George Salmas is the Managing Principal of The Food Lawyers, a law firm providing legal services to all businesses specializing in the food industry. He earned his law degree from UCLA and was a Navy Lieutenant JAG officer handling courts-martial in Greece, Spain, Morocco, and even ships at sea. George has over 25 years of experience in total representing US and multinational food companies.
Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:
George Salmas breaks down the work of The Food Lawyers
The reasons for niching into the food industry
Tips for gaining clients’ trust
George’s advice for young entrepreneurs
The Food Lawyers’ customer success stories
What is Prop 65 casework?
George shares his insights about AI and its impacts
Tips for winning more customers
In this episode…
It's no secret that owning or managing a food-related company can be a recipe for legal trouble. The pressure can often be overwhelming when underprepared. These legal issues outside of the kitchen can keep businesses from focusing on what they do best.
All of this is to be expected. Food law can be complicated and confusing for the uninitiated. It entails dealing with many things, including FDA and USDA regulatory issues, class action defense, trademarks, contracts, litigation, and many more details. George Salmas recommends hiring law firms that work intimately with the food industry — experts that understand the sector to offer them full-service representation and help them flourish.
In this episode of The Customer Wins, Richard Walker sits down with George Salmas, Managing Principal of The Food Lawyers, to discuss his journey in food law. George explains the reasons for niching into the food industry, tips for gaining clients’ trust, The Food Lawyers’ customer success stories, and how to win more customers.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
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Welcome to The Customer Wins podcast where business leaders discuss their secrets and techniques for helping their customers succeed and in turn grow their business.
Richard Walker 0:16
Hi, I'm Rich Walker, the host of The Customer Wins, where I talk to business leaders about how they help their customers win, and how their focus on customer experience leads to growth. past guests have included Mark Firmin CEO of eTreme and Mike Row Chief Revenue Officer for Future Capital. Today I'm speaking with George Salmas, managing principal at The Food Lawyers. Now today's episode is brought to you by Quik! the leader in enterprise forms processing. When the last step to earn your clients business requires processing forms, don't ruin a good relationship with a bad experience. Instead, get Quik Forms to make processing forms a great experience and the easiest part of your transaction, visit quikforms.com to get started. Now before I introduce today's guest, I have to give a big thank you to Mark Thomas of The Entrepreneur's Source for introducing me to George. Mark helps people transition their career into entrepreneurship. And we all need more entrepreneurs. So go Mark, and he's also a Vistage Chair. Okay, I'm really excited to introduce George Salmas, managing principal, The Food Lawyers, George earned his law degree from UCLA law school and was a Navy Lieutenant JAG officer handling courts martial in Greece, Spain, Morocco, and even ships at sea. George leads The Food Lawyers representing food importers, manufacturers and brand owners. His firm defends class actions in federal court and currently defends over 70, California prop 65 cases, I also have to add, because I've known George for quite some time, that he has earned his spot as one of only a handful of true experts in legal matters related to food products. George, welcome to The Customer Wins.
George Salmas 1:57
Rich, it's great to be here. And always great to talk to you.
Richard Walker 2:00
Now, if you haven't heard this podcast before I talk with business leaders about what they're doing to help their customers win, how they build and deliver a great customer experience and the challenges to grow in their own company. George, I want to understand your business a little better. How does your company help people.
George Salmas 2:15
Rich, we, in the food industry, there's lots of pressures on the people that manage or own the company. There's FDA USDA regulatory pressures, there's class actions, there's various kinds of competitors, things going on. And whenever someone comes to us, they're already having a problem. I mean, they're already coming to us with some difficulty. And our focus is to take that off their back to relieve their stress, and to handle these situations that we've handled so many times. So one client told me, she was George run the law business at all, you're in the stress relief business, and you're really good at it. So that's how we see ourselves helping people.
Richard Walker 3:00
I love how you said that. Because, I'm in financial services for the most part. And I think people think of lawyers as just lawyers, right? You're reading case law, and you're applying it to things. But you're so right, you're helping people through the drama and the challenge of what they're in. Why food? How did you get started in food.
George Salmas 3:20
There was a time when about half our clients for food companies. And a good friend of mine, a professor at USC, and entrepreneurship named Patrick Henry, who tells me he's related to the other Patrick Henry suggested we call ourselves the food lawyers. And that forced us to become really, really specialized, and really develop a lot of skills in that discipline. So that's how it happened. It's been great for us,
Richard Walker 3:46
And that's also another really big lesson that entrepreneurs need to hear. Because having a niche is really, really hard to swallow. It's hard to come to that conclusion and say, Yes, we're going to focus on it. How hard was that decision for you guys?
