Artisan Food Businesses: Is that Cookie Worth it?

Photo by Michael Piazza

Boston may be the home of the bean and the cod, but we are now also the home of the bean-to-bar chocolate as well as the handmade caramel and home-cooked preserves, not to mention sweet and savory baked goods crafted by hand rather than machine. Thanks largely to a growing DIY culture, the internet, and year-round farmers markets that give them direct access to customers (and vice versa), food artisans are proliferating, combining their passion and talents and drawing on a wealth of local ingredients.

Producing food by hand, on a small scale, using high quality ingredients, as so many of these people do, is not easy. It is also expensive and takes a lot of time. Small producers don’t have access to the same quantity pricing as larger companies and usually can’t afford the (often expensive) machinery that might make their lives so much easier. As a result, many of these products cost more than traditional supermarket items that may be similar. But all the upfront costs are not always obvious in the finished product, and consumers may wonder why they should pay more for small-batch items. It is a perfectly legitimate question.

To address this issue, we decided to talk to five different producers, who we believe, are representative of many in this area. We hope the following brief profiles will help you understand what is behind so many of the products you see at farmers markets and on store shelves.

Karen Collins started her business, a wholesale bakery, nearly a decade ago, but it has evolved, grown and even had a name change in that time. Previously a co-owner of Nashoba Brook Bakery, Collins gave her portion of the business to her ex-husband when they divorced, and entered the insurance business, where she lasted for half a day. At the time her three children were three, five and seven years old. Realizing she had to do what she loved, in 2005 Collins began a custom confections business from her Acton home under the name Baby Cakes.

After she got her first wholesale account, Idylwilde Farm, in 2009, Collins needed to expand beyond her home base. She built her first commercial kitchen, at the Stow Minute Man Airport, in 2010.

The following year, Collins was hit with a “cease-and-desist” order by another local company operating as Baby Cakes. “That was the thing that really knocked the socks off of me,” she says. “I was so mad at myself,” for not having trademarked the name. The order was dropped a year later because Collins was able to prove that her business was operating first, but she couldn’t trademark the Baby Cakes name beyond Massachusetts, so she had to rebrand. It was a difficult lesson that Collins calls very costly “financially and emotionally.”

In 2013, Collins’ company reemerged as Bisousweet Confections, and she signed a lease on a new 5,000-square-foot space in Shirley, more than four times the size of the previous kitchen. Bisousweet moved into the new space last April. Collins still bakes and develops all the recipes, but says she now gets “a lot of help [during] active, collaborative brainstorming sessions,” having grown from a one-woman show to 16 people. Bisousweet’s delicious cookies, cakes, rugelach and other goodies are sold at leading high-end markets throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, as well as farmers markets all over the greater Boston area.

Despite the growth, Collins says pricing her products is an ongoing challenge. Ingredient costs are in constant flux but she can’t change her prices every time. After nearly 10 years, Collins says the company is just about to turn the corner into profitability, though she has yet to take a salary herself. Despite the long hours and difficult physical work, she finds satisfaction in a variety of factors. “That used to come from seeing my products on a shelf,” she says. “Now it’s seeing there are 16 people who have jobs, or it’s that we can donate 16 pies” to local causes.

But to anyone who ever questions the price tags on Bisousweet Confections, she has one message: “Come bake for a day, then let’s talk.”

The proliferation of farmers markets provided a low-risk opportunity for Robin Cohen, owner of doves & figs, to try selling her jams. The Arlington resident started small in mid-summer of 2011 with just a few flavors at the Arlington and Winchester markets, “as a totally fun thing. I made more jam than I’d ever made in my life,” she recalls. And she sold every jar.

Cohen has owned a computer consulting company for 22 years, but loved cooking, baking and making jam since she was a child. “I always found ways to incorporate [food] into what I was doing,” she says, making edible gifts for colleagues in the corporate world even “when it wasn’t cool to do it.”

