Do you sleep in a storm?

There are a number of ad campaigns that have, to the creator’s delight, left an indelible mark in my brain. I was watching the Super Bowl when the original Macintosh ad ran – still gives me chills to think about it. I loved the Budweiser ad when the farmers clapped for the Olympic torch runner. And if you’re familiar with American Standard Air Conditioning, my friend Mike Minogue from DarkHorse Creative is responsible for the ‘Maybe it’s too comfortable’ series of ads.

But in my mental file cabinet, is one series for the Boy Scouts of America. It featured several famous people, including President Gerald Ford. The theme of the campaign was centered on the concept that you never know where scouting will take you. I was a Boy Scout, and while I can’t claim to recite the pledge and probably won’t become President, I do remember the motto, ‘Be Prepared’; two powerful words that provide a valuable lesson for life and business.

2010 Men’s Retreat

I recently attended the 2010 Men’s Retreat hosted by August Turak at his farm. A group of very successful entrepreneurs, attorneys, teachers, consultants, a black belt, and others from various walks of life, gathered not for idle chit chat about sports, females, or money, but to explore their faith and share their toughest and most intimate personal and business challenges. To understand what it means to ‘spend time in the desert’ as Joseph Campbell describes in his book, “The Hero’s Journey”. And, ultimately, to prepare for the challenges we will all face in our lives.

The study materials for the weekend came from the Bible and were based on The Book of Job. An article entitled, ‘The Cup of Trembling’ provided the basis for discussions among the group. Perhaps it was the stunning scenery, the abundant and wonderful food, or simply Augie’s hospitality, but I cannot recall spending time with a group of men so engaged and open about their triumphs, their tragedies, and the challenges that lay ahead.

Each one of us has faced, or will face, tragedy and setbacks in our life, our family, and in business. Augie once told me that, “A small business owner dies a thousand deaths”. I understand completely. Baking cookies is honestly a pretty good occupation, but running and managing a business with world class service, like Anna’s Gourmet Goodies is tough and there are ups and downs like waves in the ocean. The key to surviving and succeeding is to understand and accept that adversity and ‘time in the desert’ is a part of the process. You can embrace it and gain strength to persevere, or wallow around and ultimately die of thirst – it is your choice.

One of the readings from the weekend was an excerpt from Mitch Albom’s book, ‘have a little faith’ – taken from one of ‘The Reb’s’ sermons. In it, he describes a farm hand looking for a job. The man presents his letter of recommendation from his former employer that states simply, “He sleeps in a storm”.

After he is hired, a terrible storm comes up and the owner panics, calling for the hired hand to help secure the farm. But he does not answer. When the owner runs out into the storm to check the animals, the hay and the grain, he finds that all are secure, in preparation for the storm. The hired hand is sleeping.

Storms will come. Again and again. The question that I ask myself, and you might as well, is this; are you prepared? People ask me about Anna’s Gourmet Goodies all the time, and I’d be untruthful if I said that we have not weathered our fair share of storms over the past 9 years or so. And in my personal life, I’ve spent some time in the desert as well. But through it all, we try very hard to take care of our resources, to cover the hay and lock up the grain, so that we can sleep through the storm.

As I was editing the video for this blog post just after midnight, something happened to my computer that I cannot explain. All of the icons from my desktop disappeared and some of the files that I had saved were gone. But every day, I create a complete image of my machine. So I simply backed up the current files, started the restore process, and went to sleep, knowing that when I woke up, the sun would be out and my computer would be running again with everything in place, ready for the next storm.

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A Culinary Adventure at BugFest

Traditions are great for families. Anna loves them – just ask Debbie how many years we’ve been making waffle cakes for her birthday. Going to BugFest in Downtown Raleigh started for us about 6 or 7 years ago, and it has become an annual event for Anna and me.

Never heard of BugFest? It’s put on by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and sponsored by a number of companies including Whole Foods, Chick Fil A, Bruggers Bagels and of course, Terminix. It’s a one day event that celebrates all things about bugs.

You can learn about bee keeping, play with a Madagascar cockroach, or the little kids can pretend to be a dung beetle and roll around a large ball that represents what this small insect normally does on a daily basis. Live bands perform throughout the day, providing just the right measure of music for a fun day outdoors.

Visit their website at

One of my favorite bugs was actually a blast from my past – a 1968 VW Beetle. This was my first car. It was on display and for sale, by This local, faith-based organization accepts donated vehicles, reconditions them, and then gives them to individuals in the community that are on their way to getting back on their feet, but need a little help with transportation. I didn’t drive away in this bug, but enjoyed talking with Dick, one of the volunteers, and traveling back in time for a few moments.

