Sunday, January 26, 2014

Support Your Employees Because They Support You

Interview with Agatha Kulaga
Co Owner Ovenly (with Erin Patinkin)

With Kathryn Gordon, Food Startup Help

Editor’s Note:  Food Startup Help worked with Ovenly in 2013 over a multi month period to strategize regarding expansion plans and optimize operational efficiency.

Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin, photo credit The Kitchn

Kathryn:  Hi Agatha!  I haven’t seen you in months -- how’s everything going?  And how's it going with the Ovenly cookbook project?

Agatha:  Great!  Very well actually.   The book is due out in October.  There will be an ebook issued before that, as a teaser.  Erin and I are very happy the way its come out, although this week we’re still deciding on the cover with the publisher (Harlequin).

Kathryn:  Can you remind me how you and Erin met and started the bakery?  Did you know you wanted your own retail (brick and mortar) type of bakery?

Agatha:  No!  We actually met at a food focused book club that was started by my childhood friend.  We both were career changers with some background in the restaurant business, and we both individually knew we wanted to do something in food but were looking for the right opportunity.  We started talking after the book club, mulled it over for about a year, and 3 1/2 years ago incorporated.  

Kathryn: Was your original concept the way Ovenly is now, with a retail bakery and a large wholesale operation? 

Agatha:  Not at all.  At first we produced bar snacks for some friends here in Greenpoint (Brooklyn) with a bar, and then that evolved with orders for pastries, and more bar snack orders for Brooklyn Brewery.  It all took off from there. 

Kathryn:  For anyone who hasn’t visited Ovenly yet, how would you describe your business?

Agatha:  Ovenly represents “craft,” timeless and classic creativity.  This is a very trendy area, and we don’t want to be just part of trend.  We are an artisanal, homey bakery offering our customers consistent product, and we want to appeal to a variety of people.    We have wonderful customers.

Kathryn:  How many square feet is your facility here (31 Greenpoint Avenue)?

Agatha:  It’s about 2,100 square feet with 350 for the retail, 900 on this floor for bakery production, and our basement prep and storage areas.  We also rent office space nearby.

Kathryn: I remember visiting you for the first time and a film company had rented out your retail space to film that day, and they were making a movie with Ann Hathaway sitting right here.

Agatha:  They are always filming in Greenpoint!  Several times we’ve been featured in films and TV, and we appeared as Ovenly on the Cooking Channel.

Kathryn:  How many employees do you have? 

Agatha:  23. 16 are full time and 7 part time.  It’s a mix of the front of the house, office staff and bakers but it is primarily baking staff.  They bake in 3 shifts a day, with deliveries going out from midnight onwards.

Kathryn:  When you started talking to Food Startup Help, you were undergoing substantial growing pains. 

Agatha:  I would say that going through growth phases is always challenging.  Right now we are planning the opening of our second retail location (which will be in Manhattan).  We have a constantly expanding wholesale operation driving our sales (including Whole Foods for our scones), and we have started doing more wedding cakes.

We’ve accomplished a big operational improvement. We have now managed to cross train our baking staff, rather than have them each focus on specialized tasks. 

Kathryn:  And from the time Jeff (Yoskowitz) and I first visited the bakery, you’ve rearranged completely?

Agatha:  After talking to you, the first thing we had to do was buy more muffin and loaf pans, scales, etc. to allow our bakers to stage their daily production most efficiently.  We bought more 80Q Hobart bowls and attachments for example, to be able to more effectively manage the production.  We reorganized the entire kitchen in terms of lighting, tables, metro racks, etc.  The space opened up and is now much better utilized. We’re now considering adding another bank of ovens.  General storage space continues to be a challenge, with limited walk in freezer and fridge space to manage all of the speed racks required for this production level. 

Kathryn:  How do you and Erin divide up your projects as business partners?

Agatha:  At first, Erin and I pretty much did everything together every day, including baking and running the entire operation.  Now it’s too big and too complicated, so we subdivide and delegate or we would just be doubling our efforts and get exhausted.  We have nightly recap sessions, and we regularly schedule brainstorming sessions to set our next direction and priorities.

Kathryn:  What have been your biggest surprises, running a bakery with Erin? 

Agatha:  We’ve learned how valuable employees are.  You cannot underestimate good employees -- they support your business as it is always evolving.  You need to support your employees because they support you.  Running a business is much more than you baking “your cookie” recipe.  There’s workman’s comp, and employee HR, and financing and budgeting and everything else you need to know to be successful. 

Kathryn:  Speaking of employees, how has President Obama’s health care reform affected you? 

Agatha:  When we first started, none of us had health insurance.  For a few years, we offered it only to salaried employees.  In the past few years, we were able to offer insurance to all our employees.  Now we can offer a better plan, although it is more expensive, and only some employees who are still covered under their parent’s plan are not covered by us. 

The Wall Street Journal is running an installment piece covering small businesses under health care reform and have interviewed us on health insurance under Obama care - the first installment including Ovenly should appear in the next few weeks.

