’s eating habits through his book, Pure Food, and through The Beecher’s Foundation (501c3). Through education and community engagement, the Foundation inspires people to eat real food and vote with every food dollar.
In our conversation Kurt takes us way back to his early childhood growing up in Seattle, what struggles he faced at work coming out of college, and ultimately, what inspired Kurt to purchase businesses like Seattle’s famous Pasta & Company and start Beecher’s Cheese, one of the most successful food brands in the world. And if you stick around until the end, you will get to hear all about Kurt's ambitious philanthropic goal of changing the way America eats.
Kurt Dammeier 00:00
We're driving around from PCC to PCC and I was just like, almost like shaking because I had run into all this moldy cheese. I'm thinking oh no.
Ash Faraj 00:13
Hey, it's ash and you're listening to the ExecuTalks podcast. It's the top career podcast featuring inspiring career stories from today's top CEOs, executives and leaders. I can't express how thankful I am that you're choosing to listen to our podcast that of the many other podcasts out there. Now we spend so much time and energy into producing these amazing stories with these amazing people. And all that we ask is that you please leave us a quick rating and review on Apple podcasts. In this episode, you'll get to hear from Kurt Dammeier. Kurt grew up in Seattle and is a fourth generation puget sounder. He attended Washington State University and worked for his family business after college. He is most known for starting Seattle's famous Beecher's Cheese, which was featured on Oprah Winfrey's network and is today one of the most successful food brands in the world. Today. Kurt is an angel investor having invested in dozens of successful companies. You have probably heard it before that started in Seattle. He's a founder, entrepreneur, CEO, business owner, restaurateur author all the above. In our conversation Kurt takes us way back to his early childhood growing up in Seattle, what struggles he faced and ultimately, what inspired Kurt to purchase businesses like Seattle's famous pasta and company can start Beecher's cheese, one of the most successful food brands in the world. I am joined today by the angel investor, author, restaurateur philanthropist, founder of Seattle's famous Beecher's cheese. Kurt Dammeier, welcome to the show. Thank you for being here today.
Kurt Dammeier 01:34
I'm glad to be here.
Ash Faraj 01:35
So the first question we always start off with is I'm in a high school classroom with you. Who was Kurt in high school?
Kurt Dammeier 01:44
Oh, that's funny. Uh, well, um, I was a lot of people. I was one of the people who kind of transcended group a little bit, at least, but I was definitely a party boy. For sure. And I was, you know, how they have the Hall of Fame?
Ash Faraj 02:04
Kurt Dammeier 02:05
I was friendliest.
Ash Faraj 02:07
Okay, interesting. Interesting. I heard that you're, you're a fourth generation Puget sounder? Is that right?
Kurt Dammeier 02:13
I am. All four of my sets of great grandparents. Were in the Puget Sound. So since the late 1800s
Ash Faraj 02:23
Wow. I'm curious to hear what the relationship with your father was like, because I know your father, you know, had like a printing business. And obviously, you know, later on that, you know, you start your own business, but what was the relationship like early on in your childhood with your father,
Kurt Dammeier 02:35
I was not the easiest child to parent and I was the oldest. So we would say that my relationship with my father was contentious, though. relatively close. I worked for my family's company every day, since I turned 16. So we had that we had working together and deep common, but I was and also, I was out kind of partying and they didn't really like that. So we were also at some pretty deep odds.
Ash Faraj 03:08
Yeah. When you say party, because anything specific.
Kurt Dammeier 03:13
Are you gonna ask me that now too? it was the 70s
Ash Faraj 03:19
Yeah, no, I get it. So you know, later on, obviously, you know, you went to college, you went to Washington State University. I assume you went to Washington State to kind of get away from from home get away from your father a little bit, maybe what was was like
Kurt Dammeier 03:30
that would be a good assumption. I wanted to stay in state. And Washington state it was either UW WSU, my parents, and all my grandparents, they were all UW or university of Puget Sound. And they were all Greek. You know, they were all in Greek houses. So I went to WSU and lived in a dorm. But I but I actually got over there and after a semester, I figured out that the Greek houses were having a little bit more fun. So I ended up in one of those.
