“How’s business going?”
I get that a lot in my little popcorn shop. The truth is that thanks to the unseasonably warm winter and complete revitalization of downtown, business has been pretty good. When Popped!was nothing more than an incomplete business plan, I only hoped that I would sell enough popcorn so as not to bankrupt my family. I’m happy to report that my first quarter sales have not bankrupted anyone. (As a business owner I have learned to set very realistic goals and then celebrate them with a latte and a cupcake.)
Unfortunately, I don’t have any framework or crystal ball with which to gauge my success, so when people ask me how things are going I usually just chirp “great!” It would just be too disconcerting if I blurted out “I don’t know! Good, I think! What’s going to happen when the city closes Erie Street??!!!"
My general lack of business experience has really freed me up to operate as haphazardly as I choose when it comes to most things, but there are some aspects of business where a little experience or education would probably come in handy.
For example, how am I doing? Should I hire someone to help out on busy days? Should I invest in some additional equipment? Or, should I just hang on to every cent and wait to see what comes once all the construction dust settles?
These are questions that I like to think get answered in business school. I imagine there’s a whole semester devoted to “How and When to Hire Your First Employee” or “What to do When Your Little Shop is Surrounded by New Construction that May, or May Not, Impact Your Business.”
What I would really like is someone to ring up sales, so I can make the caramel without either ruining it from lack of attention — or ruining a customer’s experience from, well, lack of attention. Before I commit to employing anyone, though, I have a couple things I need to figure out first. So far, all I've figured out is that hiring someone costs lots of money and time.
Hiring someone should be really easy. Every third person who walks in the door, so it feels like, is looking for a job. (There’s another blog post entirely about how not to demand jobs from people wrestling with boiling sugar in a shop full of waiting customers.)
Hiring someone seems like it should be easy. The application, complete with intrusive legal questions regarding citizenship and prior felony convictions, is completed by the future employee along with a stack of other forms, and it all gets handed over to the accountant. Easy, except I don’t have an accountant. Wading through the new hire paperwork is on my to-do list right after I learn how to hand-temper dark chocolate and perfect almond dragees. (It has not been very difficult for me to find excuses to get out of learning the complexities of worker's compensation and state and local tax withholding.)
If I hold off on hiring an employee, I’ll be able to purchase fun new ingredients like Belgian chocolate and cocoa nibs. Also, not knowing when the road construction on Erie and DePeyster is going to be completed, or how it will impact my foot traffic, has become another actually legitimate reason for me to postpone hiring anyone. Although I feel that an even stronger argument for not hiring anyone is the fact that I’d really much rather spend those wages on myself!
In fact, I just spent my yet-unhired-employee’s wages on ingredients for the candied pecans and honey roasted cashews I introduced last week. Last month, I spent phantom-employee’s wages on lemons and fresh ginger for the lemonade, and before that I picked up a backup cooker mixer. At this rate I’ll probably never want to hire anyone.
At some point, however, I truly hope I’ll be so busy ringing up sales that I’ll have to hire someone else to do it so I can devote my time to popcorn and candy making — this is the best of all possible outcomes.
When the plaza in front of the shop is complete, and the black squirrel statue is guarding the courtyard, and Erie and DePeyster have been rebuilt, I’ll have a more accurate picture of how things are going.
If I’m in the shop going a little nuts with new ingredients, and there’s an employee at the register, business really will be great!
Caramel has a moody, temperamental personality — sweet as sugar, but capable of turning on you in an instant with seemingly little provocation.
It does not wait for customers to decide, nor does it quietly sit back until the end of a transaction. When the buzzer sounds on the cooker indicating that the caramel has reached 285 degrees there is only one option, and that is to dedicate myself fully to the addition of a couple final ingredients, adding popcorn, and stirring the small batch of caramel before it all sticks together into a giant ten gallon caramel popcorn ball.
