Entrepreneurs, Cookies and the future of the Internet

If you’re an entrepreneur or an Internet junkie and happened to be in Raleigh this past week, you had a Triangle Entrepreneur Weekdiverse menu of choices to feed your brain. Triangle Entrepreneur Week and The 2011 Internet Summit were the ‘must attend’ events starting on Monday, November 14. Panels were filled with local and nationally known speakers sharing their best new ideas.

Jon Leonardo from TEW invited me to join a panel focused on the food business. Entrepreneurs and foodies joined myself, Trevor Chambers from Bella Monica Flatbread Company and host Sarah Wechsberg at Sitti restaurant in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday morning. Trevor is a friend, a former customer of Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and a great guy to hang out with and talk about food. We shared different perspectives on the food business (wholesale vs. online retail) but we both share a common passion for making truly exceptional products and taking great care of our customers.

Internet SummitAfter the panel ended, I headed over to The 2011 Internet Summit where I had a chance to mingle with the tech savvy Triangle crowd and hang with my friends Jack Spain and Susan Maravetz from TheMGen.com. As is the case with most conferences, I suffered from severe information overload, trying to catch as many presentations as possible. I connected with some great people and walked away with some ideas and perspectives I hope to apply to Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.

Some bite sized nuggets I picked up:

    It’s a mobile world – 62% of people under 50 have a Smartphone

    “Governments don’t create jobs any more than hospitals create children” – Marc Cendella, Found of TheLadders.com

    If you are into improving your search ranking, you really need to be on Google+ – look at authorship markup

    14% of people tune out TV commercials – 43% of people tune out banner ads

    “The Devil has a Prada iPad case”

    33% of FB use is on a mobile device

The Internet continues to shift the power away from companies that used to control their message, into the hands of consumers. Social media is about the democratization of opinion, where anyone with an Internet connection and a phone or camera can immediately have a large and potentially long lasting impression on virtually any company or product. If you’ve been hiding behind poor quality or shoddy service, your days are numbered.

This is great news for Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. We started our company by creating great products and making people happy. Customer service is not something we do because ‘we have to’ – it’s a part of who we are and how we live our life – period. We’re continuing to improve how we use the Internet and social media to tell our story and reach those customers who value what we do and want to do business with Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. Forget about the bad economy, this is a great time to be in business if you love to serve your customers.

I’ll be filtering through ideas in between baking cookies over the next month and a half or so. Our holiday schedule is already filling up, so I expect that I’ll have to leave some of the things I picked up at the Summit in the proofer to rise for awhile. We’ll be living our lives in ‘five minute increments’, spinning cookies, packing boxes, and making people happy. It was a good week for sure and a great source of energy to get me going for the holiday gift season.

Being helpful got us started and keeps us going

When I have the opportunity to speak about starting a company, I take time to look back at where I’ve been, think about what I’ve learned along the way and try to pass on some of my best pearls of wisdom. I spoke during Career Day at Anna’s school recently on what it’s like to start a business and while I’m not clear on whether I inspired any of the students to become entrepreneurs, I did accomplish one of my goals of not embarrassing Anna and permanently injuring her social status with any of my stories.

When I look back at our journey starting Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, I am struck by the number of people that have stopped to help me along the way. One of my managers early in my sales career, Don Brown, used to say that the nine most powerful words in the English language are, “I have a problem, and I need your help”. It might seem like an overstatement, but the number of people that have said ‘Yes, I can help’, far out number those who’ve turned away.

A few months ago, the Kroger store in Wakefield Commons shopping center closed their doors. Some employees transferred to other company stores, while others found work at new businesses. Faye, one of the ladies in the bakery, went to work for a dry cleaner. She was one of the first people I remember helping me when we started Anna’s Gourmet Goodies nearly ten years ago. Anna's Gourmet Goodies received help from Faye and many others

I wondered into the bakery one day and had some questions about packaging and where they purchased various items. Faye always had time to help and even sold us some supplies to get us started. I visited the store many times over the years and she always had a smile and a word of encouragement.

Anna's Gourmet Goodies had help from Whole Foods and Mike DavisWe started our business using flour from Lindley Mills. We found it in Whole Foods market where Mike Davis worked in the bulk food section. I knew a little about flour, but Mike was always very helpful whenever I had a question about anything in his area. We started buying in small quantities, but as our business grew, he helped us increase our capacity and reduce cost by ordering in bulk when we were too small to buy direct, but needed more than just a few pounds.

Our company grew by having people and business partners that were willing to help us with their time and expertise. I’ve always been grateful for that help and have incorporated that into our business model at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. Here are some areas where we actively practice being helpful for our customers:

    Website. I designed our website to be a friendly place with helpful information. When a customer comes to AnnasGourmetGoodies.com, we want them to be able to find the products and information they need – not just what we are trying to sell that day. A great website should be helpful to visitors.
    Orders. Before we ship an order, we import the address information and check it for validity. If it does not show up as a valid address, we’ll first try to find the correct one if it is a small typo, then we’ll contact the customer for clarification And if we find a typo in the message, we’ll fix that as well. We help our customers by getting the gift to the right address with the right message.
    History. When a customer sets up a custom label or note card, we save that for later use. If a customer sends us a list, we save that as well in case there are questions in the future, or that want to use it again. We help by remembering the order details for our customers.

