Some gifts are best when you pass them on

We send out a gift to someone, somewhere, practically every day of the week.  We rarely find out what ultimately happens with that gift, whether they enjoy it for themselves, or pass it on to someone else.  We recently received a gift from one of our customers, and chose to pass it on.  And as is often the case, we got back far more than we expected.

Our long-time customer, Uptown Endodontics recently sent us a gift – a box of beads and trinkets from New Orleans, the Mardis Gras capital of the world.  They were fun and festive, but we felt this gift was meant to be shared and knew that our friends at Uptown would certainly agree.  How could we use these to spread a little love from New Orleans and Mardis Gras that would make an impact on the recipients?  After thinking about it for a bit, I had an idea and called the Ronald McDonald House in Durham (RMHD).

I’ve written two other times about RMHD and our experience there.  If you have yet to visit one in your area, click here to find the closest location and schedule a visit.  It will completely change your perspective on what’s important and what we perceive to be problems.

Every day, RMDH feeds about 75 guests.  Organizations round up volunteers to come to the house and prepare dinner.  Tuesdays at RMDH is covered by a team of volunteers led by Todd Moody from Revolve Church in Durham.  They have been taking care of the meal, week in and week out, for over three years.  I asked if I could come by and join in by sharing some gifts and providing the traditional Mardis Gras dessert – King Cakes, and they readily agreed.

I found a recipe on that seemed like something I could make.  Knowing the guests at RMHD and the fact that many of them were there for treatment of various kinds, I wanted to add my own twist to this traditional delight.  Instead of using food colorings for the icing, I made my own using beets, orange juice, spinach and mint, and blueberries.

One of the best parts of serving at RMHD is the opportunity to meet the guests and hear some of their stories.  From the young guest with Down Syndrome, to the teenager wearing a mask and fighting off rejection of his heart transplant, to the young man in the wheelchair who slept thru dinner while hugging his Mardis Gras bear, it was a joy to share a brief moment of happiness with this group.

Of course, having a bag full of goodies from New Orleans along with King Cakes made it easy to strike up a conversation.  I could tell by the smiles on the faces of the parents and the kids that it was a welcome break from the challenges they all face on a daily basis.

As seems to always be the case, there were plenty of gifts and King Cake for the guests and volunteers.  Everyone walked away with a little something extra that night or ‘lagniappe’ (pronounced lan-yap) as our friends from New Orleans like to call it.  As dinner was coming to a close, we had one purse left and gave that to Bethany.

Bethany is nine years old and was having surgery the next day.  She had a smile on her face the whole time and appreciated the beads and purse.  Her sister Jordan and mother Kim shared her story.  She suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay Syndrom (no I can’t pronounce it) or KTS.  It is an extremely rare disease that in Bethany’s case, manifested itself in blood clots all over her body.  Fingers, arms, chest, back, feet, everywhere.  She was there to have some of the worst ones removed.

Jordan described it like this.  “Have you ever had a Charley horse?”  Of course, we all have.  “It’s like having one, but for a week at a time”.  My eyes welled up just imagining the pain she must feel as a part of every day life.

KTS is the result of a genetic mutation, but its cause is unknown.  It affects an estimated 1 in 100,000 people.  There is no cure and treatment is primarily symptomatic.  In addition to the intense pain, blood clots released in the body can cause life-threatening complications.

We sat and listened to their story, not just about Bethany, but the struggles they faced as a family and how this single mom ended up living in a small town in North Carolina.  And once again, as is the case when I’ve met other guests at RMHD, I realized that comparatively, I have no problems.

The next day, we fired up the oven, baked cookies and sent out gifts just as we do almost every day.  We like to think the recipients enjoy them and maybe, in some cases, pass some on.  I know our friends at Uptown Endodontics don’t mind that we passed on their gift and you can rest assured we don’t mind someone sharing our cookies and brownies either.

I’d like to think that the person who gets a box of our cookies and passes on at least one, receives even a small measure of what we experienced by passing out our Mardis Gras gifts.  It confirmed my belief once again that it is truly is better to give than to receive.  Amen.

