Have you ever heard someone exclaim that it took over ten years to become an overnight success? We have! We also know that there's a lot to learn along the way, and many don't succeed.
We recently sat down with three food entrepreneurs with a collective 38 years in business to ask them about what it took to grow a successful business. Each entrepreneur followed a unique path to become profitable and grow their business. Today they are planning and working toward continued success into the future.
Geneva Peterson describes her journey at Treasure Breads, Inc as the "adventure of a lifetime." In 2007 when her son was three, they baked some loaves of cinnamon bread that they sold at a garage sale and donated the proceeds to a local cause. It was a huge success, and neighbors convinced her to sell her loaves at the farmer's market, where she regularly sold 30 - 50 loaves each week. She added more flavors and pitched to the Boy Scouts, who continue to sell Treasure Breads as a fundraiser.
From humble beginnings, the company has grown and changed over the years. Hospital gift shops were the next market. By the time Geneva met Harriet Parker at the Fox Valley Entrepreneurship Center (FVEC) in 2015, Treasure Breads were sold in 20 hospitals in Illinois. Geneva and her sister, who became a partner in the business, spent three days baking each week to meet demand. Harriet convinced Geneva to switch to a co-manufacturer, who came up with the idea to make mini loaves when customers wanted individual servings. They now make a variety of flavors as loaves, minis, and slices and sell the product through fundraisers, farmer's markets, a corporate giving program, and numerous retail outlets.
Kimberly Yates, known as Kimmer from the time she was a child, started Kimmer's Ice Cream out of college at 22. When she opened her ice cream shop in St. Charles, she had no business training or education. She says she earned her "MBA from the school of hard knocks." Kim's initial goal was to turn a profit in three years, but that didn't happen.
Looking back, she knows that she needed to learn a lot. For a long time she had no budget and was making it up as she went. It was "improv at its worst," and Kim readily admits that she wouldn't be where she is today without the help of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), the FVEC, and Sybil Ege. Kim now has three stores in the suburbs, and everything they make is made in-house.
Terri Kinney is the co-founder of Sweet Secrets Chocolate. It all started in 2007 when Terri went to a viewing of the Secret with her friend Dede Barnicle who later became her partner. Dede later mentioned she made extraordinary hand-rolled truffles, and Terri said she had been a marketing exec. The Secret was a sign that they should start a chocolate truffle company, and they made a plan on a napkin.
They started making truffles, but those needed refrigeration and didn't make much money. They then evolved into chocolate-covered pretzels and a chocolate pretzel pizza that gained national press and a national following. Their growth trajectory took them from working in a basement to a co-manufacturer with several stops in between. Their products are sold nationwide through numerous online venues and at high-end grocery stores.
Key Performance Indicators
When asked how to determine how much product to make, Geneva noted that she initially looked at what she sold the prior week for farmers' markets. Now she tracks numerous performance indicators such as flavors, sizes, location, season, and what she sold during the same period in the prior year.
Kim developed charts that track how many scoops of ice cream are sold daily. She uses this to understand the trends over a period of time. She looks at her Key Performance Indicators (KPI) every day and states, "If you don't know your numbers, you don't know anything." Ice cream sales are a seasonal business, and she has learned to put money away in the summer months, so she still has money in the bank come March and April. Financial planning is an absolute necessity when running a business. You always need to plan 3 to 6 months ahead. With a firm understanding of her financials and sales trends, Kim has grown to three stores in the western suburbs and looks to add more in the future.
For Terri and her partner Dede, it was a question of scalability vs. growth. They reinvested profits into the company so they could scale production to meet growing product demands. They learned to be careful with loans and where they got them. Even though the business started in 2007, it really started growing in the last 5-6 years. As the company has grown, Terri notes that "It is harder today than yesterday. Decisions are bigger today than yesterday. The amount of money that goes behind each decision is bigger today than yesterday, so there's more stress today than yesterday." Terri also commented that you need to know your numbers to ensure you are making enough margin to stay in business.
Working on the Business Vs. Working in the Business
All three women were initially hands-on with their businesses. They made the product, packaged it, and sold it. Now their roles have changed. Geneva is focused mainly on business development. She's responsible for bringing on new accounts and growing current accounts. Terri is also primarily focused on business development, but she is involved in all aspects of managing the business and sometimes has to get hands-on when needed. Kim concentrates on strategy and financials while her partner is responsible for the daily operations. She is currently researching co-manufacturers and more locations.
Advice to Entrepreneurs Starting Out
Geneva has learned the power of listening to customers and has been most successful when she has let go of her own ideas. She claims being open-minded to customers has been surprising and powerful.
Kim wants people starting out to know that risk is inevitable and you have to take risks to grow. What's important to her has changed over time. Currently, she is focused on providing opportunities and benefits for staff so they can think of working at Kimmer's as a career and not simply a job.
Terri advises not to be afraid to go big. Go for the ask. Don't be afraid to ask for help. You
can't be expected to know everything, but there are people out there who can help you. Find a mentor. "It's a great journey and a lot of fun!"
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