A Private Label Story: Interview With Mason Jar Cookie Company
This is the inaugural 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 first guest is David Ferguson, the owner of the Mason Jar Cookie Company. They let you make your own cookie mix, so you pick a base cookie flavor, add-ins, and they’ll send it to you in a beautifully packed mason jar for you to bake at home. It’s a great gift, party favor, and kids love it.
Like a lot of our customers here at ReciPal, you have a unique background. Can you tell us about it?
I actually have a software background going back to the ‘80s. Back in 1993 we started one of the first web development shops in San Francisco. Recently, we were building a framework for a client that would allow companies to easily create e-commerce stores with customization – so as a website visitor you could make your own bicycle, jeans, or even jerky!
We developed the technology, but needed our own example to demonstrate to the client. Sitting around the office kitchen table we were struggling to come up with a good idea. There was a mason jar sitting on the counter, one of us noticed it and the idea of cookie mix in a mason jar was born.
Very interesting, if only we knew about you guys at SlantShack our website development might have been accelerated a bit! So, you came up with the mason jar packed cookie mix to demonstrate the software, but you went a little beyond that, right?
Naturally, we did. We wanted to demonstrate the software beyond just the website, so we kind of went all the way! I did a little research and found a copacker to produce for us. We made sure they would be able to produce small quantities, but also scale just in case we got some momentum.
And then what happened?
This was Thanksgiving 2011. We launched the website, and within 6 hours we had our first order. We’d developed the site with a little SEO built-in, but we still weren’t expecting much. That week we sold probably 20 jars and kept asking ourselves “how is this happening?” – we were a little bit surprised.
So you kept selling online and it grew via e-commerce?
Actually, no. The e-commerce side kept running, but things got interesting once we started getting calls from NY Mag, Hearst, MTV. Everyone started calling. Then we starting doing the Williams & Sonoma Sunday Artisan Markets and we were absolutely crushing them. Record sales every weekend. Around then, the idea of doing private label mason jars came up and took off.
A hotel will want their own flavor and branding for an event gift bag, or a retail store will do their own line, corporate Christmas parties, more weddings and baby showers than you can count. Sometimes I’ll be in the grocery store and will get a random phone call from a law firm in Denver I’ve never heard of that wants 800 jars. It’s crazy. It’s as if we invented fire, but we’re running with it.
It sounds like you have a crack marketing team pushing this stuff!
You’d be surprised. The growth has been very organic. We have great experience with paid online advertising, but that actually didn’t work. We do very little advertising aside from the two Fancy Food shows every year.
It sounds like people just want cookies, and they want them nicely packed in a mason jar.
I’ve never been in a business where you receive so many “Thank You”s - from the bride buying jars as gifts for her wedding, to the corporate event planner, all the way down to people receiving them as gifts. It makes a lot of people happy, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s a really nice business to transition into after doing consulting and software for so long. You’ll get a “Thank You” in that business, but not in quite the same way.
At what point did it go from a demonstration project to a company?
It quickly became a project at our software company that everyone wanted to work on because it was so much fun, almost to the point where it was detracting from our clients. So, a few of us split off to focus on the cookie company. It’s mostly me, our tech team in Nebraska, and our co-packer. When we found ReciPal, it really accelerated the process. Before that, we were hand making labels in Photoshop and it was a huge pain. Between the co-packer and ReciPal we're able to remain a very lean business.
A lot of our customers are just thinking about co-packing, what advice would you give them for finding the right co-packer?
We have a great relationship with our co-packer, Mid-Hudson Workshop. You can do A LOT with a good co-packer, so finding the right one is key. Our office in NYC stares directly at Ground Zero, so I wanted to tie the company to a cause. I Googled “military work force” and found Mid-Hudson Workshop for the Disabled, which employs disabled veterans. I called them up, they sounded like a great fit, and when I visited the plant the good vibes were confirmed.
We rely on them tremendously and they allow us to be a very lean team, so having that military precision and judgment is huge. Some of these guys are ex-military chefs and they know when a kid makes a blend with too many gummy bears or marshmallows to back off on the mix to make sure it still turns into a cookie. They know how to pack, how to get the assembly line going, and they always show up. Like a lot of things in this project, it was sort of accidental finding them. It's a gut feeling and knowing they will be reliable and a good partner.
That’s great advice for everyone. And how has ReciPal helped you along the way?
It’s pretty important for private label partners, since their product might end up in grocery stores. ReciPal allowed us to quickly take care of this for any cookie customization option. This was a real problem before ReciPal when we needed labels dynamically generated. Other software was not user-friendly and felt like old school DOS software. I think if Apple had designed nutrition labeling software, it would look like ReciPal.
Plus, we have an interesting project for you guys with the API.
Exactly. If we can dynamically generate labels for online customers as well, that would be a great user experience, and allow us to streamline the process for private label customers even more. So we’re really looking forward to that.
This has been great and really educational. Any parting words for fellow food businesses?
For me, I was never in this to make money, so I’ve been focused on keeping it fun. If it’s not fun, I’m out! To that end, we’ve tried really hard to work with the right partners, from our co-packer to our private label customers. They have all been really great. Even the brides, you'd expect some stereotypical Bridezillas, but we haven't had any of that.
Being flexible also helped us. Like I mentioned earlier, we thought we’d be mostly online customization, but it turns out most of our business is private label, so we had to be flexible enough to allow that to happen.
Lastly, with any food business following all the rules and guidelines is arguably the most important. We didn’t expect to scale, but were prepared for it and prepared for disaster all the way. We wanted to be ready when something fell apart downstream, and that's saved us a few times. Mostly though, enjoy your work, work hard and a lot will fall into place.
And that’s the story of The Mason Jar Cookie Company. Hope you all learned something. Feel free to add any thoughts or questions in the comments.