George Salmas 3:59
It took three or four years, because just what you said, the person always feels like what am I missing out on by being in his niche? And the answer is, if you're powerful in the niche, the rest of the stuff doesn't matter. And that's very hard to internalize. You can understand it intellectually. But to really take it in and use it. It took us three or four years.
Richard Walker 4:24
How long have you been a lawyer? How long? Have you been both a lawyer and the food lawyer?
George Salmas 4:28
December 18 2024. I will have been a lawyer for 50 years.
Richard Walker 4:35
Oh, my goodness.
George Salmas 4:36
That was the day I was sworn in, in federal court. That's I know that day. I've been a food lawyer for over 20 years.
Richard Walker 4:43
So you pretty much know everything. I mean, you have all the hidden secrets of what's going on in the food industry, right?
George Salmas 4:49
I going to say yes, even though yourself?
Richard Walker 4:53
Yeah, and I don't know that we should mention client names because I know you've represented some really big brands that a lot of people consume and enjoy, or even fought some of the ones that are out there too, I'm sure. But I'm curious when we come back to how you help your customers when it's stress relief, as you said, but ultimately, what is it you're doing? I mean, are you the guy in court yelling and screaming at the other lawyer and the judge and all that stuff? Is that dramatic? What is that you do?
George Salmas 5:20
A lot of times, we do try about, we have federal trial, like once every couple of years, which is actually a lot. There's a lot of litigators in town litigators, that had never tried a case in their lives. But they handled litigation and they settle it all, they never go to court. But a lot of the stuff we do is just advisory, we had a case where a company on the East Coast family-owned during a couple billion dollars a year in sales got challenged by a competitor that was like, 20 times bigger. And they thought they were in a real blind. And they brought me in to handle the problem. And I did. And you know, it's sometimes like, at one point, they were considering having a recall over something on a label. And I told the board, we're not having to recall, that's not going to take place, forget about it, we will lose more market share during that, than if we just litigate with these clowns, and I'm not gonna let that happen either. And we aren't maneuvered him in the bad guys went away. So that's an example of what I do that never gets in the papers. If it did, I didn't succeed.
Richard Walker 6:29
I hear the Bulldog in your voice coming out these clowns.
George Salmas 6:34
Yeah. And the clients need somebody that you count on in the crunch. And so yeah, that's important.
Richard Walker 6:40
So that's something I was thinking about, you know, being accountable. So if somebody comes to and they have a problem, how do they know they can trust you? How do you engender the ability for them to say, I will relieve that stress by trusting you with this problem?
George Salmas 6:55
That's a great question. What I do is, I just talked to him, I let him ask me questions about their case, I tell them early on, hey, whether you hire us or not, this is attorney-client privilege. So you can say as much as you want, or as little as you want, but it's gonna stay with me. And then I go, so I can and they start talking. And I started feeling their questions and telling him how I see things. And at the end of that, they almost always say, okay, why don't we start? It's just being myself.
Richard Walker 7:24
Yeah. Now, I mentioned early in the intro, that you've earned the spot as a food expert. Do you think that I mean, early on 20 years ago, before you called yourself the food layers, that you had that expertise? What was the differentiating factor that you attract all these food companies that they would give you that trust?
George Salmas 7:41
It's interesting. In the old days, you didn't have as many face-to-face meetings on the fly. But nowadays, you can have a video meeting like that take place. In the old days, y'all have a lot more time to prepare before you went and met with somebody. And so that's how you're gonna win well prepared, written. Now, after more than 20 years of doing this, I can have a video meeting. And I pretty much know what questions they're going to ask before they ask them. So just that experience allows me to be to show them they can count on me.
Richard Walker 8:12
Yeah, that's something I've talked to a lot of entrepreneurs about. And one of my favorite sayings is your first idea is not your best idea is the one that gets you going. But it gets you going into a focus and into a discipline where you spend enough time you start to see the patterns start to recognize how things work. And then you have that expertise that you build upon? What would you counsel to somebody brand new to becoming a lawyer or financial adviser any career to how to stick into it and stay with it long enough to become the expert you've become,
George Salmas 8:40
You've got to make a big investment in yourself problems you're going to come along, that are going to cost you more to learn how to handle, then you're going to make on that specific case, especially at the beginning, take the time to learn how to do it correctly, because it's going to come back, and then you're gonna get the payoff. And you'll be experienced. If you're not willing to make that investment in yourself and in your skills, get out of the business, because you just want to do the same thing over and over. We don't get the same problem ever exactly. Every case that we get is different. And we have to give a different thought. And that's why I enjoy the work. Make an investment in yourself.
