Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Something New: Pushcart Cafe

Look back periodically and realize where you are now.  
Interview with Jamie Rodgers (owner) and Maggie Rodgers (sister)
Pushcart Café, 221 East Broadway, NYC

by Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon

Kathryn:  Hi Maggie, I know Jeff has seen your very appealing, very neighborhood-oriented space here before.  Pushcart is all new to me – can you tell us how you started baking here?

Maggie:  I graduated ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) in May 2012, and finished my externship at Dominique Ansel Bakery.  After college and before I started at ICE, I lived across the street from this coffee shop that wasn’t particularly well run.   I got a job there, but I also “kind of knew” the owner would want to sell. 

Jeff :  Jamie, you then decided to get into the coffee/café business?

Jamie:  I was living in this neighborhood and working downtown in corporate law.  I wasn’t happy and wanted something more entrepreneurial. I just wasn’t fulfilled by my profession.   I approached the owner of the coffee shop and then Maggie decided to join forces with me.

Kathryn:  So Maggie, where do you bake?  The coffee shop seems to be mostly retail counters with tables for customers?

Maggie:  We built a production kitchen in the basement of the building. It was a long process, because we did the build out from scratch.

Jamie:  It was actually a little frightening because working in a basement, there are many health code issues to be aware of.  I had the entire facility sealed. It’s very “buttoned up.”  We have instituted very strict policies to keep it sealed against any possible pests.

Jeff:  Are there venting issues?  How hot did it get in the summer, doing production in a closed facility in a basement?

Jamie:  We installed very good air conditioning.  The ovens are electric, so there is no need for a hood and there is simple in and out venting. 

Jeff:  How did you find contractors to get the work done?

Jamie:  I talk to other business owners in the neighborhood, and through word of mouth used their contractors.  I mostly just showed the contractors what I had and what I needed. 

Kathryn:  How many people do you work with, Maggie?

Maggie:  It’s often just been me baking, but wholesale has been picking up.  Before Christmas I started to bring in some of the guys from Cowboy Pizza after their shift to help shape cookies!  (Cowboy Pizza is also owned by Jamie and just around the corner from Pushcart).   

Jeff:  How many locations are there of Pushcart?

Jamie:  I have 2 Pushcart locations, and we are also in the New Amsterdam market and covering events on weekends.  I opened the second location in mid October, near 21st street and 2nd Avenue. 

I make impromptu visits there throughout the day; I can get there by bike in 11 minutes.

Kathryn: How do you get the baked goods to the other locations? 

Jamie:  We use our mom’s old station wagon for our delivery truck.  The system works pretty well.  Maggie plans the production and preps.  Some Cowboy pizza guys do the bake off, and some bring the product uptown, boxed up in health-code safe boxes.  They unpack and the process begins again.

Kathryn:  And Maggie, do you have enough kitchen and storage space here to sustain production growth like that?

Maggie:  We’re still getting to know how much to bake:  the uptown location does 2 ½ times the volume of baked good sales.  Production space is tight; I am often rearranging the equipment to fit in more tables, storage, etc.

Jeff:  Can you talk about the New Amsterdam market?

Jamie:  It’s near the old Fulton Street fish market, and focuses on locally sourced and artisanal food purveyors.  I find it to be good exposure for us to bring new people to us directly, as well as a good sales outlet.

A lot of our employees will ride the pushcarts there, since it’s only 1 ½ miles away!

Kathryn:  What’s next for you guys?

Jamie:  We’re focusing on wholesale accounts and delivery.  Schools, hospitals etc. 

Maggie:  I would like to grow the bulk order pastry business.  Holiday cookie boxes sold well; I am working on a Valentine’s selection now.   About 25% of sales are currently wholesale.

Kathryn: Jamie, how helpful is it that you were a lawyer before this career turn?

Jamie:  I find the law degree a good asset.  I’m basically in practice now for this business.  Running a business is to a large extent figuring out the regulatory (for the health code, permits, etc.) and negotiating leases.   It takes hours to navigate, even with the skills.

I find it really exciting to put everything you have into something to make it successful. 

Kathryn: Maggie, how much of the menu does your brother let you decide? 

Maggie:  It’s up to me.   I developed the menu to maximize on the roots of this neighborhood; the pushcart itself evokes nostalgia.  The baked goods are along the same lines.  Everything is the best it can be, but they are products the customers know and love.  Chocolate chip cookies is sometimes all one wants.  I think chili powder and cumin are fun ingredients to bake with, but I sell classic brownies.

Kathryn:  Does everything sell equally, and do you know what your ingredients cost for each product?

Maggie:  I have a background in statistics so I do my own excel analysis of sales and cost of goods sold, and I tweak the margin on each product given my recipe formulas.  But some products have surprised me – peanut butter doesn’t sell.  Gingersnaps won’t sell, but molasses cookies will!

Presentation details count:  if I sprinkle confectioners’ sugar on the almond croissants, more sell.

Jeff:  Do you have a standard profit margin you try to meet?

