An in depth interview (with future follow up) to explore the lessons learned by others like you in the baking business
Interview with Jenny McCoy and Diana Lovett by Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon
Name of business: Cisse
This is the initial interview in a series with the partners of Cisse, a partnership to bring “guilt free” free trade cocoa products to the consumer
Jeff: First of all, what is everyone’s involvement? Are you partners in Cisse?
Jenny: Diana and I are co-founders of Cisse and will be managing the day-to-day operations.
Diana: I am the fundraising, financing and business operations side of the business for long-term-growth planning, and meeting supply chain logistics. For example, all the cocoa is ethically sourced, and I will manage those relationships because I have worked in developing countries, non-profit enterprises and socially responsible businesses before.
Jenny: My background is baking and pastry. I went to culinary school after high school and worked in restaurants for over 10 years. Last summer, I met Diana and we decided to work together on the brand development for Cisse.
Diana: Jenny is responsible for product development, and will do any required business writing given her interest and background in writing cookbooks. Jenny will represent the brand from the food side and be the name and face of the brand. For this to be a successful partnership, we refined our roles right from the beginning and established a business partnership through legal papers (regarding vesting, likenesses, profit sharing, etc.). After this formal structure, our roles fall into natural patterns given our particular backgrounds and passions.
Jeff: Did you use attorneys?
Diana: In the beginning we used a friend-of-a-friend as a third party for negotiating the general terms, and then turned the specifics over to an attorney.
Jeff: Are you self-financing?
Jenny: Diana has provided the seed capital and we are now evaluating financing options, raising additional capital.
Jeff: Was there a particular defining moment for deciding to go into business for yourself?
Diana: You can purchase product at a fair price in communities to help support community development and I felt that the price premium for doing it ethically and through fair trade practices was do-able. This business became viable when I met Jenny.
Jenny: A few years before meeting Diana, I was thinking about the bigger picture and what would challenge me beyond restaurant work. I wanted to transfer my work as a pastry chef into other projects. An editor at Epicurious introduced us and our initial conversation led to a request to be involved more as a partner than a consultant. It helped me that I was talking to my very business savvy, conservative father and he said: “If this is something you want to do, this sounds like a cool opportunity.” That did it for me, and I took the leap and said okay to Diana.
Jeff: So you have a partnership, and everyone knows their roles. What happened next?
Diana: The phasing of the sales channel dictates every other aspect of how we structure the business. Our focus is on long term growth and ultimate profitability. We felt the grocery sales channel was the best fit, since it has a national presence. That initial decision focused our energy. We knew that Whole Foods was the biggest player and they were the company we needed to approach.
Jenny: We set up a deadline to race towards – the Whole Foods “Round 9” category review deadline (which includes items such as cocoa mixes and baking mixes). We started to work on product development, which meant me getting into a kitchen while we were simultaneously working with a graphic designer and doing market analysis. We wanted something that would be accessible and generate repeat sales, nothing too crazy like lavender brownie mixes (which might only appeal to a group of pastry chefs!).
Diana: Jenny’s teaching background and cookbook writing project helped a lot with being able to focus on consumer needs. Given our business model, the core ingredient had to be ethically sourced, so we went to the Dominican Republic to meet with the farmers.
Kathryn: How did you decide who to work with on this project?
Diana: At first it was cold calling for brokers, suppliers, graphic designers, co-packers, etc. We started with a list of questions and put the answers in a spreadsheet, to make an analysis and an apples-to-apples comparison possible. Otherwise we’d still be floating in a sea-of-data!
Jenny: We found some good fits through people who were also starting off and were very enthusiastic about working with us, like our graphic designer.
Diana: The costs for the initial development of our website, logo and packaging ranged from $2,500 to $140,000. It was definitely interesting to see that price range!
Jeff: So designing packaging is always interesting -- tell me about it.
Jenny: It’s amazing, learning that a small box of cocoa mix, or a baking mix, has to have so much stuff on it! It was overwhelming. Bar codes, our story, what shade of blue? There was the hurdle of getting through the actual design and then finding printers to generate a small run for samples. 30 pieces per SKU is very expensive! We had to call and convince people we were legit and going to grow as a company to get it done without a run of 15,000.
Diana: The consumer design interface took so much time – we didn’t know what would be required. Each step is so interrelated. Jenny had to finalize the recipes before the nutritional panel could be generated, for example. It takes a lot of manpower to get all those deliverables in.
Kathryn: What’s the timing of when you approached Whole Foods to market?
Jenny: We had some counsel from an insider’s perspective in the form of a meeting with the Whole Foods Round 9 product manager about a month before submitting the product. They originally asked if we could be up on the shelves in 1-2 months, but it will about 5-6 months when we think we’ll be ready (aiming for this September).
Jeff: Can you tell us a bit about the product development?
Jenny: I learnt that my 100% is too much -- that the product I initially designed was “too rich” or “too fancy” for what the ultimate product is going to be on the shelf. My 100% would have cost too much to produce for a variety of reasons. Maybe my original method to make that brownie was too involved for basic steps in consumer baking. Maybe I would have preferred a richer chocolate percentage, but it wouldn’t appeal to a wide range of people. I had to adjust my recipe approach from a 3-star restaurant experience, to make a product I still feel good about, and see how people react to the products that can be made from these mixes.
Kathryn: Did you put together any formal tasting panels or focus groups for the product development phase?
Jenny: It was mostly informal through families and friends. One interesting experiment was when I baked all available brownie mixes and all available cocoa mixes and had everyone react to it versus mine. That feedback was instrumental in reformulating my recipes.
Jeff: If you were able to achieve the quality you’re looking for, how about the price point?
Diana: Well, that’s a production volume question. To get gourmet ingredients with a socially responsible angle to them is the overall challenge – but luckily we’re now within their range for the price point.
Editors: We’ll track the progress of Cisse putting their products on the shelves of Whole Foods and report back to you!
Short bios on Jenny and Diana:
Diana Lovett, Co-Founder: While completing a Fullbright program and a year of volunteer work at an orphanage in South Africa, Diana became committed to a lifelong pursuit in creating social justice. Her experiences at such an early age inspired her to pursue a B.A. in African Studies at Yale, followed by an M.A. in Internal Development Studies from the University of Cambridge.
Her many experiences include being a legislative analyst for Governor Bill Richardson and being Director of Regional and International Campaigns for singer Alicia Key’s charitable outlet “Keep A Child Alive.”
As culmination of all her experiences, Diana co-founded Cisse, a small business that combines her dedication to social responsibility by aiding small growers of cocoa to ear living wages, and her love of chocolate.
Jenny McCoy, Co-Founder: Jenny held positions in a variety of Chicago’s top restaurants including Charlie Trotter’s, Blackbird, Gordon and Bittersweet Bakery.
After traveling to various countries to broaden her culinary vocabulary, Jenny completed a B.A. in Food Writing at DePaul University. She returned to the pastry kitchen where she would run three restaurant pastry departments for Emeril Lagasse.
Jenny has also worked in New York City as the opening pastry chef at Marc Forgione; for A Voce, where she oversaw pastry operations for both their Madison Square and Columbus Circle locations; and at celebrity Tom Colicchio’s flagship restaurant, Craft, where she helped earn its second three-star review from the New York Times.
Finally, Jenny won the 2011 Rising Star Pastry Chef Award; is the spokesperson for the Almond Board of California; and is working on her forthcoming dessert cookbook, to be published by Rizzoli in 2013.
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