Ash Faraj 04:00
Yeah, and then you were Weren't you like the head chef or something in your frat. Is that true?
Kurt Dammeier 04:04
Well, I was the substitute chef. Whenever our whenever our cook we probably didn't call her a chef. Whenever our cook she lived in in Lewiston, Idaho, whenever it would snow she wouldn't be able to get in for a couple of days. And so I would be the substitute chef, substitute cook. And it was the best because she had lived by a budget and then and I didn't because I was only doing it for a couple days in a row. So I I go down and we'd put bacon on everything. I started cooking as a young kid. My my mother used to tell the story about age a when I just announced to her that the cinnamon toast was not cutting it and came up with a way of melting the butter in a pan and adding cinnamon sugar into it to make this slurry so I could get a really thick and strong flavor of cinnamon sugar on my toast.
Ash Faraj 05:00
Oh man, my stomach is growling we got to change topics. So you know, talking talking about college, you, I assume you didn't know when you got to college assume you didn't know what you wanted to study in college. So what made you ultimately decide to be an econ major?
Kurt Dammeier 05:15
I started out as a business major. And I just felt like the business classes, were just telling me how to do things, rather than teaching me how to think. And so I was already accepted to the business school. And I went over to the econ department and said, I'd like to become an econ major. And she's sitting there processing, and she goes, but you're already in the business school. Yeah, I'd like to change the econ. And because most everybody takes econ if they can't get into business, but I really like Econ, and I still like I still, I think it's the best major for someone who's going into business. I mean, you certainly need a business minor, you to learn accounting, need to learn finance, you need to learn a little bit about marketing, but learning how markets work, and how to how pricing mechanisms interact, is really the important stuff.
Ash Faraj 06:12
And then after college, I read that you had two job offers, it was one with the old Spaghetti Factory, and then one, one with with your father's printing business. And then somewhere I saw that you also interview with the CIA. I don't know where I saw that. But and then so you, but you decided to go work for your father, even though, you know, maybe in earlier childhood, it was kind of shaky, but it was kind of contentious. What made you do that? What made you make that decision,
Kurt Dammeier 06:36
there was two jobs that I was pursuing, through the campus placement office, the old Spaghetti Factory management trainee, and, and the Central Intelligence Agency, and they didn't tell me what the job was really. And I got to interview three with them. And they said, so we have to ask you a question. Have you ever smoked marijuana? And I just sat there quietly for a minute thinking about this. And I just said, you know, this job interview is over. And I have to go now. Because I didn't want to I don't want to lie. But I also didn't want to say on record to the CIA in 1981 that I had smoked marijuana if it wasn't, it was a different time in place than today.
Ash Faraj 07:21
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You decided to you know, go work for your father's printing business. Instead of going to the old Spaghetti Factory, what made you made what made you make that decision?
Kurt Dammeier 07:31
They were offering offering me more money.
Ash Faraj 07:34
Really, that was the only reason?
Kurt Dammeier 07:35
Well, you know, it was I thought I might end up my father's company anyway. It was offering me a job in their Seattle sales office. So I wasn't working every day, right next to my father. And, and the this old Spaghetti Factory management trainee thing. I mean, I loved cooking, and I love food. But boy in 1980, the idea of graduating from college and going to work for a restaurant. Just Just what did not sound like that's what you wanted to say to your friends. Right? It was. There weren't any famous chefs or people back in those days. Now Now people would would be Wow, wow, you're going to work for a restaurant company. No, that's not bad. But then it was just a different time and place.
Ash Faraj 08:25
Yeah, I don't know. I feel like Tom Douglas kind of like started that kind of trend.
Kurt Dammeier 08:29
He did most certainly in Seattle. And he started as a line cook, right? He didn't. Yeah, he really did. pave that way for making it seem cool.
Ash Faraj 08:41
So your first job at the family printing was was you're in sales. You grew sales from a million dollars to about $90 million with this was Was this your first sales job?
