These gifts from Anna’s were not wrapped

We just ended another season of gift giving a few months back and are well into the new year.  While we bake and ship cookies and brownies throughout the year, the Holiday Season is by far our busiest time.  We are very thankful for all those customers who have made sending gifts from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies an annual tradition.

While I believe our cookies and brownies are among the best available anywhere at any price, we’re really in the business of creating a gift experience that makes people happy.  In the process of building, growing and operating Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, I find that I end up receiving more gifts than we send.  However, they’re not wrapped and don’t come in a box with ribbons and bows.

The rocks ‘rock’

I shared the story of how we incorporated the Kindness Rocks Project into our company and like a boomerang, the effects just keep coming back around.  Recently I stopped into one of our favorite charities, The Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen to drop of some ‘extra’ cookies we baked.  I had given them one of our rocks earlier and Michael greeted me with an unusually big smile (can’t say I’ve ever seen him without a smile).

He said that they loved the rock so much that an artist from NC State University painted the message in large letters on the hallway leading into the kitchen.  It’s where the volunteers come past to help serve up some 300+ meals to guests who otherwise, might not have a hot lunch that day.  It might not seem like much to those of us who don’t worry about our next meal, but it probably qualifies as a small miracle for the guests at The Shepherd’s Table.  And having been there many times, it is evident that those volunteers are indeed, people with kind hearts.

And if that was not enough of a gift that came from a rock, I received an email from one of our regular Holiday Gift customers.  They shared the story of finding Anna’s Gourmet Goodies a few years ago from the Dish This! catalog.  This customer was recovering in the hospital and while thumbing thru the catalog, found our company.  They decided to order gifts for their customers and were happy, not only because they were a big hit, but with how easy the process was to order.

Late last year, this customer’s parent was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  It seems that we sent them a rock with the message ‘Be Here Now’ on it.  They placed it on a small table outside the parent’s home as a subtle reminder that whenever they come or go, to be thankful for that moment.  What a beautiful gift I received from this story.

Help from my friends
If you’ve read a copy of my book, “Outside the Oven”, you might remember the Forward, written by my friend and former manager at SciQuest, Jack Spain.  He was not only kind in his description of my talents and abilities but shared his thoughts on themes that we both have in common as it relates to both life and business.

Finding people to work is a challenging task for businesses of all sizes.  Thankfully, we’ve had the right people show up at precisely the right time, every year.  Jack has been working with us during the Christmas holiday for several years.  Early in the fall, I received an email with his availability and his request to reserve a few days to work at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.  What a gift it is to find people that appreciate our company values, look forward to working and take the initiative to schedule time with us.

I’m in the ‘Club’
One of the other ‘benefits’ of running a small business is that you have the opportunity to wear many, many hats.  Fortunately, my life and business partner Debbie takes care of a magnitude of details at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, but I own the technology part of the company.

We’ve been using software from Endicia to ship packages via Priority Mail for more than 10 years.  We spend a fair amount of money with this company and for the most part, have been happy with their software.  Until this past summer when they released an update that completely broke the address validation feature.  All software has bugs, but this was a potential disaster heading into our busiest season.

Looking for an alternative, I reached out to my friend Joe Bumgarner.  We worked together at SciQuest and he is now in charge of Business Development at OE Enterprises, an organization that provides vocational opportunities for adults with various disabilities.  One service they provide is shipping fulfillment.

Joe agreed to show me their software solution.  I drove out to their offices in Hillsborough where I took a tour and Joe demonstrated how they use their software to print shipping labels.  Standing there, he looked at me and said, “You’re about to be ‘Jeffed’.  I turned around to see one of the participants in their program approach quickly with a big smile on his face.  He bent over, gently took my hand, and rubbed it on his forehead.  He smiled again, waved, and went back to his work.

Joe explained that Jeff was non-verbal.  Growing up, his inability to communicate left him frustrated.  The staff at OE worked with him to greet people with a handshake but he insisted on greeting new people his way.  OE helped Jeff transform into a happy, productive member of their team.  His gesture to me was his way of saying ‘Welcome’.  What a gift it was to meet Jeff, join the club and be reminded of the importance of communicating with other human beings.

I gave up making any type of New Year’s Resolutions years ago.  Instead, I’ve adopted the principle of selecting a single word for the year based on the book One Word That Will Change Your Life.  My word for 2020 is ‘grateful’.

Like any business, Anna’s Gourmet Goodies is always looking for new customers and to grow our revenue and bottom line.  Prices for most everything we buy have not been going down and expenses seem to be always ticking upward.

But it does not escape me that the financial rewards of Anna’s Gourmet Goodies are only one aspect of the business.  The experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met and the opportunities I’ve been given are gifts that aren’t wrapped and cannot be measured on a Balance Sheet.

Tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that, when we pack up boxes of our cookies and brownies, rest assured I’ll remember these and the many other gifts I’ve received over the years.  And, I’ll drop a little bit of that gratitude inside every package.

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We don’t always see the impact of what we do

It’s happened to me.  It’s probably happened to you.  And it has certainly happened to our customers who’ve sent gifts from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.  Can you hear it?  Crickets.

I’ve sent family members boxes of our cookies and brownies and never heard a word.  Recently Anna’s lost a customer after one order.  We setup a program for them to send thank you gifts to clients who spend a certain amount of money on their products and services.  They included a thank you card and a link to their site to collect comments and/or reviews.  Crickets.  They dropped the program after one small order.

We have more examples from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and our gift business, but I suspect you have examples where you’ve done something for someone expecting perhaps some small measure of recognition and heard nothing but crickets.

I try to recognize someone’s thoughtfulness when I’m the recipient, but I’ve failed.  It doesn’t mean their actions did not have an impact, I’m grateful for the effort and do my best to pass it on.

In a prior post, I wrote about ‘The ripple effect of kindness’. It is an amazing phenomenon. While we don’t always see the end result of all our actions, we know that just as a drop of water makes waves in a still pond, the impact of acts of kindness, selfless service and thoughtfulness spread far and wide.

I sit on the Board of Directors for the Self Knowledge Symposium Foundation (SKSF) and earlier this summer Anna volunteered (okay I ‘volunteered’ her) to help with a project called ‘Educating Emily’.  August Turak the founder and Chairman, in what can only be described as an act of pure, selfless kindness, is underwriting the private education for Emily, the daughter of a contractor who works for him.  Anna spent time on Augie’s farm offering Emily her experience, advice and friendship.  Her small gesture was a ripple that may yield untold benefits someday.

Every summer we reach out to customers that typically order gifts from us during the Holiday season.  We try to come up with a unique way to connect in some small way as a reminder that they are more than simply a transaction.  We genuinely care about their trust and our relationship.

In thinking about what we might do this year, I was thinking about my experience at SKS and found a website for ‘The Kindness Rocks Project’.  It was started by Megan Murphy.  Megan walks the beach near her home in Massachusetts collecting rocks and sea glass.  One day, she decided to write messages on rocks, leaving them behind for people to find.  Unbeknownst to her, a friend was walking on the same beach, found one of Megan’s rocks, sent Megan a message with a picture and told her how it made her day.  She had no idea Megan wrote on the rock.  The idea and movement were born.

Putting these two things together felt like the perfect match for reaching out to our customers and sharing something we believe at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.  I purchased several packs of cards with messages from, found a landscape supply company for small rounded river rocks, purchased spray paint, paint markers and set out painting rocks.

I must admit there was something therapeutic about sitting around the table at night and writing messages on these rocks.  Each one is unique, all done by hand.   I selected a group of messages from the cards and put them on rock, after rock, after rock.

Some customers received a note card with the story about Anna and Emily along with a Kindness Rocks card.  Some customers received rocks.  We reached out to just under a hundred of our Holiday gift and other regular customers, and waited.  While we expected a few responses, we hoped that tossing out rocks would create ripples in the pond.

The initial responses we received were overwhelmingly positive. But then, over the next few weeks, more feedback started to trickle in.

We heard from Debbie and our friends at Fortress Financial.  It seems that Debbie and Marie both used the rocks as a learning experience with their grandchildren.  They left them in strategic places where they could be found and hopefully, make an impact on the person finding the rock.  This was a perfect example of what we hoped would happen – inspiring folks to spread the idea of kindness.

If you happen to visit Brentwood Flooring America in Raleigh, you’ll probably find a rock or two in various places around the showroom.  Brentwood is a long-time customer and shares a similar philosophy on the importance of treating everyone, especially their customers, with a little more kindness.

Finally, Debbie and I were having dinner at Sassool, one of our favorite restaurants started by the Saleh family and named after their mother.  I saw a sign describing how they adopted the Kindness Rocks Project in their business.  I painted a rock and paid a visit to Mounir to get his story.  Turns out they used this project as a part of their annual celebration with employees.  They let everyone paint their own rock, then scatter them around the Raleigh area.  Anyone finding a rock could return it to Sassool in exchange for a free meal.

Mounir completely understood the bigger idea behind the Kindness Rocks Project.  Not only did he teach employees at Sassool about reaching out with an act of kindness, he understood that while not every rock would be returned, he was making an impact on others that could change their life in some way.  And for those who did return the rock, it was about sharing the values behind Sassool as a company, not just a free meal.