Jamie:  It’s a moving target.  The growth in our outlets and our wholesale accounts has meant that we’ve had to shift our labor schemes.  Probably it’s 200 percent of the labor cost, not including labor and other overhead.

Jeff:  How did you name the business?

Maggie:  We threw out names for months amongst the family, but Jamie came up with Pushcart – and knew it the moment he’d said it.

Jeff:  What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since you opened Pushcart?

Jamie:  I have 3 outlets now.  It’s really hard in NYC to “make it small” here.  You’re encouraged to go big because rents are too high.  So are wages and cost of goods.   Each week, whatever was challenging last week is now behind you.  I like facing the new challenges, but being “in food” in this city – it’s easy to get discouraged.  Something will always go wrong.  You need strength.  Look behind you periodically and realize where you are now.  

Kathryn:  And what’s the biggest secret for success you’d share?

Jamie:  If you’re the guy in charge, always let your employees know they can always get a hold of you.  It’s key for morale and good business culture.  For example, last night I got a call at 3 am from the guy making up the cream cheese packets for the bagels.  I’m always available via phone to answer questions.

Kathryn:  Can you talk about the phone apps you’ve implemented at Pushcart?  They’re technical – but they actual seem to foster community.

Jamie:  We utilize a lot of apps.   Our POS is “Lavu” which is a very versatile Ipad system that facilitates modifying menu items.  We allow customers to use “LevelUp” to pay for their purchases with a tap of the phone.  I was the first shop in NY to implement “Perka,” which works as a multi-coffee shop punchcard app.  The latest app is a tip system; customers dip their card in a “DipJar” cylinder; $1 is put via direct deposit on a debit card for the employee on duty for that shift, or pro-rates the dollar for every employee on the shift.   With these user-friendly trends, I think we might be getting rid of the cash register in a few years! 

Jeff:  Thank you. Great seeing you again. Make sure to let us know about your next location!

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Interview with Kate McAleer Owner and Founder of Bixby Chocolate

Interview with Kate McAleer
Owner and Founder of Bixby Chocolate

By Kathryn Gordon and Jeff Yoskowitz

Kathryn:  Hi Kate!  You've been busy since you finished your program at ICE (Institute of Culinary Education). Jeff and I both had you as a student.  At what point did you decide to work with chocolate?

Kate:  I came to ICE already very interested in candy and chocolate.

I am a golfer, and as such, I had experienced a complete lack of healthy candy options available and I came to ICE eager to learn how candy is made and how to improve upon it.

That’s why I wanted to create a healthier candy bar line with pure chocolate, with no GMO ingredients, preservatives or added sugars.  The Bixby bars are all natural or organic, and incorporate exotic spices, healthy nuts and fruits. 

Kathryn:   After school, you completed a chocolate externship at Chocolat Moderne with Chef Joan Coukos.  What would you think Joan makes of you now?

Kate: I think Joan is proud of me.  She was a great mentor and she makes the most amazing chocolate.

Editor’s Note:  Food Start Up Help has previously interviewed Chef Joan at Chocolat Moderne: FoodStartUpHelp Chocolat Moderne

Jeff:   What have been your biggest challenges, hurdles and unexpected pleasures founding the business, to date?

Kate:  The biggest challenge has been just learning the trade and coming up to steam quickly on areas in the field that were foreign to me and not something you learn in school.

The largest hurdle is being a small company, yet having to compete among the more seasoned players.

All of the professionals in the field have been the unexpected pleasures.  Many have taken the time to help and lead me in the correct direction.  It has been amazing as a young entrepreneur to have mentors to look up to. 

Kathryn:  You have said that you left an early career path in academia to found your company and you returned to live at home while you built your business.  Is it ok, living again at home?  Do you ever miss the more academic life, or are you just keeping too busy?

Kate:   It's always a big adjustment, moving out of academia and out into the real world.  In order to start my business, I needed to move home--thank goodness my parents welcomed me and have been supportive.

I am always learning in this industry and make it a point to take seminars or classes to further my knowledge.  Busy has a new definition when it comes to running a start-up business--I have worked more hours than ever before and will continue to do so.

Many had warned me that a start-up is an all consuming endeavor....

Kathryn:   What's it like, to work (and live) with your mother?  Who names the bars -- both of you?  I think the names are great!!

Kate:   I feel privileged to being living and working with my mother.  I see more of her now than all of my years growing up as she fulfilled her own professional career.  I have two built in mentors--my parents are two seasoned professionals and I am so fortunate to have them available to me.

Naming is a process and lots of research goes underway when we are creating a new flavor.

Jeff:  Do you do all of your own press kits, website and other marketing?

Kate:   As a start-up we do a lot on our own.  We outsource areas where we feel we need professional guidance.  We write our own press kits.  I handle all of the social media.  We did engage assistance for our website.

Jeff: Was it difficult to source your organic ingredient sources?  Have you found minimum orders to be an issue?

Kate:   Sourcing is an integral part of this business and requires a great deal of research at all times.