When she began doves & figs, she was cooking alone in her home kitchen. After nearly a year, Cohen had outgrown that space. Though she still uses it for recipe development and some production, she makes most doves & figs jams and preserves—there are now around 40 flavors that rotate seasonally—at the Farmer’s Grange, a shared-use kitchen in Dartmouth. After a year her best friend’s daughter, who is a student at UMass-Dartmouth, joined her, cooking between classes, on weekends, during vacations and summers. She has one other part-time employee and her husband pitches in for van-loading duty. “It takes a village to make some jam,” she says.

Cohen is adamant about using only local fruit—90 percent of it is grown in Massachusetts and the rest is from New England. (Cranberries are all from Cape Cod, mostly from one bog.) “People have suggested to me that we’d sell a lot more if I stopped using only local fruit and I get that,” she says. “But that’s not what we’re all about. We’re trying to get fruit into people’s hands and money into farmers’ hands and have fun doing it.”

The biggest challenges at this point are producing enough to fill demand and helping people understand why her products are a little more expensive. “Everybody loves the idea of local but not everybody wants to pay for it,” she says. But, “the fruit costs me more.”

After roughly four years in business, Cohen says the company is starting to make “a little profit,” largely because they are producing more efficiently. Sales nearly doubled in 2014 from the previous year. “We’re getting better at this,” she says. “Before, we shipped jars and we didn’t know how to pack them and they broke.” Now they know how to package to avoid that. The company is still in a building mode, but she hopes this is the year they turn the corner.

Cohen has also been encouraged by the support she’s found that extends beyond her regular customers. “There’s this whole community who were so excited about what we were doing —farmers, store owners, other food crafters… It’s so nurturing.”

Lark Fine Foods began seven years ago with a spicy chocolate cookie created by Nicole Nordensved, whose mother, Mary Ann McCormick, was transitioning out of a corporate marketing career and wanted to start a business. The cookies, since named Cha Chas, were so popular that the women decided to see whether they could sell them. A specialty foods store in Gloucester took them on and, as McCormick says, “One cookie led to another.”

For a year, McCormick and her daughter baked three days a week in her Gloucester kitchen, dedicating one closet as the business' supply room. “The plan was, when we grew out of the one closet I had given up, we would have to move,” McCormick says. Finally, with three retail customers clamoring for cookies, the women rented space in a caterer’s kitchen in nearby Essex. They stayed there for four years, until they outgrew that space and moved to a larger kitchen downstairs. “We really moved too soon, before we had enough business to take on the overhead we’ve taken on,” McCormick concedes. But ultimately, she believes Lark’s current 5,000-square-foot space will enable her to triple her business.

To McCormick, kitchen space is one of the primary challenges facing small food producers. To be successful, she maintains, they have to reach a point where they can’t stay in their home kitchens, “But taking on your own space is expensive and then you have to grow into it.”

Cash flow has been another ongoing challenge. “It’s all about growth, and growing costs money,” McCormick says. Adding one new cookie to the product line (there are now 12, plus three seasonal cookies) involves research and development, which is expensive and time-consuming if done right, she explains. And McCormick is a stickler for doing things right. In Lark’s case it means testing, testing and more testing until cookies meet her very exacting standards. “I think our cookies are really delicious,” she says. “They don’t get to be one of our cookies until we’re all very happy with them.”

Since its founding, Lark has grown from two to nine people. Neither McCormick nor her daughter bakes these days. Nordensved, who has young children, develops most of the recipes. McCormick oversees all aspects of the business.

Lark Fine Foods is entirely self-funded and McCormick has yet to see a profit or pay herself a salary. Naturally, she hopes that will change soon, but she is not willing to change her production values. The cookies aren’t “just put in a machine and coming out the other end. A person is very involved in the process every step of the way.”

Evansville, Indiana native Jeremy Spindler came east to study for his Ph.D in music theory and composition at Brandeis University, with the intention of becoming a professor. He received his degree, but instead of teaching in college classrooms he now spends his days making caramels, brittles, pâte de fruits and chocolates in his Somerville kitchen. What began as a hobby in 2011 became a vocation the following year. Before long, he says, Spindler Confections may be moving out of his home kitchen and into its own storefront.