Richard Walker 9:21
And that is so good to hear George, I've started my first business when I was 12. So that was quite some time ago, I started over 10 different ventures and companies. And even in my current company, we're in year 22 of our business. I find myself exploring and playing with things like I play with AI tools all the time. And I asked myself, is this a good use of my time? I mean, am I just wasting time being interested in something, but what you just said makes so much sense that I'm investing in myself to learn these skills and see different things out there. That is so important to do. Great advice. Tell me a success story, somebody that came to you with a problem and you help them figure it out? I don't know, did you ever take them to the Supreme Court?
George Salmas 10:06
never been in the Supreme Court. But an interesting story, a case we handled a few years ago, I had a client that had one major competitor. These are the two base guys in the country in this ethnic food. And they were both doing super well. And my guy wanted to know how big his competitor was, how much business he was doing. And yeah, there was no information available. The grocery store scanning didn't cover these goods. There's just this wasn't there. So I asked him a bunch of questions. And I extracted from them that there was an ingredient that came in a tanker truck that went to his competitor. And if he knew how many of those tanker trucks went in, and then there was a byproduct that came out a different tanker truck, if you knew how much of those were going in and out in a week, you know all the information he needs to know how much product the guy makes. So with that, we reconnoitered that we had a big budget, by the way, the cost is no object for this guy, we reconnoiter the factory of the adversary, and discovered that they had one date for all trucks coming in and out. And it was across the street from a cheesy motel. So we hired a we hired a private detective firm, because they have the logistics. And they had two people in there 24 hours a day, for a week, which was really expensive. And they had a camera aimed through a bedroom, a bathroom window at that gate. And they recorded that gate 24/7 for seven days. And then we distilled it down and counted the statistics. And the client, he knew exactly how much business they were doing based on that intelligence. And he changed the location of his own game so that someone couldn't do it to him.
Richard Walker 12:01
Oh, my goodness. I mean, that's like movie stuff. I didn't think about that. I thought law work was all about litigation and sending letters back and forth.
George Salmas 12:11
No, the most fun part is stuff like that when you're presented with a strange problem. And there's a lot riding on it, and you come up with a creative solution. That's the best part of my job. We enjoy going to court because it's challenging, but the stuff like that is a lot of fun.
Richard Walker 12:28
Yeah. Okay, so tell me about this Prop 65 casework, what does that represent? And how is that different from other stuff you do?
George Salmas 12:37
Prop 65, if you've ever seen like at Starbucks, that sign that says, Warning products on his premises contain chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and or birth defects? Okay, that's a Prop 65 warning. And what they're saying is, there's chemicals in the products there that potentially could cause problems. In California for products sold in California, individually, have to have that warning on. And the vast majority of companies don't know that. So by the time they find out they've already been served with a lawsuit, and then we end up defending them. Sometimes it's a lawsuit sometimes it's just a notice, but we're going to defend you.
Richard Walker 13:21
Oh, wow. So does that just mean fixing it? Is that a fix it ticket?
George Salmas 13:25
It depends. We had a case right now, I'm going to hide the ball a little bit, but I'll tell you that it involved. I'm going to say all of in Brian. Okay. Is that what it is? I'm gonna say that to hide the ball. And so the client gets the notice. And one of our so we're having a meeting video meeting with the client and one of our attorneys. I'm not going to say her name, she would be embarrassed. But she's a PhD in micro molecular biology from Johns Hopkins. And then she went to Berkeley Law School. And then she did environmental trials for the EPA. And now she's working with us. So we're sitting there, and she said, she looks at me, she says, I wonder if they tested just the olives, or also the brain? Because I wonder if that would be different. So yeah, so now, she thought of that right away. We tested it. And sure enough, the heavy metals were in the brain, not in the olives. And so we won the case, just based on that insight. It's nice to surround yourself with geniuses.
Richard Walker 14:33
Yeah, right? No, you always should. So okay, that's one way to measure success. But how do you overall tell if your customers are happy with you, and you're being successful for them?
George Salmas 14:43
You're gonna laugh. They always pay their bills. And when they get in a bind, we're the first person they think of, so those are the two measures that we go by? Do they like us? I don't know. I mean, they probably identify us with problems because that's when the context is used, right? When they're in a bind, where the first person they call and it gets high measure success.