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It feels good to hire quality

Ask any business owner (small, medium or large) about the top challenges to running a business these days and it’s likely that hiring top quality people will be high up on their list.  It is especially difficult when you throw in the ‘seasonal factor’ in businesses like Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.

Wake EnterprisesThis past holiday was a record season by a large margin and once again, we were blessed to have some great people show up at just the right time.  Thanks to a presentation by Henry Casey at this year’s NC Specialty Foods Fall Conference, I was inspired to reach out to Wake Enterprises to help us solve some production challenges.  Not only did they come through with superb quality, it felt good to have them on our team.

I first met Henry at a Raleigh Chamber of Commerce event years ago.  I outsourced assembly of some DVD products for another business to Wake Enterprises and had a great experience.  But I had not thought about having them help us with shipping boxes until his presentation.  Turns out it was the perfect solution.

Wake Enterprises was founded in 1979 and serves adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Their mission is to assist people with varying levels of abilities achieve their maximum potential through vocational training, job placement and community inclusion activities.  By contracting with businesses to provide sub-contracting services, Wake Enterprises offers adults with disabilities the opportunity to learn valuable job and life skills to help them become more self sufficient and find a place in the workforce where they can contribute value.

At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we bake and ship cookies year round, but the Holiday Gift season gets a little crazy.  It’s like a big math equation where we have to figure out how many cookies we can bake and ship in a period of about 3-4 weeks.  Of course this requires coordination of all the materials that go into our products – labels, ribbons, flour, butter, eggs, chocolate and lastly, shipping boxes and cards with envelopes.

We’ve developed a relatively sophisticated capacity planning tool that helps us calculate to the cookie, what we’ll need to bake and ship orders for any given day.  Although some companies order early, we find that most of the order rush actually happens just after Thanksgiving.  This year we were looking at roughly 90% capacity a week before Thanksgiving – a good but scary problem.  Fortunately, we were able to outsource our shipping box and envelope assembly to the team at Wake Enterprises.

You might be tempted to think that our choice of working with the team at Wake Enterprises was based solely on a desire to include their adults in our process.  That would be false. Having been in business for 17 years, we know that the only way to sustain our customers is to continue to provide top quality products and services.

Sylvester Kitchen, Wake EnterprisesHenry assigned our project to Sylvester Kitchen, Assistant Director of Production & Procurement at Wake Enterprises.  Sylvester served in the Army, NC National Guard and left as a Sergeant (thank you for your service).  He has the skills to not only run top quality production processes, but the heart of a giant for serving others.  He also volunteers with the Special Olympics helping Special needs Kids & Adults from 6 to 65 years of age.  Ask him why he does what he does and the sparkle in his eye tells the whole story.

Team member - JohnTo get us started, we dropped off a small order of about 150 boxes and 500 or so envelopes to be assembled just after Thanksgiving.  A few days later I returned to pick up the order.  Everything was ready and put together with the quality and attention to detail we expected.

One of the team members, John, helped load the boxes into the truck.  He didn’t say much, working quickly and as professionally as any one I’ve met at any warehouse or loading dock.  There were several other team members there helping out, all of whom seemed excited about the work and eager to help with more boxes and envelopes.

When we were finished, John walked up and quietly handed me this mint and said ‘thank you’.  I later asked Sylvester if this is something John regularly does.  “No, not really.  Just sometimes.”  I felt like I was the one who received a gift that day.

At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we use the word laginiappe (pronounced lan – yap) a fair amount.  It’s Cajun for a ‘little extra’.  We try to think about this in everything we do for our customers.  It made me smile and hold back a little tear to know that we found a business partner in Wake Enterprises that has the same attitude.

We immediately placed another order and a few days later, the Wake Enterprises truck delivered a huge load of assembled boxes we used to ship orders throughout the entire Holiday Season.