Kurt Dammeier 08:50
Yeah, I didn't personally grow to a million to 90 million. The company grew from about a million to 90 million. While I was there, I had some pretty quick success. After like, six months of kind of flailing. I finally started landing some accounts, and then was lucky enough or persistent enough took a long time, a lot of work. I landed business from Microsoft, a little known company back in 1983. I think they had 100 employees when I first started doing business with
Ash Faraj 09:23
Wow, you mentioned the first six months you were kind of you know, you weren't you were kind of struggling. What was it specifically that you struggle with? Do you remember?
Kurt Dammeier 09:32
Well, my training was there's a phone, you know, it takes a while as a as a 21 year old kid, figure out what to do. I just started this ad to start cold calling people figuring out who might buy printing. And it just took a while to to get the wrap down to get anybody to believe me to buy anything from me. But that wasn't new. I had a whole bunch of friends who Were in those kinds of sales jobs at that time that whether they were stockbrokers who were just put in a bullpen and told to sell Alaska Airlines stock on cold calling people at night at home. That that's the way it happened back then. People didn't there wasn't a lot of training.
Ash Faraj 10:22
Yeah, it was. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. But I guess during the time that you were kind of struggling a little bit, did you ever have thoughts of like, okay, maybe I should kind of switch my career, or should I do something else? Did you ever have those thoughts? Or no?
Kurt Dammeier 10:34
No, I didn't, I didn't have those thoughts. I had some self doubt, probably. But I never said, Okay, I need to think about what else I'm going to do. I always had some, some amount of confidence that I would be able to figure it out eventually,
Ash Faraj 10:51
I like that. So you're 38 years old, right? You sell a family business, you're part of that transaction, and you move on, you spent a lot of time you know, in that business, what were the maybe two to three takeaways from the experience you had, you know, during your time with your family, like looking back, saying, Man, I just, this is what I took away from that experience, if we can put it concisely,
Kurt Dammeier 11:11
what I took away from it, is that you have to try to, it's back to that old Wayne Gretzky thing, really try to have to have a skate where the pucks going. And that's what we did as a printing business is, we were able to get ahead of a changing business farther ahead than our competitors, so that we could grow very, very quickly. I also learned that I never again, wanted to put myself in a position where I was risking everything. My father was a big risk taker. And he several times in his career, put essentially everything on the line, which was easier, because he didn't have a lot, right, if you don't have a lot, it's easier to put it all on the line. But once you've achieved some success, and has have have a, you know, a reputation, some assets, I have learned that in my current life, I like to take big risks in losable amounts, and try never to put myself in a position where something could go wrong. And I could go back to square one. A third thing is that my father, really, he'd hire someone, and essentially, they get very little coaching, and hardly ever would anyone get fired. And I learned that as a leader, you have to be willing to say, say and do hard things that are good for the company, and good for the good people of the company, the best people, that if you aren't, if you aren't leading by either training up or calling out the low performers, then you're doing a disservice not only to those people who are in those jobs that they're not succeeding at, but also to all the people who want to succeed, but are being held back by poor performers.
Ash Faraj 13:13
So you're 38 years old, like, like, we said, you know, you just sold a family business. What's the first thing you do after that transaction after that happened? You know, you're obviously close a chapter in your life, what's the first thing you do?
Kurt Dammeier 13:25
Well, I got married, built my very first house and sold the business all in like a three month period, it was just the craziest time on my life. And I was really stressed. I didn't, I didn't really know I was stressed. I didn't I'm not a stress oriented person. I don't I don't appear really stressed out. But I, I was pretty stressed, I got sick, some sort of bad, viral thing, and I can't. And then I then I started taking some sort of antibiotic to get over it. But I didn't take it all the way to the end. And so you know, if you don't take your antibiotics all the way to the end, that whatever you have, can come back harder than it was even the beginning. So I got really sick. And so I just I think I just had gotten rundown with all those things happening at once. So what's the first thing that I did after that is I sat there and tried to be retired. Age 38 sold the company, I had some relatively large amount of money, and didn't really have to work. I mean, I wasn't super rich or anything like that. But I probably could have gotten by without working. And so for like three or four weeks, I thought, well, maybe I'll just not work. Maybe I'll just be retired. And I was bored to tears. And my wife was very encouraging for me to find something else to do rather than hanging around at home.
