Our gourmet cookie gifts are ‘sticky’

No, I’m not referring to the kind of sticky that comes from putting your hand in the honey jar. I’m thinking about sticky as it relates to memory, something that stays there for a long time.

Anna and I watched the Disney movie ‘Inside Out’ (worth seeing if you have not) and it was an interesting take on what happens to our thoughts and memories. It was funny, well done as most Pixar movies are and got me thinking about what we do at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. We often describe our gifts as ‘leaving a lasting impression long after the last crumb is gone’.

I also received a phone call recently from a former customer because we created a memory for her. One of her employers used to send our cookies as gifts to their employees. She decided to start sending gifts to her clients and called us because of that memory.

A simple 'thank you' can mean a lot - especially pared with a gift of our gourmet cookies.
A simple ‘thank you’ can mean a lot – especially pared with a gift of our gourmet cookies.
One of the first things she said was how she remembered getting our cookies on her birthday and work anniversary, a simple ‘thank you’ gift from her company letting her know she was valued and appreciated. This was years ago and I’m wondering, of all the things the HR department did, how many of them stood out like the simple gesture of remembering employees with a box of cookies on their birthday and work anniversary?

Jim Karrh, a friend and former classmate at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, is a consultant helping companies focus on managing the message they send to customers and employees. I subscribe to his email newsletter (you can too by tapping here to visit his website) and he shared this story in a recent post:

“I see a widespread assumption among managers that the main way to improve productivity is to set tough goals and push people. Yet we’re learning that employees who feel appreciated are more productive and loyal. An on-the-job study of 41 university fundraisers, all of whom were working on fixed salaries, confirmed this. For half of the group, the development director visited them in person to say, “I am very grateful for your hard work. We sincerely appreciate your contributions to the university.” The other half of the group received no extra expression of thanks.

What do you think happened? During the next week, the group who received direct thanks increased the number of calls they made by 50 percent, while the control group made the same number of calls as they had the previous week.”
– Jim Karrh, Managing the Message

Thinking about the movie, Jim’s quote, our business, and my own life, I believe two factors make a particular event or experience memorable: the unexpected and emotional connections.

It happens to all of us. We get caught up in the routine of life and business. But then, when something unexpected happens, either good or bad, we stop for a minute and that’s when the memory kicks in – like when someone gives us a real, sincere, ‘thank you’, that is totally unexpected.

Another powerful memory generator happens when we make an emotional connection. When I smell strawberries, I think of Mom’s strawberry cake she always made on my birthday. When I say the words ‘my daughter’ I am transported back to that dimly lit room where she came into the world and I saw her for the first time. Both evoke emotions tied to permanent memories. Do you have memories from emotional triggers? I bet you do.

While I’m flattered when people refer to me as ‘the cookie man’, (this happened just the other day at a Raleigh Chamber luncheon), I smile knowing that we are really in the business of creating ‘sticky memories’. When someone opens the package and bites into a cookie or brownie, I’d like to think two things happen. First, they are pleasantly surprised. And second, they are transported back to a time in their youth when they sat around a plate of cookies their Mom or someone special just made.

We pay attention to the details.
We pay attention to the details.
I have no way of confirming exactly how many of the tens of thousands of packages we’ve sent out over the years created an experience that ended up tucked away somewhere in the memory banks of the person who opened the box and tasted our cookies and brownies. But I can say with certainty that it did for the customer who called us recently, and probably a few more.

Sticky memories. For a company in the business of creating memorable experiences, that’s a pretty sweet reward.

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How this Jesuit Brother and baker influenced our business

One of the interesting things about starting a new business is that no matter what road you start down, there will always be twists and turns that take you in directions you could never have predicted. For Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, one of those turns started out in Celebration, Florida at the National Pie Championships and carried us to the National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped in SoHo, Manhattan. That meeting and conversation with Brother Rick Curry, S.J. had a lasting impact on the business and my life.

We competed in the 2003 National Pie Championships in Celebration, FL.
We competed in the 2003 National Pie Championships in Celebration, FL.
In 2003, we joined the American Pie Council and planned our trip to the National Pie Competition in Celebration, Florida. We settled on three entries, Pumpkin Cream with Grand Marnier, Chocolate Kahlua Cream, and Real Key Lime. All made with our signature graham cracker and whole wheat pastry crust in a fluted pan.

Our story, combined with original and unique recipes were sure to secure an award and a spot in the pie maker history books. But alas, despite our best efforts, we left without a single prize. We managed to get a very brief appearance in the Food Network’s coverage of the event, but that was the extent of our fame for the weekend.