Richard Walker 15:06
Okay, do you have an idea of what your retention rate is? How many clients you retain? Or is that hard to measure? Because they don't always have a problem?
George Salmas 15:14
Exactly. We might hear from somebody for four or five years, and then I get a phone call. And it's like, he talked to me yesterday, George, listen. So I just don't know. I mean, I can tell you this. I've never seen one of our clients represented by somebody else. That's out there.
Richard Walker 15:33
Okay, so I have a totally different question. In financial advisement, a lot of the times the financial advisor and the planner is playing the role of psychologist, they're helping people go through the motions of market changes, or life events and things like that. How much of your job is psychology with your client?
George Salmas 15:50
I mean, I think probably a fair amount. But we try to keep away from that I try to keep it more focused on the facts. I had a phone call earlier today. And we made a really, really good deal for a client a transaction. But at the end, the bad guy, the adversary was nickel and diming him, and the client got really upset. And he goes, I'm gonna tell these guys to go. And I said, Wait, wait, I said, we robbed the bank on this deal. Now we're just paying for parking on the getaway car. Let's just get in the car and drive off. And he goes, Yeah, you know George, you're right. I said, Good. Let's just not be smug. Let's just get this guy have his little, his little nickels and dimes. And we laugh and yours. Okay. So that if that psychology, I guess it is, but I'm keeping them focused on the deal.
Richard Walker 16:40
Now it is in a way, because you are giving them stability, and the water that they're treading. I mean, the very few times I've had legal tussles like I get a cease and desist letter or something like that. Your heart's racing, you're like, what does this mean? How does this impact me? What do I have to do to change it? I mean, my wife starting a new business, and she's worried about getting something like that. And I'm like, don't worry about it. But you are playing that role, right? You are helping people calm down and go through the situation better, relieving your stress?
George Salmas 17:09
In a situation like that people want strength. They want somebody that's seen this before, and is not rattled by it. And I've seen it a lot of times, and I'm not rattled. So yeah, in that sense, but we're once again, we're relieving stress, we're taking the stress out of their problem and focus on the issues.
Richard Walker 17:26
Okay. So this leads me down to another question I have which I love to talk about artificial intelligence, are you at risk of losing your job to AI?
George Salmas 17:33
I don't believe so. It's funny. I attended some seminars on AI and learned about where its deficiencies are. But there is a actually a well-known law firm in Washington DC that file just about a month ago, filed a brief in federal court, where a lot of the research was done by AI. And the cases were completely fictitious. The AI just made up a precedent that didn't exist. And the judge blew a fuse. And it was an all illegal publications, when certain things happen, I get an email, I subscribe to services that send me emails, and I got one on this, and the attorneys were really embarrassed by it. And to tell you the truth, they probably got a lot of publicity. But now AI has its place, but you got to be careful.
Richard Walker 18:28
Wow, what a fantastic failure.
George Salmas 18:33
And they asked AI, they asked the AI engine the question, are these cases correct? Are these holdings correct? Came back was yes.
Richard Walker 18:44
Oh, wow. Wow. I mean, oftentimes, when we talk about AI, we're talking about what's coming. But we're not talking about how it's potentially harming situations. I mean, imagine the lawyers on that case, were reprimanded, or even, I mean, they could have been fined or who knows what, that's really, really serious. Okay, let's take it from a different perspective. How do you see AI changing or impacting the experience you deliver to your customers?
George Salmas 19:10
I think I think ultimately, we do a lot of computerized research where we sign into a search engine, and we say, give me the cases that talk about so and so. And you get the case and you look at it. So I think AI is going to improve that process of identifying precedents that are useful, but to have aI write a brief, and it's a little scary.
Richard Walker 19:34
Yeah, no, that definitely is. Yeah, I'm looking towards the future where it helps you get information, gather information, process information. Fact, I just interviewed somebody whose company reads trusts and wills and tax returns to try to understand the information about those they can advise their clients on what was said and what was actually put into practice. Do you think your clients are using AI to not need you as much.
George Salmas 20:02
No, because they can't even, maybe I'm wrong, but I doubt it because they don't even understand the issues. And I like this thing about the brain. I'm not sure the rest of us would have thought of it. But that lady that said, she's a scientist, and that was the first thing that came to her mind is just kind of asked us that question. We all looked at her and said, let's check it out. And she won the case for us. I don't know that AI could do that.
Richard Walker 20:27
Yeah, I kind of agree. I've had this conversation many times that I don't think AI is going to replace anybody's job. I think people who leverage AI and gain better skills, and therefore efficiency can replace people who haven't learned those skills.
