Don’t Look Back

Going fast

Watch where you are going

We’ve not had much snow lately in North Carolina, but last week we did see a pretty good dusting. Enough to allow me to take Anna over to the park for a short ride down the hill on a sledding tub. I don’t get on a sled much any more, and while I enjoyed the ride, it did bring back a vivid memory and a lesson from my younger days.

Now that my parents have both passed on to the next life, I can safely tell this story. Although I expect my mom knew what happened all along, as only mothers can. It was a painful life lesson about looking backwards when you should be focused on where you are going.

We did not have continuous snow cover in Kentucky, but when the ground was white, I was probably outside on a sled. One snowy afternoon when I was 15, my friend Wayne (who already had his driver’s license) and I planned a trip to George Rogers Clark Park for a little sledding. We picked up his girlfriend at the time and headed out to the park, bundled up and ready for some fast downhill action.

We met some folks at the park that were riding downhill on a car hood. Seemed like a cool idea at the time. It was wide and fast and totally out of control; the perfect draw for a couple of teenagers out for an afternoon of adventure.

I do remember thinking that my mom would most certainly not approve of me riding down the hill on the hood of a car. Partly because it was not safe with all the metal edges and mostly because she knew better – I did not. But the parents were not around, we were on an adventure and I hopped on for the ride.

The three of us started off down the hill all facing in the right direction. Yes, it was fast and it was fun. Not too far into the ride, we hit a bump, tossing my other two passengers off and spinning me around so I continued down the hill backwards. I was looking back up at Wayne and remember him waving, laughing and yelling. I turned around to look where I was going and a split second later, I made contact with the tree.

It stopped me completely. Fortunately, I was wearing several layers of clothing and luckily I impacted the tree about two inches to the right of my spine, dead center in the largest muscle of my back. My head snapped back, but missed the tree. Had I landed a few inches the other way with my spine taking the impact, I probably would not have walked away and might not be writing this post as well.

They helped me back up the hill and slid me into the car. It felt like I had cracked something, but I was too scared to go to a doctor. Wayne dropped me off at my house and left quickly before anyone could ask where we had been. I went straight to my room, got in bed, and said my prayers for not ending up in the ER. I never said anything to Mom, but I’m sure she knew something not quite right.

I try to look back on these life events and see if I can learn something so I don’t have to go through that pain a second time. For me, I believe this was an example of the value of looking forward when you are going somewhere fast. Running a business, in today’s spiraling economic climate, reminds me of my sledding adventure and the importance of staying focused on where you are heading.

At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we try to do just that. We’ve introduced a new line of packaging with bright colors, are adding some new services for our business clients, and continue to look for ways where we can add value to our existing customers as well as new clients. Debbie and I are shaping some ideas for a new website that we hope to launch shortly. We’re moving forward fast, watching where we are going and not continually looking backwards.

Don’t get me wrong – history is important. You have to know where you’ve come from to get a clear sense of where you are going. But, there is a time to look back and be reflective, and a time to look forward. When you are racing down a hill or running a business in a fast changing environment like we have today, you’d better stay focused on where you are headed or you just might hit a tree.

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Have you checked your company’s cholesterol?

Riding into the new year.

I’m not great with New Year’s Resolutions, but I do like to be reflective this time of year and try to think about what I have learned, how I can improve, and whether or not I need to adjust my sails. Earlier this past summer, my wife and I went in for our every other year annual physical and it turned out to be a learning experience. While regular checkups are a good idea, we are incredibly healthy and just don’t make many visits to our friendly family doctor.

This year, our doctor suggested we include a new blood test from a local company, Liposcience. It’s called an NMR LipoProfile test. I have some family history of heart disease and this is a new way to look at one of the culprits, cholesterol. My first reaction was to pass on the test, especially given that my levels have always bordered on being too low – with my last check being somewhere in the 120 range. Not bad for someone that bakes cookies with butter for a living. (FYI – my grandparents ate fried pork, eggs, and biscuits with redeye gravy at LEAST once a day and lived to be 86 – go figure).