Kathryn:  Thanks for your time Agatha, and we’ll catch up with you later after you open your second retail location!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Never Knew I'd Be Having So Much Fun

Interview with Liz Fife
Creator of Batter & Cream

with Kathryn Gordon of Food Startup Help

Kathryn:  Hi Liz!  How’s everything going for Batter & Cream – it’s been a few months since you’d hired Food Startup Help to get you launched with the whoopie pies!    What’s new?

Food Startup Help worked with Liz for completing a business plan, product R&D and production efficiency optimization.  

Lineup of Batter & Cream Whoopie Pies

Liz:  Things are going great!  I was in Brooklyn Flea outdoor market thru till the holidays.  I will definitely do that again this spring – and may actually take a booth in the new indoor Smorgasborg market, depending on availability for February-March.  It was great being able to meet my customers directly.

        Liz at Brooklyn Flea in the fall

Kathryn:  How were sales?

Liz:  We sold out every weekend!

Kathryn:  And are you still doing your production at Hana (an incubator kitchen in Sunset Park, Brooklyn)?

Liz:  Yes, I am with 1-2 baking assistants depending on my sales volume.  I am however a bit frustrated with sharing the ovens – sometimes I have to fight bigger companies for oven space, so I am looking at “my next production options” for this year as well.

Kathryn:  I can see from your social media that you’ve been doing some events. Tell me about the one with the Brooklyn Nets?

Liz:  Deron Williams has a charity to raise funds for autism.  I had reached out to an events planner I knew and was very pleased to be able to provide whoopee pies for the fundraising event.

Liz and Deron Williams at the autism fundraiser event; Batter & Cream was the dessert sponsor 

Kathryn:  Remind me when you started working on Batter & Cream, and why you decided to focus on whoopee pies? 

Liz:  The company official launch date was September 25, 2013 – but I think I began working with Food Startup Help around April, batting around potential product ideas, and then worked throughout the summer getting the recipes down.

Why whoopie pies?  I wanted to open my own business.  I had made a bunch of desserts for a party, and it just kind of occurred to me nobody was doing whoopie pies in the tri state area.  I knew people were sick of eating cupcakes, and looking for the “next thing,” here I am with delicious whoopie pies!  Which are much easier to eat than messy cupcakes!

Kathryn:  And you have a variety of flavors and sizes?

Liz:  We feature the flavor-of-the-month, and have seasonal specialties that rotate in and out throughout the year.  I offer flavors that are sophisticated – not too sweet – and appeal to adults equally as children.  The whoopie pies are also available in 2 sizes, so people can pick up one to eat right away, or order a selection in a special package for a party.

Selection of whoopie pies from the website in custom, clear packaging

Kathryn:  What’s next for Batter & Cream?

Liz:  I feel like we’re in a phase where we have to “go for it,” to drive up our sales volumes.   I can reach some customers through direct sales at farm markets and sell on the website – but I really need volume.  In the beginning, I think new businesses rely a lot on “friends and family” sales.  Now we’re ready to grow, not just hold our heads above water.  So this week I’ve narrowed it down to 2 PR companies, and will be hiring one to help me get more market exposure.

Kathryn:  Can I ask you how much a PR firm costs?  Knowing that would help our blog readers who have thought about doing that for their food companies, but aren’t sure if they have the budget for it.

Liz:  $3,500 to $5,000 a month. 

Kathryn:  I think that will really pay off for you.  I’m happy you will be able to do that for the business.

 A delicious, unique  flavor with goat cheese, fresh figs and honey

Liz:  At this point I am constantly talking about the business, and figuring out how to expand.  I have also been looking at pop up stores, to try a location with good foot traffic for a few months.  I know I will get a good profit margin also offering beverages – and can offer other ancillary products like “fillings in a jar,” if I have a retail location.  I expect to be open in a pop up within the next few months; an excellent location is waiting to tell me when the next dessert slot is available.

Kathryn:  Then you’ll need more employees!

Liz:  That’s right!  One of my bakers is interested in helping with weekend sales, and I recently hired a friend as my right hand person to help me with the business end, paperwork, etc.

Kathryn:  What has been the biggest obstacle to starting the business?  Was it some of the production obstacles you and I encountered when we first transitioned from R&D at your apartment to a commercially licensed kitchen? 

Liz:  No, I knew that would work itself out.  I’d say that the website was the issue – it took 3 times as long as it was supposed to, and still doesn’t do everything exactly as I want.  I recently parted ways and have hired a new website company.  It really was a horrible process because every time I lined up my production and marketing to begin selling – the website wasn’t ready yet and I lost customers and sales.

An early event for People's Style Watch Magazine

Kathryn:  And what’s the overall conclusion so far, as you leave a “friends and family phase” and are poised for growth?

Liz:  This has been an amazing experience overall – I constantly find myself doing things I never thought I’d be dealing with.   There are so many different parts to opening your own business – it can be overwhelming at times, but it is so much fun!

Liz Fife