Sunday, March 21, 2010

Check Out Foodboomer!

I want to thank those of you who have followed my meager posts here at blogspot so far. I have been working on creating a new platform for my blog - which I plan to devote more time and energy to - and I finally have it up and running. My new domain for my this specialty food business blog is You can find my posts there in the future.

All the best, and I will look for you on foodboomer!


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Listing into the New Year

It's two weeks into the New Year and I realize I am already behind. I wanted to have a clear sense of what we had accomplished in 2009 in a sort of "report card" kind of way, and a clear view of what we want for 2010. We've been meaning to have a "board meeting" (Paul and Suzanna talking over a meal at a restaurant without kids) since before the New Year, but it's easier to solve the rubix cube than to get a night out alone. So here we are blindly slipping down the road of the future once again.

Just off the top of my head, here are some of the things we accomplished in 2009 that perhaps we should give ourselves some credit for:

(1) our gross sales were 25% higher than our projection, and more than triple our 2008 sales (not to mention that our projections were put together before the economy tanked);

(2) I think we passed the break even point, although I have to talk to my accountant to know if I'm right about that;

(3) we established relationships with three different distributors and are now in at least 3 states, with more to come;

(4) we initiated conversations with Whole Foods that could lead to placement in their North Atlantic region stores in the next few months;

(5) we probably doubled the number of stores that we are in (but we don't really know because distributors sometimes don't want to share that information);

(6) we landed a couple of really great bulk dough food service accounts (i.e., Ben & Jerry's in the University Mall);

(7) we had a productive conversation with a co-packer about the possibility of working with them to automate the production of our cookie dough in the future and feel really good about that option;

(8) and perhaps the most important accomplishment is that we are still afloat, both in business and personally!

On the other side of the report card, in the "needs improvement" category:

(1) we need to reduce or at least control our expenses to maintain a better margin;

(2) cash flow became a huge challenge in the fall when the cash sales for the shop diminished and accounts receivable increased;

(3) we still feel like we're fumbling in the dark when it comes to having a firm grasp on business finance;

(4) we have no more capital with which to expand;

(5) we still can't really pay ourselves, which is taking its toll; and

(6) our website is not really paying for itself yet, so we need to put more effort into making that work for us.

Our business will turn three this year. A number of people have told me that it's "normal" for a business not to turn a profit until the third year. Is that true? I don't know. All I know is that this is what it looks like when you start a business with whatever you have in your savings account, and then beg and borrow money from family and friends as you grow.

Here are some things we'd like to make happen this year:

(1) We'd like to create an advisory board. We have already received amazing help from other entrepreneurs in the food industry, but we'd like to formalize some of those relationships and create some new ones.

(2) I want to revise our business plan so that I have a sense of what it is going to take for us to grow to the level that we would need to in order to enter into a relationship with a co-packer.

(3) I want to develop one or two new flavors to add to our product line, and I want to introduce our scones to the market.

(4) We want to jazz up The Love Shack with better signage and more merchandise.

(5) We want to put real effort into marketing our website to make it profitable.

(6) We want to increase our press exposure.

(7) We want to triple sales again.

Pie in the sky? Who knows? I thought my 2009 projections were out there, so hey, anything is possible.

Here's looking at you 2010!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Calm Before the Storm

This is our third November in business and each one has been slow in comparison to the other months. This year is no exception. It's noticeably slower, especially at the shop. But I'm grateful for the calm. It's been a much needed time of rest after the busy summer, the whirlwind trade show experience and the busy leaf peeper season. December, traditionally, has been the busiest month for us, so we are preparing for the storm.

Sales of our dough in stores is always higher in December, about a third higher than our next biggest month. People do a lot of baking around the holidays! Not only that, but a new distributor will be debuting our products in its catalog in December, potentially leading to sales in a bunch of new stores that we are not currently servicing.

Internet sales for the holidays were just starting last year when we opened our shop and debuted our ecommerce site on December 15, but we had a whole lot more orders than we expected last year. Now that a lot more people know about us, we kind of expect this year to blow last year out of the water on the internet. Then there is Dakin Farm, a local mail order company, that has put a box of our cookies into one of its tower gift offerings (click here). We really don't know what kind of volume to expect from that, but they say they do most of their business during the holidays. And then there will be more customers in the store itself wanting to buy fresh baked cookies to take to a party or office event or whatever. We anticipate that all of these things together will make December a total blur, in the best possible way.

I try to have perspective about November's "slow" sales. Just two and a half years ago we ended our first day at a farmer's market having sold $127 in cookies and dough. This past weekend Paul delivered $1,800 worth of dough to just two stores in New Hampshire. We've grown a lot and "slow" has a very different definition now than it did two and a half years ago. And there are ebbs and flows in business and in life, and that is just ok.

There's another sort of storm we are readying for other than the ho-ho-holidays. That distributor I mentioned that will debut our dough in December serves stores throughout most of New England. There is the potential for getting our products into hundreds of new stores. This sounds great, doesn't it?? Well yes, of course. But it makes us worry about one of the most challenging aspects of our business right now, which is production capacity.

Currently one person does all the mixing for us. She's a mixing superstar, doing about 1,000 pounds a week in 88 pound batches. Then the rolls of dough are all cut, wrapped and sealed by hand as I described in an earlier post. If this distributor starts ordering large quantities, we will have to do some serious scrambling to amp up production.

In anticipation of all this, we met with a possible co-packing company two weeks ago. For those of you who don't know about co-packers, they are companies that will manufacture your product for you so you can focus on sales and marketing. There are an awful lot of specialty food companies out there that are built on this model. If you would like to learn more about available co-packers in your area, you can contact the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) ( This trade organzation maintains a database of co-packing facilities. While it may not be all inclusive, it is a good start. Call them at 212.482.6440 and ask for the Member Resources Manager. When I first explored this option three years ago that position was held by Heather Paul (

We think co-packing will be the best way for us to grow since we don't have large amounts of capital on hand with which to build our own automated packaging facility. The biggest hurdle to going down the co-packing road is that we will have to commit to making roughly 30,000 pounds of dough a month whereas we are only making about 4,000 pounds a month right now. How will we bridge that gap? I think, although I haven't really had a chance to analyze this yet, that we will have to get to the point where we are making and selling at least 20,000 pounds a month ourselves before we can make the leap to co-packing with confidence that we can move the product fast enough.

So we are faced with the potential problem of how we quadruple production capacity in our shop before we make the leap to co-packing. I don't have the answer now. It's what I will be chewing on right after I finish chewing on my Thanksgiving dinner.

I will do my best to post in December, if I don't, you will know why.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!


Sunday, November 15, 2009

So Why Do it?

A follower recently mentioned in an email to me that my blog may discourage some people from choosing to go down this entrepreneurial path. That's certainly not been my intention. It got me thinking though. Information from someone who has already gone through something that is brand new to us can seem a little daunting, maybe a lot daunting, maybe even negative or downright discouraging. So why would anyone in their right mind do it?

I had the experience myself this week of feeling a little discouraged by the experience and wisdom offered by some peers in the industry. I honestly don't think they intended to be discouraging. One had been in the specialty food industry for more than 25 years and is very successful by anyone's standards. But he had weathered a lot of ups and downs in those 25 years, and shared what he wished he had done differently. He shared what he had learned with the hope, I believe, of helping our road be a little less full of pot holes.

But here's the thing...

Sure, business is business. And the specialty food business is a business and there are rules in business and defined ways to measure success, blahdy blahdy blah. What's your gross margin? What's your multiple for valuation? What's your product velocity? No one goes into this intending to be blind to all that, but we ought not to go into it blind to the less tangible measures of success either.

I'm reading Eckhart Tolle these days. His message is to live in the moment, don't judge it, don't label it, don't resist it. Just let it be what it is while being present for whatever that is. It doesn't mean you can't have fun planning for the next moment, as long as you don't expect your happiness to arrive at some future point, because it will never arrive. You will always just be in the present moment. This idea has been a great comfort to me. It's also transformed how I think about success.

How you measure your success should ultimately be up to you. Even before reading Eckhart Tolle I had decided that my idea of success in life is to enjoy myself. And for the most part, I do. I want to get up when it's my day to open the shop. I look forward to learning the next thing I need to learn, and to creating and planning and to making people feel good with our cookies. People are in a good mood when they leave our shop. That sort of thing goes a very long way.

Whether we end up putting our kids through college with this business, or selling it, or going broke, I know one thing, that we are enjoying the ride, and that's enough.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Batching-Up and Packaging

It has been an exciting week for Vermont Cookie Love. This week we moved further toward establishing a distributor relationship with Associated Buyers. It looks as if we will be added to their catalog of products in December. They cover most of New England, so this could mean a very large increase in our production and sales.

We also had a conversation with Ben and Jerry's this week that could mean a large increase in our bulk dough sales.
We sell our bulk dough in 15 lb. blocks. The company Ben and Jerry's still owns several scoop shops here in VT (i.e., they are not franchises). They are considering buying our bulk dough to bake for cookies in these shops.

That brings me to one of the topics for this week, which is batching-up. How do you take a home sized recipe and increase it in size? How do you go from a recipe that fits in a 6 qt. home stand mixer to a recipe that makes the most of an 80 qt. Hobart mixer? When we started out doing this, we thought it was a matter of just multiplying the ingredients by two, four or whatever to increase the size. Turns out that's not how it's done.

The first step in batching-up, and in recipe development itself, was to reduce the quantity of each ingredient used to a weight, and preferably grams rather than ounces. Weighing ingredients by the gram was the single most important thing I learned in order to create consistent recipes. I had no idea when I started out how much different in weight a cup of flour can be from one measuring to another. Do you scoop it in the cup and level off? Do you sprinkle the flour into the cup lightly then level off? The difference in weight is staggering, and the outcomes very, very different. So when we developed our recipes, I weighed each ingredient rather than measuring. And when I made adjustments of an ingredient, that adjustment may have been too small to measure other than by the gram. But the difference in outcome was enough to notice.

Once you have your recipe written out in grams, add up all the ingredient weights to arrive at the total weight of your batch. Then you calculate what percentage of the whole batch each ingredient constitutes by dividing the ingredient by the whole. As an example...

Flour - 1000 g
= 1000/1360 = .736 or 73.6%

Sugar - 200 g = 200/1360 = .147 or 14.7%
Eggs - 150 g = 150/1360 = .11 or 11%
Salt - 10 g = 10/1360 = .007 or 0.7%
TOTAL - 1360 g = 1 or 100%

Now that you have the percentages, you can pick a large batch size and multiply the batch size by the percentages to arrive at the weight of each ingredient for that batch size. For example, the first large mixer we used was a 60 qt. mixer, which could handle a 30 kg batch of dough. So for our example, the calculations would be as follows:

Flour - .736 x 30,000 (30 kg equals 30000 g) = 22,080 g
Sugar - .147 x 30,000 = 4,410 g
Eggs - .11 x 30,000 = 3,300 g
Salt - .007 x 30,000 = 210 g

Certain ingredients may not batch-up as well, such as spices or salt. We learned all this from Brian Norder at the Vermont Food Venture Center. He taught us that salt, for example, may need to be decreased in the final large batch because ingredients that are a very small part of your home sized batch may become overwhelming when batched-up. That happened in our case for some of our flavors. We ended up decreasing the salt content by about 25% from the batch-up recipe.

When it comes to packaging, we still have a lot to learn, and it is an ever-evolving work-in-progress. At the point when we were selecting packaging for our frozen cookie dough, we were heavily influenced in our choices by our desire to make the packaging look like a burrito (in keeping with the DOUGH-rito theme, now no longer used). But it was also important to create a barrier from freezer burn. We wanted to start with a layer that the dough would not stick too very much. We tried waxed paper, but it disintegrated. We decided to go with freezer paper because it is designed to protect the food from freezer burn and it created a nice foundation on which to wrap the aluminum foil. The foil adds another layer of freezer protection and provides a tighter seal than the paper. It also looks like a burrito, at least the kind you get in a California burrito shop.

We had our graphic designers create the "cuffs" that go around each log of dough with all the required label information and baking instructions. As I mentioned before, we started by photocopying our cuffs at a copy shop and securing them to the foil with tape. We closed the cuff with one of our logo labels. A year after we started, we had the cuffs redesigned and printed to look more professional. They are now on freezer tolerant paper with an adhesive strip to attach them to the foil.

The final piece to our packaging is the plastic outer layer, which comes in a tube form that is then sealed. We have to thread each log of dough individually into this tube of plastic and then seal it with a hand sealer.

As many of you may imagine, our packaging will need to be changed if we ever hope to become more efficient at producing the product. Chances are we will need to extrude the dough with a machine into plastic tubing, and have our label information printed right on the tube. We have resisted such an idea until now because we fear there will be less to differentiate us from the mega brands of dough in the refrigerator case. Unless we come up with another idea though, there may be no other way for us to grow the company.

If I were to advise another company starting out about packaging, I would suggest they think about the "what if" scenario where they need to produce thousands of units of their product very quickly. Would they be able to do that with the packaging they have in mind? If growth of that nature is not a goal, then it may not be an issue. Perhaps maintaining an artisanal profile is more important than growing the company. In any event, it's something that is best taken into consideration early on.

I'm off to stoke to fire and find a really good beans and rice recipe for tonight.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Vermont Food Venture Center and a Bit About Financing

Farmers' markets are almost over for the season. Shelburne has one more week and Middlebury goes a few more. I have mixed feelings about the end of the season. As I mentioned before, I am tired, bone tired, and ready to have one less thing on my plate. But this may well be our last farmers' market season, so I'm feeling nostalgic since Shelburne Farmers' Market is where it all started. We will save the decision until next year (when we are more rested?) but as it stands, we feel spread a little too thin and are inclined to stop trying to do the farmers markets.

In the recipe development phase, we made all our batches at home. But we knew that we were going to need more dough to make our cookies and frozen cookie dough than our trusty stand mixer could handle, so we started exploring options for mixing elsewhere. Paul had learned about a wonderful resource in Vermont called the Vermont Food Venture Center where small food entrepreneurs could make their product. We called them up and set up a meeting.

The staff at the Venture Center was amazing. They provided us with a cd about starting a food business that outlined many of the steps involved in launching a product -- from batching-up our recipes (i.e., turning our home batch into a gigantaur batch), to licensing requirements, to FDA nutritional labeling requirements and more. It provided lists of resources for labels and packaging materials and ingredient distributors and service providers for food nutritional analysis and graphic design.

The facilities at the Venture Center are great for a start-up company. It's in a cool old manufacturing building in Fairfax, Vermont, about an hour's drive from us. It has a large commercial kitchen, a 60 quart hobart mixer (important to us), a flash freezer and large walk-in storage freezers and refrigerators. Each company is provided with a little space to store ingredients, which can be delivered directly there by the ingredient distributor. And the best part, perhaps, was that a tiny company with no real capital behind it (more about that later) could rent all this on an hourly basis after becoming a member (which only cost about $100 a year). In our case, we figured one mixing session would last us a month at the beginning, so all we would need was a few hours at a time once in a while. At that time, rates were roughly $20 an hour, give or take depending on the equipment you needed to use.

With their resource cd in hand, we went about doing all of the things we would need to do in order to offer the frozen cookie dough at the first farmers' market. The next thing on our to-do list was to figure out how we would package the frozen cookie dough, get labels designed for the dough and have nutritional analyses done to put on those labels. At first we planned on offering only two flavors as frozen dough, even though we had four flavors developed at that point. If those were received well, we'd go forward with the others.

The nutritional analysis part was interesting. I had never even wondered how that was done. Basically, you hire someone to take your recipe and break it down into the nutritional components that are required by the FDA to be on labels. One thing to note is that if you never plan on selling your product in "interstate commerce" then you don't have to have this done. Basically, if you do not sell your product across state lines, then you can get away with just a list of ingredients, but the minute your product crosses state lines, then you must abide by all the FDA regulations. We had no idea if our product would ever cross state lines, but we wanted to be optimistic and do it right out of the gate to avoid having to redesign packaging later. (As it turned out, we did have to redesign packaging anyway, and will again soon, but whatEVER!)

Our nutritional analyst was and is Wendy Hess. She is based in Burlington, Vermont and must be kept very busy with all the food businesses that are started here. She was great to work with, turned our materials around very quickly, and even offered great email moral support.

When it was time to design the labels for the frozen dough, we once again turned to Gotham City Graphics. We loved the logo they had come up with for us, and we loved working with them, so it was a no-brainer. We had already decided that we were going to package the dough shaped like a burrito, although some of the details of that had yet to be worked out. Steph from Gotham designed what came to be called a "cuff" that would wrap around the burrito shaped log of dough and provide all the information. We wanted to keep expenses very low at first, so we decided these cuffs should be something that we could photocopy and adhere with one of our logo label stickers. Early devoted customers will remember the pastel colored paper we used -- goldenrod for chocolate chip, baby blue for triple chocolate, green for peanut butter, pink for oatmeal, etc.

I'll go into more detail about packaging decision for the dough in another post. For now, I want to talk a little about financing. In the beginning, our financing consisted of whatever money we had on hand. Since we had no financing to speak of, we were forced to start incredibly small. I wonder what it would be like to launch a new product on the market with real capital? We saw a few companies at the trade show that were less than a year old and had their acts together in a manner that made it clear they had some moolah behind them. I still feel like a freshman when I see companies like that. But on the positive side, we were able to test our product in a small market and figure out whether or not there was a demand and whether people liked it before taking on much risk.

A year into the business, when we had already placed the products in more than 20 stores, we finally sought some additional financing. But again, we have not ventured into the real world of capital yet as our only investors so far are family and friends. By the time we went begging with out hat in our hands, we had answered the questions about there being a demand and interest in the products. So here we are at the beginning of our third year in business and we really have no experience in raising serious capital. I may be trying to pick some of YOUR brains about that in the coming years.

I'm off to open the shop with both kids under foot. Paul is giving away samples at the City Market Harvest Festival in Burlington today.

I think I'll go further into packaging and batching-up in my next post.

Until then...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Changes in the Air

There's something more than foliage colors changing around here. What a week! We just got back from the Expo East Natural Products Convention in Boston. As of today our products can be found mostly in Northern Vermont, with some stores in Southern Vermont carrying us, and a few stores over the borders in western Massachusetts and western New Hampshire. But in a couple of months we could very well be in all New England states. Time to fasten our seat belts.

The response to our dough at the expo was overwhelmingly positive. Retailers loved the product and wanted to know how to get it. This presents one of the challenges we face, as we don't currently have distribution in the Boston area. So Paul would ask them to talk to their preferred distributor about carrying our product. The second day of the trade show a distributor that covers most of New England came to the booth and said that so many people had come by asking them to carry our products that they had to come see for themselves. While nothing is sure yet, they seemed very interested.

When we start considering such wide distribution, the issue that flares up is production. We still hand roll our frozen cookie dough, which means that after we mix it, we freeze it, then cut it into bricks, which we roll into a burrito shape in freezer paper and wrap in aluminum foil, followed by our label and the outer protective plastic. It's ridiculously slow and we have known for some time that we need to change how we do this eventually.

Another discussion that came about at the trade show was with a potential co-packer. There is a manufacturer near us that makes cookie dough already for other applications and could conceivably mix large quantities for us on a contract basis. But we would have to change our packaging to fit the plant's capabilities. That will be a meeting we hope to have in the next several weeks, at least to get a sense of how far from realistically considering that step we really are.

Paul was truly shell shocked after the show. It was amazing and thrilling to contemplate the growth that we could be headed toward. But it is also daunting and overwhelming, especially given that we are both teetering on the edge of total exhaustion and burn out at all times these days. He had a day of panic, wondering if we will ever be able to do all this and also have anything resembling a sane and enjoyable life. Time will tell, of course. But I have to be the eternal optimist and say yes, yes we can. We have to find a way to set the limits and not let this train run away dragging us from the caboose. I believe it can be done.

Before I forget, in other news, our cookies will be featured as the Snack of the Day on the Rachel Ray Show this Thursday morning, October 1. We have no idea what to expect from this, but it will be fun to see what happens.

Well, it seems this post has had nothing to do with our early development. Then again, in two years, this week will feel like our early development. ("Remember when we used to roll these things by HAND?")

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Recipe Development and Logo

Monday, our "day off." Our shop is not open, but inevitably one or both of us ends up going in to do something that can't wait. Last Monday it was getting an internet order out. Truth be told, it never feels like a day off and we never feel like we get a break from it all. The potential for burn-out is always in the back of our minds. But we're not there yet, so we, as Dori from Finding Nemo says, "just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming..."

In the early days, after we had chosen a company name, the next things we worked on were recipe development, and a logo. We had decided that we would start this company at a farmers' market, which meant that we had almost a year to do all the planning we needed to do before the next season would begin. I'm glad we did it that way. We had plenty of time to work on everything.

I've baked cookies since I was about ten, but it was not until embarking on this adventure that I really learned how. I used to make cookies without ever measuring the ingredient
s. I would approximate everything. Although the cookies always tasted delicious, they were never consistent in texture. Sometimes they were high and cakey, other times they were flatish and chewy. Not only did I have no idea why, I had no inclination to even wonder why until I set out to develop a consistent cookie recipe. It wasn't until I was several batches into testing that I realized that I was all over the map and there was no hope of getting a consistent product until I nailed down a real recipe.

The first thing I did was start from where I was, which was to make a batch of cookies using m
y guesstimate technique, but I weighed each ingredient after I approximated how much I needed so that I could figure out where to go from there. Weighing ingredients to the gram was the best way to be precise.

The next thing I did was to do a little research into ingredients and what they were meant to accomplish. What did the fats do and how did different fats effect an outcome? What could we do to assure a soft and chewy cookie? Once I had a sense of how a recipe was put together conceptually, I started to tweak the one I had started with, making a batch, checking for taste, color, consistency and appearance, and if there was a feature I felt was not quite right, trying different combinations of the ingredients to make it better. I kept a notebook with all the test recipes I attempted with notes about the result. Paul weighed in with his opinion on each
batch as well. His finely trained pallet helped discern what was needed next. Eventually, we arrived at our first final recipe - for First Love, chocolate chip. It was our first LOVE recipe and isn't it everyone's first love when it comes to a cookie?

Developing the other recipes got easier after we had our first one figured out -- although certain flavors were so vastly different, like peanut butter, a lot more experimentation was inevitable. Paul took on peanut butter chocolate chip because he was a real fan of the flavor whereas I'm not a peanut butter person. Triple chocolate chip was especially tricky because different kinds of cocoa powder drastically changed the taste and texture of the cookie. We had bags of different kinds of cocoa powder with different fat content all over the kitchen, we made test batches with each of them, then we did blind taste tests to see which one we preferre

When it came time to come up with a logo, we considered several options, from creating one ourselves to really save money, to using an inexpensive online service, to hiring design professionals. In the end we opted for the latter, and we now feel that it was one of the best decisions we ever made. To this day we get tons of positive comments on the design of our logo and the overall look of our graphic elements, and for all of that we have Gotham City Graphics in Burlington, VT to thank. We cannot say enough about working with Steph and Amey, except we truly believe that we owe a great deal of the customer response to our products to their vision. We also cannot possibly repay the kindnesses they have shown us in extending us credit when we really needed it.

Potatoes are boiling over on the stove, the kids are throwing couch pillows at each other, and it's time to join my life once again.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ah, the Name...

I honestly think that naming our company was even harder than naming our children. The name has to accomplish so much and dodge so many potential obstacles.

When we started contemplating names, I don't think either of us was 100% on board with the notion of actually going forward with this business. Oddly, I believe that finding the name was what pushed us both fully on board.

We considered several variations involving my name, since the cookie recipes would be mine ... Suzanna's Cookies, Oh Suzanna's Cookies, and so on. We'd thought of other names like Out of the Oven Cookies, and several others I can't remember now. But we stumbled on Cookie Love quite by chance.

I'd begun working on some test recipes at about that time, which was in the summer of 2006 when I was gloriously pregnant with my daughter. I didn't want to eat all my test batches, so I shipped some off to my best friend, Deb, in Los Angeles. I remember writing on the note card for this shipment "Here's some cookie love for you." It hit me right then that Cookie Love would be a fun name for the company. I mentioned it to Paul, who didn't seem too fond of it at the time. A couple of weeks later Paul came to me and said "I think I have the name! Cookie Love, what do you think?" I laughed and reminded him that I'd suggested that one before but that he didn't seem to like it. He liked it now, and I still liked it, and as soon as we started to ponder it, we realized what fun we could have naming flavors after different kinds of love.

A cute story...Since I was in my eighth month of pregnancy at the time, we were also searching for baby names. We knew we were having a girl. Paul was working at a restaurant and he would often talk to his co-workers about names, both baby names and company names. One day shortly after we'd decided on the company name he went to work and told a co-worker "We have it... the name." She asked what it was and he said "Cookie Love!" As Paul tells it, her face fell and she tried very hard to summon an enthusiastic response, but she was clearly perplexed. "What?" he said, "you don't like it?" She repeated, "Cookie Love?" Then he realized and he said, "Not for the baby, for the company." Oh the relief that washed over her face! She thought our daughter's name was going to be Cookie Love Seyler.

What we didn't do early enough in our selection of company names is a thorough search to see whether it was being used elsewhere. I did search for the domain name to see if it was available, and I learned that it was already owned by someone, although at the time the domain was just parked rather than actively used. I did not do a trademark search at that point. I don't think either of us had articulated what we hoped and intended for this business to become, so the thought that we would need a trademark had not even occurred to us. Then again, we were both so in love with the name (pardon the pun), I don't know if any of that would have changed our choice. The name embodies what baking cookies is all about to us, and it provides such a fertile bed of creative ideas to build on the notion of love.

Because the domain was not available, we decided to add "Vermont" to the front of the name, because WAS available. We also decided that it would help to identify it as a Vermont product. I also registered the company name under the state trade name registration procedure. That was about all the protection I thought we would need at first. We have since filed for a federal trademark, but more about that later.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the original idea for the company involved calling our frozen cookie dough a "DOUGH-rito." Some of you may immediately recognize the potential trademark problem with that. As a lawyer, I too was aware of a potential problem. But, relying only on my second year law school trademark class and some cursory research, I thought we would be alright using this name because of the lack of a likelihood of confusion between our DOUGH-ritos and the snack food Doritos. We did use the name in our packaging and signage for about a year. But then I hired a lawyer to help us trademark the name, and she informed us that because Doritos is an incredibly famous mark, that merely using a name that sounds alike could be deemed an infringement of their mark. So, although we were in love with DOUGH-rito at first, we had to make the difficult choice to drop the name before the potential for legal trouble turned into actual legal trouble. As it turned out,
we felt our customers were more familiar with our company name and logo than with the word DOUGH-rito, so it was not as painful to give up as it could have been. But it was an interesting lesson learned.

So what's the lesson? I guess it's to be prudent when searching for a company or product name, do all the searches, hire a lawyer even, so you can save yourself the bother of spending time and money trying to remedy a problematic name choice later. We didn't do the prudent thing on the product name until we were already far along in the process. But if you find a name that really floats your boat, you may decide that it is worth working through the obstacles, like we did with the company name.

Now I'm off to do my lawyering work, the work that sustains us while we build this company.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Farmers Market Day and the Idea Behind Cookie Love

Yesterday was Saturday -- farmers' market day. Saturdays are a wee bit hectic in the Cookie Love world, to say the least. A little over two years ago, our first dollar was made at a farmers' market -- the Shelburne Farmers' Market to be precise. I now handle that market by myself, and Paul now does the Middlebury Farmers' Market.

So here's how it went down. I got up at 6:20, which also happened to be the time the kids were waking up on their own. We have two kids, a five-and-a-half-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl. I helped the kids get situated with their juice and something to eat, made some coffee for Paul, who would be waking up soon, threw on some clothes, and ran out the door to the shop, which is half mile or so from our house.

I made six air pots of coffee, packed up my minivan with the tent, table, cookie display case, cookies, frozen dough, coffee, and all the bags and other stuff I need at the market, set out Paul's market stuff out on the picnic table for an easy load up, and ran back to the house to get the kids.

As I pulled in, Paul was ready with the kids and their stuff. We all have stuff. They were gazing up at a hot air balloon floating directly over the house from the Vermont Balloon Rally. Really cool. Paul hopped in his car and headed up to the shop to get his ... you guessed it ... stuff. The kids strapped into their seats in the van and we headed off to the market, a little early. Unfortunately, a mile from the market I realized I had forgotten the little kiddie potty that I always bring for my daughter. She just potty trained, and really needs to go right when she needs to go, so, we do what we have to do. I turned around and headed back home.

We made it to the market in time to set up and and start selling at 9:00. Usually I don't have both kids with me, just my daughter. My son likes to go to the Middlebury market with Paul. But he chose to come with me this week. It's doable, having the kids with me, but it involves lots of running back and forth from the tent to the van, where they usually hang out.

The market ended at 1:00. Thanks to the balloon rally, it had been a pretty busy day. I sold out of most of the cookies I brought. I packed up all the stuff and headed back to the shop with the kids. Paul was there already. The shop opens at noon on the weekends. After I unloaded my stuff Paul and I decided which of us would win the honor of staying at the shop until closing -- 8 p.m. Paul was the big winner, which meant that I got to take the kids to the Shelburne Museum for the balloon rally. Paul didn't get home until about 8:45.

Two years into this business and we put in far more hours each day now than we ever have before. I imagine the work commitment required of us as a kind of arc that we are still ascending. I am hoping that at some point we reach the pinnacle, which would be the point at which we could hire more people to help us.

So how did we get started down this insane road in the first place?

By way of background, I had been the designated cookie baker in my family from the time I was about 11 years old. I remember memorizing the recipe on the bag of chips, which I executed in a completely imprecise way. I would guestimate the amounts of things rather than measure them. I had to unlearn that technique when we got around to developing our recipes, but more about that later. I had come of age in the early 80s when several cookie shops were coming into their own across the country. I worked at one when I was at college, and I stopped into others at every opportunity. I love a good warm cookie! I also have a law degree and a penchant for research.

Paul's background was in restaurants, having worked in some of the best in New York City and San Francisco. His role just prior to our moving to Vermont was as a sommelier at Per Se in New York. He believes that these years taught him, among other things, how to sell, how to multitask, and how to cater to a customer's needs.

On Mother's Day in May of 2006 I was six months pregnant with my daughter. I had just returned from being with my own mother as she passed away. We had a good friend staying with us for the weekend. Paul had been talking about starting a business since before we had moved to Vermont. We'd fantasized about having a specialty food and wine store, a diner that would serve only comfort food, or a burrito truck. The latter held the most appeal for Paul, but he ultimately decided that sitting in a truck through the Vermont winters would get really old, really fast. I, on the other hand, had always thought that if I were to start my own business, it would be either a book store or a cookie shop. Just a few months before I had been making some notes on my computer about a cookie shop.

As we related our various ideas to our friend, we started to joke about how we might combine Paul's ideas with my ideas. One of us (we still debate which of us) came up with the silly notion that we could make frozen cookie dough shaped and packaged like a burrito and call it a "DOUGH-rito." Ha ha. We all laughed. How silly.

WELL. Within the next couple of weeks Paul started to chew on the idea. He said he felt there was a real idea there, and a niche in the market for home-style cookie dough without preservatives, and we should give it some serious thought. I don't think there was a definite moment when we decided to start this company. It evolved gradually over the summer. Each idea would lead to the next, which would lead to the next, until we felt a momentum build and an excitement that we were both soon consumed by. By the time my daughter was born in August, we were both on board with the decision to launch this new business the following summer at a farmers' market.

I guess the point I would share in telling the germination of our business idea is that it doesn't have to be completely original. Cookies have been done and done and done and done and done. Cookie dough is also done in a big way, but mostly by the big companies that make refrigerated dough that is far from all natural. It would have been very easy for us to talk ourselves out of this because of those facts. But we gave more importance to the passion for the idea that built inside us, and believed to our cores that we could do it and make it something special.

My next post will be about coming up with the name for the company.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What's Another Thing on My To-Do List?

Well, really, I am truly out of my mind. Those of you who know me know as much. I mean ... two kids, a job as a lawyer, a specialty food business, and now a blog? Then there's the 200 year old house that needs a new everything, a perennial garden that's more weeds than flowers, and the ambition toward personal hygiene and, dare I say, exercise?!

Then I got this idea. When I started Vermont Cookie Love with my husband two years ago -- three if you count the year we spent planning our launch -- I was hungry for every book or article that I could find written by others who had started their own businesses. The books about writing a business plan didn't do much for me, nor did the books on specific aspects of business. I wanted the real life stories of what the owners went through, how they made the choices they made, and whether they ultimately felt it was all worth it.

I read "Double Scoop" by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield about starting Ben & Jerry's, and I read "Raising the Bar" about starting Clif Bar & Co. They gave me some of what I craved, but they spent a relatively little portion of time focusing on the start up phase.

That brings me to this blog. I want to share with you our experience starting this company. I will do my best to retrace our steps up to this point, without boring you to death with minute details, and then chronicle our journey from this point on.

So welcome to my crazy world of starting a business. I welcome any and all questions from those of you who have also bitten off more than you can chew, or who are about to.