#3 – I started a brownie business

If you have read any of my earlier posts or my about me page, you would know I’m at the crossroads of “my life” and a “brownie business.”

Let’s back up a bit first. Brew some tea or coffee, get comfy and let me tell you a little bit about this business I started back in 2010.

In September of 2007 I decided that enough was enough when it came to working for the man and I quit my job. The wife and I packed up our bags and moved from D.C. to Philly so I could start my brownie business. Yes, that’s right I said a brownie business. You know because that is what people do. They graduate from college, even go back for an MBA, secure a good job which they then quit to bake brownies.

I left a nice corporate gig as a marketing analyst to start a business selling brownies. My vision was to be the “Whole Foods” version of Tastykake. In case you don’t know Tastykake makes preservative latent baked goods that last far longer than any baked good should, yet is so deliciously addictive you throw caution to the wind as you ingest ingredients that sound more like they belong in your kitchen cleaner than they do in food.

On the surface it made pretty good business sense. You look at Chipotle and you see that its founder Steve Ellis had a similar inspiration. He fell in love with Mexican taquerias serving fresh, authentic, tacos made from scratch and decided to bring this revolutionary concept to the world of fast food. No longer would it be frozen mystery meat, microwaved with stale lettuce and cheese. Food would be made right in front of you, fast, with fresh, simple ingredients. They way God intended.

Okay I’m done plugging Chipotle, now back to my story.

I started small. My wife and I would bake brownies by day then stay up late at night wrapping and packaging them for sale at the following day’s farmers market. In the beginning I would only do 1-2 markets a week because I was working mostly full time for my Uncle while I got things up and running.

What was going to be a 1 year stent at my uncle’s company, I love my uncle but I figured we would last 6 months, 1 year tops before I quit, he fired me or we both developed an intimate relationship with Jack Daniels.

Then the unthinkable happened, unless you were Christian Bale’s character in the Big Short, the economy collapsed. One bank after another started to collapse, like a contestant from the Biggest Loser who realizes they aren’t going to win and walks straight into a Golden Corral with the mindset of fuck it, if I’m going down I’m going down in a blaze of glory or questionable meat like products.

My point being I ended up working 2 more years, until 2010 when I felt I was on sure enough footing I could quit and focus full time on Better Together. I realize now I failed to mention that Better Together is the name of my aforementioned brownie business. My wife came up with the name. It is the song by Jack Johnson that we danced to at our wedding.

Word started to spread from doing the farmers markets as to the deliciousness of our brownies. Coffee shops, small mom and pop bodegas, and cafes around Philly, starting inquiring about selling Better Together Brownies. So my wife and I stayed up even later, baking even more brownies, wrapping them and filling up my shitty Honda up with brownies so I could traverse all over the city, delivering brownies.

Once I saw that our product could exist on the shelves of local retailers I decided it was time to expand our geographic reach. The problem was we had reached capacity in our little kitchen. Our oven literally blew up one night; there were 50lbs bags of chocolate, flour and sugar piled up in our living room. I’m pretty sure at one point we no longer had a couch, we just sat on bags of flour while watching tv. My wife said enough was enough. If this business was going to grow it was time to invest in a real commercial baking space.

I was not willing to take the risk of dropping half a million bucks on my own bakery so I decided to see if I could find an existing facility that would do the baking for me. With a little bit of luck and hard work I found a local bakery who loved the opportunity to take on some additional manufacturing. The stage was now set for me to go out to the world, proclaim the greatness that was a BT brownie and start lining the shelves of retailers from Main to Florida with delicious brownies.

Early on we had some success getting specialty grocery stores and markets from NYC to D.C. to carry our brownies. Things were going good. I was cautiously optimistic. People really seemed to love our product. I kept knocking on doors of every retailer I could find. Eventually we even got a grocery store chain out in California to carry our product. I could now proudly proclaim Better Together brownies are available coast to coast. Which was mostly true, you could by brownies on both the east and west coast but nowhere in-between.

A few months after we landed on the shelves of the California retailer, sales start to slow. We hit and wall. Our biggest challenge became front and center, our short shelf life. Our brownies were not laced with preservatives so they lasted only 10-12 days, after which the retailer would have to get rid of any unsold brownies. Combine this with a high price point and it became apparent we needed to find a way to sell more brownies in the retailers we had before expanding into new ones. Retailers and customers alike loved our product but they still ended up throwing out a fair amount of inventory

I went back to the drawing board and came to the conclusion that we needed to improve our visibility on the store shelves. The problem as I saw it was customers shopping in the stores were not seeing our product and if they can’t see it they can’t buy it. I decided we needed a design revamp complete with boxes that our brownies could sit in, giving us a little bit more “shelf presence” as people in the biz would say.

It took over a year, but when the redesign was done I could not have been happier. It was inconceivable to me to that sales would not instantly increase. The new look was amazing.

As a company we finally put our big boy pants on. We were now legit. No longer did we look like a cute little brownie that was run by an 85 year old grandma or grandpa, but a real, hip, artisan, brownie company , that makes the most decadent, off the wall delicious brownies you could imagine.

I will jump straight to the punch line. It did not help. Sales stayed stagnant. In some places we even saw a decrease in sales.

The short shelf life proved too much to overcome. There was a reason why our only competition was the in store bakery. Other people realized it just was not a viable space to try and compete in.

A few short months into the redesign, roughly November of 2014, I knew things were not going to turn around. There was nothing more I could do. There was nothing more I wanted to do. I had given this business everything I had both financial and energetically. I was done. What were feelings of excitement, enthusiasm and optimism for the business over the years had become apathy bordering on hatred. I knew it was time to call it quits and find out what the next chapter in my life was going to be.