But our doctor is very well read and a great guy who is not into the latest ‘pharma fad’, so I opted to give them an extra vile of my blood to check. The theory behind this test is that it is not necessarily the level of cholesterol that really matters. But rather, it is the number and size of the lipoprotein particles that carry the cholesterol in my bloodstream that are the real determinate of whether or not I am at risk for developing plaque in my arteries.

He explained that the interior walls of the artery are not really solid, but have small pockets or holes that allow molecules to pass through. Their theory, and it seemed logical, is that if there are a large number of small particles carrying the cholesterol, they can easily become lodged in these openings, building up, and eventually leading to hardening of the arteries, blockage, and all the ugliness that comes along with stoppage of blood flow to the heart.

When Debbie went for her physical a few weeks later, she also opted for the test. We were anxious to get the results, given that her cholesterol level has always been on the high side, north of 200, long before we ever started the cookie business. Would the test results shed any new light on our health profiles?

I received my lab results back first and it was indeed a surprise and right in line with Doc’s thinking. My cholesterol, although very low (<150), was being carried in a high number of small particles, putting me in a higher risk category. I’m not sedentary, have been practicing yoga three times a week for the past 6 years and am well within my weight range. No pills or diets, just a life of moderation. Debbie’s results came in shortly thereafter and sure enough, her cholesterol level was above ‘normal’. However, the LipoProfile showed her particles were fewer and very large, putting her in the lowest risk category. This is exactly the opposite of what traditional thinking might render. If you’ve stayed with me this far, you must be wondering ‘What in the world does this have to do with business?’ As we just put to rest what will most likely be recorded as one of the most disastrous years for the economy in my lifetime, I’ve been thinking about what really lead us up to these seemingly unfathomable problems. After all, just a few years ago we were ticking along nicely, knowing that we are always prone to economic cycles, but not fearing death of the likes of American Home Mortgage, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia and others. I’m thinking we might want to examine the patient from a new perspective, challenging the ‘traditional thinking’ of what causes these types of major problems. Perhaps we should be looking at the quantity of small, almost microscopic problems that have become so systemic in business today, as the real killer. Maybe these silent, almost imperceptible issues that go on every day in all types of operations are the catalyst that eventually leads to this type of economic myocardial infarction. Risk may very well come, not from the big problems that everyone sees and talks about, but rather from these smaller issues that embed themselves slowly over time, leading to serious and sometimes fatal consequences for a business. I’m certain that virtually every one reading this post can recant stories from your workplace or other businesses, where issues were ignored, overlooked or just plain dismissed as not that important. It goes on everyday, in small and medium businesses and especially in the larger companies where operational and ethical problems are easy to hide. Earlier this spring, Debbie and I strolled in to our local bank branch to refinance our home equity line of credit and lower the interest rate. We had not been in the branch much before and had never met the loan officer. We walked in, introduced ourselves, sat down, signed the paperwork that was already prepared, and re-indebted ourselves. When we finished the transaction, I asked the loan officer why she never asked for any ID. How did she know it was really us? We never provided any proof of ID, income, address, or anything. In our case, this was clearly a legitimate transaction, but I’m wondering how my times over the past years these transactions happened where perhaps things were not in order. At banks, at insurance companies, car manufacturers, technology companies – the list goes on and on. Business now moves almost at the speed of thought, and it might be that very thing that has helped put us at risk for serious problems. By moving too quickly, businesses and ultimately the people that run them, ignore the details, allow decisions to be made that are not right, but easy to let go, and create what will ultimately be fatal outcomes for many institutions in our economy. “So Doc, how do I fix this small molecule problem?” Fortunately, it was a fairly simple solution. I need more aerobic exercise and to increase my intake of omega-3 fats. So I’m back on the fish oil pills with a vengeance. And, while it has taken some effort to consistently roll out of bed and hop on the bike for my morning ride, it has given me a fresh perspective on life and business. I’m afraid the solution for businesses and our economy might not be that simple. To begin with, you have to recognize the problem and I fear that our leaders, execs and many individuals are still too busy pointing fingers instead of getting to the root of the disease. Despite the wave of ‘change’ that has swept through our electoral offices this past November, I’m not convinced the bureaucrats understand the problem, the intricacies of running a business, or how to craft a real solution. There is no simple fix, but here are a couple of ideas that might help:

