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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What did you see in 2009?

Delivering cookies back to the folks that made the flour

I’m guessing that practically everyone you meet on the street these days is likely to echo the same response when asked about business in 2009. It was tough for lots of folks. And unless you are living on Wall Street, where tax payer funded bonuses will hit eight figures this year, you might be feeling a bit somber about 2010. I believe there is a better way to look back at last year.

Anna’s Gourmet Goodies finished our year with a healthy December. We did not quite reach the level of exuberance we saw in 2008, but we managed to find plenty to be thankful for during the season.

We visited our families in Kentucky for the Thanksgiving holiday, already feeling tired from filling early orders, and with more on the books for December than we have ever had before. We shared a wonderful meal at Debbie’s parent’s home, with more brothers, sisters, cousins and their children than I can count these days. There was a solid showing from four generations, enough to give even the gloomy minded a reason to find hope for the future, even on a cold Ohio Valley day.

We also visited, and feasted again, with my family in Georgetown. Smaller in numbers, but no less interesting. The following day, I had the chance to take my Aunt Lois, now pushing on towards 90, to lunch with my daughter Anna and my niece (also Anna). We didn’t set any land speed records getting to and from The Cracker Barrel, but it was a wonderful afternoon spent with three generations of family. A simple time, but one I’ll always remember.

We returned home safely to NC, tired from the trip, but eager to get the orders lined up and ready for the holiday rush. We bake everything to order, so orchestrating production and shipping during this time is always a challenging puzzle. Anna’s Gourmet Goodies runs an efficient operation, with a very reliable group of suppliers to make sure everything arrives when it should and keep production running smoothly. We planned for almost everything, except our main computer system that refused to start the day we returned.

My early training as a Boy Scout and years as a computer consultant has served me well in the cookie business. Our backup system worked flawlessly and a new computer was less than 24 hours in arriving to the office. Restoring all the files and programs required a few days and late nights, but I simply refused to see anything but orders going out, just as our customers expected them.

It’s not easy being thankful when the electronic brain behind your business decides to stop functioning right at the most critical time, but I promise you that I said my ‘thanks’. I was determined to be grateful. Grateful that the crash came long before we put the final touches on all the orders and queued them up for baking, and long before the run of shipping labels was due to stream out of the printer.

We were fortunate to have an entire family, the Ponsolles, work with us again this year. More than simply employees that show up to finish a task, they’ve been helping us almost as long as we’ve been making cookies. They know our customers. They understand how meticulous we are about everything. We are incredibly grateful to work with such dedicated and nice people.

By the second week in December, I felt like I was living the movie ‘Groundhog Day’. Wake up. Bake cookies. Ship packages. Sleep for a couple of hours. Repeat.

As the last shipping days approached, we watched our once large stock of flour shrink rapidly. We were almost at the point of not having enough ingredients to fill the orders, when the phone rang. It was June from Lindley Mills. She asked if we needed any flour. “Why yes, as a matter of fact we do!”

She also asked if they could get an order of our cookies for all the employees that work there. It was their holiday celebration and they wanted everyone to taste a product that comes from the fruits of their labor. I’ve taken orders of our cookies to Lindley Mills before, but this order seemed felt extra special.

I love going to the mill to pick up our order. I suppose I could find a distributor that will deliver it for me and save the few hours it takes to ride out there, but it is more that simply an ingredient we buy. It’s a chance to take a ride out in the country. To see more cows and goats, than cars. To spend some quiet time. To talk with my daughter Anna. It is a chance to do business with a company that has been operating in the same location since 1755 (not a typo). And yes, Joe Lindley runs the place.

I don’t know all the secrets involved in operating a business that’s been around for 255 years, but I do know one thing – it is a company that I want to do business with. These are the types of people that I want to continue to associate with in 2010 and beyond. We get wonderful feedback from customers about our cookies, but this felt like one of the highest compliments we’ve ever received. I was humbled and grateful.

We shipped our last holiday order on Tuesday before Christmas, just as requested by the customer. I finished up with just enough time to take my place in line with the other husbands and dads, looking to find that special something that will help remind those closest to us that we are indeed grateful for all we have been given. I found everything I was looking for and was treated to some of the best customer service I’ve ever had.

I’ve never been great with New Year’s Resolutions, but I did spend time trying to get my mental and physical house in order before we kick off another calendar year. Included on my list are:

    To focus squarely on what I want to see for my family, my businesses and my friends in 2010.
    To, as Dr. Wayne Dyer says, ‘Sell my cleverness and purchase bewilderment’.
    To surround myself with people that are moving forward towards something more than simply making up for any lack of accumulation.
    To be in a state of ‘gratitude’ at all times.

If you’ve found your way to this site, my hope is that you have enjoyed the past few minutes and will leave with an idea or inspirational thought that might help you see 2009 from a different perspective and look for something better in 2010. And, if you are looking to surround yourself with people and companies that are moving forward in a positive manner, then I hope you’ll take a minute to visit We make great cookies, to be certain, but we’re really in the business of making people happy. And that is a pretty good resolution no matter what business you might be in.

