Tonya Council: “This is an eight-cup measuring cup. Use it or you’re going to work yourself to death”

Good packaging, a strong brand, drive, knowing what makes your product different from others, and the ability to take advice. Going beyond five things, people also need to , and cost, and build a team that understands your vision and can help you identify opportunities that you might miss. As a part of our series called “5 […]

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Good packaging, a strong brand, drive, knowing what makes your product different from others, and the ability to take advice. Going beyond five things, people also need to , and cost, and build a team that understands your vision and can help you identify opportunities that you might miss.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tonya Council.

Tonya Council is a trailblazing baker, entrepreneur, and curator of locally made Southern products She’s also the granddaughter of the late Mildred Council, a pillar of Southern cooking with her famed Mama Dip’s restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Tonya is the founder of Tonya’s Cookies and Sweet Tea & Cornbread, and recently acquired NC Made, an online destination for artisanal gourmet food and gifts from her home state.

She is the granddaughter of the late Mildred Council, also known as Mama Dip, a pillar of Southern cooking. Tonya grew up working side by side with her grandmother at the famed Mama Dip’s Kitchen in Chapel Hill. As a child, she helped shell pecans and flip eggs and as a teen, she waited tables while learning the back end of the business and how to thrive as a savvy female business owner.

Her breakout moment came while working on a cookie recipe to help fill the empty dessert case in the front of Mama Dip’s. She wanted to create a cookie that tasted like her grandmother’s famous pecan pie. The result was her ultra-popular Pecan Crisp cookie and the fuel for her own business, Tonya’s Cookies, which she founded in 2009.

In 2017, Tonya opened Sweet Tea & Cornbread, a retail store that offers gourmet Southern foods and products originating in North Carolina. In 2019, she expanded and opened Sweet Tea & Cornbread Café in the North Carolina Museum of History, focusing on her sense of tradition infused with a modern edge.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I was born and raised in Chapel Hill and have been here all my life. My life centered around food and I had a connection to the industry early on. I grew up in the kitchen of my grandmother’s restaurant, Mama Dip’s Kitchen. She was a great role model, and I knew that when I got older, I wanted to be like her and make a name for myself.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

I always say that it started with pecans. When I was nine years old, my grandmother showed me how to crack a pecan. Later, a teenager, the “aha” moment was when I started testing cookie recipes, trying to come up with one that tasted like my grandmother’s pecan pie. I was going to throw a batch into the trash, but after tasting them, my grandmother took those cookies and put them in the display at Mama Dip’s. They sold out almost instantly. They ended up being a big hit, and that’s when I realized I had a special recipe to build off of. My grandmother encouraged me to go out on my own. It took me a little over two months to bring the concept to life, and in 2009, I launched Tonya’s Cookies.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started baking, I had to make really big batches of cookie dough. So I’d just scoop out 15 cups of sugar, one cup at a time. One day, my grandmother was watching me and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was measuring sugar. She laughed, proceeded to pull out a huge measuring cup, said, “This is an eight-cup measuring cup. Use it or you’re going to work yourself to death.” That’s the day I learned how to make dough a lot faster.

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen people make is not doing enough research. This is the most essential part of starting any food business. You need to understand your market and your target audience. Another common error is not knowing the cost of making your product. In the food business, you need to break down the recipe, costing it out, and pricing it accordingly. Small businesses also have to pay attention to their packaging, but that can evolve. The packaging should look attractive, but it’s not necessary to spend a fortune at the start. In fact, someone once told me that my original packaging should almost embarrass me compared to what it looks like down the line. The last common mistake is that people believe that they need to have their products in a large retailer to make a profit, when in fact, they actually end up losing money by doing this. My advice is to stick to working with smaller shops, at least in the beginning.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

First, I recommend buying the book “From Kitchen to Market” by Stephen F. Hall. It helps guide new business owners through the process and provides great insight on what to expect. It also outlines the guidelines required by each state. Second, if it’s a food business like mine, you need to have your recipes nailed down, know the prices for the ingredients, and all the rules and regulations about dealing with food products. Third, build your network and find people who are already in the business who are willing to give you advice. They’ve already gone through what you’re about to put yourself through and can be very helpful.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

If someone wants to succeed in business, they need to have drive, determination, and a real passion for whatever it is they’re creating. People need to realize that building a company will take years, and that there will be hurdles and missteps along the way. You also can’t do something halfway. If you’re going to launch a product or business, you have to put it all out there and accept the fact that you might fail. I also again recommend asking people who are already in the business for advice, considering they were once in the same boat.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

