For several years I tried to start a baking business. I knew nothing about the food industry or marketing. I should have known I was doomed from the start. But I got sucked in gradually and ended up way over my head.
It all started on a trip through the English countryside. We ate at some marvelous pubs and local restaurants and I fell in love with the desserts. I discovered a whole world of lightly textured but densely flavored desserts that were nothing like anything I had eaten before. And I’m a dessert fanatic. These cake-like creations are called Traditional English Puddings. ‘Pudding’ is the English word for dessert. It does not refer to the custardy dessert we call ‘pudding’ in America.
So I came home with some English pudding cookbooks and started to experiment. I focused on dishes that were different from the conventional American fare. Many of these desserts were steamed, not baked. Many were served with delicious sauces instead of icing, usually what we call a crème anglais. The ones I chose were fantastic confections that didn’t taste or feel like a typical American cake.
I adapted many of the recipes to accommodate American tastes and preferences, like more sugar and less fruitcake fruit. I even invented some new cookies and bar recipes that used some of the English ingredients and techniques.
I checked with a friend who worked at the town hall and she told me that I could start a baking business from home without any permits from the town. So I made some basic marketing flyers and in 2006 I started doing dessert displays at friends’ parties or at events, like a home jewelry show. I called my business Sticky Pudding.
People loved my desserts but I wasn’t getting many customers. I hired a marketing person and developed a more professional flyer as well as some additional marketing materials. I paid for a professional food photographer to take photos for my brochure. We placed an ad in the local paper.
My very first phone call was the town, shutting me down. Apparently my friend was misinformed. You cannot bake and sell from home in most towns today unless you have a fully professional kitchen that meets all the health code regulations of a restaurant kitchen. I was devastated and furious. My friend at the town hall hadn’t bothered to double-check with the proper authorities, even though they were just a few doors down from her office.
I had already put in over a year of time and plenty of money. For nothing.
Then a friend told me about a baker she knew who had a factory in Queens, NY. She thought he might be able to work with me. So I met with him. Lo and behold, he said that he would help me develop some of my desserts from home scale recipes to mass production recipes. I just agreed to give him a percentage of my profits from the sale of any goods baked at his bakery. We signed a written agreement.
So I developed a whole line of cookies, bars and cakes, sixteen different products in all. I thought it was smart to give buyers a wide range of choices. In the development process, I also had to design and pay for packaging for every individual product. I also had to learn all the arcane rules relating to labeling the packages. I had to hire someone to do the analysis of ingredient percentages and calorie count that are required on all commercial labeling.
It was a lot of work, a lot of money and a steep learning curve. But I managed to overcome every obstacle that was thrown at me in the one and a half-year process.
The only problem was that I had no idea how the industry worked. The baker I partnered with sold to name places like Dean & Deluca’s, Zabar’s and Fairway Market. I ASSUMED that he had hired me to create a line of baked goods that he planned to sell to his established customers. I had no clients of my own and no concept of marketing. Certainly not on this large a scale. For example, each run of each individual flavor of cookies produced 900 cookies. All had to be sold within a few days of baking in order to make money. Multiply this by twelve! That’s how much product I had to sell, quickly, if I didn’t want to lose money on each run.
When I was finally ready to start production, to my dismay, I discovered that the baker had ASSUMED that I had done my own marketing and had my own, large-scale customers lined up to buy my products! It turned out that he couldn’t even guarantee that his regular customers would buy anything from me.
He got me a few introductions, which allowed me to APPLY to his clients as a potential supplier. None of them was interested in anything in my line.
Most people build a business from the bottom up. You develop a customer base and increase production as demand increases. I started out using that model but had to stop. I then jumped ten steps ahead and went right to mass production before I even had a small customer base. What was I thinking?
At this point, if I wanted to move forward, I would have to invest serious money into professional marketing on a large-scale. And even then there was no guarantee of success in the limited time frame I had boxed myself into. Then the financial market crash of 2008 happened. Any money I might have had to put into the business was now gone. I had to pull the plug on the whole enterprise.
And that was the end of my ignominious career in the food industry!