On the ride home, Debbie was thumbing through a copy of Oprah magazine and came across an article about a bakery run by a Jesuit brother. He used the proceeds to fund the National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped. It was a great story. A Jesuit Brother, actor, author and master baker, pursing his passion, refusing to give up and helping others in a similar situation pursue their dreams. The challenges of running a non-profit and a business did not stop Rick Curry, despite the fact that he was born with only one arm.

I decided to reach out to Brother Curry and ask if he would meet with me. I had a business trip planned to NYC in the coming weeks and it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Thankfully, he agreed.

Brother Rick Curry, S.J.There are some people you meet in life where you feel an instant connection. Like being wrapped in a warm blanket with a cup of hot cocoa next to a crackling fire. That’s what it felt like sitting down with Brother Curry. We exchanged stories about our lives growing up. He told me how he ended up where he was, doing the work he was doing. Through all the twists and turns, it was clear that he was on the right path.

We talked about Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and the struggles of starting a business while working a job. Of trying to discern what I should do, and why. I shared what was then our tagline, “Our most important ingredient is love”. He paused for a moment, and with a little mist starting to appear in his eyes and said, “Chris, hold on to that. Don’t ever lose it.”

Brother Curry was generous with his time that day. After laughing and exchanging more stories about life and baking, it was time for me to go. He picked up a copy of his book, The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking and signed it for me, “To Chris, someone who will make a big difference through baking.” He gave me a big hug and I was on my way back to North Carolina with more to think about and another signpost to add to my collection on this journey.

Since then, I’ve referred to Brother Curry’s book on many occasions. I’m particularly fond of the Challa and Brother Bandera’s Italian bread, something I’ve made almost every Christmas for the past several years.

I made a few adjustments to Sister Courtney's Buttermilk bread and it came out fabulous
I made a few adjustments to Sister Courtney’s Buttermilk bread and it came out fabulous
This weekend, Anna and I picked out a new recipe from the book, Sister Courtney’s Buttermilk Bread. I modified it a bit, substituting olive oil for the shortening and baking rounds instead of loaves. It was wonderful. Light, soft, perfect with olive oil and homemade lasagna.

The Secrets of Jesuit BreadmakingIf you’re interested, pick up a copy of his book at your local bookstore or online.
Barnes and Noble

Despite my best intentions I have not connected with Brother Curry since that chance meeting, but I’ve never forgotten his wisdom and strive to focus on what matters most at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. I’ve looked him up a time or two online, but just never made it happen. I did another search and found that sadly, I missed the opportunity. He passed away on December 21, 2015 from heart failure.

It was a brief meeting, but an important milestone in our business and my life’s journey. It’s rare to meet someone with a heart and a smile as big as Brother Curry. I’m still in awe of how much he accomplished and I have kept my promise not to let go of our original ingredient list.

And if by chance Brother Curry is looking down on me from his Heavenly home I’d like to say thanks again for helping me along the way. You were definitely an important stop on the road worth traveling.

Read more about his life

New York Times article and a recipe

The 60-Minutes episode

In rememberance – America Magazine – The National Catholic Review

In rememberance – The Georgetowner

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One doesn’t have to be the loneliest number

I shared the ‘Starfish Story’ in an earlier post and I was touched by the number of people who reached out to let me know how much they enjoyed the story. It’s about making a difference, one act at a time.

It’s pretty easy these days to take a look around your neighborhood or the world and be overwhelmed by the number of people in need. Instead of throwing in the towel, I remind myself that one gesture matters.

At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we regularly receive requests for donations for a range of organizations, especially during this time of year. Some we’ve supported in the past, and some find us through Internet search. And while we simply can’t say yes to every request, it is something we genuinely enjoy doing.

October was Breast Cancer Awareness month for 2015. In the US, about 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. (Let that sink in for a minute…) With numbers that high, it is not surprising to see so many organizations working to take on this insidious disease. While that can be a good thing, the shear magnitude of the problem can be a little overwhelming.

This year nearly a quarter of a million women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.
This year nearly a quarter of a million women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.
We’re fortunate to have an organization in our area focused on making a difference for some of these women, one at a time. 1in9 is an organization whose ultimate goal is to ease some of the burdens that come along with the diagnosis of breast cancer. These might be emotional‚ physical or financial. They seek to make sure that women who find themselves to be the one in nine (or eight) don’t make that journey alone.