And of course there were plenty of food vendors serving up the requisite festival food including ribbon fries, chocolate dipped cheesecake, and fresh squeezed lemonade. But one of the most interesting food venues, was the Café Insectica. That’s right, it’s your chance to sample a variety of cuisine made with, you guessed it – bugs.

If you’ve never eaten a bug, it’s actually not as far out there as you might think. There are bugs that are edible and some that are not. All these edible creatures were cleaned and cooked – no chasing anything off your plate. Meal worms and crickets seemed to be the most popular addition. We sample most everything, from chocolate ice cream pops, to quesadillas, hushpuppies, bread pudding, corn bread, and of course – cookies with crickets. The line was long and stretched around the building, so we were not the only ones up for a little culinary adventure.

Zack Lemann, an entomologist from the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans, baked up a big batch of cookies with crickets. He was very enthusiastic about his confectionery creations, so I asked a few of the younger patrons what they thought. Several of those I spoke with, thought that eating crickets in cookies was probably okay. And, since we were on an adventure outside the oven, we gave them a taste as well.

While they were not ‘disgusting’, and variety is the spice of life, Anna (our Official Taste Tester) and I both agreed that the recipes at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies will stay as they are now with NO plans to add crickets or any other crawling creatures to our cookies. It’s great to have some fun and get outside the oven, but you can be certain that’s exactly where we’ll leave the bugs – outside.

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Getting UnPlugged in Southern Virgina

August in North Carolina has been hot. So we were looking for ways to beat the heat and unplug before Anna started her new school. I’ve written about the importance of getting ‘unplugged’ before, and frankly, don’t take my own advice often enough. Our trip to Southern Virginia turned out to be just the ticket for beating the heat and getting away from technology, like email, cell phones and the iPod.

We’ve camped in Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area before, and Hurricane Campground in Sugar Mountain, VA is our favorite. Although Ed, our campground host asked me to keep it a secret, Hurricane has been listed in National Geographic as one of the 10 most beautiful campgrounds in America. With an elevation of 2,800 feet, tall trees and a stream flowing through the campground, it is cool at night and comfortable during the day. Nice bath houses and clean camp areas offer enough creature comforts. There is no electricity and fortunately, you can’t get a cell phone signal there.

On Friday night, we ventured down to Abingdon, VA, about a 35 minute ride just off Interstate 81. We surprised Anna with tickets to see Annie at the Barter Theater. Founded in 1933, the theater is an intimate and welcoming place with a capacity of just over 500 patrons.

The name of the theater comes from the founder, Robert Porterfield and his innovative idea of trading produce and animals with local farmers for admission to the shows. It was a huge success, and to this day, you can ‘barter’ for admission at least once a year, with donations supporting the local food bank (Maybe we could trade them cookies for tickets – we’ll give that a try next time). After the show, we enjoyed some dessert in the theater café before heading back to the campground.

Saturday morning, we headed back to Abingdon and stopped at the Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop. It’s a family owned business with a friendly staff that will outfit you for a pleasant ride down the trail. They offer a shuttle service throughout the day to ferry bikers up the mountain for a ride down the trail. You can start at White Top Mountain or Damascus, VA and ride back to the bike shop, located at the end of the trail. The ride from White Top to Abingdon is 34 miles and Damascus is right in the middle, so you have a couple of options for selecting the type of terrain and distance you want to cover.

The trail from White Top to Damascus is mostly downhill and is an easy ride. There were families with children of all ages (yes there were a few riders with baby carriers) on the trail. There are plenty of places to stop along the way to take in the view, grab a snack, a meal, or some ice cream. The trail is very well maintained, includes 40+ bridges and winds through dense forest and open farmland.

We planned on riding all the way to Abingdon, but were ready to pack it in by the time we reached Damascus. We started late in the day and the ride from Damascus to Abingdon is flat to slightly up hill, so we opted to catch the shuttle back to the bike shop. If you’re going to ride the full way, you’ll want to start early in the morning.

This was our first family mountain bike adventure and hopefully not the last. One of the secrets to staying connected to family and friends is to take time to swap the noise of technology for the sounds of nature. We love baking cookies, to be sure, but taking a break is vital to staying passionate and motivated. Southern Virginia is now one of my favorite places to disconnect, rejuvenate and in turn, re-connect.

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How a Purple Elephant gives new life to computers

Recycle your PC's

The purple elephant is on the taller one standing on the right

Although we try not to accumulate too much ‘stuff’, like most folks, things do tend to pile up around our house. “Waste not – want not” was something I heard many times growing up and I use that as my rationalization for not tossing items that may have good use left in them.