“In some ways it’s grown a lot faster than I thought it would, but in some ways it’s growing slowly,” Spindler says of his business. He has been making candy since he was a child. After graduate school, while working in academic and nonprofit administration, Spindler began selling a few items to friends and family. Then strangers started asking for them. “I’ve been so very lucky,” he says. “[Because] it started out as a hobby, there was no pressure.”

Working in his smallish kitchen, Spindler says his biggest challenge so far is being efficient in the space and balancing the use of the room for business and home. So far the latter has suffered. He says he and his partner don’t cook much anymore. The next challenge will be “figuring out how to make the leap from a home kitchen to an actual storefront.” Spindler has looked into shared kitchen spaces and even talked to a couple of artisan producers about sharing space with them, but decided he wants his own.

While conceding that, if he were single, he couldn’t yet support himself from the money he earns from his sweets, Spindler says his three-year-old business has been profitable for the last year and a half. Profits grew considerably from the second to the third year, which he attributes to having picked up some wholesale accounts. Spindler sells his sweets online and at farmers markets, but they are now available at about 10 specialty shops as well.

Spindler still does 95 percent of the work himself, cooking, cutting, shaping, and wrapping the confections. Occasionally his partner helps with packaging and labeling. He wants consumers to understand that, “The smaller the business and the more hands-on, the more expensive. People use better ingredients. Small businesses don’t have the same buying power. It takes way longer to make things.”

But you can taste the difference.

Less than a year ago things were so tough for Stone & Skillet founders Kyle Meekins and Dan Crothers that, Crothers says, “There were days [we] didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically or cry.” They were evicted from the Medford apartment where they began cooking their English muffins because, “There was flour and cornmeal everywhere,” he adds. And money was so tight that Meekins remembers scrounging coins from his bureau to pay the train fare to deliver English muffins to a customer.

“We would not have made it if we didn’t have friends in the industry,” says Meekins.

Sam Jackson, owner of KO Pies, is one of those friends. He let the two Wellesley natives, who have been friends since they were in high school, use his kitchen after hours. They cooked from 10:30pm until 8am for about a month. Then they moved to Commonwealth restaurant in Kendall Square, where their friend Steve “Nookie” Postal allowed them to use his kitchen for the same hours. They stayed at Commonwealth for two more months. In June 2014 they moved into a former pizza shop in Medford that they converted into a kitchen.

The father of a high school friend took Meekins and Crothers under his wing and helped arrange financing that enabled them to move into the kitchen and has facilitated growth. Family and friends have also made contributions. Meekins and Crothers now have a six-person board of advisors.

At the time of this writing, Stone & Skillet was producing 15,000–20,000 muffins weekly, but Meekins says he expects the number to be closer to 33,000 by the time this article is published. The company also may have moved to a larger space. The muffins are sold in specialty markets and grocery stores (Roche Brothers and Whole Foods), and served at several area restaurants. The partners, who now have four full-time and two part-time employees, are just starting to take a salary.

Surprised and happy that they are as successful as they are as quickly as they are, the two don’t take any of it for granted and are grateful to everyone who has helped them. “You can’t imagine how many possible challenges we’ve had come up,” says Meekins, who was a sales rep for Nashoba Brook Bakery before starting the business. Crothers was a personal chef in Cambridge, with experience working at area restaurants including Hungry Mother and jm Curley.

“When somebody is spending 80 to 100 hours a week on one thing, they’re sacrificing so much,” says Crothers. “[Our customers] appreciate and respect the craft, which to me is being shown amazingly with the love this little muffin is getting. It’s really important to appreciate a craft.”

The same can be said for every product on these pages as well as the many others at farmers markets, specialty stores and other shops throughout our community.

Bisousweet 978.938.4911

doves & figs 855.285.jams

Lark Fine Foods 978.768.0012

Spindler Confections 812.550.2927

Stone & Skillet 781.219.4947