  • Embrace creative thought. If you have ever worked in, or created an environment where, creative thinking is squelched, then you’ve been in a business with carotid arteries. The flow of ideas is the lifeblood of business. Ask more questions. Eliminate ‘No’ as a first response. Put on a different pair of eyes. Avoid complacency. You never really know where the solution to a problem or the next million dollar idea is going to come from.
  • Think it through. I have a copy of ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’ on my bookshelf and understand the pain of micro-management, but I believe it is critical to examine processes, decisions and actions in detail. Think through the ramifications. Small issues and problems can be cumulative and have catastrophic consequences. Take responsibility. Take time. And as Thomas Watson said, ‘THINK’.
  • Do the right thing. Early this past fall, I went back to my alma mater, The Fuqua School of Business, to facilitate a day of reflection for the returning students on their summer work experience. The focus of the event was to talk about decision making and courage in the workplace. The courage to do the right thing in what professor Joe Leboeuf called, ‘moments that matter – when no one is looking’. Stop protecting your ego. Remember the Golden Rule. When you do the right thing consistently, you develop mental toughness and set a benchmark that helps keep your life, your career and your business healthy.

Focusing on small problems might be a hard sell for those who only look at the world from the thirty thousand foot level, but Doc has me sold. So I’ll be cycling down the road, swallowing a fish oil pill, and thinking about managing my life and my businesses so that I avoid what Fred Sanford comically referred to as ‘The Big One’. It might be too late for Lehman and many others, but there are plenty of businesses out there that might want to get a thorough physical, change perspective on sweating the details and come out for a ride.

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Could Lagniappe be a Solution?

The Big Easy

Last year about this time, a customer and friend, Renee from Uptown Endodontics in New Orleans, introduced me to a new word that has become one of my favorites when I think about Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and our business, ‘lagniappe’ (pronounced lan-yap). It’s Cajun and means, ‘a little something extra’. When we filled one of her large orders last year for their clients, we sent her the same basket to try. No charge – just a little something extra. She thanked us for the lagniappe.

We actually love to do this with clients throughout the year. We sometimes send out thank you gifts to our clients in August, at a time when most folks least expect them. And we’ve been known to ‘accidentally drop’ a few extra packs of cookies in someone’s order. It is such a great feeling to do something nice for someone when they are not expecting it.

One of my favorite restaurants in Raleigh is The Duck and the Dumpling. Chef David Mao has been a long time customer of ours and if you have the chance to dine there you might just find lagniappe in the form of his delicious carrot ginger soup, or some other culinary surprise before or after your meal.

When I step back a few feet and look at our business, that’s really what Anna’s Gourmet Goodies is all about – doing something nice for someone when they are not expecting it. It’s an attitude with which we approach our business and our life. Some of our most successful clients in the automobile, insurance, mortgage, financial services and other industries have embraced this philosophy and made it a part of their business. One of our customers that sends cookies to their employees as birthday gifts and has them delivered to the office on Saturday mornings, recently surveyed their staff about what they liked most about the company and you guessed it, our cookies ranked up there in the top five. Small gesture – big impact.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, especially in light of all the negativity of the elections and the economic implosion that dominates virtually every major media outlet. It seems that all we hear about is ‘cutting back’. There is no doubt in my mind that we are in this mess because of greed and excess at all levels of government, business and individual lifestyles, and a little trimming is in order. The focus on ‘what’s in it for me?’ as opposed to ‘what can I do for someone else?’ has definitely tipped the scales to the former.

However, could lagniappe be a solution to some of the economic and societal challenges we face? Maybe. I guess it depends, like most anything, on how it is used. From my perspective lagniappe doesn’t mean thinking that if I just put this extra package of cookies in a box, that I immediately expect something in return. It’s not about spending big bucks to impress or bribe people. It’s about doing something nice that brings a smile to someone’s face, to make them feel good – just because. If this sounds a little sappy, stop and think about the last time someone did a little something extra for you and how it made you feel about them and/or the company. Talk about making your business stand out in a crowd – it’s really a ‘no-brainer’.

