Jeremy Lekich, founder of Nashville Foodscapes, has been working with residents of Nashville, Tennessee, to create edible landscapes since 2011. What started as a college requirement quickly turned into a passion—and ultimately a business—for this Nashville native.
Lekich’s belief in educating others about food and his talent for designing beautiful, functional landscapes has resulted in features from NPR and The Daily Meal, to name a few. He sat down with us to answer a few questions about how he fell into foodscaping, his experience as a small business owner and about the importance of finding the right people when growing.
Q: Has growing and gardening always been a passion of yours?
A: Not really. I grew up in suburban Nashville. My parents would take me to Radnor Lake—and maybe they had a small garden—but it was never an active part of my life growing up. It was in college that I discovered a love and passion for gardening and growing food. It just totally consumed me, and I haven’t turned back.
Q: What exactly sparked your interest in gardening, and how did that lead to the foundation of Nashville Foodscapes?
A: I went to a small work college near Asheville, NC called Warren Wilson College. It’s a work college, meaning every student has to work 15 hours a week as part of their education… You can do everything from washing dishes to working on the farm there, to building instruments and renovating buildings.
I was on the landscaping crew, and we took care of the entire landscape grounds, as well as an edible foodscape in front of the eco-dorm. The landscaping supervisor there was very different from most of your conventional landscapers; he really loved using native plants and creating landscapes that looked pretty wild. Between that and working on the landscape, I really grew to love learning about these plants. And being down in the foodscape, I was learning to grow all these foods. I would give tours to visitors of the college—parents of new students and existing students and all kinds of people. And after hearing 20 times, “Oh my god, it’s so beautiful! I want this in my front yard or my backyard!” I was like, maybe I should consider starting a business doing this!
Originally my major was biochemistry, and I spent a lot of time in the laboratory, and I pretty quickly realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that. I really wanted to spend the rest of my life outside and working with plants. That kind of laid the foundation for Nashville Foodscapes. My last year of college I took some business classes and started formulating a business plan and coming up with names and doing market research.
Q: So is your overarching mission, then, to promote urban farming?
A: I’m hesitant to use that phrase because when people think of farming, they think of rows of vegetables, and this is somewhat different. I would say we’re spreading a culture of food can be grown in our everyday landscapes. It doesn’t have to be regulated to a little garden or to a farm somewhere; it can be integrated into our everyday landscapes. So that’s my main goal and mission is to show that growing food can be very beautiful.
Q: Let’s talk about funding. Did you have to raise a lot of capital to get Nashville Foodscapes off the ground?
A: I had to purchase a truck and a trailer and tools, but I would say the overhead was low compared to other businesses… But there was definitely an investment of time and money and energy in starting it. For about a year and a half—or maybe two years, even—I was waiting tables part-time, and I was using that money not only to pay my bills, but also to build up our tools and using some of that money for marketing. And so I was definitely investing money into getting the company going.
“This has very much been a bootstrapped, slow-going process. I’ve actually started another business since then with two other partners called Compost Nashville, and we offer a composting service for people who don’t want to do it at home. And it’s been the same way. We talked about going the investor route, and we were like, ‘You know what, let’s do the bootstrap way,’ because then you’re only accountable to yourself and your clients… I really am proud and happy with the way that we started.
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced—or continue to face—as a small business owner?
A: The challenges of starting a new business are many. For being in what we consider an entrepreneurial country … they sure do make it difficult for people to start businesses. Part of it was being able to pay for all that insurance and worker’s comp—all the protections you need as a new business. That’s expensive.
The other is that balance of knowing when your business becomes your livelihood, and when do you still need to maintain that second job. For me it was waiting tables; there was definitely that transition of, “OK, I’m almost making enough money to quit this job, but not quite yet.” And it was definitely a leap of faith when I did quit that job and make this my main livelihood.
Another challenge is growing a business. They say that one of the biggest failures of new business is growing too big too fast. We’ve run into that a couple times—we got all this demand, and I tried to meet it, and then our quality would go down because we were trying to do too many projects. It was learning that and finally saying, ‘Hey, sorry, we’re maxed for this Spring. We can put you on the list for this fall.’ And also, hiring someone full-time. I was at a point where I needed someone full time, but I couldn’t necessarily afford them. What I ended up doing was hiring someone full-time, and it really hurt. There were times when I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pay myself anything that next month, but I had to go through that to get to the point where we were a bigger company. So there’s the challenge of not growing too big too fast but also growing and having to make some sacrifices to make that happen.
Q: Speaking of growth, where do you see Nashville Foodscapes in the next five years?
A: I’m not trying to be a millionaire, but it’s a funny balance—until I find the right people, I don’t really want to grow, though I do want to help more and more people grow food. But at the same time, I’m almost at capacity. I can’t do any more work without just not getting enough sleep or not feeling like I’m not spending time with my partner… It’s really a hard balance to strike, and it really took a lot of deep thought for me and coming to terms with what my priorities are.
Q: Any words of wisdom for new or growing startups?
A: Learn a bookkeeping software and get your bookkeeping together in the beginning. That was something I learned later and I’m still trying to get on top of, and I wish it was something that I had just integrated into my life from the beginning because it would make things a lot easier if I had all my bookkeeping stuff together… And get a good accountant, someone you trust who can help you learn that stuff because there’s so much that you can determine for your business if you have a good understanding of your finances.
I would say also don’t hesitate to reach out to people who are in your field to collaborate with them. I have a number of landscapers that I work with, and we especially in the United States have such a competitive mentality. And I don’t think that’s all bad, I think there’s some good things to that, but I think it goes to too much of an extreme. And I have found that everyone wins in the end when you can collaborate with people. There have been a number of jobs I have collaborated with other landscapers on… We brought them on, it was awesome, we had fun, and then they brought us up on a project, and we ended up being able to make more money in the end and have more fun and produce a better product. Reach out and make a community and create collaborative relationships with other people in whatever field you’re in. And I am confident that it will be better off than trying to be an isolated, competitive, bullheaded business person.