Getting UnPlugged in Southern Virgina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How a Purple Elephant gives new life to computers

Recycle your PC's

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

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

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

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

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

Their mission:

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

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

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

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

Read more:

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

Afghanistan is now closer to home

Our cookies made the troops in Afghanistan happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Customer service, megaphones and The Golden Rule

Social media is the new megaphone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I gave my competition a gift

Sometimes it’s nice to give your competition a gift

No question about it, turning down business is hard, especially in today’s environment. The very idea might seem counter-intuitive. It’s taken a number of years, plenty of dollars, and a few clicks on my personal odometer to get to the point where I understand not only the necessity of doing this in certain cases, but the importance to the success of a business that saying ‘no’ can provide. Many entrepreneurs suffer from the disease of trying to do everything for anyone, instead of sticking to what they can do well for the right customer.

I know there are those out there who will disagree. ‘Any business is better than no business’, I’ve been told. Certainly fresh recruits into the ranks of business development, hungry to make their mark, will feed on any order like hungry sharks at the first scent of any blood. And I know a few seasoned business people and entrepreneurs that chase after anything that increases the balance in the checking account. And that is okay – for those folks. ‘Different strokes for different folks’, as Sly sings.

So why would I turn down an order – a nice recurring order? I actually owe the idea of ‘gifting customers to the competition’ to John Costigan, a sales training expert that I’ve followed for awhile. I did this because I’m looking at the big picture of how our resources are allocated at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, and the type of customer we are most successful at serving. And I’ve also learned that everything has a cost associated with it. Most people understand the cost of hard goods, but forget about the cost of your time, opportunity costs, etc. We all get precisely 24 hours each day. No more, no less.

A few weeks ago, I signed up for a barter service. I was familiar with these organizations, and for some businesses, they are a natural fit. I had never tried them before, but like most entrepreneurs, I’m always looking for ways to find new customers.

The barter rep called me a few days ago with a ‘potential deal’ from a member of the exchange. I agreed to take a look to see if it would make sense to us. The potential client then called to ask questions and place her order. I could tell from her questions that this customer might not be a good fit for our business. The warning light began to flash.

After adding up what she expected to order, I decided to take a closer look at what this would actually mean for our business, and to call her back. Bartering can be great, but we know exactly what we are going to buy and there simply was not going to be a way for us to spend the ‘barter dollars’.

The net effect to our business would be to give away our product for free. I could do this in hopes of recouping my investment at some later date. The investment includes ‘hard costs’ like butter, flour and sugar, as well as our time and labor costs. Whether you give away time or materials, you are loaning out money. To be profitable, you need to make sure you receive a return on that investment.

Ultimately, I passed on the order. The customer let me know quickly that she was going to a competitive cookie company if we would not ‘barter’ with her. Their products are significantly more expensive than ours to begin with, so she’ll end up paying two to three times the amount for gifts from ‘my competitor’, getting far less for their money than they would from buying direct from us. I don’t know if my competitor is happy with the deal or not, but I’m happy to not have to figure out how to manage with another form of currency while serving a customer that may not be a good fit that is essentially, getting product for free.

We had another phone call recently from someone looking for gingerbread cookies and I happily referred them to another company. A few years ago a very high profile client asked if we would make them cookies in the shape of stars. I passed. Could I have filled both of these orders? Yes. Would they have been profitable? No.

Being successful in business requires, among many things: capital, time, creativity, persistence and discipline. Like all successful entrepreneurs, I have enjoyed my share of success and failure in each of these areas, and I am learning with each step I take. The balance between being flexible enough to adapt to your customer’s needs and driving yourself and your business into the weeds can be a challenge. Was this the right decision? Time will tell.

The point of this article is not to debate the merits of the barter business, but to raise questions about focusing in on, and serving, the right type of clients that fit your business. Do we want more clients at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies? Absolutely! Are we going to make cookies shaped like cartoon characters, start baking cakes or do catering? No.

I’ve read ‘The Power of Focus’ a couple of times and I continue to work towards keeping my life and business tuned into the right channels. I even called my oldest (albeit not chronologically) friend, former business partner and fellow entrepreneur, Jim Plappert from ACH Payment Solutions and asked if my thinking on this subject is in check. “Chris, I agree with you 1,000%. I’ve learned the hard way that one of the keys to business success is to find your ‘sweet spot’ and strive to excel at serving those customers”. As the owner of a gourmet cookie company, I don’t think I could have put it any better.

