Have Apron, Will Prosper

(This article appeared in the November 2000 issue of North Shore Magazine. It was the last piece I’d do for Tom, my first editor at the magazine. By the January 2001 issue, there’d be a new editor—fortunately, one with whom I enjoyed working for as long as she was at the magazine. However, Tom was the editor who accepted my first piece at North Shore, so I was sorry to see him go. As for the story, I loved interviewing these women—and I still smile when I see their products in stores.)

Though it was early, the big tent at the Long Grove festival was already bustling. However, it was not yet difficult to reach the tables where the free samples were being handed out. At the first booth, I savored bits of chicken cooked in a variety of tasty sauces. The garlic and herb was my favorite. I smiled at a young woman who was busy with toothpicks, and said, “Really delicious.” Then I moved on.

At the next booth, another woman was handing out samples of outrageously rich cake. I smiled again, then moved farther down the same booth, where I was offered a sliver of herb-basted turkey. Yum. I absently turned over the package, and noticed that it was made locally. I looked up at the cheerful woman behind the counter and said, “This is your company, isn’t it?” She replied that it was, then launched into her favorite stories about her business and her customers. I got her card, then headed back to the first booth.

The jar told me that the sauces were made in Wheeling. Now, I keep sufficiently abreast of food trends to have heard that women were having an impact on the specialty food business, but for some reason, I had never thought of it as happening here, in Chicago’s suburbs. I thought it was in New York, or maybe Los Angeles, but Wheeling? Yes, the young woman behind the counter was the business’s founder and owner. I got her business card, too.

The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade confirmed that, at present, the majority of specialty food companies in the U.S. are, in fact, run by women, or by women with partners. And yes, some of this is happening in Chicago’s suburbs.

Carol Currie, the Specialty Food Buyer for Foodstuffs, is enthusiastic about the increased presence of women in the food business. “When I go to the food shows,” Carol notes, “I’m seeing a lot more women—women with some really innovative ideas.” Carol observes that women are gaining ground in the food industry as a whole, with women chefs gaining international reputations and women running some of the top specialty food businesses.

Carol adds that, despite the fact that women are working in the kitchen, stereotypes are not being maintained. “The women who come in here to do product presentations are largely sharp, successful women with backgrounds in corporate America. They’re doing this because they want to, because they love the creativity and crave the independence. Because of their business backgrounds, they understand marketing issues. They’re a lot more sophisticated than 20 years ago.”

While the women who are running these businesses have much in common—a love of good food, strong family ties, backgrounds in business—they still manage to defy stereotypes. Sure, Georgette Kaplan started with an old family recipe. But Trisha Anderson researched classic Americana. Marla Murray bought her original sauce formulas (though she has developed many of her own since). And Judy Glass, a food scientist with an MBA, researched trends, did a market assessment, and then formulated a product that had no competition. Oh—another thing they all have in common—they’re all happy with what they’re doing.

The Spice of Life
Georgette Kaplan, founder of Georgetown Spice Co. in Arlington Heights, was a computer programmer for 13 years. “I was really successful, traveling all over the country, having a wonderful time. It was not easy to leave that, but I’d always known that, if I had children, I wanted to be at home.” Then the girls (two daughters) grew up and left for college, and Georgette wanted to work again. With her programming skills out of date, and not really wanting to go back to school, she brainstormed for options.

“I’m Greek, and have had a lot of wonderful recipes passed down to me. One day, the thought popped into my head, ‘I have this great turkey recipe.’ People tend to be intimidated by turkeys, so I knew it was the right product.” Georgette approached The Spicery. Since she didn’t have a brochure, she took over a cooked turkey with packages of her herb/spice blend—and she was in business. When The Spicery closed, Georgette turned to Farmside in Long Grove, which still carries her products. Today, her products are sold all over the country.