Ash Faraj 14:57
So four weeks goes by In this four weeks, you're thinking, just just kind of not work anymore, then you kind of figure out, Okay, I got to do something. So what is it that you that you do? What do you do?
Kurt Dammeier 15:09
Well, I started this company called sugar mountain capital, which is what I have now. And in the beginning, I kind of, I got into an office with some guys. And we were doing kind of large scale angel investing. And we're all in similar situations, they'd all sold something. And they were all kind of my buddies are the same age as me. And so it was all this this group of essentially 40 year olds, all who had some sort of transaction event. And we are all working to invest in in startup companies. And this is, you know, 98 99 2000 when, when that kind of thing was just going crazy. We had hundreds of companies coming to our office to pitch us.
Ash Faraj 15:51
Any notable companies invested in during that time.
Kurt Dammeier 15:54
Oh, yeah. All sorts of them. Some, some really stupid ones to some really, really ridiculous investments. If you buy look back at it. Wow. You gave them how much money for What idea? So as much as there was some some notable ones that that worked out? Well, there's, you always have to be prepared in that kind of a business to make some things that seem embarrassing. In hindsight,
Ash Faraj 16:24
I did read that early on you, I think it was called pyramid breweries you bought like 20% of it. Was that true?
Kurt Dammeier 16:31
I did. Yeah. in kind of a little, little mini corporate raider ish way. A friend of mine who was in the, in the stock brokerage business, had had have had a position in pyramid breweries, and they were public. Public, but a very small company, at $25 million market cap, something like that. And he's, he was convinced that it was underperforming, it had a bunch of cash on its balance sheet. And so I ended up kind of surreptitiously, all at one fell swoop, buying 20% of it on the market on the public market, and got in and affected some change in the company. Some of the change that I that I tried that I pushed for was good, some of it probably not so good. Ultimately, I was there for eight years. And then we sold it to a company called Magic hat. Who created it, and I think now it's dead. What I what I did learn, it was a really good learning. For me, though, I learned about artisan product marketing and artisan product economics, and specifically, how the marketing kind of worked for that kind of thing. And so it was a direct, direct antecedent to opening Beecher's.
Ash Faraj 17:57
Kurt Dammeier 17:58
I probably wouldn't have opened Beecher's had I not already experienced pyramid breweries?
Ash Faraj 18:03
Yeah, I think it was before you started Beecher's you bought pasta and company was that right? After pyramid breweries,
Kurt Dammeier 18:08
about the same time,
Ash Faraj 18:10
about the same time, from what I've researched, you're hoping for it to be kind of just like an investment, and you pick up your check or whatever. And then, you know, it turned out to be like, that you needed to spend a lot of time on that. So can you tell us a little bit about that challenge there.
Kurt Dammeier 18:23
I mean, it was awful. I bought it for x, and it lost 3x in a year and a half.
Ash Faraj 18:33
Kurt Dammeier 18:34
And so it was so bad that I that I just whether I liked it or not, whether I was good at it or not, I had to get in and start running it. When I bought this little food business, I thought it would just be something I was super proud of it was great. I go by every month, every couple months to pick up a check. I thought the food business was easy. And when I found out, of course is that the food is super hard. And that it's a pennies business. And it was almost like starting back in sales. I did not know what I was doing. And I just started doing it. And there's no better way to learn than just start doing it.
Ash Faraj 19:11
In reflection just specifically on pasta and company. If there was like one change that you made, that was like a great change that I made that had a positive impact. What would it be like? Would it be maybe, like you said, kind of firing and then rehiring or what what changes? What change did you make that was really like particularly impactful.
Kurt Dammeier 19:29
I would recognize that it's so easy to buy something and very hard to sell it. I would recognize that the food business is hard and you need people who are experienced at it in order to do well at it. The management that I hired was not experienced, and I gave them full rein to go do make a whole bunch of changes and in I was certainly complicit in it. doing that, but I kind of didn't pay too much, too much attention. I also would recognize that I've fully recognized that assuming that you can do something better than the person who's already doing it is, is a fool's belief that the people who are doing things have figured it out at least somewhat. And to just assume you can do it better than they can, is that is, I think wrong. And I've, I've, I've always had difficulty with acquisitions, when you buy something that are is already operating, and already has a company culture. I've always had problems with that. And I, I'm so much better at starting something from scratch, than I am at buying something that exists and trying to change it.