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Do your homework

Did you do your homework?

Did you do your homework?

Someday, I hope that Anna will thank me. It’ll probably take her a while to understand, but the lessons and lectures on homework and discipline I seem to dole out on a regular basis will pay off for her in the future. Like any athlete that expects to reach the top of their sport, discipline and practice are not optional. Schoolwork and academics are no different.

I’m certainly not perfect in this area, but I have learned the value of research and preparation over the years. When I was working in the technology world, one of my associates used to always say, “It’s not enough to know the answer, you have to understand why”. I believe that you can apply this principle to many areas of business and life. Certainly it plays a role in baking our gourmet cookies, and I practice this philosophy in the business side of Anna’s Gourmet Goodies as well.

Baking is really about science and chemistry. Ultimately, you are trying to take moisture out of natural materials at a rate that allows all the ingredients to blend together just perfectly. I can throw together a sauté dish of veggies and meat for dinner with my eyes closed, but making a batch of 10,000 cookies where each one will come out precisely the same, requires research, diligence and doing your homework. Whether or not Anna will ever step behind the mixer and fire up the oven is yet to be seen, but I am still going to insist that she develop the muscle required to approach problems and opportunities logically, and do her research.

We apply the same principle to conducting business with our clients. It is not uncommon for us to receive an order with what appears to be an error in the shipping address. We could simply ship the product as ordered and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, we choose to do some basic research on the Internet first, before contacting the customer for clarification. Sure, it takes a little extra time to do this work, but in the end, it is one of the features of our service that differentiates us in the marketplace.

I do the same when contacting new prospects or vendors. Before I ever pick up the phone, I’ll do my homework to make sure that I have a basic understanding of the business I am calling. How easy was it to find them on the Internet? Is their website up to date with contact info? What about products and services – is it easy to find out what they do or sell? Is the owner or management team listed?

It is a habit I’ve developed that truly pays dividends when it comes to building long term relationships with clients. It helps us build our customer base, as well as selecting our suppliers, because we expect the same level of service and commitment from those companies that support our business, that we provide to our clients. Ultimately, we attract and retain customers and suppliers that are truly a pleasure to do business with. Life’s too short to have it any other way.

So if you and your company decide to send gifts from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, you can rest assured that we’ll take some time to do our homework on your business. If there is something we can do to help, even if it has nothing to do with cookies, I’m happy to share our experience. And, if you are a supplier looking to work with Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, I’d recommend you at least visit our website and do a little research before you make that first call. If you think it’s not that important, just ask Anna how Dad feels about doing your homework.

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Gourmet cookies – with a little attitude

Gourmet cookies – with a little attitude

One of the great things about our business is getting to work with some really cool companies to combine our cookies and gifts with their marketing and branding ideas. A long-time friend and customer, Mike Minogue from Dark Horse Creative always inspires me with his packaging ideas for holiday gifts featuring our cookies and brownies. So when Mike came up with his latest viral marketing idea, I was happy to jump on board.

Dark Horse created some temporary tattoos, sent them around the country to various people and had them take photos. When I saw the tattoo, I thought it might be a great fit for Anna’s Gourmet Goodies to get in on the action. They sent a supply of the tattoos and I setup this photo shoot with my daughter, and the business namesake, Anna.

We really had fun with it. To be sure, our cookies and brownies really are good, so why not display a little ‘attitude’. The picture has a timeless quality and it certainly drove home something that all fathers with daughters have to face – my little girl is growing up fast!

Not sure how we’ll use this photo and promo in our marketing, but I’m sure we’ll find a spot for it. If nothing else, perhaps it will spark an idea with someone wanting to combine our cookies with their marketing and branding program. Thinking out of the box and working with clients that have an edge in their marketing is something I absolutely love. It simply does not get much better than some of the work we’ve done with Dark Horse Creative. And, as those of you that have been around horse racing at all know, you should never underestimate a dark horse…

Learn more:

Tattoo Fun

Want to know what we did for Dark Horse gifts? Visit our website and drop me an email.

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Have you ‘unplugged’ lately?

Have you unplugged lately?

Have you ‘unplugged’ lately?

The last time I heard the challenge to ‘unplug’ from technology, it came from one of my favorite sales trainers, John Costigan. In one of his newsletters, he challenged readers to get off all email and cell phones for 24 hours. Sounds easy, but when you run a couple of businesses based on the Internet, it can be challenging.

Stepping back from your work is something that most everyone agrees is important, yet in actual practice many of us fail miserably when it comes to actually pulling the plug. It is simply too easy to check the iPhone or Blackberry for messages. You justify it by wanting to eliminate the ‘vacation penalty’ of having to clean out a mountain of emails or voice mails when you return.