On November 14, 2015, they’ll be holding their annual fundraiser, A Pink Tie Affair at the Masquerade Ball. We’ll be providing cookies for the sponsor and guest tables along with items for their auction. Specifically, donors will have the chance to bid on certificates to send a gift from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies as a part of the initial care package women accepted into 1in9 receive.

Find your one

If giving back is something you’ve incorporated into your business and/or your life, congrats and keep on keepin’ on. If not, I’d encourage you to find the one starfish you can help with your time, talents and/or treasure. Turns out my Mom’s advice was once again, spot on. It’s not gift, but the thought that counts.

One more thing

There’s one more reason why I’m giving back to 1in9 this year. Last October my wife Debbie received a phone call from the radiology group asking her to come back for a second mammogram. She was not nearly as worried as I was, writing it off as one of those things that happens sometimes.

After the second mammogram, the doctor went back thru all her records for the past 10 years and determined that indeed, something showed up that did not look right. They wanted to go in and do a biopsy.

The few hours we spent in the doctor’s office that day went by in slow motion, each minute felt like a day. It was obvious that the staff at the reception desk had experience and training managing anxious husbands. Maybe the cookie samples helped a little. I can’t say for sure.

The next few days waiting for the results felt like years. It all happened so fast, but seemed to take forever. The procedure was on a Friday and I’m certain it was the longest weekend of my life.

Finally we got the call to come in for the results. When the doctor opened the door to the room and came in, I could see from the smile on her face that we were indeed blessed that Debbie was not going to be one of the nine women on this day.

This year it’s estimated that nearly a quarter of a million women will not be as lucky as Debbie. They’ll be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and begin a new chapter in their life. And for at least a few of those women, we’ll have the honor of sending a small package, filled with cookies and love that hopefully, will make the first few steps of this walk just a little bit easier, and not quite so lonely.

P.S. If you don’t have an organization like 1in9 in your community and are moved to help in some way, learn more by visiting their website 1in9.com.

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This ‘Foodie Connection’ has been in the oven for awhile

If you spend any time at all around people in the food business, you’ll understand they share two common traits; a passion for what they do and a love for connecting to others who share that passion. The road we’ve taken at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies is full of people we’ve met along the way who’ve helped us, shared their knowledge and cheered us on. In turn, we’ve had the opportunity to do the same for others we’ve met. One of those opportunities to cheer someone on is my connection to Fanny Slater that began more than a dozen years ago when I first met her Dad, Jeff.

I was introduced to Jeff through a contact at my last employer who met him at his previous employer, GoodMark Foods. GoodMark purchased Jeff and his wife’s company in 1989.

Founders of Rachel's Brownies
Jeff and Ra El
Ra El started Rachel’s Brownies back in 1975. Jeff joined her in 1978 and together they grew the company to a nationally recognized brand. They appeared on TV shows such as The Phil Donahue Show and Charlie Rose, were featured in The New York Times and USA Today, and were even invited to the White House to have lunch with President Ronald Regan.

But the business wasn’t born out of a desire to build a brownie empire. It was born out of a passion for chocolate and a desire to share that with the world. It just so happens that they made incredible brownies.

Future foodies Fanny and Anna
Future foodies Fanny and Anna
Jeff and I shared several conversations about what was then our wholesale dessert business. He was generous with his experience and we kicked around ideas for collaboration. At one point, he invited us down to Wilmington to have dinner with his family while they were vacationing. His daughters, Fanny and Sarah served as babysitters for the day, playing with Anna on the beach while the adults talked about life and business.

While we never launched a formal partnership, we’ve stayed in touch over the years. I recently reached out to get advice on a new idea I was working on and once again, Jeff was helpful in sharing his perspective and wisdom. I follow him on his blog, The Marketing Sage, and when I heard about Fanny and the Rachael Ray Cookbook Competition, I was excited to watch her pursing her passion for food and for the opportunity to cheer her on.

Encouraged by her Grandmother, and of course her parents, Fanny entered Rachael Ray’s Great American Cookbook Competition along with nearly 1,000 other hopefuls. She made it from the top 20, to the top 10, to the top 5 which came with a phone call from Rachael herself and an invitation to compete for the grand prize of a cookbook contract on The Rachael Ray Show. Not only would the finalists cook in front of Rachael Ray, but some of the world’s most renowned chefs including Jacque Pepin – a foodie’s dream come true for sure.