Ash Faraj 20:47
Interesting. Do you still own it, by the way?
Kurt Dammeier 20:49
Yeah, I do. And I'm super proud of it. It's worked out. It's worked out pretty well. The people that that started it owned it for, like 15 years, and I've owned it for 22 years. So it's, it's, it's weirdly one of Seattle's most long lived food businesses.
Ash Faraj 21:05
Yeah, been there. So kind of moving on to Beecher's now, you know, part of the origin story is that, you know, you kind of saw this opportunity in Seattle, you know, for for, you know, there's there was no, not necessarily a famous kind of cheese brand in Seattle, like the only people that think people were eating is tillamook cheese. And that was down in Oregon. So you're like you saw an opportunity. But what's the whole origin story of Beecher's like take us from from beginning to know how you started Beecher's?
Kurt Dammeier 21:31
Well, it starts driving up to Crystal mountain in my childhood. And on the corner of the last corner of enumclaw on highway 410, there used to be a fireman's pickle factory. And growing up, I thought to myself growing up, Oh, God, I would love to own a pickle factory, I loved pickles. I loved eating pickles. And I thought that would be the coolest thing to make my own food product, and to own a pickle factory. So once I got I got involved in pyramid, in part to learn that, that idea. And then, so beaches was this continuation of this idea that I wanted to have my own food brand, my own food company, I still might do a pickle company. It's still it's still in there. There's a few other things I like. I had gone down the path very far. On starting a winery, like a lot of like a lot of people in that time period in the 90s. I'd gotten really into wine started, like collecting it and reading about it and tasting it all the time. And I started getting ready to start a winery and I found the land and I and I come up with the brand name. And I was interviewing winemakers out in Napa Valley that hire and bring up and I just one day just look myself in the eye and just said, You know, I think you've become a douchey wine guy. You know, that guy that that just can't just drink it. That every time every time somebody came over to my house, it would be all about like, Oh, you've got to like really, really? Smell that deep bouquet and talk about the what what you smell it just all of a sudden, I kind of realized that people around me were rolling their eyes. And I just spit the hook said no, I'm not gonna do a winery because it just seems like that won't be good for me. So then I said, but I'm gonna do something what else is next? And that's when I came up with the idea of cheese. I I really liked cheese. I've been to Europe several times in my 20s and had eaten a lot of European cheese. I've used cheese as nothing. an aspiring chef, nothing like dressing up your dinner party by putting out a bunch of French cheese. Right? Makes it look fancy. So I eat and a lot of really good cheese. And then just decided to do it. And I think my first trip was to WSU to talk to him about it because I was a WSU grad and you know, they're ag college, they have Cougar Gold. And I said I think I want to I want to start a cheese company talk me through out what this would be like. And they said, Oh my God, that's that is the stupidest idea. You. You're a smart guy, Kurt, you should go do something smarter than that.
Ash Faraj 24:19
Kurt Dammeier 24:20
But I so I went away and I just never went away. I still wanted to do it. I still wanted to do it. And
Ash Faraj 24:26
so when they told you don't do it, you kind of had second thoughts.
Kurt Dammeier 24:29
Not really. I didn't. I don't know, I guess I shouldn't have because it worked out. But I didn't think that that I couldn't shouldn't do it. I just thought well, they're not going to be able to help me. The next thing I did is I was walking in Pike Place Market one day and saw the current Beecher's store available. And I just just stopped stopped from my tracks. I thought Wait a minute. I could do it right here. And I put down my bags and I just say there and looked in the in the windows for like a half hour and imagine what it would look like and feel like to have it be right there. And then I went went, got my car and called and started the process of leasing the building to make cheese there. And I didn't even know if I'd be able to make cheese. I didn't know anything I just said I'd at least that building and figure out. I think I'm gonna make cheese there.