A granule of sugar, over-mixing, or uncooperative clumps of sea salt can turn caramel from a glossy, shiny confection into a dull grainy heap of chewy, brown sugar crystals. Candy making, or in this case caramel popcorn making, involves a significant amount of chemistry. It’s not necessary to to be a chemist, although it might help, but it is necessary to devote yourself to caramel completely when it demands attention. Anything less, and you can expect a garbage bag full of expensive butter, sugar and vanilla.
All my recipes were tested in my kitchen over the last few years, usually a gallon at a time in a small saucepan on the stove. At Popped! my recipes have expanded to fill a 10 gallon mixer. At first everything seemed just fine. The recipes were doubled, tripled and quadrupled with little effect.
When I bought my equipment for the shop I didn’t go through a salesperson or company representative who demonstrated how to use it. By the time I was ready to open the doors to Popped! I had already invested so much money that it was important that I start earning a return as soon as possible. As a result, there was only about a week to try out recipes, test ingredients and learn how to use the assorted poppers and kettles.
Going off a surprisingly brief owner’s manual, I was able to produce my caramel popcorn without incident for a couple weeks before things got a little strange.
At first it looked like the caramel was crystallizing, perhaps from over-stirring. I changed my technique and stirred less. Still I was finding inconsistent results.
I thought maybe it was the sea salt clumping together. The 17-pound buckets of Italian sea salt are from a different supplier than the salt I had been using at home. I tweaked the ratio of sea salt to all-purpose salt and felt that I had solved my caramel woes.
Not quite. Maybe the sodium bicarbonate? It didn’t seem possible that these ingredients should alter the caramel at all, especially since I had been using them for years without difficult at home. Usually the caramel was fine, but every now and then, with increasing frequency, I had an uncooperative caramel mass that was not glossy and shiny but matte — and kind of chewy. I was beginning to obsess, dreaming about popcorn recipes, talking to the mixer, chiding pans of dull caramel popcorn for it’s rebelliousness.
Finally I thought I had the answer. It had to be the brown sugar. I now buy it in 50 pound sacks not tidy, two pound grocery store bags, and the last sack had an off-smell, like burnt sugar, not at all like the subtle aroma of molasses. As luck would have it, during my opening week the brown sugar distributor had suffered a break down in quality control and now I was suffering the same ill effects. Not to worry, I never served the offending brown sugar to customers. (My ever increasing obsession over caramel popcorn would never allow me to sell something sub par.)
I returned about 150 pounds of brown sugar to the distributor, switched suppliers, and was still uncertain every batch of caramel would turn out consistently shiny and crisp. Watching a recipe that you’ve based an entire business around fail to work was driving me mad. I was having longer and longer conversations with the kettle, hoping it would say something, anything to shed some light on why caramel had turned on me.
Then two weeks into starting my business I found my answer. Maybe you already solved it. The kettle thermostat was not calibrated correctly. My caramel had not betrayed me — the kettle had!
I’ve never re-calibrated anything before in my life. In fact, I try not to use the term “calibrate” after having failed so many high school chemistry pop quizzes. Here I was in the dark, after the shop had closed, standing on a stool, wielding a two-foot long metal thermometer reaching into a pot of bubbling syrup in a last ditch effort to cure my caramel.
I read and reread the little owner’s manual hoping that I wouldn’t break the mixer altogether. Using the short end of a quarter teaspoon measuring spoon (of course, I didn’t have a screwdriver) I removed the plate and adjusted the thermostat until the buzzer sounded at exactly 285 degrees.
Success! Both surgeon and patient recovered. The next batch of caramel had returned to all it’s shiny, glossy crispiness and I had my business back. What a relief!
I still treat my caramel popcorn delicately. Turning my back on waiting customers to stir and gently mix each batch of caramel — apologizing for the wait, but thrilled to see another batch of caramel emerge from the kettle shiny and crispy. Sweet!
