Interview with Howard Manning

As a teen living in the country I was fascinated by the Indians' use of native plants for food, clothing and shelter and began making my own native plant recipes. I led a night club band in San Diego, then enlisted in the US Navy during Viet Nam. When I got out I completed a BA in Art with a minor in music at San Diego State University. I continued to work with native plants, providing foods for pow-wows and charity money-raising events. I joined motorcycle safety course founder Luke Lucarelli , CHP as an instructor, then founded my own motorcycle safety course at SDSU, which ran for 7 years. I gained a Master of Science in Safety from USC, leading to a 15-year long career as a safety engineer with Northrop Grumman Corporation. While there, two friends and I partnered to make native plant snack foods , calling it Harvestin' Howard. Our acorn meal tortilla chips and elderberry jelly sold well at Mountain Brew Coffee Houses in Running Springs, Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. We turned our logo character into a werewolf comic. When I was laid off at Northrop during a downsizing, I joined Cal/OSHA as an associate safety engineer, working 9 years for the State of California investigating workplace injuries and fatalities. I continued working on the werewolf comic book and made acorn chips for friends. I reached age 65 last year just as Governor Schwarzenegger threatened to lay off large numbers of state workers during a budget conflict. I felt it was time to resurrect Harvestin Howard as an LLC, and that it would require my full-time attention. I ran head-on into LA health department regulators, city governments, and tortillerias that had not seen something like this before and did not know what to do. I'm excited about the potential for this enterprise.


When did you decide that you wanted to become an entrepreneur?

I had made acorn chips for company parties and family get-togethers for years and dabbled with making them commercially once or twice. I retired from my job last September and thought, this is the time.


How did you come up with the idea for your business (both comic and chips, which came first)?

The chips came first. A friend and I began our first attempt to make the chips in 1996 and needed a logo. We came up with a good-natured homeless guy who harvests things growing on the street to help other homeless folks. Soon it was a comic book as well. My partner came up with the name “Harvestin’ Howard” to tease me about my love of native plant foods.


Who was your greatest inspiration in creating the content for the comic?

The werewolf evolved from reading Mark of the Werewolf by Jeffrey Sackett. Don Hunter, the main character, has a lot of my dad’s mannerisms and belief that calm and reason eventually saves the day. The once corrupt/now reforming cop idea sprung from Raphael Perez, the cop involved in the Ramparts scandal. Some of actor Brian Denehey’s characters inspired Col. Cobb, the bad guy.


What makes your comic unique considering all the competition in this packed market?

There have been a number of werewolf comics, but the combination of Don Hunter’s gentle reasonableness in the face of the mad world around him, the comic’s raising awareness of the problems of the homeless and aged, the complex nature of the werewolf, and the comic’s featuring of native plant foods give the age-old story of good versus evil a new flavor.


How do you generate new ideas (for both food and comic)?

In addition to acorns, there are at least five or six ignored native or introduced food plants out there on city streets and private lawns that exist in great enough quantities to be commercially exploited and made into tasty snacks. Havestin’ Howard LLC plans to eventually expand into products involving washingtonia palmfruit, carob beans, olives, mulberries, mesquite beans, and natal plums. In addition, Harvestin’ Howard has been testing a yam chip which does not scorch, brown, or become overly hard.

Stuart Niesen and I sat down and wrote out the plot for Harvestin’ Howard many years ago, then refined it. In the comic, each of the main characters has enough substance to occasionally merit an issue devoted to their daily life. In addition, the main plot resolves after 13 issues with a resolution which leaves room for further adventures.


What was the most difficult part in getting started in a food business?

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Food and Milk Section had never encountered a business harvesting acorns from city street trees. The safe thing to do when you don’t know what is being proposed is to say no. At first they said acorns were poisonous. Then, that I did not have an approved source of acorns, but could not direct me to someone to approve them. I got approval from a high level official of the U.S. FDA. The LA DPH then responded that they only answered to the State Department of Food and Agriculture. I then got permission from a high level official of the CA Dept. of Food and Agriculture, at which point the LA office sell silent. This took over a year to accomplish.

The second hardest part has been to find an established tortilleria to make acorn chips. Almost all of them have gone over to making all chips from corn masa. The corn chip machinery makes acorn chips come out thick and hard. My chips have a wheat flour base to avoid the corn flavor dominating the acorn flavor, which is mild. So mine need to be run on a dough sheeter, then slit and deep fried like a corn chip. The tortillerias who do have both a corn and flour line are generally large and don’t want to process small startup orders, and don’t want to risk contaminating their oil with my chips.