When I see people and companies trying to ‘dig their way out’ of a hole, I’m wondering if the real solution is to stop digging and focus on what you can do to help someone else. In return, you’ll find it easier to take a step up and climb out, when someone inevitably reaches out their hand in turn, to help you.

We’re about to enter the season of the year when Anna’s Gourmet Goodies will be busy sending gifts for companies and individuals. I’ve been getting questions from people who pay too much attention to the news, about our business and whether we see everyone cutting back. While we have had a few companies decide to forgo what they consider to be the ‘extras’, I’m also finding just as many new folks that understand the value of lagniappe, calling us with their holiday gift orders. I am certain that at the end of this storm these individuals and companies will be standing on top of the sand dune, rather than being buried with those who focused totally on ‘hunkering down’ to wait it out.

I know Renee will understand that while I truly appreciate their business, I am hopefully not in the market any time soon for any endodontic (aka root canal) work. But if I were, it might just be worth a trip down to The Big Easy. I’m absolutely confident that in addition to superior service and a comfortable procedure, there would be lagniappe just for being a patient. And of course, I’d bring along a pocket full of cookies.

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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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Recycle your cardboard

Our vanilla supplier, Nielsen-Massey, just switched to using all recycled corrugated containers for their shipping. Does that really matter?

Here’s a quick factoid:

For every ton of corrugated cardboard that is recycled, this preserves 17 trees, 463 gallons of oil, and 3 cubic yards of landfill space.

If a ton sounds like a big number – remember – you have to start somewhere. So instead of tossing that box in the regular trash next time, drop it in your recycle bin. Little pieces eventually add up to a big pile!

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No, we don’t offer fried cookies

If it can be fried – you’ll find it at the NC State Fair.

I have not been to state fairs other than North Carolina and Kentucky, so I can’t speak for what their vendors offer in terms of food variety. If you are from North Carolina and have been to the State Fair, you have probably walked past a vendor selling fried items that are just not found on any restaurant menu.

This year’s NC State Fair (October 16-26) was no exception. While I did not sample the fried Oreo cookies this year (yes, I have tried them in the past), I was amazed to see that yet again there was another item that someone felt people might buy if it were dipped in batter and deep fried – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Okay, I was shocked a few years ago when they started selling fried Twinkies, and the Oreo cookies were a stretch, but ‘understandable’. But I just can’t get my head around taking a perfectly good PB&J, dipping it in batter, and tossing it in the deep fryer. Sort of like setting up a slow drip of 10w-40 direct into your veins. I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised. I did catch a few episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s ‘A Cooks Tour’ and it is true that some people will eat most anything.

The NC State Fair was this year, as it is every year for us, a great time. Anna’s Gourmet Goodies is a proud member of Goodness Grows in NC and we always have our cookies on display in their NC Foods Tent.

We love seeing new things (like the fried foods), but also find it refreshing that many of the same vendors return year after year. Our company logo, the silhouette of Anna, was actually created by a scissor artist in the Village of Yesteryear. It was hanging on the wall long before the company was started and seemed like the perfect image for our logo.

We bought peanuts and drinks from the FFA (Future Farmers of America) stand, judged which church group does the best job of hawking their ham biscuits and capped the evening off with some homemade ice cream that was turned by John Deer tractor motors. Sitting there by the lake watching the fireworks display their dazzling splendor with a cup of real ice cream was just about the perfect way to end a day. Despite what you hear on the news and from the candidates, we do live in a great country.

If there are those of you that are intrigued by the idea of fried cookies, I invite you to next year’s NC State Fair. I’m sure that someone will be there dipping and frying cookies and anything else that might get folks to part with a few dollars to sample something out of the ordinary. But no, we won’t have any of our gourmet cookies on any of these menus. We’ll keep baking them just as they are – incredibly delicious, without the extra 10w-40.

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