So I’m happy to turn the oven off, enjoy a freshly baked, still warm, chocolate chip cookie and think about the other people that will be smiling today, tomorrow and next week because they are diving into a box of gourmet cookies we shipped to them. Now that’s what I call hitting our sweet spot.

Sowing seeds of hope

Anna and Debbie put together some personal kits
for the people of Haiti

Try as I may, I simply cannot imagine what it must have been like. I’ve been without a home before, but I always found shelter. We lived through hurricane Fran in 1996 and were without power, but still had food, clean clothes and water. For those mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters half a world away in the tiny nation of Haiti, they watched everything they know disappear in a matter of seconds. No warning. The earth shook. Buildings crumbled. People died. And life as they know it was changed, forever.

I say it often, and events like this bring it into sharp focus, that we are indeed blessed with a life far more abundant than we stop to appreciate. Tony Robbins once said in a story about a family losing a loved one suddenly in a violent act, that ‘We have no problems. That family has problems.’ I think the same can be said about us the people of Haiti, we have no problems.

Hardly a day goes by when I do not see someone, somewhere, in need. Feeling as though I can’t help them all, I often freeze and end up not doing anything. But I was moved by the magnitude of this event and decided to take action and offer up a little seed of hope to people I will certainly never meet.

The owners of a local restaurant felt the same and decided to enable folks like myself to do something to help. Joe Lumbrazo, owner of The Backyard Bistro located behind the RBC Center in Raleigh, teamed up with Sean Bunn and The Triangle Red Sox Nation fan club to put together a relief effort. They agreed to rent a trailer, cook up some spectacular BBQ, and invite folks in the community to come and donate clothing and other items. They furnished the collection vehicle, the logistics, and the food – all we had to do was help fill it up.

I seek out learning opportunities for my daughter and we’ve been trying to help Anna understand just what it might be like for the people of Haiti. Imagine that one minute you are standing in the living room, and the next minute you are covered with walls, and boards, and shingles. You claw your way out from under what once was your home. You hear people screaming and crying. And there is silence. You look for Mom and Dad, but you cannot find them. They could be alive, but they could also be dead. There are neighbors around. Many are injured and bleeding. Some are searching for their family. Everything you own is now sitting in a crumbled pile of debris. You sit on the ground. No food. No water. Only tears to wet your face.

This past holiday season, Anna’s Gourmet Goodies ended up with an extra case of cookie tins that we could not sell. So, we decided to assemble some personal hygiene kits for the people of Haiti. Anna and I headed off to the store to pick up some wash cloths, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush. We tossed in some of our money and picked up the rest of the tab. We put everything neatly into the tins, included a prayer, a note of encouragement, and tied them up with a blue ribbon.

In addition to the kits, Anna and I also cleaned out our clothes closet, making a conscious effort to select not just things that are old and worn out, but nice things that I still wear, but can do without. We loaded up the back of the car and headed out to The Backyard Bistro.

Chris and Anna delivering a little hope

We arrived a little more than an hour after the event started, and the trailer was already near half full. The BBQ was excellent, and it felt great to meet and greet other people that were sowing their seeds of hope as well. A van from a local church arrived just as we were leaving, filled with gifts and warm smiles for the people of Haiti. While we did not stay until the event ended at 3:00 p.m. but I understand that they collected enough to fill half of a semi tractor trailer in about four hours. Since then, more has come in.

I came back home that afternoon and celebrated a milestone birthday with my family, a few friends and some neighbors. We swapped stories, snacked and enjoyed a Pear and Chocolate cake that Debbie made along with some ice cream. She set the whole thing up and asked that people bring food to share in lieu of any gifts. As it turns out, planting a few seeds of hope in the back of a trailer bound for Haiti might just be one of the best birthday gifts I’ve ever received. It’s certainly one I’ll remember for some time to come.

And while our contribution might have been small in comparison to the recent telethon effort, you just never know how something so small might grow. Have you looked at a mustard seed lately? Find something that moves you and toss out a few seeds of hope. Sometimes, even a small seed can make a big difference.

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