Last Tuesday I took down all the brown paper covering the windows, turned the sign around from “closed” to “open” and stood back simultaneously hoping that absolutely no one, and everyone, would come into my brand new store, Popped!
Luckily, I was greeted by a steady stream of family, friends and other local business owners who came in to have a look and watch me fumble through the first few hours of business ownership.
There is a strange psychological shift when you find yourself standing on the other side of the sales counter. Having stood so long on the customer’s side of the counter, I found myself a little sheepish about being at the register taking money, and facing the inevitable scrutiny.
Every other job I have had has involved supervisors, and managers, and general managers, and even regional managers. I sold something that someone, somewhere may have made, or ordered, but never felt any real loyalty or great personal investment.
I have rung up sales without a moment’s consideration to prices, or the perception of value. Customers have muttered and complained in previous jobs, and I simply passed them along to a manager without breaking a sweat.
But on Tuesday, there was no manager or supervisor. The popcorn I was selling was my own recipe, made with my choice of ingredients and popped up by me alone. To say that I’m personally invested, not to mention financially invested, is an understatement. To the customer, however, this is another store selling something they may or may not want. Another price tag and another salesperson.
On Wednesday a woman came in and ordered a small bag of caramel popcorn. When I handed it to her she said, “I want to see if this is any good,” before she ate a single piece, grunted, then said, “Ok, I’ll be back.”
I felt like I was going to pass out.
On Friday, a man came in and asked me if I thought I had enough product diversity to make a viable business. He questioned the wisdom of opening a store that sold just popcorn and then he walked out without buying anything.
Oh, my ulcer.
In the book, Beer School: Bottling Success at the Brooklyn Brewery, the owners of the Brooklyn Brewery describe starting a new business as joining “The Terror Club.” Overly dramatic? No, that’s pretty much what it feels like. Shear terror.
People come in and say something, or buy something, or say nothing and leave, and it sets off a minor panic attack about prices or sales displays or long-term viability.
The Firehouse Caramel Popcorn recipe is too spicy and not spicy enough. Is seven dollars too much? Too little? Is the pricing structure too confusing? Is there room to cover a spike in wholesale dairy prices without having to raise my prices?
My investment is deeper than hoping people like popcorn. People have to love it, and make the effort to come back for this to be a viable business. My kids would like to eat something other than popcorn for dinner. Overly dramatic? Absolutely! (But seriously, the personal savings account has dried up like a Georgia lake bed – and that’s not good for the margins on the caramel popcorn with peanuts either, by the way.)
The doors are finally open. The initiation into the terror club is watching sales ring up knowing that later this month, or in three, or six months the dust will settle, and I’ll have to decide if the prices cover the overhead, ingredients and if there’s anything left over for me.
It’s fitting that on Tuesday I saw so many other local business owners stopping by to pick up some popcorn. They congratulated me, and complimented the shop, and the caramel popcorn. I’m especially grateful to all of them for acknowledging how important that day was to me, and offering advice and support. But mostly, I think they came to welcome the newest member of the terror club.
Thanks to everyone who stopped in, it was a great week!
In 2008 Congress passed an amendment to the “Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act" which defined “locally” as ‘‘(I) the locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product" or ‘‘(II) the State in which the product is produced.”
Seriously, 400 miles?
In my last blog post, I poked fun at this definition. (Maybe I shouldn’t have, since it could alienate potential customers in New Jersey who like popcorn.) Finding a definition of “local” became a big deal after I committed to using local butter, but then realized I couldn't find what I considered real "local" butter.
After speaking to wholesalers, distributors and even farmers in an attempt to source legitimately “local” ingredients, I have come to accept another kind of definition, also provided by the government. In this case from Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court, who stated in an opinion on a totally unrelated issue, "I know it when I see it.” This new definition is how I have come to view shopping locally for myself and my business.
I wasn't happy applying the term “local” based solely on the context of distance. It seems to me that the spirit of shopping locally is more of a “know it when you see it” kind of thing, and less about mileage, or zip codes.