I spent some time with a career counselor who helped me get my resume together and identify potential employment opportunities. Having been an entrepreneur for five years I had no idea what I was qualified to do. I had pretty much resigned myself to the idea I’d be making your half-caff, double pump, venti, extra hot, soy milk latte at Starbucks, so it was reassuring to learn that I did have skills and experiences that would be applicable to many different job opportunities.

Then in late December, I got a call from a buyer at Kroger Supermarkets. For those who don’t know Kroger is huge. Outside of Wal-Mart they are the largest grocery retailer in the U.S. He was very interested in the product and wanted to see samples. My feelings of excitement was tempered with thoughts of why now? Where were you 3 years ago? I’ve called it quits; do I really have it in me to get back on this ride? Is pursuing this just delaying what has already been a painful death?

I decided put those feelings aside and sent samples.

He loved them. His exact words were, “they were like crack”. He asked about our shelf life and I said it was about 10-14 days but could be kept frozen for a year. I heard a pause and I knew what was coming next. A shelf life that short would not work. Kroger was just too big to deal with a product requiring so much care and attention.

Just when I thought all was lost, he asked, “Have you ever tried packaging them for sale as a frozen item.” Immediately lights when off in my head, surrounded by a chorus singing hallelujah, hallelujah! Why had I not thought of this before? It was perfect. It solved most of the challenges the fresh baked product had given me. The buyer felt confident we had landed on an idea that could be a hit. He loved helping small companies grow and while he would not guarantee Kroger would bring it, he said, “you show me a finished product and Kroger would be very interested.”

It was at this moment, right when I had decided to quit an opportunity arose. Not just an opportunity to peddle the same product which to date had failed, but a completely new product, that successfully address many of my challenges.

I decided either the universe was fucking with me or this was the payoff for all those years of late nights, hard work, exploding ovens and a couch made out of flour bags.

There was a moment of brief hesitation as to whether or not I wanted to essentially start over, but I knew I could not live with myself if I just walked away from this opportunity.

I basically spent the better part of 2015 working through the packaging design and product development of what would be Better Together’s frozen brownie pack. By September of 2015, the design and product development was complete and I was ready to start selling. I only had enough money to pay for 120 sample boxes, which I would use to generate what I hoped would be enough orders from retailers where I could justify taking out a loan to buy more boxes.

That brings us to now, February 2016 and it has been a roller coaster of a ride and not one of the fun ones you might get at six flags. A few weeks after receiving the sample boxes I lost my manufacturer.  I had no one to make the product should I be fortunate enough to get any orders. At the time it felt like a disaster but in hindsight it was a blessing. It exposed many fatal flaws of the manufacturer I was using. Should things have taken off we would have had major quality control issues, so better to realize that now then after the product hits store shelves.

I immediately notified everyone I could think of that I needed a new manufacturer and ASAP.  Within relatively short time period I was able to secure a baker for my brownies. Around that same time I had a meeting with a very large east coast retailer who absolutely loved the product. Not only did the buyer love it but she saw a definite need for a product like this in the marketplace. Her exact words to me where, “frozen desserts are in desperate need of a refresh, it is the same old pies, cakes and cookies your grandmother would buy.” I walked out of her office on cloud nine. This was confirmation I was onto something.

That feeling was short lived. A few weeks later I got a call they would be passing on my item this go around in favor of products with a more established track record of sales, ie. Very large brands that can afford to basically pay them to put their product on the shelves. Think Mrs. Smiths, Marie Callenders, Pepperidge Farms, etc.

I was crushed. Could this really be happening all over again? Is the universe really making me relive this same nightmare all over again? Why did Kroger have to call? Where they even still interested? Did I just waste another year of my life on this good for nothing, pain in the ass, business? WTF God, WTF!!!

So now what? From the outside people might say, “Todd it is way too early to give up, it is just one no.” That is true but it is hard for me to forget the heartache that was the past 6 years. Yes, on the surface this product seems better poised for success in the marketplace, but even so there is a very high likelihood it will fail. I know they say most small business fail, but that is especially true when it comes to starting a specialty food business.

When is enough, enough? Will I be able to recognize it when it is?

If this was truly a brand new business it would be a no brainer to keep going. You don’t fold after one no. Since I started writing this I’ve also learned we were rejected by Whole Foods, which really did not surprise me. I’m pretty sure no new products are getting into Whole Foods this year. So now it is 2 no’s and a big old goose egg in the yes’s column.

What is my next step? I honestly have no idea. Right now it feels like I’m just pushing forward because I don’t know what else to. Is that a good reason to keep doing something? Probably not. But at the same time I realize that if I can make it work I will be able to create the life I’ve worked so hard for. Doing something I felt I was called to do.

Maybe I do put Better Together on a pedestal, making every other option seem inferior and empty. The way I look at it now, I’m sure I could find work I enjoy doing, but it would also be second choice, it would be the runner up or as they say, first loser.

The upside for my life is far greater being in business for myself then it is working for somebody else. On the flip side the downside is much greater, but as they say, we are all going to die so you might as well be willing to go down in flames to find work you love.

Can I really give up on my dream now? I don’t know. Not making any decision is essentially the same as making the decision to continue. So that is what I’m doing.

I’m holding the space that I can still make my dream come true. I’m not ready to give up. I may not love the business right now, but I can’t bring myself to quit. I have to believe I can make it work, while at the same time believing that if it doesn’t I will be able to recognize it and gracefully bow out as I had done in late 2014.

In case you are wondering what is happening with Kroger, they won’t be able to look at my product until July. So in the meantime I’ve ordered some more sample boxes and will be looking to add some check marks to the yes column.

 

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