“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 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!
My friend Dr. Dave Riccio let me audit his Learning and Behavior class at Kent State last year.
It was a psychology class and possibly the best class I’ve ever taken — it was fascinating, provocative, and best of all I didn’t have to do any of the work. (Which was really good because I hadn’t realized the class was so difficult).
During the reviews and exams while students were freaking out, I spent my time doodling popcorn logos and sketching out imaginary storefronts. It wasn’t until my notebook filled with drawings and random snackfood thoughts that I realized a psychology degree was not in the cards for me.
Then, after I sold a few gallons of popcorn to Dr. Riccio instead of reading the text for class, I decided that popcorn would definitely be way more fun than defending a thesis.
The Kent Regional Business Alliance gave me a small mountain of information and resources about small business start-ups. The KRBA provides free consulting services to anyone thinking about starting a business. Free! They’re funded, in part, by the small business administration. More fun freebies are at the state of Ohio business development website, including a customized business startup booklet called Starting Your Business in Ohio.
Honestly, I thought it looked like a lot of work at first, so I took the same approach that I did with my psych class and kind of doodled around and cherry-picked the fun parts of business ownership. I picked out a store name, Popped! and trademarked it. You can search for Popped!, or your own dream name at the Ohio Secretary of State's website. I formed a limited liability company, Gwen Rosenberg Enterprises, LLC. I like the “enterprises” part because it sounds so mysterious, like I could really be doing a lot of very, very, interesting and enterprising types of things.
Once all the easy parts were done, I was left with either completing the paperwork to make myself a minority owned business, or writing a business plan. Business plans are the equivalent of a dissertation — lots of boring work to get to the part you really wanted to do in the first place. From what I’ve heard, it seems like a lot of really good ideas wither and die because people hate writing business plans. That’s such a shame. I wasn’t going to allow that to happen to me, so I got some of “For Idiots, Dummies and Morons” books from the library and pounded out a short (really short) and sweet business plan.
Before I let you read it, I should warn you that I fulfilled my undergraduate math requirement with “Physics for Liberal Arts Majors,” and I barely squeaked by with a passing grade. Needless to say my business plan is light on financials. For all you voyeurs out there go ahead and check it out — it's the PDF attached to this post.
If you have never written a business plan before, you’re going to think this looks pretty well thought out. If, however, you have any experience with business plans at all, I’m about to look really bad here. But, it was good enough that when I presented it to Ron Burbick, he gave me an A for effort, and the opportunity to open Popped! in Acorn Alley II.
Business plans can get as complicated or simple as the person who writes them. It’s a shame that the thought of coming up short on financial details could prevent someone from at least exploring a really good business dream. Despite my somewhat flippant attitude toward operating expenses and liquid assets, my business plan served the important and necessary purpose of taking all the doodles and daydreams and turning them into something I could hand in.