Processors collecting milk from all over the nation and processing it into butter within 400 miles of me doesn’t sound truly “local.” Conversely, buying shares in a Jersey cow would be hyper-local (and admittedly satisfy a childhood dream of owning a cow), but it just wouldn’t be practical, or legal, in Kent. Luckily, I have found a middle ground.
I’m thrilled to be able to say I have finally found what I consider real “local” butter by any definition, from Hartzler’s Family Dairy in Wooster, Ohio. If you were reading the comments from the last blog post you might recognize Hartlzer’s from a reader’s recommendation.
Hartzler Family Dairy owns the cows, the processing plant, and employs a philosophy making a natural, minimally processed butter. It’s a great fit for my caramel popcorn recipes and they already deliver in Kent, so I’m not even guilty of increasing shipping-related CO2 emissions. Yes, it is more expensive than butter I could have purchased from far away Minnesota or Wisconsin, and even other Ohio processors. But in the spirit of the “know it when I see it” definition of shopping locally, the difference in cost is worth it.
The kind of “local” butter I was looking for required more than that just a low price tag or mileage limit. Hartzlers Dairy has a philosophy toward their products and their cows that I appreciate, and I’m willing to pay a little extra to support. Better feed, glass bottles, and foregoing pesticides and growth hormones is simply more expensive.
But there’s still another component in the shop-local equation that deserves mention – community support. Hartlzers Dairy sponsors a Kent State football game each year. (Honestly, I’m not sure how it was possible for me not to have known about this dairy when their name appears in lights on the scoreboard at Dix Stadium.)
Investing in the community is a another important component of shopping “locally.” Supporting businesses that contribute in some way to our community – either through sponsorship of football games, school donations, supporting community events, or being good stewards of the earth – presents another good reason to make the extra effort as consumers to shop locally.
The local shopping scene can get a little confusing, which is why it's good to have a definition, albeit amorphous.
Kent State recently started selling Bent Tree Coffee in the Eastway Cafe, providing an opportunity for students to shop locally on the campus of a nationally known university.Also, the Domino's Pizza on South Water street has a new owner, a local veteran who showed his committment to Kent during his grand opening week.
By adhering to the strictest definition of local, these two could have been excluded, but by my definition of knowing it when I see it, it looks local to me.
The new construction downtown has spurred a host of new businesses competing for dollars. I’m looking forward to visiting all the businesses and opening my own next week. Some of these businesses will be “local,” and some maybe not so local and others unknown. Not to worry, though, if you care about your local economy and community it will be easy – you’ll know it when you see it.
Ohio is a major grower of popcorn and so are Indiana, Iowa and Illinois. It was not particularly difficult to find popcorn for my shop from a locally owned processor within a short drive from Kent. Still, the allure of finding a local farmer and dealing directly with him or her was so great that at a farmer’s market this summer I bought a bag of popcorn convinced that I would buy directly from this farm for my shop, Popped! It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed, there on top of the popcorn, in the ziplock bag, was the unmistakable evidence of a mouse infestation down on the farm. Yuck.
I’m happy to say that I have found a local supplier of Ohio-grown popcorn with a reputation for quality control. The emphasis on shopping locally has steadily been gaining momentum and sourcing local ingredients is something I value, as do a lot of other businesses in town. Honestly, though, it can be frustrating, expensive and time consuming. This momentum is strong in conscientious shoppers, but it hasn’t yet trickled up to distributors and processors, leaving many small businesses in a bit of a lurch.
Case in point, butter. I have spent the last couple months tracking down Ohio butter. Ohio has a lot of cows. I thought this would really be a no-brainer like the popcorn, but what I have discovered is that much of the milk that is produced in this state is sold to very large companies that may or may not process it into butter in Ohio, or if they do, the label may not indicate that fact.
