This post originally appeared on All You.
Heartwarming soups. Melt-in-your-mouth Southern biscuits. Organic tortilla chips. Scottish oatcakes. Meet five enterprising women who've taken beloved home cooking and built it into a thriving career.
Recipe: Callie's Charleston Biscuits
Who: Carrie Morey, 41, North Charleston, S.C.
Year launched: 2005
Sells in: About 200 stores
Annual revenue: More than $500,000
Number of employees: Eight, two of them full time
"Mama, you're a really good cooker," is a refrain Carrie Morey hears often from her young daughters, Cate, 7, and Sarah, 6. After all, they, along with big sister Caroline, 9, have grown up watching their mom build her biscuit business from scratch, just as Carrie once watched her own mother, Callie, whip up her mouthwatering Southern biscuits.
"One of my daughters said to me, 'Mama, can I own the biscuit business one day?' I answered, 'Absolutely.' And she said, 'Will you give it to me?' I replied, 'I wouldn't dream of it. You have to earn everything you get—that's the only way you're going to learn anything from it.' "
Carrie is the first to tell you how much she has gotten out of her own business, the seeds of which were planted years ago: Fresh out of college, she would tote her mom's handmade biscuits from Charleston, S.C., to New York City—where she worked for an Internet start-up as vice president of sales—to give to clients. "It was the favorite part of my job, just watching people's reaction: 'Oh, my God, this is the best thing I've ever had!' They would go crazy over them."
After marrying, moving home to Charleston and going to work for her dad as a financial adviser, Carrie had her first child and decided to become a stay-at-home mom. "That lasted about three months," she says. "I thought I might lose my mind!" So one day, while visiting her mother, "I was watching her make biscuits—she'd make, like, 500 at a time for parties she catered—and I said, 'Mom, you're getting older, and you can't be catering like this; it's too hard on your body. You should try to sell these biscuits.' She thought I was crazy—that no one would buy them. But I said, 'Listen, if I can come up with a viable business plan, would you consider it?' To say that I twisted her arm would be the understatement of the year. I think she said yes just to get me off her back."
Although Carrie says she'd always had "that entrepreneurial instinct," she pictured creating "a little business" that she could run out of her home while raising her children. She got a lot more than that: Today Callie's Charleston Biscuits is located in a 100-year-old former officers club at an abandoned shipyard and sells more than half a million biscuits each year—all still "mixed, rolled out and cut by hand," Carrie says, "so they have the texture of a down pillow." The original biscuits are part of a line that now features seven other varieties (including country ham, cinnamon, buttermilk, and cheese and chive), plus 12,000 containers of pimento cheese dip, as well as the company's latest product: cheese crisps.
Carrie's mom, who retired from the business in 2009, can't believe how far it has all come, Carrie says: "She's just blown away that we've made such a success out of a biscuit. She's very proud and a little bit in awe." Carrie has been helped along the way by her best friend since junior high, Amy Kissell, 41, the company's director of operations. "Amy is irreplaceable," Carrie says. "She treats Callie's like her own business."
It has been a whirlwind for Carrie, who also blogs and last year published her first cookbook of Southern-style family recipes, Callie's Biscuits and Southern Traditions. "People always ask, 'Aren't you excited and proud?' And I say, 'I don't have the time to be'—I'm just wondering, What is the next level?' I never really think about what we've accomplished; I just think about what we can do to make the company better."
Best Advice: "I decided early on not to pay for advertising. Instead, we spend all our money on samplings—either doing tastings in stores or sending biscuits to people in the media who might be intrigued enough to write about them."
Hard Lesson: "Having a partner, even if it's a member of your family, is not always wise. It's hard to run a business with two people. It's best to have one captain of the ship."
Recipe: Laurie's Buffalo Gourmet
Who: Laurie Seron, 55, Salt Lake City
Year launched: 1999
Sells in: More than 150 stores
Annual revenue: Projected to be $600,000 this year
Number of employees: four full time (she outsources to a manufacturer, a sales team and a distributor)
Not all brides welcome advice from their future mothers-in-law, but when Laurie Seron's offered her a crash course in cooking authentic Mexican food—"you know, beans and Spanish rice and tortilla chips"—Laurie was thrilled. Little did she know that lesson would change her life.
Soon, Laurie says, she and her husband, Daniel, 58, were "making chips for parties, and people would always say, 'You should sell these!' " It started as a joke, the mother of six says, "but finally we said, 'Why not? We have a good product, and this is a business we could do together as a family.' "
So one night Laurie rented out a Salt Lake City hamburger joint after closing time, making chips in the fryers and then hand-bagging them. "The label was xeroxed on rustic-looking brown paper," she recalls. The next day, she says, she cried "because I thought, Who would want to buy these?" Turns out, lots of people. A local grocery took all 15 bags and, within a week, ordered 20 cases. For the next year and a half, Laurie and four employees worked overnight shifts at the burger place making chips, often with the help of Daniel and the four older Seron kids, to fill orders at area stores. "The kids loved being part of it," Laurie says. "We would play oldies on the jukebox, and they had free access to the Coke machine! It really was a big family effort."