One of my favorite authors, the late Dr. Wayne Dyer said that ‘When you change the way you see things, the things you see will change’.  I wonder what would happen if we all changed the way we see the acts of service and kindness to others.  What if we saw the act as the reward with no expectation of anything in return?  What if we thought about planting seeds with no expectation of seeing the harvest?

As we head into the Holiday Gift Season, we’ll be sending out lots and lots of packages.  They’ll all contain our small batch, hand-made cookies and/or brownies, wrapped with love and care.  And while it’s likely that most recipients may not acknowledge the sender for their act, I am confident that everyone that receives a package from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies will feel the thoughtfulness and kindness of the sender.

Like ripples in the pond, we have no way of seeing the ultimate impact, but just knowing that we played some small part in getting something started is enough of a reward for us.

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Our ingredients aren’t a secret – but they are part of the magic

I love stories, especially about businesses.  Not the ones about record sales, big profits, name-dropping customer lists, or other statistics.  But ones where I learn the back-story behind a business.  About the owners, the employees and the ingredients that when combined in a unique way, create a magical experience for the customer.

At the Spring Conference for the NC Specialty Foods Association, I was speaking with a group of marketing experts from The Fresh Market, a regional chain of specialty foods grocery stores.  I’m always anxious to learn something new from smart people.  The conversation moved to ingredients in food products and I shared the story behind two of ours – flour and vanilla.

As I was sharing the back-story of these suppliers and how they fit into the cookies and brownies we make at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, it occurred to me that I’ve probably shared stories like this a thousand times over the years.  It was a light-bulb moment and I decided to share a consolidated version with you and put it on our website.

If you look at the back of a package of our cookies, or click on the ingredient link on our website, you’ll see a list of everything that goes into our products.  We don’t hide behind ‘natural flavors’ or other words you can’t pronounce – it’s all there for everyone to see.

While we’ve made some slight changes over the years, most of what we use rarely changes.  We don’t chase ‘pennies’ or special deals to improve our margins by a fraction of a point here or there.  We spend a lot of time and energy finding and cultivating long-term relationships with our suppliers.

Part of the magic of Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and what we do comes down to this:  We’re in the business of consistently creating memorable moments for our customers and the recipients where we send our gourmet cookie and brownie gifts. 

The list of ingredients on our cookies and brownies are one part of that magical recipe.


We started using Lindley Mills flour when we bought in small quantities from the local Whole Foods Market.  As we grew larger and larger, we started buying direct from the mill.  While you won’t find them on any lists, I believe that Lindley Mill’s is among the oldest family owned businesses in America.  Founded by Thomas Lindley in 1755, they were a business before we were a country.  And while it was not in the family the entire time, Joe Lindley, Thomas’ decedent now runs the mill with his wife and daughter Caroline ready to carry on for another generation.

I could buy from a distributor, but there is something soulful about driving out to the country and picking up a load of flour from a mill located on a creek where the Revolutionary War Battle of Lindley’s Mill was fought in 1781.  I included the background in a post I wrote, you’ll find the story here.  Their flour is the basis for everything we make at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and I’m confident they’ll be grinding wheat long after my earthly labors have ended.


We don’t use ‘cookie drops’, they are not chocolate.  We’ve changed chocolate a few times over the years, but we’ve been using Ghirardelli chocolate chips in our cookies for a long time.  We chose them some years ago because they were Feingold Certified, meaning that they did not use anything artificial or petroleum based in the product or the manufacturing process.  We’ve tried others, but our taste-test panel consistently agrees that for our chocolate chip cookies, these are the best.

For our brownies, we use dark chocolate callets and rich cocoa powder from Barry Callebaut.  We settled on these products several years ago after an exhausting blind taste test from several leading companies.  Our brownies are rich, dark, with just enough moisture to make them the kind where you take a bite, close your eyes and savor the moment.


We use pure cane sugar in our regular cookies and brownies.  We settled on Domino’s brand for consistent quality and the fact that they are non-GMO.  Some granulated sugars come from beets, which are often genetically modified.  While we don’t certify all our ingredients as non-GMO, we do try and stay away from these foods whenever we can.


We crack our own eggs.  It is possible to buy eggs in a carton, but we still prefer the old-fashioned way of cracking and measuring by weight.  Egg sizes vary with the season, so we make sure that every batch of cookies and brownies gets the exact same amount of real eggs.


We use real grade AA butter with no other ingredients, other than cream and salt.  While some baker’s prefer unsalted butter, we started that way and have adjusted our recipe to reflect the salt in the butter.  For us, the flavor comes out just right, so we’ll not be changing that any time soon.


We’ve always used pure vanilla extract in our cookies and brownies.  Early on, we started buying gallons from a large, established, well-respected manufacturer when the cost was around $79.  Over the years, the global vanilla bean shortage and natural disasters pushed the price of the pure vanilla to over $500 a gallon (no – that is not a misprint).  Still, we refused to substitute an artificial product which could be had for under $10 a gallon.