I watched Fanny on several of the episodes and while I am a bit partial due to my connection, I can tell you that her authenticity and passion for food came through like a beacon. It was not just about winning the contest, but about sharing her stories about food and family with the world. It was about pouring out her passion and making connections to others who share that same love of food and family. Fanny Slater's new cookbook

You can follow along and read more about her story on her blog at FannySlater.com Her cookbook Orange, Lavender & Figs is now available for pre-order on Amazon and due out on March 1st, 2016, so be sure and stay tuned.

Recently, Fanny agreed to sample some of our goodies and put together a video about her experience trying our products. I must admit that it was a little intimidating to send brownies to the daughter of the creator of a national brand. But I know that whether or not we come close to her Mom’s recipe, I’m confident that we share some of the same measures of passion in our recipe.

Anna and I ventured down to Wilmington to share a meal with Fanny and re-connect after all these years. The last time they met, Fanny was about Anna’s age and Anna was the girl in the sunglasses, running and playing in the sand. It is such a thrill to watch these two young women, one in the middle of living her dream and the other on the verge of venturing out to find her way in the world.

Fanny and Anna - reconnectThere are a lot of reasons why we started Anna’s Gourmet Goodies back in 2001. Of course we strive to be a profitable company and good stewards of what we’ve been given. But the real reason comes back to passion and time for family.

Our cookies and brownies are memorable gifts to anyone who has ever received a package from us, but the real gift for me has been the opportunity to build a business based on a passion to make others happy. Along with that, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time as a family and watch Anna on her journey, helping her find her passion, just as Fanny has done with hers.

We’re on track to having our best year ever at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies as connections to customers who believe what we believe has grown at a pace that continues to make us smile. Our passion for creating a memorable experience continues unabated. As we head into the busy season, we’ll be busier than ever keeping up with orders, making sure that everything arrives just as expected, while welcoming new customers into the family.

We’ll also keep our focus on nurturing those family and foodie connections, cheering on Fanny and Anna as they pursue their passions. It’s what foodies do. After all, passion and connections are two of the most important ingredients in any recipe for a successful business and a wonderful life. Go Anna! Go Fanny!

This ‘Foodie Connection’ has been in the oven for awhile Read More »

Why I stopped sending newsletters nearly two years ago

August marks fourteen years since Debbie and I first incorporated the company that is now Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. Like all businesses, we’ve had ups and downs, victories and defeat. Along the way, we’ve collected stories, relationships and experiences that will, hopefully, make it into the book someday. In the meantime, we strive to inspire you in some way, make you smile, or maybe even shed a tear. Whether you’re a customer or someone who takes time to read this post, thank you.

It’s been over two years since I stopped sending out a ‘newsletter’, opting instead to share brief stories about experiences that are relevant (sometimes loosely) to Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. I’ve received more than a handful of comments and smiles from people who read the email, many of whom I had no idea were on the list. Our business has grown nicely these past two years, so I’ll continue for now.

This month, I have two stories – one recent and one that while, not so recent, is an important part of understanding more about Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and what drives our business.

I met Michael Davis, a customer at Crossroads Infiniti (one of our customers) during a routine visit to drop off some cookies. After noticing his Army cap (retired), I shook his hand and thanked him for his service. We struck up a conversation and he shared a part of his story.

Michael Davis shared his storyHe was in the Army Signal Corp. During one of his final deployments to Iraq, he had the opportunity to visit the hole where Saddam Hussein was captured and actually sat down with his feet dangling inside. As you might expect from his towering size, he did not go down inside. He was struck by the fact that someone who was at once so powerful, ended up tucked away in this tiny hole in the ground.

I have no idea how many people in the world have done this, but meeting Michael and hearing about his experience made my day and gave me something to think about. A reminder that everyone has a story, and unless you take time to ask, you might miss out on a good one.

When he left, I’m certain the service representative gave him a package of our cookies. A small gesture, but I hope that the cookies made by our hands served as another ‘thank-you and left him with a brief moment of happiness.

One of my favorite stories is one that is difficult for me to tell without my voice cracking and my eyes starting to water. I’ve spoken about it many times to various groups, but it far easier to write.

We sent Annalise gifts on a few occasions when her Aunt Tracey ordered cookies from us to send to her. She told us Annalise’s story, being diagnosed with Neuroblastoma while barely two years old. We sent her cookies once for her birthday, and included a mylar balloon and a stuffed animal (no, you won’t find this on our website).

Annalise and our gourmet cookiesIn 2012, Tracey sent us a note telling us that Annalise was going to be the featured child in a St. Baldrick’s event in her hometown and wondered if we might send some cookies. Having fought the cancer bravely for 5 of her brief 7 years, we eagerly agreed, put together a label with her name and picture and sent out a large tin bucket of cookies to help raise money, along with a special package for Annalise. The only thing I asked for in return, was a picture.

