Getting back more than you give

The holiday season, from then end of November through December, is hands-down, our busiest time of the year. As with any gift company, we try to make sure that everyone who wants to send out our gourmet cookie gifts has the opportunity to make their recipients happy.

Getting more than you give
Look carefully at the wall behind us - those are pictures of children that have been guests at the Ronald McDonald House of Durham
Every year is unique at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, but our mission is the same – to make people happy when they receive a gift of our cookies. Some packages are popular some years, other packages (like our Large Cookie-Brownie Tower) are popular another year. This year, we planned ahead more than ever, made changes to our website to enhance search, were blessed with more orders than we filled in 2011 and welcomed new friends who found us in the search engines. 2012 was a good year.

To cap it off, we wanted to do a little something different in our family and our business when it comes to giving back some of what we received. We support a variety of charities throughout the year, but we decided this year that we wanted to make it personal. To make a real connection. To take some of what our customers gave us in the form of orders and gifts for their friends, clients, employees and family, and make a small impact on a personal level.

Last year, my friend Oie Osterkamp took over the reins at the Ronald McDonald House in Durham as the Executive Director. Short of having Ronald himself running the show, I don’t think it would be possible to find a better person to fill this role.

For those of you not familiar, the Ronald McDonald House provides room and board for families and children who are undergoing medical treatment. Sometimes this is short term lasting for a few weeks, and sometimes it can last for months. These families often travel distances to have their children treated and would have no other choice, but to try and stay in a hotel or rent an apartment.

The first Ronald McDonald House was started by a professional football player in Philadelphia whose child had to have long term treatment. Seeing others who faced the often severe financial hardship of finding a home away from home, he thought there should be another option. And so, the Ronald McDonald House concept was born.

Durham was the 13th location, was the first House not associated with a professional sports team and is close to the world-renowned Duke University Medical Center. It currently houses up to 54 families, and there is a waiting list. In the years since opening it’s doors in 1980, more than 28,000 children have stayed at the House.

We visited their website and found they had a ‘wish list’. Rather than simply sending in a check, we decided to go on a shopping spree, pick up items from the list, and deliver them to the House. And of course, we could not even consider a visit without taking along a supply of our ‘magic cookies’ from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.

I can honestly say that of all the Christmas shopping trips I’ve ever been on, this was the most fun we’ve ever had. Debbie, Anna and I donned our Santa Hats and descended on the local warehouse store to fill up a flat bed with items destined to help these families with the little things, the every day items that we often take for granted.

When we arrived at the House, Oie greeted us with his typical beaming smile. We loaded up the brass bellman’s cart to the top with paper towels, food, cleaning supplies, brooms, snacks, and of course, the ‘magic cookies’.

We started with a complete tour. This was the first time I’ve been to a Ronald McDonald house. Thankfully, we’ve never had to rely on their services. I was simply amazed at what we saw. Yes, it was designed for parents and children who are sick, but the attention to detail and the amount of genuine love and compassion that exuded from every corner of the house, was overwhelming. Like a warm blanket on a cool morning, the Ronald McDonald House of Durham wraps its guests from the moment they walk in the door, welcoming them to their home away from home.

After the tour, we sat down with Oie and had pictures taken with the items we brought to the House. Oie signed mats for each of these and we mounted them and gave them to friends, family and some of our customers at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.

It took a minute for the magic to kick in, but my friend Clifton gave us a priceless smile - what a gift.
Before we left, I had the opportunity to meet one of the residents at the house and to have him try our ‘magic cookies’. What is in these cookies that makes them magic? How I wish there was something I could sprinkle in there that would wipe out the cancer, the infection, or any of the other diseases that have attacked these children. But alas, I cannot. I can however, pour everything possible into our cookies so that when someone tastes them, they cannot help but smile. Whatever is happening for that brief moment, fades, and they can enjoy the simple goodness of our ‘magic cookies’.

Clifton had been sitting quietly while his step-dad was preparing food in the kitchen. I asked him if he’d like to try a magic cookie and thankfully, he agreed. He was a bit reserved, but eventually the smile did appear and once again, for that brief moment, I accomplished my mission.

