Karen Getz knows all about making a successful career pivot.
Getz was long known for her award-winning cheeses that she made on a dairy homestead in Vermont. But when she couldn’t find gluten-free crackers good enough to pair with her cheeses for in-store demos, she decided to tinker with buckwheat flour as the base of a gluten-free cracker.
Her lifelong love for baking and experimenting with new ingredients blossomed into her company, Maine Crisp, which she launched at the age 49.
Nearly a decade later, Getz’s products, which include the Maine Crisp line and the Better With Buckwheat cracker line are now sold nationally, in 1,000 Kroger stores, 400 Sprouts stores, Whole Foods in the Northern Atlantic region and hundreds of specialty stores nationwide.
Getz, 58, recently shared her career journey with MSNBC’s Know Your Value. She also gave her advice to women who are considering switching careers, her struggle with self-doubt, navigating her business after being diagnosed with breast cancer and more.
Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Know Your Value: You decided to switch gears at the age 49 when you launched Maine Crisp. Tell us the story of how the company was created.
Karen Getz: My husband and I raised our two daughters on a dairy farm in Vermont, and neither one of us had any sort of farming experience. But this was something we wanted to do, so we learned how to do it and quickly learned that we made really nice milk [with our cows] … And I’m like, “Well, I could make cheese.” … So I got some books and started to make cheese, and had a very specific way of making the cheese … and went on to win national awards for that cheese.
And then, once our daughters were grown up, we were deciding what to do once they went off to college, and we decided to sell the farm. My husband went and worked for Organic Valley, and we were very much, you know, wanting to have jobs where we were still connected to the land in some sort of way. So, he worked with dairy farmers. I went to work for a natural foods co-op in Middlebury, Vermont as a buyer and this was in 2011 when we really started to see gluten free [items].
…Having a background in cheese making, I was always a bit disgruntled about the crackers that were available to pair with cheese, and I’ve been a lifelong baker as well. And so, I started doing baking demos for customers, and one of the things that I would repeatedly hear when I would bake with buckwheat was, “I didn’t know buckwheat was gluten free because of the name, and then they didn’t know anything else that you could do with it other than put it in pancakes … So I started showing people other ways to use buckwheat.
[At the time,] my husband was responsible for dairy farmers throughout New England, and we were spending a lot of time in Maine … and that was where I saw buckwheat growing, and we were leaning towards moving. You know, I had loved my job, but as a buyer I was always looking at ingredients and packaging… and there was always a bug in my ear that would say, “You could make something [with buckwheat]…. You could do this.” It was fun making cheese and selling that, and so you know, why not try something else? I told my husband: “I’m happy to move. And I want to start a specialty food business. I’m gonna make something with buckwheat.” …It will be nine years this fall that since I launched.
Know Your Value: What’s your advice to women who are thinking about making a career for pivot, especially if they are mid-career?
Getz: If it’s something you want to do, figure out a way that you can, even if you take baby steps and start small, even if it’s something that you do on the side to get started.
… Get your idea out there. Talk to other people. Get that feedback, and you know, you won’t always get the positive feedback. In my experience [I frequently heard] from buyers, “Well, we already have something like this.” You’re gonna get a lot of no’s, but you have to keep getting out there and connecting. An if it’s something you really believe in, your excitement will be contagious.”
Know Your Value: One challenge you encountered when you were creating your company was during your search for a commercial kitchen.
You found the right space, but you couldn’t afford the rent -- so you had to get scrappy. Tell us what happened and the lesson you learned.
Getz: So, I couldn’t say no to this space. It was literally four blocks from my house. It had been a restaurant briefly, but just more of like a to-go restaurant. There wasn’t all of this infrastructure built in. It was basically an open room with an exhaust hood and some sinks, which was perfect for me. So I went ahead and took the lease. There was a salon upstairs, and it was a constant -- people coming and going upstairs to use the salon for hair, massages, manicures. And I had the idea that OK, Maine Crisp isn’t big enough yet, but I could bake other things and have some coffee and sell it to these people coming and going. So that’s what I did. I set up a little coffee station and I started baking other gluten-free items, whether it was cookies, granola bars, granola or pumpkin loaves. But buckwheat was the base of all of those things, and I would get feedback. Plus, I would sell … That was how I was able to pay the rent…
I also sold my Subaru, and I bought another convection oven so that I could, you know, make more…
It wasn’t like I had money saved up to start this. I had a credit card, and I thought, I can do it on the skinny. I can figure it out…
Know Your Value: In 2019, you were diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery and radiation. I know you really had to rely on your daughter during what must have been an extremely difficult time. Can you tell us a little bit about that time, and what if any business lessons you learned?
Getz: [My diagnosis] was completely out of the blue, and a surprise. I asked my daughter Claire to help me for like three weeks, and then she ended up staying and working for me. So, you know, it’s tough working with a family member and knowing that sometimes you can be too close, and you might have two different styles, especially with a mother-daughter relationship…
…But when I was diagnosed, I was going to have to have surgery and not be allowed to lift anything. And she was like, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.” And knowing that I had somebody taking care of what I started -- like I could focus on healing and not have to worry if things were being done correctly … To have somebody like that as your right-hand person is amazing… And she has grown with the business since then, and runs all of our production.
Know Your Value: At one point in your career, you were really struggling with self -doubt and you ended up reading Mika Brzezinski’s book “Know Your Value.” Tell me about that time in your life, and what the biggest lessons you took away from that book,
Getz: I came across Mika Brzezinski’s book “Know Your Value,” and I read it, and it instantly resonated with me because [I had been experiencing] some of the feelings …of self-doubt. And I don’t understand. Like why as women do we have this self-doubt? When you know, if I looked at something logically, of things that I’ve done, I’m like I shouldn’t have that self-doubt, but we do.
It was a struggle as we were bringing in investors, and as we were bringing in a different management teams … I didn’t learn in a classroom, and so I found myself doubting my own abilities, because I didn’t go to culinary school, I didn’t go to learn and get a cheese makers license. But I managed to, you know, produce award-winning food products that were in some of the best restaurants in the country … What I loved about that book was Mika showing what her own negotiations were at NBC… I think you have to figure out how to be taken seriously and credible, but still be you …It’s learning to have more of a quiet confidence …. I’m doing better [with self-confidence]. I wouldn’t say it’s 100 percent … But Know Your Value, that’s something that just resonated with me, and just the sentence, and repeating that to myself [has been helpful].
Know Your Value: What’s next for you and Maine Crisp?
Getz: We’re going into all the Sprout stores with our new Better With Buckwheat crackers and our crisps. We are going to look at other products so we can be the buckwheat brand across the U.S. We have other flavors of crackers. There will be cookies. And we really want to help people understand why buckwheat is so great. There’s the nutritional perspective of it’s a gluten-free grain, low glycemic and a complete protein. On farming side … it’s such an easy crop to grow … Farmers use it as a cover crop … so it gets plugged back in it releases nutrients in the soil for crops, and it’s pollinator friendly… And we’re supporting farmers directly …We’re paying them a fair price that they need to make their farms help make their farms sustainable …we’re gonna continue to grow, and you’re gonna start to see us more and more across the country.