We have found that the larger you are the better the pricing.  Therefore, as a small business you pay a higher price until you can grow your business.   This is one of the biggest challenges we face as a small business competing against larger companies with more purchasing power.

Kathryn:  You've only been in business for a short while, but I know you are in several regions of Whole Foods already, and recently got into more.  

Would you recommend the Whole Foods route to another entrepreneur, even if there's such a mark-up by the time it goes through a distributor to them?  

Kate:   I am privileged to be a YouthTrade certified entrepreneur--this means my company is owned and operated by a young entrepreneur under the age of 35 with a sustainable and conscious business.  

Whole Foods was the first retailer of YouthTrade products and it has been an amazing relationship.  Growing your business with distribution is a model any entrepreneur should research and understand before they delve into it--it may not be ideal for every business.

Kathryn:  You have developed one of the most clear visions I've seen for a website and packaging.  I know you talked about labeling, and a proof reading issue you had for one of the new chocolate barsナ

Kate:  Lesson learned:  always ask multiple people to proof your packaging before you say it’s ok to print.  It’s a costly and avoidable error.

Jeff: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Kate:   I suggest lots of research, planning and a good business plan is essential. Conviction is also another element that is key.

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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Wholesale vs. Retail: Interview with Diane Stevens

Cupcakes are no fad.

Interview with Diane Stevens
Sara’s Cookies, Long Island City, New York

By Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon

Kathryn:  Hi Diane, it’s nice to meet you and be able to see your production facility, since I know that Jeff has known you for a long time! 

Diane:  I met Jeff after I completed the professional baking program at FCI (French Culinary Institute). Before that I was in graphic design. I used to rent production space from Jeff for my cookie business and I worked with him at Maurice Pastries for 3 years.

Jeff:  How many years have you been in this production kitchen in Long Island City?

Diane:  7 years now! 

Jeff:  I see tons of cupcakes. Are you still selling cookies?

Diane:  No actually, I’m really not.  There is more profit in cupcakes than cookies, even using 100% butter and quality ingredients because there is more labor for miniature items like cookies.  I also produce bars, brownies and loaves.  My current business is 70% wholesale production of jumbo cupcakes for numerous distributors. I now have thousands of cookie cutters in storage!!

Kathryn:  How did you find this space?  Did you build it?

Diane:  No, it was the original production location for Tom Cat Bakery.  This area is pretty food oriented.  My landlord lives here, and owns the building next door which is a loft where Bobby Flay cooks.  In fact, Bobby used to say that cupcakes were just a fad – but they definitely lead the production mix 3 years later.

Jeff:  Over the years, how would you say business has changed?

Diane:  This is definitely a business “based on pennies.”  I have to keep food costs very low.  Packaging alone is $2 for a giant cupcake, because it has to be sturdy enough to stack in a freezer for distribution.

I've seen orders for large cakes cut back in the economic recession.  I used to work with several large caterers, such as Great Performances.  They used to order gifts such as gingerbread houses for clients such as Google, but that business is now gone.  

Jeff:  What do you think is the biggest surprise the entrepreneurial bakers need to know about an established, profitable business structure?

Diane:  Everyone has the idea that everything is baked fresh every day, and that what you are buying in a store was baked somewhere just that morning.  It’s not.  There may not be long term freezing involved, but to organize production runs efficiently, some items are frozen for a period of time.  So you have to allow for freezer space in your kitchen plan.

Jeff:  What’s your least favorite part of running a large kitchen like this?

Diane:  Maintaining the grease trap!!  We constantly have to rotor-outer the grease trap.It’s also hard if a piece of equipment isn't working since suddenly, nobody knows anything.  I don’t care what happened or who managed to break something.  I just need it reported immediately, so I can address the issue and get the piece of equipment up and running again before we need it.

Kathryn:  What are your hours, as the owner and primary production manager?

Diane:  We start by 8 in the morning and usually finish by 5 depending on the season.  I find there are less distractions early in the day – no phones ringing!

Jeff:  How is the product distributed? 

Diane:  My distributors each have a key and pick up at night between 11 and 12 pm. The drivers just want to get in and get out and go home.  The drivers have been coming here for years.  Their employers are reliable businesses and by supplying to distributors it is less volatile and has less turnover than selling to restaurants or other parts of our business.  I have to trust them. 

Jeff:  What’s your highest operating expense with such a large facility?

Diane:  The electricity, because of the air conditioning required to counteract the heat generated by the equipment.  Utilities are about $3000 per month.

Kathryn:  Do you experience a lot of staff turnover?

Diane:  No, I have 7-14 staff members depending on the time of year.  I have both loyal employees who have been with me from the beginning and people who come and go.

Kathryn:  What advice would you give a new entrepreneur?

Diane:  You should consider the wholesale route, because there is definitely money to be made that route versus having the overhead of a brick and mortar retail store.  You always will mentally worry about your business!

You should also be proud of yourself and what you produce.   Don’t give up even when people come at you from all different angles!  You just have to be driven and motivated, and focused. 

Jeff:  Thank you Diane, it’s been really great seeing you again!

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