Mama's Sweet Side: A Family Recipe Grows Into a Family Business
This is the second post in a series of interviews with successful food businesses. We’ll go over how they started, successes and failures, and general advice for other food entrepreneurs.
Our guest today is Anthony Haralson, the owner (along with his sister Kathleen) of Mama’s Sweet Side. They are a family bakery based in Detroit that bakes premium, home-inspired unpretentious desserts based on their Grandmother’s cooking style.
Tell us about your background and how you got into the dessert business!
Well, my whole family grew up in Detroit. I’m talking 15 aunts and uncles and countless cousins, so that allowed for plenty of opportunities for family get togethers and cooking. My sister and I went to college in Michigan and eventually settled on the east coast after grad school. Still there was something missing, and we began talking about a potential project. We always had a thing for baking, and so Mama’s Sweet Side was born.
What was your plan for the business initially?
My sister and I are fairly different. I was the MBA guy, and naturally I wanted to go big. My sister wanted to have a corner store and just bake. My early goal was to be in upscale kitchenware and home goods stores. I saw other baking businesses in those stores and got excited about landing a big client like that with high-end customers.
Did you ever land one of those clients?
We quickly realized that’s a tough proposition for a company like ours. I did some more research and realized that company’s cakes were selling for less on their website than in the store, and that’s after taking into account the extra cost of shipping individual cakes for web orders. When I began to learn about bakery item markups (~3x), it became clear that none of that margin in the store was going to the cake company.
So what was your approach instead?
We started small. We began selling online through our website and delivering locally in Detroit to individuals and a few restaurants. This all started about two years ago. Eventually we started getting a little bit of press here in Detroit and things started to pick up with more wholesale business and locals being more aware of the product.
And like a lot of companies, you kind of got a big break getting into your local Whole Foods. How’d that happen?
That was a bit of good timing. One of my friends told me that Whole Foods was looking for local vendors in one of the stores nearby. We applied, were selected for an interview and the rest is history, as they say. We’re now in three of their stores here in Detroit.
Nicely done. How have you handled the spike in sales I’d imagine you get from a client like Whole Foods?
We have a relatively flexible production operation. We rent a commercial kitchen by the hour, so going from almost nothing to where we are today was feasible. When we first started it was just me, my sister and one other person helping with baking and packaging. Now, we use convection ovens with rows of trays instead of regular ovens (greatly increasing our productivity), we’re baking three days a week and have five part-time employees.
Is there a point where you grow out of the commercial kitchen?
That’s something we’re grappling with now. The commercial kitchen we currently use is basically booked solid, so we’re working to secure our own space to use as both a kitchen and storefront. We’re also looking into working with a co-packer, with the idea being that we’ll bake everything for restaurants and walk-ins in our store, and have cakes for other stores baked at the co-packer. This should give us more flexibility for scaling and improve margins as well.
Sounds like you have ambitious plans. Any other big changes in the works?
We’ve just redesigned our website. That was definitely a mistake we made initially - we took a website template we liked, but it was designed for a restaurant, so not everything worked as well as we’d like for an e-commerce store. It’s the little things that we wanted to get right for the new site, unfortunately sometimes you don’t know what you need until you have something that doesn’t work! So the new website is easier to navigate and order from with better shipping options for the user.
And after we open the Detroit storefront the goal is to open a Brooklyn location in Fall 2014.
We’re excited to see the new site! How has ReciPal helped you in this process?
We needed labels for Whole Foods and also for license to use the commercial kitchen. The way it works is that first you need a recipe, then a label, and you send it to Whole Foods for review, so it needs to be professionally done. We used two other companies initially. First, we sent our product to Michigan State for a lab analysis. It was crazy expensive and the ingredient list they sent us was completely off because they assumed one kind of heavy cream instead of the organic one we actually use. We also used another website that came back very weird, it just wasn’t right.
Then we found ReciPal, and it was like “wow”. It makes it really easy to get a label created very quickly as well as going back to edit a label if the recipe changes over time. We’re also doing seasonal flavors and multiple sizes, so it’s easy to create a label for each of those combinations once we have our basic flavors set up. Here’s the holiday label that we’re using this year.
Glad it’s working out! Any other advice for your fellow food entrepreneurs?
One caution is to not spend money on Facebook likes! I tried that initially and it wasn’t worth it. Be active on social media, create a great product, and that will all fall into place in time – don’t force it.
The other thing that I think we did right was allowing ourselves to be flexible. That’s our advantage as a small business - that we can change direction on a dime and jump on new opportunities. We were able to quickly put together the Whole Foods application when it arose, and that worked out great. That opened other doors in terms of publicity.
Even when an opportunity doesn’t sound that promising initially, give it a chance because you never know what it will become.