Our goal at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies is to make every recipient of our cookie and brownie gifts feel good.  Not just during the holiday season, but throughout the year.  If you sent gifts from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies to anyone this past season, you can rest assured that everything in that package was put together with love and a passion for quality.  And you can feel good knowing that Henry, Sylvester, John and the rest of the team at Wake Enterprises, were all a part of that gift.

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Hand made by a master

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to talk me into dinner at Chef David’s Dumpling & Noodle Bar.  His signature half-fried dumplings don’t come from a food-service box – they’re lovingly made, by hand, from scratch, one at a time.  Anna sent me a message letting me know she ‘had a taste’ for dumplings over her fall break, so we went out on a date to Chef David’s restaurant.  Dinner was great, but it was also a little sad.

I met Chef David Mao when he had his former restaurant, The Duck and the Dumpling on Moore Square in Raleigh.  In the early days, we were in the wholesale dessert business.  I made a sales call on him to pitch our cheesecakes and pies and he agreed to give us a try.  While not an immediately obvious fit for a Chinese fusion restaurant, our Key Lime Pie, New York Cheesecake, Tiramisu and a few others were on the menu for over 7 years until he sold that restaurant.

In the early days of Anna’s Gourmet Goodies I got to know a variety of chefs and restaurant owners.  They were an interesting group and on the whole, some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met.  Restaurateurs work incredibly long hours, most often when the rest of us are finished work for the day.

I learned a lot about running our business from watching and talking with them.  Some became friends and I’m happy to put Chef David in that group.  One of my favorite memories was standing in the kitchen and watching Chef roll out and assemble his dumplings.  He mixes the dough from flour and water, and grinds up the pork filling from fresh meat, adding his other secret ingredients.

I watched as he cut off the small pieces of dough, rolled out the seemingly perfect circles, scooped in the filling, and sealed them up.  With the hands of a master at his craft that no machine will ever match, he filled tray, after tray, after tray of these bite size delicacies.  His hands work the dough quickly, yet gracefully repetitious, artfully crafting each one.  I’d often ask how many he’s made and Chef would laugh and tell me he has no idea.  It was never about the quantity – but the quality.

I think about Chef David almost every time we make a batch of ‘cookie pucks’, as we call them.  I mix up the dough and load the hopper while Debbie and Dawn shape, weigh and roll each one, by hand.  We’ve had a variety of other ‘cookie-helpers’ apprentice with us in the bakery.  Without fail, they all walk away with a different level of appreciation for the amount of work it takes to produce a hand made product.  Like Chef David’s dumplings, our cookie gifts don’t start in a factory and come out of a food-service box.

I also watched Chef and how he interacted with his customers.  He delighted in sharing small tokens of his appreciation to the diners in his restaurant.  I’d watch him make his carrot ginger soup, almost as effortlessly as he made dumplings, and personally serve up a small sample at the table.  Not on the menu, not on the bill, just a little extra or ‘lagniappe’ as we learned from our friends at Uptown Endodontics in New Orleans.

Anna was about 5 or 6 years old when we first started delivering to Chef’s restaurant and he would always send her home with an order of dumplings after a delivery.  A little lagniappe that she remembers to this day.

It’s difficult to articulate, but there is a subtle difference between someone who serves customers for the business, and someone who serves customers from the heart.  In my opinion, Chef David is one who serves from the heart – employees, vendors and customers.  Once you’ve had that experience, it’s hard to settle for less.  We try very hard to focus on the same type of service at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.

We’ve been out of the wholesale dessert business for a number of years, long before Chef opened David’s Dumpling & Noodle Bar.  But we still go by to visit, savor his hand made creations, share a laugh and a smile, and enjoy a little lagniappe every now and again.

During our last visit, Chef David let us know that he had sold the restaurant and would at some point, be retiring.  I always knew that day would come.  I am happy for him, but also a little sad.  He’s earned it and I am honored to have been along for at least a part of his journey.

I did ask for one last favor, to come by and watch him make dumplings one last time.  He agreed and even gave me a lesson and a chance to try my hand at making a few dumplings.  He was patient and a great instructor, but my hands are a long way from having the skill of a master when it comes to making dumplings.