During the day, Laurie would drive in her minivan to stores around the state to sell her chips—and soon business was sizzling. "It was like grabbing a bull by the tail," she says. A few years after spending $150,000 in savings to build her own commercial kitchen, she realized that the labor costs involved in continuing to make the chips by hand were prohibitive, so she turned to Manuel's Fine Foods, a chips manufacturer in Utah, for production and distribution. "I didn't think of myself as a business-woman when I started," she says, "but I jumped out there with a vision and said, 'If I'm going to do this, I'm going to make it work.' "
Laurie's Buffalo Gourmet line now features five flavors of chips, plus three salsas, and is sold to stores throughout the West. The company remains a family affair. "Daniel is a great problem solver," Laurie says. "And all the kids still help. We've achieved what we set out to achieve: to have a real family business."
Best Advice: "You have to have some basic things in place to make a business like this succeed: Find an approved kitchen; come up with your company name and logo; figure out packaging for a good shelf life; and, most important, understand your margins"—that's the cost of getting the products on the shelf compared with their retail price.
Hard Lesson: "You are the one with the vision, so you have to stay engaged with the product, even as you grow. You can't always expect other people to be as vigilant as you are with what you are creating."
Recipe: Frontier Soups
Who: Trisha Anderson, 67, Waukegan, Ill.
Year launched: 1986
Sells in: About 2,000 stores nationwide
Annual revenue: $4 million
Number of employees: 29
When Trisha Anderson thinks back on her childhood in Northfield, Ill., one memory stands out: her mom in the kitchen, cooking up a steaming pot of soup on Saturday mornings. "She'd throw whatever leftovers she had from the week in there," Trisha recalls, "and I always found it so wonderful." Trisha's mom, Jane H. Clarke, 94, is still at it. "She called me the other day and said she'd just had one of her 'clean out the refrigerator and put everything into a pot' moments so she and my dad ate soup for dinner," Trisha says.
Like mother, like daughter. With Trisha's own love of soup simmering, it seemed only natural that in 1983, when the stay-at-home mom of three and weekend caterer was asked to make a product for a Chicago holiday market, she suggested an 11-bean soup. "I packed up 275 little bags of colorful soup mixes for this four-day event," she recalls, "and on opening night I ladled out my soup. The men just loved it—it's a football-watching soup! By the next morning, I had sold out. And that's how it all began."
For the next eight years, Trisha expanded her offerings—which she dubbed "shortcuts to homemade"—and traveled the Midwest holiday-market circuit, hand-packing the soup mixes on her basement Ping-Pong table. "The business worked well with my family life," she says. "I made these soups during the week, then went out on the weekends and sold them while my husband watched the kids. He loved that I was doing something that could use my culinary talents and also contribute to the family budget."
By 1991, with nine soups—including the original Minnesota Heartland 11-bean mix—Trisha decided she was ready for the big time, so she loaded up her car with mixes and a slow cooker, and took off for the Fancy Food Show in New York City. "I look back, and I can't believe I did that!" she says. "I didn't think of myself as launching a business, but 30 years later, I can see that's exactly what I was doing."
At the show, Trisha was marketing directly to retailers, and it was her breakthrough moment: Because of the business she picked up at the show, Frontier Soups doubled its production and sales.
Today, Frontier Soups sells 34 varieties, all with geographic names, including California Gold Rush white bean chili mix and the top-selling South of the Border tortilla soup mix. Trisha says it's gratifying to have built a business from recipes she loves. "You know, soup can take all day, or it can be quick," she says, "but it's always multipurpose. I love that idea of throwing together a lot of ingredients and a lot of people, and then commingling the two. It's more than just a product. Soup brings people together."
Best Advice: "If you want to start a business, go with your interests—they will lead you somewhere. And talk to people about problems and solutions. That was a life lesson for me."
Hard Lesson: "We tried to institute an international line—including an Italian wedding soup and Hungarian goulash—and stores just couldn't give us the space. It was an expensive mistake."
Recipe: Effie's Homemade
Who: Joan MacIsaac, 52, and Irene Costello, 53, Boston
Year launched: 2008
Sells in: About 1,400 stores
Annual revenue: $1 million
Number of employees: 4 in Boston, plus 30 at the plant in New Jersey where Effie's products are made
Joan MacIsaac and Irene Costello go together like peas and carrots. Or, in their case, butter and flour. And that alchemy might be just as important to the success of their business, Effie's Homemade, as Joan's third-generation family oatcake recipe, which they used to launch the company.
Joan (who'd had years of experience as a restaurant chef, caterer, cooking instructor and bakery owner) and Irene (who had been a vice president of sales for a bank) began their culinary partnership about a decade ago by offering cooking classes. Their dream was to eventually open a cooking school, but they could never find a good permanent space. "So we said, 'Let's dust off Effie's oatcake recipe instead,' " Irene recalls. The old Scottish recipe came from Joan's mom, Effie, who'd inherited it from her mom back in Nova Scotia. "It was my dream food," Joan says. "It's crispy. It's not too sweet. It's very homey."
