Customers. You need to keep your customers happy and help them be successful selling as many of your products as possible. Every time a retailer adds a new product to their shelves, more than likely it is replacing a product that did not perform.
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 Fernanda Capraro, cofounder and co-owner along with her husband Angelo of Cookies Con Amore (www.CookiesConAmore.com), an artisan baker of gourmet Italian cookies.
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”?
Igrew up in a small town in Southern Italy where I would work alongside my mother, grandmother and aunts to prepare treats for the holidays. We did not always have a bunch of fancy ingredients, but we learned how to work with butter, flour, nuts, spices and local fruits like apricots and dates. I also lived in Paris for a time and was surrounded by many cuisine influences and then moved to California where my husband Angelo and I owned a series of delis and restaurants.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Many customers at our Italian restaurant were too full to order dessert a so we started offering cookies to go which turned out to be very well received. We had friends who also owned Italian restaurants in Southern California who start ordering cookies from us to sell in their restaurants. That gave us the idea that perhaps focusing on a cookie bakery had some potential. After years in restaurant working nights and weekends, the thought of operating a commercial wholesale bakery had the added benefit of more regular hours, or at least that is what we thought!
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 we first started baking cookies, we would often get distracted and found that if we did not rotate the baking pans on time, we would end up with unevenly baked or burned cookies. It did not take long for us to figure out that we needed to time every batch and get timers so that our profits didn’t go up in smoke!
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
There are many ways to fail in the food business. Not having recipes that you can consistently produce is a sure way to disappoint customers. Producing too much product before you have lined up paying customers will also cost you. Going to trade shows is expensive but if you do not go to them it is difficult to get credibility and meet new customers. Thinking that if you make a better product, the world will beat a path to your door is also going to end in disappointment.
Developing new products that fit your brand and that will increase the SKU’s that your existing customers will buy is a proven way to grow a business. Talking to buyers and customers constantly and getting feedback, both good and bad, will help you to develop a line that is successful in the marketplace.
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?
The first thing they should do is go to the doctor to insure they are of sound mind and body! Building a successful business takes years of hard work and the larger you grow, the more capital you need in the business to finance larger inventories, accounts receivable and other costs.
If you want to follow the dream of developing a product, make a small quantity of it and look for opportunities to test the market. That may mean selling on Amazon, inviting people to test your product, getting a booth at Farmer’s Markets. Whatever it takes to get in front of customers who might actually pay for your product.
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?
Lots of people have ideas. That is the fun and easy part. Executing on that idea is where most people fall down. If you are going to start an actual business, you need to be prepared to commit years to making that business successful. It is a lot of hard work so you need to be very sure that your idea is going to pay off. The more you can validate your idea before you launch the business, the surer you can be that your time, effort, and money will be well spent.
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?
Hiring a consultant can help you avoid mistakes and give you insight into the industry and market. A good consultant may also be able to make introductions to industry experts and perhaps even some potential customers. In the food industry, it may be better to look for an advisor or mentor who knows the industry.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
You can never have too much capital! If you want to grow faster than 15–20% a year, you will likely need more cash than the business throws off. Venture Capital may be a stretch for a food business in most cases and most founders work off of savings and funds lent or invested by friends and family. Unfortunately, most small businesses will resort to bootstrapping at times just to keep up with their growth.
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?
Sourcing good raw ingredients is like looking for a prince. You are likely to kiss more than a few frogs! A good supplier may not be interested in a young startup or their minimums may be more than you can afford. Retailers and distributors are also hard to find as distributors are looking for manufacturers who already have customers and some existing volume. Getting retailers on board early will make or break your business but then you also need to make sure that your product sells through.
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.)
- A good idea. Having a product that you can sell to customers that will keep the customers loyal due to your brand, your recipe and satisfaction from consumers is the key. One of our retailers told us that they love Cookies Con Amore products so much that they actually served them at three of the family’s weddings!
- A willingness to do whatever it takes. Building a business is hard work and you will end up cleaning bathrooms, mopping floors, answering the phone, and doing a crazy amount of paperwork.
- Customers. You need to keep your customers happy and help them be successful selling as many of your products as possible. Every time a retailer adds a new product to their shelves, more than likely it is replacing a product that did not perform.
- A curious mind. You have to keep exploring how your product can evolve and grow into a larger portfolio of successful and profitable products.
- Optimism. You are going to have many setbacks, disappointments and rejections. Not every prospect you try to sell to is going to buy. You will hear lots of reasons and excuses and if you lose faith in your own product, you will likely fail.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
I wish I knew the answer to that question! Our recipes were inspired by generations of bakers in Italy who keep preparing the cookies their families and friends liked. I have had to modify the recipes to adapt to ingredients available and the equipment we use but most of our flavors have met the test of time. One big benefit that we had is that we knew many popular flavors and recipes and our challenge was how to commercialize them without losing the aspects that made them popular.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We hear from customers that our cookies bring them a little bit of joy when they are having a snack, starting their day with a cup of coffee, or having something sweet after a meal or with a glass of wine. Con Amore means with love in Italian and we hope to spread the love!
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.
Having a little more love in your day and sharing it with family and friends will make the world a better place. We have heart shaped linzer cookies and much of our packaging incorporates hearts which is a symbol of love.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.