I included a letter to Annalise, telling her how special we thought she was and how we would pray for her and ask God to give her time to do her work here on Earth. We never met, but I wanted her to know how special she was and that she inspired us with her spirit.

We made sure the cookies arrived shortly before the event. While we were not there, we understand it was a big success. The picture we received was more than enough reward for us.

On Sunday, March 18, the day after St. Patrick’s Day and a few days after receiving our cookies, Annalise lost her battle with cancer. I wanted so much to put some magic ingredient in those cookies to cure her disease, but alas I could not. What I can do, is to keep her memory alive by telling her story, just as I am doing right now.

You can learn more about the upcoming 5k Run/Walk for Kids Cancer on September 30 here or read more about her on this website, AnnalisesFriends.

It would be nice to think that of the hundreds of thousands of cookies and brownies we’ve sent out over the years have touched lives in a special way or inspired similar stories. Maybe. Maybe not. That’s okay.

It’s like the story of the small boy walking down a beach littered with starfish who tossed them one by one back into the ocean so they would not die. When asked why he did this, and told that he could not possibly make a difference, he picked up another starfish, tossed it back and replied, “It made a difference to that one!”

I share stories like these because I believe that in the case of people like Michael and Annalise, we all have the opportunity to make some small impact on the lives of customers, friends, family and strangers, even if for a brief moment.

Share a story. Listen to a story. Pass on a story. It matters. It’s part of being human.

Sharing stories is important to us because it helps our customers (and perhaps future ones) understand who we are and why we do what we do. We can’t say for sure, but with every package that leaves the bakery, it is our hope that the person who receives it will enjoy the work of our hands and at least for a brief moment, experience a memory that will become part of their life’s story, whatever that may be.

A lofty goal, but it makes for a good ending to the story.

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Bob Ross would have called this a ‘happy accident’

If you’ve spent any time watching PBS, you probably remember Bob Ross. Bob was a soft spoken, gentle soul who, in the span of 30 minutes, created landscape paintings with a blank canvas using brushes, a painting knife and his imagination. Nothing was every wrong in his world. If something didn’t go just right, it was not a mistake but rather he referred to it as a ‘happy accident’.

Despite our best efforts, not everything goes right in our bakery either. While we refuse to ship orders that are not as close to perfection as we can get, when things don’t turn out quite right we try very hard not to waste anything. If a batch is not up to spec, or we are experimenting with a new recipe, we do our best to salvage the product and create our own version of a ‘happy accident’. This is how we created Shepard’s Shortbread.

A few years ago, we were making several batches of our Artisan Cookies. The bakery was humming, mixer going, cookie helpers forming the dough and sheets going into the cooler. In an attempt to keep the hopper full, I inadvertently added the flour to the butter and sugar mixture before adding the eggs. No way to reverse this.

Eggs not only provide moisture, but leavening as well. Without it, you have a basic shortbread recipe. I sat the dough aside and later rolled it out, cut it into squares and baked up some shortbread. It was really, really good.

Shepherds Shortbread
Raven and Michael were happy to get another batch of our Shepherd’s Shortbread
Whenever we have extra cookies or are experimenting with a new recipe, we never like to see good product go to waste. One of our favorite places to visit and donate extra product, is The Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen in Raleigh. They ‘Serve the Hungry and Feed the Soul’. Right up our alley.

I carried the short bread down there and offered it up for their lunch. It was a hit and over the next few weeks we had a few more ‘happy accidents’ as we worked on getting the recipe and process just right.

After a few rounds of testing, we decided to add it to our Artisan Cookie Tower. We named it Shepherd’s Shortbread in honor of our friends who serve those in our community in need of physical and spiritual nourishment.

A few weeks ago during one of our cookie making sessions, I inadvertently forgot to add the eggs again. This time, to our traditional cookie recipe. No problem – I set the dough aside knowing that this was just another ‘happy accident’.

I baked up some shortbread and dropped it off at the Shepard’s Table. Raven and Michael were more than happy to add it to the lunch menu. While I did not stick around for the lunch rush, I’m hoping that combined with the other food served up that day, the ‘happy accident’ from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies helped feed the soul of the guests who dined with them that day. That’s right in line with our mission.

Bob passed away on July 4th nearly 20 years ago. We never met, but something tells me that our version of a ‘happy accident’ would meet with his approval. And while everything we do might not turn out perfect, being of service and making people happy is always a key ingredient in our recipes.

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