Ash Faraj 25:22
So you leased the building before? Like any plans before like, just just did it.
Kurt Dammeier 25:27
Ash Faraj 25:28
You didn't think in your mind? What if I leased a sentence like like, you just like what made you kind of just do that without like having a plan or like, you know, I don't know,
Kurt Dammeier 25:36
oh, I do a lot of things without having a plan. I was pretty convinced that I would be able to make it work. And I think that doing it in Pike Place Market. I mean, there's a lot of traffic. Famously, that's where Starbucks started. It just felt like it could be a really good home to start a brand. So leased it. Then when I went back to WSU, said, Okay, I'm doing it now. And I took their what they call the short course signed up for it, but a three day course on how to make cheese. And at lunchtime on the first day, I went up to the organizer and said, Well, thank you very much for this, I've learned all that I really needed to know which is I am not going to be able to make the cheese. And because I thought I was going to be the cheese maker. So then I just went and found a recruiter and hired a cheese maker. Then we went back to WSU a third time and said, You know, we've figured out what cheese we want to make. And it's going to be a cheese just like Cougar Gold, kind of a kind of upscale cheddar. And I'll tell you what, we're going to make it and if you'll if you'll teach us how to make it. We'll give you kind of the Gatorade deal of I don't know if you famously know Gatorade was the drink started by the Florida Gators football team. And I'm pretty certain To this day, they get a percentage of all the sales. And I was willing to give WSU 2% of all revenue in perpetuity, if they would just teach me how to make it. And they told me no, it really wasn't that hard to figure out how to make it. And if you if you've tasted flagship and you've tasted Cougar Gold, they're very similar flagships just a little bit better, because we have better quality milk and more talented cheese makers. But Cougar Gold's very good. So I was able to figure it out anyway. And they missed out on their 2% in perpetuity,
Ash Faraj 27:36
big time. So yeah. I also read that, you know, you kind of got success early on with Beatrice she's obviously because you know, the location, you know, you got publicity was was key. Did you have like a strategy of gaining publicity or
Kurt Dammeier 27:51
we didn't, we were just trying to be remarkable. Do something that that people would want to write about, like, making cheese in the middle of a city. We never had a PR agent or anything people just called us.
Ash Faraj 28:05
Do you think the reason is because it was you were making cheese in the middle of the city. And it was kind of like the first like really like famous cheap Seattle cheese. Like that was the reason?
Kurt Dammeier 28:12
Yeah. I think that's it. Yeah. And then then it was our mac and cheese, which Oprah liked. And so there was other things that we did that were good. But I think that the the magic of that brand really was the idea that it was being made right in the middle of the city, in Pike Place Market.
Ash Faraj 28:33
And it has grandpa Beecher's name on it. So do you do you remember, you know, talking about maybe the first, say five years of Beecher's cheese, right? What was the worst event that happened while you were building the Beecher's cheese brand?
Kurt Dammeier 28:46
No question what that was, we had a couple grocery stores, PCC in particular, and wanted to sell our cheese. First ones outside our own store. At the time, we were making mostly flavored jack cheeses. So like pepper jack, if you will. So we made a bunch and PCC, also at that point was still mainly only selling cheese that they'd bought prepackaged. So they didn't really have cheesemongers the people who cut it happen, but for our cheese, we were selling it to them on 40 pound blocks and they were having to cut it and cut it and wrap it put it out. So so they weren't that clean the way they they weren't. They weren't quite up to snuff about how to clean their knives. And I'm not saying that they were dirty. They just didn't clean them in between enough, right. So what happened is is is that they cut and wrapped it and it didn't sell that fast right out of the chute. And it started to go moldy, started to mold. And I can remember distinctly driving around with my then 10 year old son and we were driving around from PCC to PCC and I was just I was just Like, almost like shaking, because I run into all this, this moldy cheese and I'm thinking, now we're, you know, the whole thing's gonna fail. And my poor son, my poor son was just rocked he thought we were gonna, you know, that was going to be bankrupt and we're gonna have to sell our house. And it was it was really a scary time for Beecher's, for sure. Ultimately, we fixed the problem. And you know, we went on but at one point that every piece of cheese that we were selling in the marketplace was molding.