We left Oie and the Ronald McDonald House of Durham that afternoon with a fresh new perspective on giving. You’ve probably heard the old saying that ‘it is better to give than to receive’. Our visit that day was proof positive that it is entirely possible to get back far more than you give. We certainly did on that day.

I offer up a word of thanks to all the friends who ordered gifts at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies this past year. Know that we put the same level of love and care in your packages that we put in the ‘magic cookies’ we shared with the guests at the Ronald McDonald House of Durham. And while we may never know for sure that everyone had the same reaction as my young friend Clifton, I’ll be thinking about him every time I take a batch out of the oven. Now that’s a gift whose value far exceeds what was given.

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The business benefits of pruning blueberry bushes

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’.

Sometimes you have to prune things to make them grow
It might not seem obvious at first, but you can learn a lesson about running a business by pruning blueberry bushes.
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.

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The rest of the story

I’ve probably told the story of Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and how it all started maybe a thousand times or more. From casual conversations to small groups to classes filled with MBA students, I’ve shared the ups and downs, the ins and outs of starting this business. But there is a piece of the story that I’ve never talked about, until now.

Our company namesake and my Mom's sister - an early influence in my baking career
Anna and Aunt Lois at Thanksgiving 2006

This picture features my daughter Anna (the primary business namesake) and my mother’s sister, Lois Bradley. Aunt Lois (as almost everyone I know calls her) is the one Aunt from my mother’s family that I’d have to say I have spent the most time with, all my life. From my earliest memories of childhood throughout my adult life, there are pages and chapters filled with memories that belong to Aunt Lois.

My mother, Anna Duke, was one of nine children and most of her brothers and sisters lived not too far from Louisville, Kentucky where I grew up. I don’t recall exactly how often we got together to have dinner, but it was frequent enough for me to develop two very strong memories; family and food. Whether it was simply going to Aunt Lois’ house for Sunday dinner, or a holiday gathering at our house, it seemed that getting together with my Aunts, Uncles and cousins was a common event. And there was always plenty of food and desserts on the table.

I can remember a number of occasions where Mom would take me over to Aunt Lois’ grand old house on Village Drive in Louisville. I remember that place almost as if I lived there. The cracks in the steps. The time weathered brick exterior. The fragrant, yet musty smell of an old house. And the kitchen.

On one occasion when I was probably about five years old, Mom dropped me off to spend the night sometime around the Christmas holidays. I walked into the kitchen where Aunt Lois was busy working and announced with a big smile, “I’ve got a surprise for you!”. “Well, what is it Christopher Robin?” she said. “We’re going to make some cookies!” I announced.

Aunt Lois laughed and you guessed it, we made cookies. Was that the tiny mustard seed that lay dormant for so many years before it turned into my work? Perhaps.

As it is with most families, the road of life is rarely straight and almost never a four-lane highway. Aunt Lois moved to Maryland and opened a business with my Uncle Brad. I went to college then moved to North Carolina.

In the late 80’s, I found myself in a particularly stormy time in life. Mom had died, my first business failed, and I landed back in Kentucky. Without a regular job or much money in the bank, I found a room and a bed at Aunt Lois’ house in Frankfurt. Her husband, Uncle Brad, died some years ago, and she was, not surprisingly, willing to take on a roommate.

The house had changed, but the feeling of being around Aunt Lois was still the same as when I stood in her kitchen almost 25 years earlier. It was both a difficult time for me in some ways, but magical in others. We planted a garden. We went on trips. And we managed to cook up some goodies every now and then.

I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Aunt Lois use the word, ‘goodie’. It’s one of those words you learn that you always associate with someone. I can remember her tasting something, most often a cookie or dessert, smiling and saying, “Boy, that’s a goodie”.

Add another 15 years to the calendar, and I find myself in North Carolina. I was working full time, but Debbie and I were starting a business, out of our home. I had this idea that I wanted to make really great desserts (later, that turned into the current cookie business). We thought about a name. I had a silhouette of Anna we had made at the North Carolina State Fair on my wall. Why not name it after her? But what else?

We came up with a number of different ideas, but I kept coming back to this word, goodie that had become a part of my vocabulary. “How about ‘Anna’s Gourmet Goodies’?” We mocked up the logo. Debbie agreed, and well, here we are.