There’s something magical about watching and learning from someone who is passionate about what they do.  About using their hands to create food that not only fills the belly, but feeds the soul.  About watching how they treat others and run their business.

We try to do that everyday at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and I am grateful I had this one last opportunity to watch and learn from a master at his craft.  With the Holiday Season just around the corner I’m sure I’ll get weary at some point from making batch after batch of our cookies.   But I’ll think of Chef David, smile and get back to work, hoping that at least a few of the people enjoying our cookies will think of them in the same way I’ll always remember Chef David’s dumplings.

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What I learned about customer service from Anna and writing a book

I’m ashamed to admit but sometimes, I am a tough customer. I’m sure there are a host of reasons for this, but I like to think that it primarily comes down to this – I hold myself and our company, Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, to a very high set of standards and expect the same from every other business I support.

In all but the rarest of cases, no person or business can provide flawless customer service 100% of the time. We make mistakes. Equipment breaks. Technology fails. Communication breaks down. Never in history have we had more tools to make life easier, and yet I believe that Arnold Palmer’s description of the game of golf applies to most businesses, ‘Deceptively simple, yet endlessly complicated”.

Sign above the counter at an automotive supply company in Raleigh. At least their customer service policy is clear…

This past summer, Anna landed a summer job as a customer service representative at a national moving company, fielding phone calls from customers. We were proud that she moved out of the retail arena and into an office environment where she could get a new set of experiences. She learned and grew, and in the process of sharing her days, gave me more than a little to think about when it comes to customer service.

Summertime is not traditionally as busy for Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, but I was heads down putting together my first book, Outside the Oven. It is a collection of my blog posts, organized into sections with a brief introduction on each story. I helped my friend Jack Spain put together two of his books, so I was familiar with the level of effort required. Along with time spent assembling and editing, it was a chance for me to reflect on our business and our customers.

Anna adapted quickly to her new role. After a brief amount of training, she jumped right in to take customer phone calls and help resolve problems. Having worked on the front lines at the nation’s largest chain of coffee shops, she had experience dealing with difficult and caffeinated customers. In this role, however, she was really on the front line, connected only via a telephone and subject to the range of emotions and vocabulary that people on the other line were more than willing to serve up.

She shared stories with us of customers who found themselves in very difficult circumstances. Sometimes this happened through no fault of their own, sometimes due to poor decision making on their part, and rarely an error on the part of the company. But in every case, these were customers, human beings who called for help.

It didn’t take long for customers and the management at the company to realize that Anna had the gift for making people feel good. Sometimes she was able to resolve the issue and get the customer exactly what they wanted, but other times, she could not. But in every case, customers felt better when they finished the call.

I’ve been wanting to write a book for some time now, but like many people, have simply too many thing competing for my time. I made the decision in June to finish this project by the end of July, an aggressive timeline. To get it done, I settled on using Create Space, an Amazon Company to self publish the work.

Like the customers who were calling Anna, I was on a very tight deadline and needed to get things done. Create Space has a customer service feature that allows me to enter my phone number and request a call, right then. Ask any questions about their service and the process of going from electronic files to a printed book, and they were there to help.

I thought of Anna each time I spoke with a representative. In every case, each person I spoke with at Create Space was not only helpful and kind, but made me feel good. Was it a change in my attitude? Or the way they were trained? Maybe a bit of both.

Pick up your copy on Amazon: Amazon
Or get a signed copy here: Anna’s Gourmet Goodies

Anna shot the cover photo at August Turak’s farm and after many hours of editing, checking and uploading the files, the book was ready. I clicked a few buttons, ordered my proof copies, and in a few days this beautifully produced book showed up at my door. It was ‘magical’.

Excited about my new creation and wanting to learn more about how to price and sell my book, I headed down to a local bookstore to speak with the owner. I’ve shopped there in the past and was looking forward to getting some insight from a local expert. Unfortunately, that’s not what I received.