There’s a Land O’Lakes plant in Kent, but I can’t drive there and buy a couple cases of butter. The labels on the Land O’Lakes and other brands don’t identify where the cows live, only the company headquarters or the location of the corporation that contracted to have the milk processed into butter. So, although the label on the butter I’m buying might say Wisconsin, the milk could have come from Portage County or Pennsylvania. There’s just no way for me to find out.
None of these giant dairy companies have done anything to really make it easier for me or the consumer to identify the source of the milk. It would be nice if the labels named the regional source of the milk. That would give consumers concerned about the geographic location of products valuable information to make their purchasing decisions.
Sadly, my purchasing power of two or three cases is not strong enough to bend corporate America to my will. I did ultimately manage to find Ohio butter, but my volume still wasn’t nearly high enough to purchase it a price that wouldn’t wreak havoc on my product prices. So, for now, I’m shopping locally by purchasing butter that says Wisconsin on the label, from a locally owned distributor.
The government defines “local” as within 400 miles. That’s pretty generous, as far as I’m concerned. It might even make my Wisconsin butter “local,” but I couldn’t advertise it as local with a straight face. I’m not just picking on butter, every ingredient in my recipes, and a fair amount of my equipment, has a back story involving the lengths I’ve gone through to shop local.
Underneath Lake Erie are tremendous stores of salt from ancient sea beds currently being mined byMorton and Cargill. I sent them each an email in hopes of purchasing Ohio sea salt (cool, right?). But when the drop-down menu requested to know what continent I was sending the email from, I knew then that local salt was just not going to happen. It would have been fun to claim local Ohio sea salt on my menu, but I don’t know how I feel about attaching the term “locally sourced” to a gigantic company with locations all over the globe.
If I toss around the “local” word too loosely, then wouldn’t it go to reason that if I had a business in Bentonville, Arkansas, home to Walmart, absolutely everything would be local-ish?
In my first blog post on the topic of starting a small business, a reader offered the following comment:
“Being an entrepreneur is incredibly challenging and rewarding. Enjoy the highs and shrug off the lows!”
Since that time several other people have mentioned this idea of the highs and lows in small business. It doesn’t surprise me that not every day of business ownership is full of rainbows and sunshine, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the highs and lows were not meted out in a more orderly and timely fashion. You know, like one high week, then maybe a low for a couple days, followed by a high for a few days and then a low weekend ... and so on. Not quite consistent or predictable highs and lows, but a randomized schedule that kind of averaged out into a reasonable ebb and flow.
I haven’t even opened Popped! yet, and already I see that my assessment of this ebb and flow was entirely wrong. It’s not an ebb and flow at all – it’s more like a roiling tide of highs and lows all occurring simultaneously. During the course of a single phone call, email or text the mood of the day can shift wildly from positive to negative and points in between. To-do lists rise and fall just like the prices I'm driving around town to compare, and seemingly simple sentences of promotional copy take on monumental importance the moment before handing the credit card to the printer.
In Seth Godin’s book “The Dip” he talks about the “dip” as this point in business where you face an obstacle or setback. He relates that at this dip people either give up and walk away from an idea, or lean into it and persevere. It was such a simple, cute premise when I first read it – like a cheerful little warning.
It’s all starting to make sense now.
I spent this past weekend crunching on the cost of goods, fixed expenses and variable costs in order to come up with a pricing structure. I priced out butter (variable), rent (fixed) and I fretted over the yearly rainfall in Georgia (they’re in a drought so peanuts are now very, very variable). I compared the price of popcorn from New York, Chicago and Seattle and finally settled into the the fact that profit margins only exist if it’s priced so that people buy it. No pressure there at all.
When AT&T accidentally assigned my business account (and pin number) to some unsuspecting customer in Michigan, I was feeling the dip. Time Warner said they would install cable for my cash register for 40 percent more than I budgeted, but it will take 8 to 10 weeks. I was beginning to imagine how cozy and pleasant an underground bunker in an undisclosed location sounded – that’s a low, low, dip.