My advice is to keep your ideas to yourself if you can to protect yourself from anyone trying to take your idea. I don’t believe paying for a consultant is necessary, because there are so many free resources to help launch small businesses. Here in North Carolina, we have Goodness Grows, which is dedicated to promoting locally made products.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Personally, I’ve never taken money from anyone, so I can’t necessarily speak to that. I used my own money from the sale of my cookies at Mama Dip’s to start Tonya’s Cookies. Everyone will have their own unique situation, but I’ve always believed it’s better to rely on your own capital if possible. Bringing in venture capitalists changes the game, and many small businesses don’t survive.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

I’m a firm believer in sourcing the best possible products and supporting small local producers. Goodness Grows has a list of local suppliers and I’ve used them to find Carolina Nutcracker, the farm where I source my pecans.As far as a manufacturer goes, I’m fortunate enough to use the space at Mama Dip’s to produce my products.

These days, I’m playing the role of retailer, and I get a lot of inquiries from brands that want to work with me. My experience, and advice, is to start hitting the pavement, visiting local retailers, make a personal connection, pitch the product and give out samples. With big stores like Whole Foods, you need to start by physically dropping samples off at your local store, and they’ll decide if they want to carry the product. That process can take months before you see your product on the shelves, whereas with a small retailer, it can happen quickly.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Good packaging, a strong brand, drive, knowing what makes your product different from others, and the ability to take advice. Going beyond five things, people also need to , and cost, and build a team that understands your vision and can help you identify opportunities that you might miss.

When I first started Tonya’s Cookies, I was trying to figure out how to package my product, so I went to a local food store with samples and asked the owner what would make her purchase my product. She told me that there are a lot of cookie companies out there and asked what made mine special. I wasn’t expecting that, so I told her my cookies taste like my grandmother’s famous pecan pie. As I handed her the bag, she took one bite, looked at me and said, “Your cookies are great. Your grandmother’s pie must be delicious as well.” She proceeded to ask about my background and the idea behind Tonya’s Cookies, which then got us talking about who my grandmother was. She laughed and said, “You should always lead with who you are, because everyone knows who your grandmother is. That will get you on a lot of shelves.”

The brand was already semi-established with the help of my grandmother’s legacy; I just had to use it. I also took the store manager’s advice about leading with my foundation, so instead of telling everybody who I was, I just put it on my packaging. I also talked to a manager at a different store and he told me clear packaging was the new trend, because people like to see the actual product. I then started going to different stores looking at their packaging. That was me doing my research. My drive comes from not wanting to let those who believe in me down, so if I had worked all day in the restaurant and then had to fill a 10 or 20 case orders I would still be in the restaurant well after the last person clocked out baking my cookies until the wee hours of the morning to get the order fulfilled. With little sleep, I’d go back to work the next day and work my regular 10 to 12 hour shift. When costing out my product, I had a good teacher; My mom showed me how to break down the recipe to cost it out as well as how to use pounds for weighing instead of cups. It really is all about taking advice from others and morphing it to fit your products and business.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

Quality, quality, quality. Use the best ingredients you can find, and make a standout product.

Next to that, I was always taught that people eat with their eyes first, so packaging plays a big role. I found that switching to clear packaging, where consumers could actually see my product, was a game changer for me. It allowed people to see the details in the cookies. They can start tasting it with their eyes.

It’s also about authenticity and the story behind the brand. People enjoy hearing about my grandmother and my childhood cracking pecans as the inspiration behind my brand.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

It’s important to me to build a community that allows small businesses to be recognized and I try to help them get their product in front of consumers. Most are scared to take the first step. They’re afraid of rejection. Sometimes people just need to know that someone believes in them and their product, so I’m happy to be that person. Food is a conversation starter. I’ve met a lot of people sitting next to me in a restaurant or standing in line waiting to buy groceries. People are curious about what you’re eating or what you’re going to create with the items in your basket. I think being a small business owner helps build relationships. I try to help as many people as I can, because I’ve always had people willing to help me and want to return the favor.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I think it would be great to help our younger generation figure out what they are most passionate about.

Most of the time people feel stuck and they have no idea what they want to do in life. Everyone hears that you need to finish school and go to college, but how many people go to college and then realize that they still don’t know what they want to do? That was me at one point. I was in college for one year and realized that it wasn’t for me.

I was lucky enough to have a family that understood that. When I talk to younger kids and they say “I want to be a baker or learn to cook,” I encourage them and reassure them that it’s possible. We need to teach more life skills to the younger generation and let them take classes in activities that interest them. I think when you take interest in what a child or teenager likes to do, you’re helping them build character as well as setting them up for the future.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to meet Kathleen King, the owner of Tate’s Cookies. She’s a business woman with real grit. She went through an incredible ordeal being pushed out of her business. But that failure didn’t stop her, and look at her now — she came out on top.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me! I hope I provided some helpful insight to anyone eager to start their own business.

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