Georgette says that, shortly after she started, her husband offered an important piece of advice, “If you’re really going to do this, you need to expand your product line.” So Georgette decided to market his mom’s apple spice cake, and began to research other possibilities. “There’s always something to learn—that’s what makes it so great. Before I developed the chocolate cake earlier this year, I didn’t know there were so many kinds of cocoa—hundreds of kinds.

“I really couldn’t have done this without my family,” Georgette continues. “My husband has borne the brunt of it—he comes home, and dinner may not be made or the laundry’s not done—but he’s completely supportive. My younger daughter is studying business, and enthusiastically offers advice and assistance.” In fact, Georgette’s daughters’ heading for college was not only the impetus for starting the business, but inspired the company’s name—both girls studied at Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University.

“The business keeps me busy, so I don’t miss the girls so much,” Georgette notes. “It’s like a third child, since it demands all your attention. But I love it. I think the best thing about the business is hearing the stories of how people are using the products. It’s a happy thing. My favorite story is the time I was demonstrating my spices, and a young woman approached who was really worried about cooking her first Christmas turkey for the relatives. I explained the process to her, then gave her my phone number, and told her to call if she needed help. She did call, but not for help—she wanted to say thanks, then held the phone up as all the relatives cheered. I get letters all the time. That’s really the best part of the business—the people you touch.”

Top Hat and Tales
“I would never work this hard for someone else,” notes Marla Murray, owner of Top Hat Company, Inc. in Wilmette. Top Hat produces what Smart Money magazine described as “Killer dessert sauces.” Called one of “America’s best local foods” by U.S. News and World Report, these gourmet sauces, prepared by hand in small batches, are decadently rich.

Marla is the owner, but not founder, of Top Hat. Ten years ago, she was asked to transfer to Seattle by the company for whom she worked, but she was tired of traveling three weeks per month, she had young children (two then, three now, ages 4, 10, and 12), and she wanted to do something she enjoyed. “I was in sales for years and years,” Marla relates, “but my hobby has always been food and cooking. Just as I was trying to figure out how to change my life, some friends mentioned that they had started this little business producing dessert sauce, and they’d like to sell it. The timing was perfect.”

Marla has built the company up considerably, both in terms of product and market. She started with six sauces, but now has eleven, and has added a double chocolate fondue. Top Hat has received awards, praise, and national coverage. Though the products are available in stores, and are distributed nationally, Marla says she continues to do mail-order, because it offers a much greater opportunity to talk with end users. “I love finding out what they’re doing with the products, and I love hearing how wonderful they think the products are—it’s great for my ego.”

With the kind of publicity Top Hat has received, you might think Marla could just sell it and relax. Actually, she has already received offers. “I love what I’m doing,” Marla explains. “It’s like it’s my child. I don’t know what I’d do if I sold it. Besides, it’s a point of pride that we’ve grown it so much and kept the quality. If you sell, you lose control. You have to just turn your back, because they may change it, or drop it. It’s never the same once it leaves the family.”

Marla says that her kids love the business. “They love the chocolate, and they love the fact that I’m not traveling.” Marla says that most family members are involved. The older children help with the work. Her husband goes to food shows. And during the really busy mail-order seasons, everyone—parents, friends, anyone who phones—gets swept into the packing of orders. “The more people you know in the industry,” Marla says, “the more you discover that these really are family businesses.”

New Frontiers
Trisha Anderson, founder of Frontier Soups in Lake Bluff, says she didn’t really intend to start a business. She was busy raising three young children, and considered cooking as recreation. Sure, she had taught cooking classes at Gorton College, and had done some catering, but that wasn’t the same as starting a company.

Then, in 1986, a friend called and asked her to bring a food item to a Junior League fundraiser. “I was teaching a cooking class,” Trisha relates, “and had been experimenting with a hearty, traditional bean soup—what was to become Minnesota Heartland Soup—so I had a product ready when the call came. I worked in the basement, packing ingredients for the soup into 275 brown lunch bags, with hand-done calligraphy labels. I took a crockpot full of soup with me, to hand out samples. I was nervous that I’d made too much, but we sold out the first night.”