After asking the owner about her experience with self published books and pricing, she launched into a rant about the evils of Amazon, how they treat their employees poorly and how I just gave away all rights to my life’s work. I said nothing, put the draft back in the envelope and left, feeling terrible.

Instead of shopping for a book in her store to send as a birthday gift for a friend, I went home, logged in to and it showed up at my door two days later.

Listening to Anna helped me focus more on what it means to both give and receive great customer service. As customers, we can’t always get what we want. And the truth is we are not always right. In fact, sometimes we are incredibly wrong.

As businesses, it is our obligation to strive to do the right thing for customers. We try but we sometimes fall short. We fail.

With the exception of chatbots and interactive voice response systems, both people on the other end of the line are human beings. Ultimately I believe that great customer service comes down to how we answer this question, “How does the customer feel when we’re done?”

Did Anna learn these skills from growing up watching her parents run a business named after her? Of course I’d like to think so. We’ve always tried very hard to take great care of customers not just because they pay us money, but because they are human beings. We are, after all, in the business of making people feel good.

Anna’s experience reminds me that when it’s my turn to be the customer, the person on the other line is in fact another human being and it’s my responsibility to take ownership and focus on a solution that makes us both feel good. In turn, I’ll still expect the businesses I support to do the same. And when that happens, like my experience with Create Space, it’s more than just great customer service, it’s magic.

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Time is a valuable and important ingredient

I started publishing almost nine years ago. One of my competitors back then (they’ve since closed down) started a blog that was titled something like ‘as the cookie crumbles’. I liked the idea, but wanted to focus on something a bit different. My first post was about a river trip with Anna and a chance encounter with a snake.

I wanted to share something about myself, our company and what we do that doesn’t involve flour, chocolate, butter, sugar and eggs – the ingredients we use to make cookies and brownies. I thought that if I shared more about who we are and what we’ve learned, it might help us make an emotional connection with customers and inspire our customers to do the same with their clients.

This Father’s Day, I had the chance to once again spend the day on a river (thanks to the Haw River Canoe and Kayak Co. for a great experience) with Anna and it was the perfect way to spend an afternoon. No snakes this time, but I did spend some time in thought about the journey we’ve been on and why I started down this road in the first place. Stepping off the bus at SciQuest back in 2003 to venture down the road less traveled required a lot of thought and a major leap of faith.

My word for 2017 is ‘time’ – a culmination of lots of small moments. I’ve spent a fair amount of energy this first half of the year, thinking about how I spend my time both at home and with Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. It is, after all, the only resource we can’t acquire more of.

Running a business and raising a child have similarities in that they both require an extraordinary amount of time. Anna was off to college last year and while the quantity of day to day time requirements went down, it still requires thinking time and those moments when we did connect were all the more valuable.

At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we spend our time (days and weeks and years) creating brief moments for our business clients and their customers. Our cookie gifts are impactful, connecting one person to another and creating a memorable moment when they open the package. We’ve developed some very efficient processes for managing orders, but we still spend a few moments thinking about each one and how it might impact our customer and the recipient. It’s one ingredient that we think makes all the difference.

My Father’s Day gift was time on the river with Anna and a delicious meal at the Saxapahaw General Store. The pizza with field grown tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil was simply outstanding, but the value of the time with Anna was priceless.

When we returned home, Anna presented me with a letter she wrote, thanking me and reminding me of some of the other times when we took small road trips. Little things that when stitched together add up to something greater than simply minutes on a clock.

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent time at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies doing what we do throughout the year. Sending out birthday gifts for clients, a special batch of graduation party favors for a long time customer, thanking a business owner’s clients for their recent purchase, and more. Little things that create moments to make someone’s day a little brighter.

Outside the oven, I helped a friend repair his front porch so his wife could get into the house when she returned from the hospital, helped a college student service his car, and took this river trip with Anna.

As a husband, father and business owner, I’m always thinking about how I should be investing my time. It’s a precious commodity that’s made up of more than just minutes, hours and days. Focusing on that word this year has reminded me that it’s helpful every now and then to step back, get outside the oven and look at the moments we’re investing into relationships, a business, products or whatever.