Just like any good recipe, ingredients come together to make something greater than the individual parts. As it goes with most of our lives, we don’t always see how these things will eventually came together, but I know that among the ingredients that make up Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, Aunt Lois most certainly played a role.

On Saturday afternoon, September 29th at precisely 3:00 p.m., Lois Bradley took her last breath and exited this earth leaving behind a life well lived. Her son and two daughters were there to see her off. I don’t know what your faith background tells you, but I’m absolutely certain that she was greeted warmly by, among others, her late husband, Colonel O.C. Bradley and my mother, the late Anna B. Duke. There is no doubt in my mind that God picked up a goodie on Saturday.

Born in 1921, Lois Bradley grew up one of nine children on a farm in Morehead, KY. She served in Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp in WWII. She raised her family. Working at an electronics company in Louisville, she gave a now famous young woman her first job, Diane Sawyer. She and her husband started a high end glass and gift business. She was cast as Hiawatha’s mother in a small independent film. And not too many years ago, she hung out with Gordon Lightfoot backstage after one of his concerts. Aunt Lois lived a rich, full and wonderful life.

It is never easy to say goodbye to a loved one who has, in so many subtle ways, had a profound impact on your life. But for me, the memories she leaves behind, are as rich and creamy as a double scoop of ice cream from our friends at Homeland Creamery.

On Wednesday, I’ll help carry her remains to her final resting place in the Lexington Cemetery. After words of hope and faith, we’ll hear the crack of rifles firing off a 21-gun salute. A solemn bugler will play taps.

Thank you, Aunt Lois, for all the things you did for me throughout my life. And whether I’m baking one, or a thousand cookies, I’ll smile and remember that the roots of that love of making something really good trace back, in part, to your kitchen on Village Drive. I hope that everyone who has the opportunity to bite into a cookie from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies will smile and say, “Boy, that’s a goodie!”

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The benefit of the unexpected

I’ll admit, I get tired of hearing the same old business jargon. Phrases like, ‘It is what it is’, ‘Boil the ocean’, ‘Thinking out loud’, and Marty Clarke’s favorite, ‘I’m just saying’ are used far more often than should be allowed. I read recently that the phrase ‘exceed expectations’ is another one to avoid, probably because the vast majority of resumes out there use this as an example to highlight supposedly superior work.

At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we look at it from a slightly different perspective. I prefer to think that we simply enjoy doing things for customers that are not expected. Sometimes they know about it, and sometimes, frankly, they never know about the little things we do.

We correct spelling errors on messages. We look up incorrect addresses. We adjust shipping dates to optimize delivery. And much, much more. I do believe that while these things cannot always be measured, the benefit of doing something that helps someone and is not expected, is worth far more than the cost.

Mardi Gras cookies
This package was not on 'the menu' - but we created something special for this order just because.

One of our long time customers placed an order with use recently. She was sending a thank you gift to someone for their hospitality during Mardi Gras. She simply asked us to use a yellow, or purple – if we had it, ribbon for the box.

We don’t have Mardi Gras packaging on our website (maybe we should….) but I know that the colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green and yellow. Turns out we did have purple ribbon and some crinkle filler in these colors, so we put together a package that fit right in with the celebration.

I shared a photo of the package with our customer and she was both surprised and delighted. You might be tempted to say this was done to get her to order from us again, but you’d simply be wrong. Our intent was to send her client a gift that would stand out as being more than a box of cookies and would carry with it recognition and respect for an important part of the culture of New Orleans.

We did this because we know that when they open the box, they’ll smile and when they bite into our cookies, they’ll probably close their eyes and say, ‘mmmmmmm’. We did it because we know and respect our customer, and take pleasure and pride in being of service in unexpected ways.

If you’ve ever asked my opinion on sending gifts from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, especially as a part of your business, I’ve probably shared a similar philosophy about the value of doing something nice for someone when they least expect it. Of course you hope that it will leave a lasting impression and that they will return. But more importantly, it makes a statement about your beliefs and how you choose to treat others. When you are known as someone who does something nice for others when they least expect it, that is a powerful way to brand your life, your business and leave a legacy that lasts far longer that a box of our cookies or brownies.

Our cookies, and the little things we sometimes do to make them special, really do make people happy.