George Salmas 20:40
That I agree with. Yep. That I totally agree with. Yeah.
Richard Walker 20:43
So do you think that you'll have, I don't know more efficiency with paralegals and your staff or because I agree the creativity needs of a human brain to see things from different perspectives, especially the one that you've honed for your entire career cannot be replaced. But do you see a lot more automation coming?
George Salmas 21:01
You know Rich, I don't know. I mean, it's a great question. We don't use paralegals now, because of the sophistication of the problems that we handle. Right now that lady attorney, I assigned her a project that she's never done before. But I gave her an outline. She's killing it. She's just doing a brilliant job. I got an intermediate draft. And I said, this is just fabulous. I don't think I could do something like that. I think when you have a person that is dedicated, and has that kind of education, I think that's a one-stop opportunity.
Richard Walker 21:33
Yeah, yeah. So George, I'm curious. You've been in business for so long. I mean, especially as a lawyer, you're a leader, you're in your community. I'm sure tons and tons of food companies know you. What kind of tips or secrets could you share with other business leaders to help them win more clients or help their clients win more with what they're doing, anything come to mind?
George Salmas 21:53
Well, you've always got to be ethical. I mean, there's always opportunities to cheat. And you always want to be aboveboard, that's critical. If you don't respect yourself, your clients aren't gonna respect you. And you got to really give 100% At least I do. I try to, you really dedicate yourself to the client's cries. And that is credibility, if they really know that you care about what's going on. And you have skin in the game. They appreciate it, and they'll earn your respect.
Richard Walker 22:25
Yeah, I love that. I feel like if you don't have a passion for the customer, how are you really going to do well, with your business? I mean, your product only do so much for you the rest? Is your service, your ethic, like you said, and who you are to them?
George Salmas 22:39
I totally agree. I couldn't agree more. I ultimately its people to people.
Richard Walker 22:45
Yes, absolutely. So look, as we wrap this up, I have another question for you. But before I ask it, what are the best ways for people to connect with you?
George Salmas 22:53
The easiest thing in the world is to remember thefoodlawyers.com If you go to that, if you put in on the URL line, thefoodlawyers.com you get to our website, our team's emails are there are some background, you'll find me. Easiest thing in the world.
Richard Walker 23:12
Yeah. And I want people to go there and just see the different items you put into the cityscape. The picture of a city that's not just a city. I love that photo.
George Salmas 23:23
Yeah, some very creative people did that. For us. People enjoy it for sure.
Richard Walker 23:28
Yeah. All right. So here's my last question, who has had the biggest impact on your leadership style, or how you approach what you do?
George Salmas 23:37
For who I am right now, there's a gentleman named Glenn Gow. And he is a coach of those two people. Glenn is one. He's a coach of CEOs. And I attended a couple of his lectures. And he changed the way I approach problems. So when you've been doing something for one way, 48 years, and you change the way you do it, that's pretty large. It's been very helpful. The other one is a guy on the internet on YouTube named Tim Hahn. And he just says lots of good actionable advice on how to improve yourself. And I listened to one of his videos every morning, and it gets to be pointed in the right direction.
Richard Walker 24:21
I love that. And several of my guests have mentioned something similar that you need to be a student. You need to be improving yourself along the way. And I know personally, I mean to be in my own company for over 20 years. If I wasn't improving myself and finding joy in doing that I wouldn't be in my current role still.
George Salmas 24:38
Rich. I've been doing this for as long as I have. I've learned you never arrive. You don't end up someplace and now I know how to do it. You're constantly adjusting, constantly learning, and I couldn't agree with you more. If you think you're going to get somewhere and then stop learning, you better forget it's not going to happen.
Richard Walker 24:55
That's right. It's not well, what's the other way? Not the destination, the journey but you're right. It's You don't ever arrive, you hit a new milestone you set a new one and go on, go on and go on. Totally. George has been so great to talk to you. I so appreciate it. So I want to say thank you to George Salmas managing principal, The Food Lawyers for being on this episode of The Customer Wins. Go check out his website at thefoodlawyers.com. Make sure you sign up for his really entertaining newsletter. And of course, don't forget to check out my company Quik! at quikforms.com where we make processing forms easy. I hope you've enjoyed this discussion and we'll click the like button, share this with someone and subscribe to our channels for future episodes of The Customer Wins. George, thank you so much for joining me today.
George Salmas 25:41
Rich totally enjoyed it. My pleasure. Have a great day guy. Take care.
Thanks for listening to The Customer Wins podcast. We'll see you again next time and be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes.