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.