How do you assess has the market for premium foods evolved and how does that affect your business model?

This involves two markets: one, for snack chips, and one for premium foods in general. There has evolved a healthy market for premium, imported and unusual foods, while the (corn) snack chip has stagnated. All that can be done with corn chips has already been done: cheese dusting, chili powder dusting, vinegar/salt treatment, ranch dressing, and so forth. It is still a corn chip. Almost all the snack chips now are corn or potato. The market should be ripe for something entirely different, such as acorn, a heritage food of Native Americans, Koreans, Chinese and European gypsies.

The corn chip market has become dominated by one or two large corporations that have been investigated by Congress several times for practices in constraint of trade and who pressure retail outlets not to feature any new products by startups. However, Indian casino restaurants, brew pubs, and independent Mexican restaurants are not as likely to give in to such pressure, and are likely customers. This is the direction Harvestin’ Howard LLC is taking.


How important has the internet become in your business to market both the comic and the snacks?

Similar to the corn chip market, the comic book market is dominated by two large corporations with many small independent authors trying to be recognized. One way to be noticed is to go to the internet, thus leaping over the paper blockade in brick and mortar publishing. Since Harvestin’ Howard LLC will be selling wholesale to restaurants, the main advantage of the internet is in creating demand and awareness.


What was the most crucial thing you have done to grow your business?

Based on a referral from my son, who attended the California State University Dominguez Hills with him, I’ve consulted with Markus Biegel, a business consultant with expertise in a number of fields. He has been working with me to focus my business plan and general marketing strategy, and developed my website.


What has been one of your failures, and what have you learned from it?

My biggest failure was going off in all directions at first. In addition, the crash of the stock market left me undercapitalized. Markus has helped me focus on just the acorn chips and comic book.


Warren Buffet one said "Your premium brand better be delivering something special, or it's not going to get the business.” What are your thoughts on that quote?

Harvestin’ Howard LLC acorn chips do deliver something special: they are at this writing the rarest, best-tasting snack chip to come along in many years, and go well with premium beer and food. We have validated this many times over, getting positive feedback from brewpubs in the South bay area. Harvestin’ Howard LLC provided the acorn chips for the Morongo Fall Harvest Festival pow-wow several years ago and received a standing ovation at the end of the festival. In 2006 we provided several hundred pounds of acorn chips to the El Camino College Native American Club benefit pow-wow. The chips were a success and helped the club raise a substantial amount of money.


Charles Schwab once said that "The man who does not work for the love of work but only for money is not likely to make money nor find much fun in life." What are your thoughts on that quote?

I have been making foods from native plants for over 40 years as an amateur, for no money. I enjoy cooking and finding things in nature that are good to eat and have been forgotten. Neither the comic nor the chips will make much more money in the near term, but the journey itself is compelling. If it makes money, all the better.


Henry Ford is quoted on saying that “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor kind of business.” What are your thoughts on that quote?

Harvestin’ Howard LLC plans to make much more than money. The business model is based on a vision of using the street, park, and residential trees of a city as a virtual orchard, and hiring the long-term unemployed first as pickers, then certify them on equipment such as aerial lifts, forklifts, commercial truck license, warehousing, foodmaking, and PC. This would be in conjunction with a charitable organization and the involved city government. Thus, the workers would gain marketable skills they could take with them, and the city would gain as well. As I discussed, many municipal trees and bushes have food value: acorns, black walnuts, carob beans, palm kernels, mulberries, elderberries, and natal plums. The consumer would gain from experiencing new and different taste treats, knowing they were helping their fellow man.


What advice would you give an entrepreneur who is just starting out from scratch?

Do your homework, make sure you are adequately capitalized, get a lot of independent opinions on the merits of your product, and be sure to plow your first profits back into the business. Be in it for the long haul, and don’t mistreat your workers. They ARE your company.


Company Description:

Harvestin Howard LLC makes tasty, unconventional snacks, some based on heritage foods of native peoples. Our first product is an acorn meal and wheat flour tortilla chip made exclusively for micro-brewpubs and Indian casinos. Other products will follow.

In addition, we publish a comedy/horror comic, "Harvestin' Howard" about a werewolf on skid row trying to redeem himself from his curse, help the homeless with wild foods, and assist the police in bringing the murderous CEO of a large meatpacking plant to justice.

Website: http://www.HarvestinHoward.com

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