Just like baking great cookies, you have to make sure you’re adding the right ingredients in the right amount. Based on the last cookie I tasted and watching Anna grow and develop, I’m pretty happy with how things have turned out so far.

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The ripple effect of kindness

One of my favorite memories from childhood is skipping rocks at our family’s house on Nolin Lake. Some mornings, when the water was still like a piece of glass, with a hint of fog rising just above the surface, we’d skip rocks and watch the ripples gently spread across the silvery surface, eventually joining together and fading in the distance. I was reminded of this recently after watching a simple act of kindness and experiencing the ripple effect of that act for myself.

Early in the morning on one of my long walks through the historic district of Wake Forest I noticed my friend Durward Matheny in the distance. His office is in the Wake Forest Museum property and I commonly see him out and about, even on a Saturday morning. He stopped his car in front of a B&B that just sold after the owner’s husband died. He picked up the newspaper off the front lawn, carefully put in on the front porch, and walked back to his car.

It was a simple act of kindness, done without any thought of repayment or acknowledgement. Having known Durward for more than 20 years, it is not the least bit surprising he would do something like this, but it struck me at that moment just how important even the smallest of gestures can be. I had not spoken with him recently and struck up a conversation. He told me he was speaking at a fundraiser for the Koinonia Foundation later that day. They were having a silent auction and dinner to raise money.

After catching up, I continued my walk, determined to continue the ‘ripple of kindness’ I saw in Durward that morning. I went back to the bakery, put together a tin of cookies and brownies and dropped it by the location where the auction was to be held that evening. No paperwork. No receipt. I just wanted to create a ripple that ultimately would benefit someone less fortunate and blessed than I am.

A few days later, as Valentine’s Day rolled around I found an opportunity to create yet another ripple. Anna asked me to sell a very large stuffed bear (almost 4’ tall) she received as a Valentine’s present that no longer held any meaning for her. Instead of selling the bear, we picked up a bucket, baked up a batch of cookies, added some balloons and dropped off both at Duke Cancer Center Raleigh.

I met Kim, one of the nurses there, and explained that we simply wanted to offer up cookies to the nurses and patients in the chemo ward, spreading a little love on Valentine’s Day. I also wanted some patient in need of a little kindness, to take home the bear. She immediately understood my intent and with a big smile on her face, proceeded to take the cookies and the bear off to create yet another ripple.

The lady at the gift shop smiled as I was leaving and told me that it was a ‘sweet gesture’. I explained how the nurses and staff had done such an amazing job taking care of Dawn, one of our ‘cookie helpers’ during her chemo therapy. Fighting back the tears, I let her know that it was me who received the gift that day.

I share stories like this with our friends at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies in hopes that it will inspire even one person, in some way. We’re in the gift business, creating memories for those recipients who enjoy our cookies and brownies. But over the years I’ve found that when it comes to giving back, I’m the one who actually receives the gift of being able to make a ripple every now and then.

I can’t remember a time in our nation’s history when we are in need of more ‘ripples of kindness’. If you agree, here’s a recipe that might help:

Step one: Take a break from the news

Step two: Stop complaining about or talking about supporting/not supporting anything

Step three: Find someone who is in need and do something to help, even if it’s as simple as picking up the paper and putting it on their porch.

I’ll never know where the money from the silent auction goes or who got the bear. But just like skipping rocks at Nolin Lake on one of those cool mornings, I’m pretty sure I created a small ripple. Imagine what might happen if more and more people started creating ripples of kindness.

In the meantime, we’ll be baking up cookies and sending them out to people for their birthday, as a thank you gift or as we did on Valentine’s Day, to a student away at school as a reminder that Mom and Dad love him very much. If there’s someone in your company or personal life that might benefit from a little recognition, please click on over to our website and let us know how we can help. We promise to take special care of every package that goes out of our bakery and to help you create a ripple of kindness whenever possible.

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