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Give without expectation and it comes back

Civitan Volunteers for NC Special Olympics

Bill and Darlene came by and picked up 600 oatmeal raisin
cookies bound for the NC Special Olympics

As a gourmet cookie company, we certainly get our share of requests for donations. We try our best to balance the needs of the business while giving back to the community. One of our favorite groups to support is the NC Special Olympics. We’ve been providing cookies to fuel these athletes for the past several years. Bill and Darlene McKenney are friends and members of the Wake Forest Civitan Club. Members of the club volunteer and serve lunch to the athletes.

This year, we added labels to the cookie packages with a few words of encouragement to support their quest to give their best effort. In addition to a great cookie, we wanted to add a little extra to help put a smile on 600 or so faces when they are giving it their all.

I received another request today from an organization, and while it might be a worthwhile event, I decided to pass. They asked for free cookies as gifts and prizes for a member reception. In exchange for the gift, I was to get my name in front of 100 or so ‘potential customers’.

I’m certain that I’ve lost out on plenty of promotional opportunities in the past, but that’s not the primary reason we donate. Supporting a group just to (hopefully) make a profit some time in the future is simply not my style. I like to think we put our support to work where it can really make a difference.

That’s not to say I don’t get repaid many times over when we give. It just seems to come back to me when I least expect it. A surprise. A small measure of gratitude. A sign post that lets me know I’m on the right path. Last week, it came from Tim Minard, a hot dog vendor at Waterfront Park in Louisville, KY.

The Two Annas

We ventured back to Kentucky for a weekend wedding. We spent a day driving around Louisville and decided to take my two Anna’s (that’s another story) down to the Waterfront Park on the Ohio River. The river is not for swimming, but it did not take the girls long to find water spouts to take the edge off the 95 plus degree heat.

We were walking around and Debbie left her purse in the car. She is the keeper of cash in our family. The girls asked for some water so I strolled over to the hot dog stand to see what I could find.

I asked if they accepted credit cards. “No, I’m sorry we don’t. What did you need”. I explained that I was looking for some water for my daughter and niece, but had only plastic for payment. He pulled out a couple of bottles and handed them to me before I could say no. “No charge” he said.

I noticed he was wearing a visor with the Special Olympics logo on it. Turns out that Tim is a big supporter of Special Olympics and recently helped raise more than $70,000. His company, Dogs on the Run, works with Special Olympics Indiana for Area 2. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he understood what it means to give something back with no expectation of a return. Just because it is the right thing to do.

It was not until after he gave me the water that I shared my story of donating cookies for the athletes. Maybe it was pure coincidence, but I said a quiet ‘thank you’, smiled and enjoyed a conversation with a new found friend.

If you happen to be in Louisville, I’d recommend you get off on River Road and look for the Dogs on the Run cart. Tim will serve up a fine dog, a cold drink and a friendly smile. And you can be sure that some small measure of what you spend will help an athlete you’ll never meet at next year’s Special Olympics. You can smile knowing that you made a difference in the life of someone out there giving their best effort. In my book, that’s what it means to give something back.

Have a charity and need door prizes, cookie packs or discount certificates? Visit our website and complete this form to get more information:


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Fresh Pumpkin Muffins

Fresh Pumpkin Muffins

We cleaned and cooked pumpkins for our famous Fresh Pumpkin Cheesecake again this year, and found we had some leftover puree. I like to make muffins for one of our customers on Saturdays as lagniappe (see my other post) and decided to add the pumpkin. They were very tasty! If you are not a pumpkin fan – you may still want to add this one to your collection. The recipe can be modified to use almost any type of fruit. I’ve included substitution instructions for your baking pleasure. It’s posted on our main site under Breads – click here to download your copy.

In addition to the regular printed version, I also included an audio commentary. What’s this? Just something I’m playing around with. When trying to duplicate recipes from some of my relatives (okay Aunt Lois – I am speaking about you) I find that it is those ‘un-written’ comments that can make or break the dish.

The recipe section of our website is very popular. So, if you have a minute, please indulge me by taking a very brief and absolutely non-committal survey about how you use your PC and the Internet for recipes, by clicking here.

Thanks and enjoy!

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