The business started to build, with Trisha selling her soups to little boutiques. Junior League fundraisers, usually in the fall, helped her expand across the U.S. However, the huge demand in the fall required year-round packing, and year-round packing meant they needed year-round sales. So in 1991, Trisha and her husband went to the Fancy Food Show in New York, to get Frontier Soups into stores.

Combing through traditional recipes to find wholesome, traditional recipes that can be adapted to modern kitchens is just part of what went into expanding the business further. Testing, sampling, and more research followed. “I wanted my soups to be interesting and different,” Trisha notes. There are now two soup lines: Hearty Originals, which offers substantial soups inspired by regions and periods in American history, and the more recent Homemade in Minutes line, a boxed soup that is quicker to prepare. Then, in the spring of 1999, Trisha added four pasta salads, called “I’ll Bring the Salad.”

As a result of the growth, Trisha has moved from her basement to increasingly larger facilities. She is now in an 11,000-square-foot warehouse, and has increased production dramatically—to about half a million packages a year. Despite the success, Trisha still travels to the Junior League holiday boutiques across the country. “They remain a strong market,” Trisha explains, “and they offer contact with the consumers. That personal contact, and the feedback I get, are important.”

A Fusion of Business and Taste
“I had a grandfather who was ahead of his time in nutrition,” Judy Glass explains. “He was a big influence. In our family, food was a big part of our lives—everyone has some area of food about which they’re passionate.” Judy’s passion propelled her toward a bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition and a master’s in food science. She kicked off her career in the corporate world, and added an MBA to her other qualifications. But the Fortune 500 company for whom she worked just wasn’t fulfilling her needs.

Judy, the founder of Wheeling-based Gourmet Fusions, relates that, for a couple of years, she discussed the idea about starting a business with her brother, who was a specialty food distributor. As she became increasingly eager to leave the corporate world, she began looking at the trends: for taste—everyone loves garlic, and roasted vegetables are hugely popular; and for lifestyle—everyone is too busy but wants to eat well. So Judy developed cooking sauces that would add big flavor with little or no effort. She did a competitive product assessment, discovered she had no competition, and she was off and running.

“I describe the sauces as ‘a spice rack in a jar.’ They can be used on meat, poultry, or fish, on potatoes, in dips—almost anywhere,” Judy states. “One of my customers, Breadsmith, is baking with it. They use it in bread and focaccia, and to flavor breadsticks. They also sell the retail product.”

Judy has targeted a larger market than just retail outlets. She also sells to foodservice—so you may have tasted her product without knowing it. Being single, and being solely responsible for her mortgage, she wanted to get up to speed in a hurry—and she has succeeded. She started in December 1998. In 1999, the Sun Times named Gourmet Fusions one of the top ten new products of the year. Today, between retail and food service, she has more than 100 accounts in the Chicago area, and has gone national for retail sales.

Her family thought she was crazy at first, giving up the security and good income of her corporate position, but now they’re really proud of her, and excited about the business. Her sister-in-law is now co-owner, and everyone pitches in and helps wherever they can.

“I love what I’m doing,” Judy relates. “It’s very creative. There’s a lot of problem solving, which I love. I don’t want every day to be the same. I work harder than I’ve ever worked before, with longer hours, more stress, and less money—yet I’m the poster child for happiness.”

The Verdict
Starting a business is possible. You have to know what you want, and you have to believe it’s worth it. It costs a lot to get started—ingredients, packaging, brochures, marketing. So you need to have faith and energy.

“This is not for people who don’t like work,” Georgette Kaplan notes, “but for anyone who wants to start their own business, it is possible, you can do it.” It seems that all our entrepreneurs agree—it’s not easy, but it’s wonderful, and it’s exactly what they want to be doing.

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