Starting with a product they completely believed in, Joan and Irene next turned for guidance to two friends who ran a successful wholesale baking company. "They got us started on the right foot," Joan says, "teaching us about packaging and design, how to scale up, how to be ready for shelf-life tests, the best way to do sales. It was invaluable advice—probably saved us two years of pitfalls."
They began by making the oatcakes in a friend's pie shop at night and selling in 13 Boston-area stores. They quickly expanded, however, and had the cakes manufactured by a third party that was already making similar products. By the end of their first year, Joan and Irene's products were in 200 stores. They now sell a variety of flavors, including corn cakes, pecan nutcakes, a malted cocoa cake and a rye-walnut biscuit.
And what does Effie think of the company's success? "She loves it!" Irene says. After Joan told Effie that her oatcakes had won an award from the Specialty Food Association, Irene recalls, "Effie said, 'That's nice, Dear. But just don't give out my phone number to anyone.' "
Best Advice: "Do your research. We went to a lot of classes offered by the Specialty Food Association on how to start a business, how to price and how to market," Joan says. "We also did lots of consumer testing on our own—we'd blindfold friends at parties and ask them, 'What do you taste in this? What would you pay for this?' "
Hard Lesson: "We would highly recommend to anyone starting out that they launch a line of items and flavors rather than a single one," Joan says. "It ends up saving money on packaging costs, marketing, design—everything."
No family recipe? No problem! Two friends turned gluten-free living into a lot of dough (a company worth almost $1 million).
Cheryl Katten, 43, and Myrna Mirow, who will admit only to being "60 plus," are living proof that necessity is the mother of invention. After Myrna's doctor suggested she go on a gluten-free diet, and Cheryl learned she was gluten-intolerant, the two friends, who'd met as neighbors in Boulder, Colo., decided that if they couldn't find snacks to suit their needs, they'd create them. Launched in 2009, Skinny Crisps are now sold in more than 300 stores, and the company employs 10 full-time and 5 part-time employees.
Myrna came up with the recipe for gluten-free crackers made with almond meal, sesame seeds, fennel, psyllium husks and olive oil. Although neither woman had any experience in the food industry—both had fashion backgrounds, and Myrna also had worked in real estate—they knew instantly that they had found an underserved niche. "We never said 'We can't do' something," Myrna says. "We just figured out how to do it ourselves."
Sample at the Start
To drum up customers, the two got creative. "We sent samples to celiac disease support groups," Cheryl says. "Then they'd go to our website to buy more crackers, or go to a store to try to find the crackers, and then the store would call us."
At the beginning, Myrna says, "I was going to the local store and buying big quantities of almonds and grinding them in my Cuisinart. It was so labor-intensive!" Now they buy 8 tons of almond meal each year—and they've cut out the middleman. How were they able to go straight to the source? "Simple," Cheryl says. "I googled the Almond Association!"
"When we began," Cheryl says, "business people were telling us: Borrow, borrow, borrow. They said if we didn't, we'd run out of money. But we didn't. I had a zero-interest credit card that we used, and my dad lent us $25,000. That's it. But we've always kept our growth checked to what we could handle, and it has worked. We doubled in size the second year, and every year since, we've grown by 25 percent."
Trust Your Instincts
"Early on, Myrna and I hired someone to do the artwork for our first bag," Cheryl says, "and we both saw it and were, like, 'It's not at all what we're looking for!' ". They then came up with their own design.
Practice Creative Problem-Solving
"We had to figure out how to bag our crackers more efficiently," Cheryl recalls. The pair created prototype packagers using cut-up Solo cups, then popcorn funnels and bungee cords. "That's the most exciting part for us," Myrna says, "figuring how to make it all work."
"We do everything in steps," Cheryl says. "We have a board with lists that say now, tomorrow and next week, and we rotate them. You can't try to do it all at once."
From half-baked to business—here's the dish on free online resources to help you get cooking!
Learn the ropes. Download articles on business basics from the U.S. Small Business Administration (sba.gov); its Office of Women's Business Ownership also oversees a nationwide chain of Women's Business Centers, which provide training. Or visit google.com/entrepreneurs for links to online resources and events.
Find a mentor. Score.org pairs burgeoning entrepreneurs with volunteer business experts. Post a sales or marketing question on meetadvisors.com. For more resources, search online for the name of your town plus "small business association" or "SBDC" (small business development center).
Write a business plan. Bplans.com provides sample plans, many in the food category.
Learn about financing. Startupnation.com offers soup-to-nuts advice on raising capital. Microventures.com connects investors with start-ups. Accountingcoach.com provides a free online career center. Crowdfunding sites for small businesses include crowdfunder.com, indiegogo.com, somolend.com and upstart.com.
Able to invest?
In addition to offering classes and workshops at its twice-yearly Fancy Food shows, held in New York City and San Francisco, the Specialty Food Association maintains a knowledge center on its website, specialtyfood.org, where you can buy downloadable reports (most about $50) and webinars (most about $90) on a range of topics including trends in the industry as well as databases of food brokers and distributors.