As a technologist, I manage to accumulate PC’s and parts, some as I’ve upgraded, some have never been put to use, and others as I add or replace technology. Summer in the south has most certainly arrived, but I’m still doing a little ‘spring cleaning’ and felt the need to thin out some of my computer inventory. I expanded my cleaning frenzy just a bit and rounded up some items from friends and business associates as well.

In case you did not know, tossing almost anything with electronic components in the regular trash, especially silicon chips, is not a good thing for our environment. We try very hard to be a green company at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, and I like to help out and pay it forward whenever I get the opportunity. Fortunately, Raleigh has the perfect solution for recycling working computers and peripherals – The Purple Elephant Computer Factory.

The Purple Elephant takes donated PC’s and components, refurbishes them, and distributes them to kids of all ages – primarily those that are economically disadvantaged, at-risk, or from military families with members in active service.

Their mission:

“To bridge the educational and rehabilitative needs of children, and adults, by placing computer technology directly into the home.”

So, I packed up the car with several PC’s, a monitor and peripherals and dropped them off this past Friday morning. They have an impressive, well organized facility and a very friendly and helpful staff. Anna’s Gourmet Goodies has donated to their silent auction in the past and it was a pleasure to offer up something other than gourmet cookies to help out this organization.

Doing something for someone else that you will never meet and expecting nothing in return, is truly one of life’s greatest gifts. Being somewhat of a ‘geek’ at heart, it is particularly exciting for me to think that somewhere, some child will have an opportunity to step up into the computer world that they may not have had without an organization like The Purple Elephant. It may open their eyes and ultimately, open doors for them in the future.

Today is Father’s Day. I’m not totally sure what Debbie and Anna have planned, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get a nap in some time during the day. We’ll spend some time as a family, enjoy a nice meal, and perhaps open a card or gift. But I’m counting my trip to see the Purple Elephant on Friday as one of my Father’s Day gifts this year. Like many fathers, we spend a lot of time trying to teach our children that we should be grateful for what we have, always seek ways to be of service to others, give back, and pay it forward. In a small way, I got the chance to ‘walk the talk’ on Friday – to visit the Purple Elephant, and hopefully, make some kids happy. Seeing my own daughter smile is my best Father’s Day gift, and knowing that I may help bring a smile to some other children, well, that’s like a cookie stuffed with extra chocolate chips, pretty sweet.

Read more:

The Purple Elephant Computer Factory
Learn how and where to your electronics

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Afghanistan is now closer to home

Our cookies made the troops in Afghanistan happy.

The postman delivered a priority mail box the other day. We receive a lot of shipments, but weren’t really expecting anything in this type of box. I recognized the name as one of our customers from the military. We sent his unit some of our gourmet cookies a few years ago and he wrote me one of the most moving thank you letters I have ever received.

I opened the box, and the first thing that came out was a United States Flag, folded in military fashion in the shape of a triangle. My heart stopped beating for what seemed like a minute. I’m used to seeing flags like this when someone has been killed in action. Did something happen to one of the soldiers under his command? To our customer?

Inside there was a folder, and in it a certificate and a letter, addressed to Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. The flag was presented to us as a thank you for support of the troops and the War on Terror and was actually flown over Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. I felt a lump in my throat and my eyes swelled with tears of pride.

If you’ve been to our website lately, you might have noticed the tag line, “our cookies make people happy”. I’ve actually been using that for a few years now, after some deep thought as to what it is that we really do at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. It might seem obvious that we bake cookies, but I believe that great businesses have something that goes beyond the simple transaction of supplying goods and services. You might call it a soul.

From the very beginning, I have always poured my heart and soul into everything we do. Every product – every cookie, painstakingly measured by hand. Whether we are shipping an order for a Fortune 100 company, a wedding or event, the local realtor or mortgage broker, or to a group of men and women that put their lives at risk in places most of us would never consider going, we do it the same every time.

I can’t help but think that those men and women who choose to serve our country in the armed forces are driven by a similar passion. They too, put their heart and soul into what they do. But unlike what we do at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, baking cookies, they put their lives at risk, sometimes paying a price far greater than my aching feet or tired hands. And they do it over, and over again. To be of service to these folks is indeed an honor and a privilege.

A few years ago, Rick Warren’s book the ‘Purpose Driven Life’ spawned a new emphasis on the question human beings have been asking for thousands of years, “What is my purpose here on Earth?” Having read the book and taught a couple of classes on the subject, I’ve spent my share of time thinking about this very thing. I am fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to pursue many of my passions and to sometimes get a glimpse of what that purpose might be. Being of service to others and making people happy are certainly on the list.