Ash Faraj 30:35
Oh my god, that is crazy, man. How long did that go on for like a month, two months,
Kurt Dammeier 30:43
a couple of weeks. And we went out and figured out that that sterilize their cutting boards, their knives in between different cheeses that they cut. And it all it all worked out. Great.
Ash Faraj 30:54
That makes sense. Yeah, that's great. So you know, your overall mission is and correct me if I'm wrong is to change the way America eats. And I can kind of I can see the connection of you know, your childhood and upbringing. And you know, you wanted to start a food brand you started Beecher's. When do you feel like you found the mission of you want to change America the way America eats? Like, when did you find that mission of yours,
Kurt Dammeier 31:16
ah, was early on before I started in the food business. I didn't know it. But I've always had certain sensitivities to food, chemicals, etc. And one one week I was, I was at a cold. So I went and got hot and sour soup at the local Chinese restaurant, which I loved hot and sour soup. And then the next day I felt worse, went got more hot, sour soup. Next day felt worse. And finally, by the fifth day of repeating the cycle, I just felt like I had like a brain tumor. It was awful. Someone said to me, Well, do you think you're having a reaction to MSG. And to that point, I'd never even thought about that, that there was something in food other than food. And so that was kind of like the loose string on the sweater. I started researching MSG. And then that led me to other food additives. And I came to realize that they really caused me problems. And so I started down this path of learning everything about where they were and where they hid. And then when we started the company, it was basically around this idea that we'd educate people through our actions.
Ash Faraj 32:32
So it's very personal to you.
Kurt Dammeier 32:33
Ash Faraj 32:34
so in 2006, you started the Pure Food Kids Foundation. And it's funded by the ongoing donation of 1% of all sales from sugar mountain companies. And it's empowered, you know, what I've read, it's empowered 10s of 1000s of fourth and fifth grade students to make healthy food choices for life. And, you know, I've also read that you're also really passionate about, you know, income inequality, and you know, how that makes an impact on our country. In all of your philanthropic contributions and activities, Which do you think is most important in our world today?
Kurt Dammeier 33:02
So there's things I think they're important that I'm personally not taking on. The things that I am personally kind of taking on is this nutrition and food, truth education for kids. And Beecher's does that. And then my beef company, plants 500,000 mangrove trees a year in Madagascar, to try to combat the global warming aspect of raising livestock, since we said to offset our own problem. And then thirdly, I'm really about plastic. In my business, I sell food. But if you sell food, you're also selling plastic. And so we donate to a group that harvests plastic out of the sea. Those are the three things that I'm pretty actively engaged in myself, I've been moved by the the Black Lives Matter movement, but more just about systemic racism, and how I can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem in that area. I've been working with black entrepreneurs trying to give them my my counsel, which I think is one of the things that's lacking one of the things that causes systemic racism, or even almost the worst, that not the worst, the opposite, systemic, maybe caste ism is the idea that that certain people or groups in the world have networks and help each other. Right, not not really necessarily trying to hurt someone else. But when my buddy as his kid, want to come talk to me about job or get advice from me, of course, I've given to them. And I think that that certain groups who have been out of those networks are in some ways held back by their lives. have access to that network.
Ash Faraj 35:01
Kurt Dammeier 35:02
So I've tried to try to overcome that a little bit. I don't know, I've made some some moves. I don't I don't have anything that I think I've done that has made a material impact yet, but I'm still working on it. I think that the increasing inequality of wealth is a giant problem in our society. I can't tell you that I've done a whole bunch of anything really good about that yet? I'm an I'm a philanthropic person, but I don't think that really is enough. I don't know. That's a good, that's a thorny one. And then I think that, of course, homelessness is is a giant problem, especially here in Seattle. And I'm deeply frustrated that it seems to be being treated like a local problem, when in fact, I think it's a national problem.