Looking back a year ago, before I had retail space or equipment, I was roiling around with a lot of unanswered questions. It’s good to finally have sorted things out enough to know what needs to be done so that I can open. It does feel exhilerating to be so close even if the things that still have to be done are now over-budget and past due. If the devil is in the details you can imagine where I am right now – writing and rewriting a single sentence on a frequent buyer card in the middle of the night.
The advice from my reader was right on target and I appreciate him sharing it with me. As for Seth Godin, despite his cheerful warning, he also seems to think all the effort spent trying to make a business perfect is worth it. In his popular blog on the business of small business he recently wrote the key to a successful business is not just persevering through the dip but plunging headfirst into the details.
“The scarcity happens because so many businesses don't care enough or are too scared to invest the energy in so many seemingly meaningless little bits of being extraordinary.”
Back when I was dreamily picturing Popped!, the world’s greatest popcorn shop, I suspended certain realities, like building, health and fire codes because frankly, those realities are pretty overwhelming.
I promised myself I would worry about all these rules if my plan actually turned into something. Well, here it is. The construction is practically done and I find myself flooded with rules and regulations that I’m responsible for following.
It was a good thing I daydreamed about popcorn when I had the time, because lately my time has been spent reading what feels like reams of paper with codes, laws and regulations that dictate practically everything. These little details are so specific that I never could have imagined that one day I would be fretting over the height of the top of a storage shelf. Or, how far the bottom of the shelf is off the floor. Or, whether the aroma of freshly popped popcorn is considered a combustible or non-combustible vapor. (It’s mostly non-combustible.)
On the surface, some rules seem silly, like the fact that my little 600 square foot shop has five separate sinks all practically within arm’s reach. There’s a utility sink for washing the floor, a bathroom sink, a sink for hand washing, a triple basin sink for washing, rinsing and sanitizing dishes, and I’m awaiting the installation of yet one more sink for washing produce. It doesn’t sound so ridiculous if you consider that no one really wants me to wash fresh ginger in the same sink that I dump a bucket of dirty floor water, and who likes to see dishes washed in a bathroom sink?
Between the building department, fire department, health department and Ohio department of agriculture there are a host of other rules with which I need to comply. For example, my counters are under 35 inches high, the aisles are four feet wide and I have the appropriate fire suppression system. The health department required me to pass an online food safety class, which, admittedly, was kind of interesting. (I didn’t know that baked potatoes can carry botulism!) The class went into some detail about the health codes that apply to my business and I have made the appropriate purchases. In addition to a candy thermometer, I also have a thermometer with a metal probe and themometers in each of the refridgerators. I also have the required little sign in the bathroom reminding me to wash my hands even though I already knew that.
I even have to worry about lighting my shop. I didn’t know what a lumen was a year a ago, but I can tell you that my food prep surfaces all have a minimum of 50 of them shining down from my fully enclosed flourenscent bulbs.
The building and fire departments required me to submit the manufacturer and the model number of every piece of equipment in my shop. I have also submitted my menu, sanitation procedure and proof that I passed that online food safety class (with flying colors I should add).
It seems overwhelming, I know. Most peoples’ eyes glaze over when I start explaining the Ohio department of agriculture’s rules for food products labeled for individual sale. It can all be somewhat intimidating, but don’t be intimidated if you’re considering opening a business. Remember these various departments are here for a reason. We’re all alive today because we haven’t been crushed by a wall in a poorly constructed restaurant with a raging kitchen fire that was started by a botulism spore dusted baked potato.
With that in mind, here’s a couple of tips I learned that make these rules seem less overwhelming:
Despite the fact that I’m so bogged down with rules and regulations that I asked for a lidded trash can for Christmas, I know it’s all going to be worth it when I do finally get my certificate of occupancy. Then with my health permit in hand, I can go back to thinking about more interesting topics, like dreaming up new popcorn recipes — maybe even a cheesy baked potato popcorn!