After receiving the package, I downloaded and installed Google Earth. If you have not tried this application, I absolutely recommend you give it a drive. I measured a line from Wake Forest, NC to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and I come up with about 7,466 miles, more or less, as the crow flies. It’s a long way no matter how you measure it, but it is certainly a place that is closer to me now, than ever before. I am connected in a way that Google Earth, the Internet, email, social media, or any of these electronic pathways cannot match. Because I know that in this far off land where I may never set foot, a group of young men and women opened up a package, took a bite out of a cookie that we mixed, baked and packaged by hand, and for at least that moment, were happy. For Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, I’d have to say our mission was accomplished.

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Customer service, megaphones and The Golden Rule

Social media is the new megaphone

Customer service, at both extremes, is like handing someone a megaphone for your business. As human beings, we love to tell stories about either the great service, or the poor service, we have received. Everything in the middle, that simply meets our expectations, seems to get lost in the flow.

I was sitting in a seminar recently listening to my good friend and social media expert, Chuck Hester, Communications Director at iContact, and I kept having these flashes in my head. I remembered back to my days at Moore High School when I would go to the basketball games and carry around this obnoxious, three foot long megaphone. It was loud to be sure, and while I’m certain that more than one player from the other side of the gym had ideas on how to silence the beast, it was very effective.

I started thinking about how social media has become the ‘new megaphone’ that can be used to cheer on our favorites to victory, or blast those we don’t care for with incredible force. In American history classes we learned about ‘The shot heard ‘round the world’. Social media takes a figurative concept and turns that into a literal reality. Anyone that has access to the Internet, can use that megaphone.

As we enter a new era of communications and empowerment of the consumer, customer service is visible, almost instantly, around the globe. While virtually every company on the planet proclaims ‘great customer service’ as their mission, we all know that for many organizations, this is lip service at best. As businesses, large and small have cut back and retrenched, customer service is one area that often suffers. This happens most frequently when the initial point of contact with your customer is overworked, under trained, unhappy, and not empowered to take care of the company’s largest asset, the paying customer.

At the seminar, they talked a little bit about ‘DellHell’ and how one customer was able to carry their service experience all the way to the national media with a simple recording. While I’m not motivated to go quite that far, I did have a similar experience recently, seeing polar opposites of the customer service experience on the same day.

After auditing our FedEx bill several weeks ago, we found several charges that were not appropriate, so I called and asked for a credit. They agreed to the refund and said it was taken care of. We pay our bill with a credit card, and I later found that they had charged me the full amount. When I called, I was told their system showed we were charged the amount after the credit, and that I could fax in a copy of my bill and they would cut me a refund check in six weeks or so. We’re a cookie company, not a bank, so I was not interested in loaning FedEx my money, interest free, for 45 days or more. So I disputed the charge, sent them the documentation, paid what I owe, and will let their accounting department figure it out. The rep I spoke with actually told me I should call back and check on the status of their mistake – right.

Later that afternoon, I was also balancing my expense account and noticed an additional room charge from Marriott for a recent trip to NYC. I called customer service and found there was some confusion regarding my reservation, and I was inadvertently billed for a room as a no-show. No problem – they refunded the charge that day. Outstanding!

So what’s my point? I did not get carried away and start posting and tweeting about my experience with either company. Maybe getting a dose of good and bad on the same day left me feeling satisfied. But this experience, combined with the social media seminar, has given me pause to think about this channel from a different perspective. As a consumer, I have powers that were not imaginable just a few short years ago. As a business owner, I want to make sure that everything we do at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies follows one simple philosophy – The Golden Rule. Treat customers, employees and vendors like you want to be treated. When you do that, almost everything else takes care of itself.

Whether you are a small business owner or a corporate executive, if you are not tuned in to the ‘customer facing’ part of your business and the potential impact of social media, you are driving with blinders on. The good news, according to the experts at the seminar, is that getting any feedback from customers is actually healthy for your business. Positive comments support your business and negative feedback gives you the opportunity to address issues and offer solutions that you may otherwise have missed. Rather that trying to build a large megaphone so that everyone can hear us, I’d much rather have thousands of satisfied customers shouting about the incredible cookies and over the top service they received from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.

This past holiday season, with orders coming in fast and furious, I made a mistake when manually entering a credit card transaction for one of our customers, moving the decimal place to the right by a couple of digits. When she telephoned to let me know that “no box of cookies should cost that much”, we both laughed and I immediately credited her account not only for the mistake, but for the entire order. I was not about to tell her to “fax me a copy of the bill and we’ll send you a refund check in six weeks”. That would be really lousy customer service and certainly not the way I’d want to be treated by any company.

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