I can’t remember exactly when the blueberry bushes at my family’s camp on the banks of the Pungo Creek in Eastern NC grew out of control, but they most certainly did. Despite suffering from several years of neglect, they produced an abundant crop of fruit. But the bushes had become trees, the neighboring scuppernong vines were invading their branches and other foliage including briers and the infectious mimosa were taking root among them. It was a sight that as a neighbor pointed out to me one day, would have caused the late Dr. Susan Dees, or Grampy as we called her, to throw a ‘hissy fit’.About three years ago I made it my personal mission to pay proper attention to these plants and restore them to their glory. Despite the fact that Dr. Dees left us more than 10 years ago, I can’t help but feel her presence whenever I’m down there. Having a proper chore to balance out the lazy afternoon in the hammock has always been the price of a weekend in my NC paradise. Adopting the blueberry and scuppernong vines seemed only fitting and has proven to be both therapeutic and educational.
You might think that trimming blueberries, running a business and baking cookies are totally unrelated, but like most things I enjoy, I try to learn and draw comparisons whenever I can. You see, a business is not unlike a plant. With water, sun and soil, it grows. It produces fruit. You collect the harvest. And you try to keep the cycle going.
Businesses, like plants, need attention and require occasional pruning to grow as they were intended. This does not mean that if you leave a business alone, it will stop growing. That does happen, but some businesses grow well without much oversight at all. They sometimes become wild patches of things that bear fruit and have little resemblance to their original form. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes, it is not.
If you let them go long enough, well, they might just grow into something they are not intended to be and eventually, die. If you let blueberry bushes go too long without a good trimming, they turn into trees. When the trees get too tall and the fruit too heavy, the branches bend down to the ground. Eventually, they grow sideways, break or simply die.
The problem I faced in pruning the bushes came down to one thing, plain and simple – fear. They clearly needed a serious cleaning, but cut too much and they might not recover. After all, they’d been producing blueberries for probably 40 years or more. Replanting them was possible, but replacing their history was not.
I believe this happens sometimes in businesses. We get used to doing things and as long as the products are selling and money keeps coming in, we focus on the fruit, not necessarily the health of the whole business. It is difficult to prune products and especially, customers. But just like the scuppernong vines choking the blueberry bushes and the mimosa trees growing in their midst, businesses take on products or customers that are not the best fit and can eventually choke out even a healthy, profitable business.
We originally incorporated our company late in 2001 and began selling pies and cakes in 2002. We changed over to cookies beginning in 2004 and have had a few product ideas come and go over the years. The wholesale dessert business became less and less a good fit for our operation as the cookie business began to grow and thrive. Just like scuppernong grapes, making and selling wholesale desserts is not a bad business by itself, just not the best fit for how the business at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies was developing.
Pruning that part of the business was scary, much like those first cuts I made on the blueberry bushes. But, we did so thoughtfully, a little at a time. Like an artist painting on a big canvas, you cut a little, step back, take a look, then cut a little more. Everyone has their own style and while I’m sure there are plenty of people who would come in with a chainsaw and clear everything in a few hours, I prefer to prune slowly and intentionally.
A few weeks ago marked the one year anniversary since we pruned the last branch from the tree of our wholesale dessert business. I delivered the last Chocolate Oatmeal Pie to our long time friend Judy Wishart at the Olde English Tea Room in downtown Wake Forest. It was scary to let go of the very part of our business that was the foundation of the company. But just like the blueberry bushes, it was time to trim this part of the business. What would happen? Would we die? Or continue to grow?
If you’ve had the opportunity to hear me speak on what it’s like to own a business, you know that I’m a big believer in using your own yardstick to measure success. Top line, bottom line, social impact, peace of mind, family values – they are all important measurements that vary from person to person and no single measurement is right for everyone.
I honestly don’t watch numbers at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies nearly as close as I watch cookies and the quality of what we do, but I can tell you our sales are up nicely over the same period for 2011. This holiday season is still a large variable, but the pruning we did in 2011 has turned out okay, so far.
I was back down to the Pungo Creek last weekend and gave the bushes a serious haircut, more than in years past. It was a bit scary, but I trust that my years of patience will be fruitful. I won’t know for sure until sometime next summer. I’ll just have to wait and have faith that I’ve pruned the right amount.
We’re heading into the busy season for Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. We’ve watched some of our customers go by the wayside, while we are enjoying connecting and meeting new folks who’ve discovered our website and find it refreshingly clean and easy to navigate. I’ll be doing a bit more pruning and preparation before the holiday season and while I might not know the exact outcome for some time, I’ll have faith that time spent tending and pruning this business will help us bear good fruit, or in our case, a whole lot of cookies and brownies over the next few months. Only time will tell.