I decided to take a weekend recently and unplug – totally. No checking voice mail, (I don’t have a phone with email), no laptop, and no TV. I’m fortunate that my extended family has a slice of paradise on the Pungo Creek in eastern North Carolina where there is a land phone line for emergencies, but the grip of the cell phone tower simply does not extend that far. I unplugged just after 3:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon and did not reconnect until returning home on Sunday afternoon, a full 48 hours without connectivity.

I admit that there were a couple of times when I was tempted just to call in quick and check for messages, but I fought the urge. The Hatteras Hammock by the water and the sailboat were perfect distractions. When I returned, I did have some emails and calls. But the good news is that there were some new customers and orders waiting, and nothing happened that I could not handle upon returning to work.

Here are some ideas and tips to help you unplug from your technology connections:

  • Start small. Turn your cell phone off at a given time each day – say 7:00 p.m., especially if this is a business phone. Leave it home when going to places where you are not going to make calls, like church (how important is it really, that you answer a phone call during this hour?).
  • Increase your time value. Return calls and emails to be sure, but start placing a higher value on your time. Stay away from ‘junk’ email and threads that steal your time.
  • A Black Hole for time. Social media is great – but it can take ALL of your time, not just your spare time. Check out Deidre Hughey’s blog if you are interested in managing your social media connections for business in a smart way.
  • Face your fear. If you are really scared of losing your business or your job because you fail to return a call or an email when you are supposed to be ‘offline’, then it is definitely time to step back and evaluate this fear. Remember, fear stands for False Evidence Appearing Real.
  • Give yourself permission. It is okay to let down. Just as you cannot exercise your body 24×7, you cannot exercise your mind all the time either. Everyone needs some time away from the constant pull of work and responsibility, to rest and recharge your batteries.

I hope you find these tips helpful. I’ll be working hard to take my own advice and cut the cord more often. If you have any other ideas, please feel free to post comments and suggestions. I’ll try to look and approve them quickly, but I may not get to them right away. I’m sure you’ll understand if I’m off email now and again.

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A look back in time

Tilling the soil from which we eat

I don’t drive a DeLorean, but we did manage to take a short trip back in time last weekend. The North Carolina Work Horse and Mule Association hosted their Annual Corn Planting Day at Indian Ridge Farm in Linden, NC and we headed out for an afternoon of family fun. It was a short drive from Wake Forest, but it felt as though we had traveled years back in time.

The association is made up of a group of folks that are interested in preserving our farming heritage by educating people about the use of animals to plow the fields and plant the crops as it was done in the early 1900’s. There was a display of antique tractors, but they sat silently beside the split rail fence. They took a back seat to the sounds of mules braying, farmers calling out commands to the teams, and the sound of metal slowly turning the earth over, preparing for the fertilizer and then the seed.

Like any proper gathering on a farm, there was a lunch line with homemade cakes, cookies, hot dogs, chili and other edibles. Old time music floated gently through the air on a sunny afternoon. One group, Washboard Ray and Little Sidney presented their version of the variety show, complete with a washtub bass, good humor and family style stories. At nine years old, Sidney looks to have a promising career in the entertainment field and Ray was a treat as he narrated the show.

Washboard Ray and Sydney-dueling kazoos

Anna tried her hand at helping distribute the fertilizer in the field. She guided the plow while the team of horses trod slowly back and forth across the field. Several other kids and adults got their turn at walking behind the team. It was entertainment for today, but a way of life that has mostly disappeared from our landscape.

While they were planting corn, it did give me pause to think about Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and how we rely on a farmer, somewhere, to care for the earth, till the soil, plant the wheat, and hope that nature responds with bounty. As I watched those men and women skillfully maneuvering their teams around the field, it reminded me just how our farmers put their livelihood at risk, to produce the food we so easily acquire every day at the local grocery.

With all the greed, gluttony, fraud and abuse that dominate the news these days, it was refreshing to step back and mingle with those men and women who till the dirt and plant their hopes and dreams several times a year. They are careful stewards of the land that provides them a life and feeds at least a part of the world. I did not hear a single word about bad mortgages, foreclosures, bankruptcy, bailouts, mergers, or layoffs all day. It was indeed a breath of fresh air.

Anna takes a turn at workin’ the dirt

I hope that Anna came away with a little more appreciation of just how the materials we buy for our business and the food for our table, gets started in the first place. Somebody has to till the dirt and plant the seeds to produce the crop that eventually, becomes one of our cookies or brownies. I’m just grateful that I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with some of these folks and learn a little bit about our farming heritage in the Sandhills of North Carolina.

I am reminded of this version of an ancient Chinese proverb I heard on public radio about 25 years ago:

When the sun comes up, I go to work.
When the sun goes down, I take my rest.
I dig the well from which I drink,
I till the soil from which I eat.
Kings can do no more.

Contact information:
c/o Debbie Denton
10501 Ramsey Street
Linden, NC 28356

Washbord Ray
Raymond Jones
40 Dawn Road
Benson, NC 27504

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