At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we’ve adjusted our business with new products and ideas over the years, but a core principle of our company has not changed – we genuinely try to help people, whether or not they are a customer. We seek out and nurture those suppliers, business partners, and people that offer up their help and advice. By doing so, our goal is to build a community of loyal customers and suppliers who value what we do and share that experience with others who have similar beliefs.

We absolutely make outstanding gourmet cookies, but our passion for service and being helpful by offering our knowledge and expertise are key ingredients in all of our recipes.

My Memories of 9/11

I will remember, always

I stepped out of my office and looked down the hallway as Rob walked by very quickly and said, “They’ve just bombed the Pentagon”. He kept walking. That is my first memory of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

A few minutes later, most of the employees at SciQuest were huddled around a television in the break room, watching intently as the story unfolded. I remember seeing the live footage of the plane hitting the second tower. I know it was live, but I just kept thinking, ‘this can’t be real’.

The room was filled with a combination of news commentary and an eerie quiet. There were occasional gasps of disbelief, some comments and questions, but for the most part, I think we were all stunned. Tears appeared for some. I remember walking slowly back to my desk. I sat and tried to think about work, but it was no use. I called my wife, she was okay.

A little later that afternoon, Ann from HR walked around to everyone’s office. In a calm, somber tone she explained that it would be okay if we wanted to go home and be with our family. I left work, feeling numb and unsure what would happen next. Was our nation about to come under a full scale attack? My daughter Anna was three years old.

On the drive home, I kept hearing Don Henley’s, The End of the Innocence playing in my head. Thousands of innocent lives lost. Unbelievable acts of courage. Thousands of more lives changed forever.

In 2003, I had the opportunity to travel to New York for business. I made it a point to extend my stay just a bit longer. I wanted to visit the site of this horrific event and see first hand the remnants of what I watched on TV.

I had also reached out to Brother Rick Curry, founder of the National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped and author of the book, The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking. His office was in Soho, not far from ground zero. Brother Curry ran the workshop and partially funded the operation with a bakery up in Maine. After seeing an article on Brother Curry and his bakery in Oprah magazine, I called his office and offered to take him to lunch.

Meeting Brother Curry was a true inspiration in my early journey with Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. We spent the afternoon talking about baking, business, his work there and enjoyed lunch at a local Soho favorite. I explained my passion to start our bakery and how ‘our most important ingredient, is love’. “Don’t ever lose that”, said Brother Curry. I like to think that we have not.

We also talked about September 11 and he shared some of his experiences. He spoke about his friend Father Mychal Judge, the first certified fatality in the attack. In a soft voice with damp eyes, he recalled the image of a woman, leaping from the tower, holding her dress down as she fell to her death. “Dignity, even at the moment of certain death”, said Curry. It is an image that I did not see in person, yet it is burned into my memory.

My time with Brother Curry that day was magical and one I’ll always remember. He gave me a signed copy of his book, offered up his blessing, gave me a hug and sent me on my way. I walked from his office to ground zero.

I don’t recall specific expectations regarding what I might see. I felt the same numbness of that day as I walked closer and closer. I knew the cleanup effort would be going on. It was a damp, cloudy day, which in an odd way, seemed appropriate. As I approached the site, I saw adjacent buildings draped in long black fabric. Designed to control falling debris, they looked like mourning cloths. A quiet show of respect paying tribute to those lives lost on this ground.

The hole where the buildings once stood was large. Far deeper than I had imagined, the large dump trucks hauling away debris on the bottom looked like tiny ants crawling along in a slow, intentional pace.

A man who looked as if he lived life on the street, walked down the sidewalk yelling to himself. While I did not make out his words, it seemed okay in a place where the entire range of human emotions has played out over and over again.

I walked around for a few minutes, trying to take everything in and understand how this could be real, just as I did that day in the office at SciQuest. At some point, it was overwhelming. I caught a cab, and returned home safely to my family, grateful for everything around me.

I can’t say that the events of 911 were the single factor that propelled me in my journey with Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. I do believe that I, along with countless other Americans, were changed in a profound way during that time. I did not lose family or close friends, but I was jolted into thinking more deeply about what is important to me.

I’ve since become friends with James Johnson, a New York City police officer who was a first responder on that day. Meeting James and hearing his story has helped me connect with the events of 911 in a more personal way. I can now see some small measure of good, meeting someone who was there, serving others and risking his life in the midst of chaos never before seen in the United States.

And, at least a few times a year, I pull out Brother Curry’s book and bake one of his recipes. This Sunday, I’ll be making a couple of loaves of Brother Bandera’s Italian Bread. I’ll remember our conversation, stories about Father Judge and visiting ground zero.

I don’t know if the families of the men, women and children who lost their lives that day can yet look back and see the good in anything related to the events of that fateful day. I do pray that day will come. But until then, the best I can do is to offer up my promise that I will remember, always.

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:


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.

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 www.Wheels4Hope.org

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 WheelsForHope.org. 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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