Real Business Mistakes
Claire Fitts from Butterfly Bakery of Vermont
We all make mistakes. If we didn't, we wouldn't learn to make things better (and we'd really annoy all the folks around us). As a small business owner I know that the small business community is no exception to making mistakes. When I put the word out to my peers to find out what advice they had for the startups to help them not make the same mistakes as they did, I got a lot of good stories, but there was one common theme. Everyone said that it was so important to constantly reassess what you're doing and reevaluate your business.
When everything seems to be flowing, it's time to innovate. When a business doesn't regularly innovate, it becomes stale and stagnant (not two words you want associated with your specialty food). If you aren't reassessing what you're doing, you may be missing something that just isn't working well. Sometimes the thing may have worked well in the beginning, but no longer works because your business has grown or changed. Or sometimes it never really worked well at all. Linda Wooliever, from Vermont Fiddleheads, told me about some of her early packaging woes:
"I use biodegradable packaging as much as I can. I make a RAWsome chili that has a dollop of raw vegan sour "creme" on top. When I package it up, it looks very nice. However, my tip to you is to make sure that you put toppings like this in another small container on the side of the main dish. I made the mistake of putting these nice dollops on the top of my chili and then setting the container in coolers to be delivered. Well, delivery folks aren't always as careful as you or I would be and sometimes the containers jostle during the drive or while being carried into the store. Sometimes the containers would tip over when the receiver would pick up the package and inspect the sides or bottom of the container for the barcodes... Needless-to-say, my lovely pretty little presented containers of chili would look a little worn, sometimes before they even got onto the shelves at the store! Customers, too, will sometimes tip over your containers to read ingredients and then the insides will spill onto the inside of the lids. It's all about presentation, folks! So please consider your packaging as if every delivery person, receiving person and customer is a toddler. They are going to jostle, tip, upturn, your product! How will you package your beautiful food so that it looks great even under these harsh circumstances?"
Before you put something on the shelf, it's important to test it, test it, and test it again. Imagine how it will be used by your customers and make sure your product is shelf stable for the time you expect it to be out in the world. Linda also recounted the story of a new product she was in a hurry to get to market:
"I was working on a new recipe for a raw version of Nutella. I loved the stuff and wanted to make a raw chocolate version of my own. I made a beautiful recipe and found lovely jars to put them in. I was so excited that I started selling them right away at a holiday event. I added water to my recipe at the time and learned quite quickly that unless I wanted these to be a refrigerated item, I would have to make the recipe without water! I was upset when I received a few emails from the holiday event saying that these were gifts for Christmas that didn't make it to Christmas because they started to turn! But it was a lesson learned. I now keep water out of the mix. I have two versions of these incredible nut butter spreads and they can be on the shelf or in the fridge and stay beautiful and delicious for a long time."
But even if you have been making a product well for a while, something might change on you and change everything. Fat Toad Farm gets goat milk from their own goats and uses it to make a variety of products, but Judith Irving told me how one day things didn't come out as they expected:
"The primary ingredient in our caramel is our goat's milk. Now milk is milk, right, and how hard can it be to consistently heat up milk and turn it into caramel? As it turns out, as all specialty food producers learn, it takes a while to move from being an early entrepreneur to an experienced food producer and there are many Aha! moments along the way. Discovering that milk changes considerably in its composition from early spring to late fall and that therefore caramel doesn't always happen was a major Aha! moment for us. We learned that we needed to constantly adjust our recipe and processes as we moved through the seasons, otherwise we started getting caramel pudding instead of caramel sauce. The direct beneficiary of this knowledge, besides us obviously, was the Randolph Food Shelf where case after case of caramel "pudding" appeared on the shelves much to everyone's delight. Unfortunately, there's no easy test to tell when the milk is beginning to shift in its composition, so we suspect we will be consistent contributors to the Food Shelf at least once a year!"
Red Hen Baking Company does almost all their own delivery, but Randy George told me that several years back, they needed to make some changes:
"We started baking bread in Central Vermont in 1999. From the beginning, we have been dedicated to selling only bread that is delivered and sold the same day that it is baked. The geography of Vermont presents many challenges to achieving this goal. We began by making all of our deliveries with our own vehicles. We were flattered when any store or restaurant within 75 miles requested our bread and within 5 years we found ourselves putting a daily total of 400 miles on our three vehicles. But we discovered that we were spending nearly a quarter of every dollar we earned on paying our drivers and fueling and maintaining our vehicles. Our business could not support this labor and energy intensive delivery method if we hoped to reach profitability. Thus began a reevaluation of the best way to get fresh bread around the state on a daily basis. The first step in this process involved making the difficult decision to discontinue delivering to many of the small stores that are off the beaten path. (I believe that such establishments are one of Vermont's greatest assets and it was tough to call these stores and tell them that we could no longer deliver to them. Fortunately, in many cases one of the state’s other great assets-- small bread bakeries-- have sprung up to fill the gap.) The next step for us was to develop a relationship with a couple of same-day, local delivery services that transport goods throughout the state. To our surprise and delight, we found that this actually allowed us to affordably reach further throughout the state. The result has been that our business has continued to grow at an annual rate of 10-15% while we now run just two vehicles daily, covering a total of just 275 miles. Over the years, the routes that our own vehicles cover have grown to the point where we carry more than twice as much in each vehicle than we did 5 years ago, making our loaves (or dollars) per mile average much more favorable and our delivery efficiency much greater."
And don't forget to innovate, even when things are going smoothly. Farmers markets are a great place to try new product ideas. You can get immediate customer feedback and try your new idea in small batches. But buyers and merchandisers can also give you great ideas. They know what customers are looking for, and can pass on the idea to you. Butterfly Bakery of Vermont has been selling Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars for years, but recently the bulk buyer of Healthy Living, in South Burlington, approached us and wanted to sell a smaller "chunk" version of our bars in bulk. I had never thought of that, but decided to give it a try and it has been selling fabulously!
So, go forth, make your specialty food business a reality and make mistakes (it's an inevitability). Test things many times before you take them prime time and once you do, remember to look closely at not just what isn't working, but look at what is, and what can be done anew. As your business changes and grows, make sure that what you've been doing for years is what you need to be doing for another year. Look at your fellow specialty food businesses and notice what is and isn't working for them. Then innovate and try something new!
Learn more about Fiddleheads at www.vt-fiddle.com, Fat Toad Farm at www.fattoadfarm.com, Butterfly Bakery of Vermont at www.ButterflyBakeryVT.com, and Red Hen Baking Company at www.redhenbaking.com.