Ash Faraj 35:51
Yeah, there's a lot going on in the world that can be fixed, that's for sure. And, you know, we can't expect just Kurt to do the whole thing
Kurt Dammeier 36:00
some things you you do and you support just by talking about or thinking about, and some things you just go try to take action yourself. I'll tell you that my friends are not that then they don't think of me as a person who is unwilling to speak my mind.
Ash Faraj 36:18
So you're, you're 61 now 62
Kurt Dammeier 36:23
Two 62 not dead yet.
Ash Faraj 36:26
That's my that's almost my dad's age. So what what are you what are you looking forward to most now? And like, what are you most excited about for the future for your future?
Kurt Dammeier 36:33
You know, my, my company is kind of now entering a new, a newer phase where we can do some bigger things. And I'm kind of excited about leading a team that is making some big moves for Beecher's was a tiny little company. pyramid was it's kind of a tiny little company. Yeah, Pasta and company is a tiny little company, having my company be a little bit bigger, where we can do some more interesting things. And where I can try to lead a team of people to really accomplish something is fun.
Ash Faraj 37:18
Something I look for when I decide to partner with someone or hire someone is
Kurt Dammeier 37:24
Ash Faraj 37:25
The most important quality in a leader is
Kurt Dammeier 37:28
Ash Faraj 37:29
Self truth, what does that mean?
Kurt Dammeier 37:31
I own it. I mean, if you did something you got to, you got to get to own it. Oh, be to be a truth teller.
Ash Faraj 37:38
Something I've personally struggled with as a leader has been,
Kurt Dammeier 37:41
it has been compliments. I am not an easy complementor. And I have learned over time that it really matters to be positive and and to encourage people that is it. My that isn't natural for me.
Ash Faraj 37:57
You mean like praise?
Kurt Dammeier 37:58
Yeah, yeah. See, I couldn't even say it. Yes, the answer that question doesn't it's hard for me is praise. I mean, I have always given praise. But I probably given praise as a as a 15, or 25%. For what I say. And it should be 50 or 60, or 70%, of what you say,
Ash Faraj 38:19
something I do to make sure that I feel positive, and I stay productive. is
Kurt Dammeier 38:24
I just positive and productive. without even trying.
Ash Faraj 38:27
I love that. I love that. If I were to go back and talk to my younger self in my mid 20s, maybe like your kids, no, I would tell myself,
Kurt Dammeier 38:36
I wouldn't tell myself much of anything. I wouldn't change a thing about my life, really. And so I would try not to tell myself anything. I would try to not parent myself, not not change the perspective, which is what I'm trying to tell my kids right now. Try not to tell them what to do. Try not to give them the answer.
Ash Faraj 38:56
One setback or failure in my early 20s that I will never forget is
Kurt Dammeier 39:00
boy, I must have had one of my superpowers is forgetting those. I don't beat myself up with mistakes. I'm almost always looking forward. It's not like I don't remember or learn from mistakes I do in a certain way. But I look forward I spend almost no time focusing on the past, even the good parts of the past. I spend very little time self congratulating from the past either. It's I'm just focused on where I'm going.
Ash Faraj 39:30
And then the sweetest moment I felt in my entire career was when
Kurt Dammeier 39:35
getting the phone call from Oprah's people. Would I be interested in it and having our mac and cheese on their ultimate favorite things show. I said let me rephrase that. You want to know if I'm willing to let you use my mac and cheese and have Oprah say it's your ultimate favorite thing? Yeah, I'm willing to do that.
Ash Faraj 39:55
That must've been a sweet moment.
Kurt Dammeier 40:00
That was a sweet moment.
Ash Faraj 40:01
Looking forward if I could be remembered for just one thing it would be
Kurt Dammeier 40:04
someone who who cared, cared about, about creating new things and cared about my effect on people and society.
Ash Faraj 40:19
Last one is if I were stranded on an island, I had access to one meal. What would it be?
Kurt Dammeier 40:24
Ash Faraj 40:27
I think you said that the first time we talked you said that you love tacos.
Kurt Dammeier 40:30
I ate tacos last night.
Ash Faraj 40:33
Thank you again so much for listening to today's episode. It means the world to me that you've taken the time to listen. I hope you choose to listen again next week.