As the vanilla bean supply stabilized and the global price began to fall, our long-time supplier chose not only to keep their price high but also make it harder for us to order the quantities we needed.  After an exhaustive search of other manufacturers of pure vanilla, we were lucky enough to find Cook’s.  Not only do they make a superior product, their values and passion for excellence align perfectly with Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.  They treat their employees, their customers and their growers with a level of respect and kindness that is rarely found today.

Salt, baking soda and baking powder

We use non-iodized salt in our cookies and brownies.  While there is no clear answer as to which is better, non-iodized salt means one less ingredient in our cookies.  To make those cookies and brownies rise, we use baking soda and baking powder – probably the same thing your grandmother used from her cupboard.

Well, there you have it.  The food ingredients that go into making cookies and brownies at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.  It is possible that some things may change slightly over time, but you can rest assured we are not going to compromise on what we put in our cookies and brownies.

Clearly, there is more to a recipe that transforms simple ingredients into a magical experience people always remember.  The secret is not simply in the list of ingredients, but the process.  Two restaurants might use the same ingredients from the same supplier, yet one is a five star experience and one is mediocre at best.

For us, it’s how we mix everything in small batches, weigh every cookie and brownie before it is baked, answer the phone, enter an order, check the address before shipping, prepare the package, cut the ribbon, place the package in the box, top it off with the gift card and a host of other small touches, that when combined with outstanding ingredients, equal the Anna’s Gourmet Goodies experience.

“Okay” you say, “but what about sharing details behind the cookie or brownie recipe”?  We’re going to have to hold back on that one for now.  After all, that is a part of the magic.

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Spending time in good company

I enjoy being in the company of good people.  At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we’re blessed with an abundance of amazing customers, cookie helpers, advocates and cheerleaders.  When I get a chance to go outside the oven, I try and seek out people and events with those same qualities.  Spending time with Howie Rhee and the folks at Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship are always at the top of my list.

I first met Howie when he invited me to be a judge in the Duke Startup Challenge, an event where student entrepreneurs pitch their real-world businesses competing to take home a $50,000 top prize to help launch or grow their company.  Howie is one of the most generous and connected people I know on this planet.

He welcomed me into the Duke entrepreneurship community and introduced me to incredible entrepreneurs like Sean Lilly Wilson from Fullsteam Brewery, Jay Mebane of Bootstrap Advisors and Melissa and Doug Bernstein from the company that bears their name.  There’s nothing quite like spending time outside the oven in the company of good people.

Duke I&E hosts a variety of events and Anna’s Gourmet Goodies is proud to be a frequent alumni vendor.  Dr. Monika Hirschbichler ordered brownies for the first Transform event this April, a 3-day, invitation only event for Duke alumni entrepreneurs.  Howie invited me to attend and I eagerly cleared my calendar knowing this would be an opportunity to spend quality time with some of the best and brightest from Duke.

Roughly 100 people were scheduled to attend.  We were organized into teams – mine consisted of Kasper Kubica, founder of Carpe Lotions and Corey Creek who operates two businesses – and Kelly Garvey is building a new platform to help people understand the impact of public policy and Christine Schindler who built her company, PathSpot, to solve the problem of discovering food-borne bacteria using a cutting-edge digital scanner.  She built the first prototype with parts from Radio Shack, incredible.  Once again, I found myself in very good company.

We began the evening with an exercise called ‘The River of Life’.  Using markers with paper by Melissa and Doug we drew a pictorial view of our life, starting anywhere and ending here.  It reminded me of how I see the journey of starting a business.

“It’s like going whitewater rafting.  You want a good team in your raft, everyone helping paddle.  Someone must be the navigator.  Sometimes you float along gently, enjoying the scenery.  Sometimes you are in the throws of raging, violent turbulence, paddling furiously and trying to stay in the boat.  Sometimes you get stuck on a rock.  But in the end, the goal is to make it down the river safely, with everyone still in the boat and enjoy the ride.”

We shared our stories over dinner.  It was the perfect way to move beyond resumes and bios, getting to know the real story behind the team.  It felt good to have an amazing group of people in my boat.

Wednesday’s agenda opened with a team session, followed by a variety of breakout sessions on a range of topics including finance, technology, operations, social, cultural and emotional challenges.

During the morning break around 10 a.m., we heard a deafening boom that shook the room.  We stopped and looked around at each other, wondering what just happened.  It sounded like an explosion.

The news broke quickly and looking out the window, we saw the plume of black smoke rising into the air.  As it turns out, a few blocks away, a broken gas pipe resulted in a massive explosion.  An entire building collapsed sending debris throughout the downtown Durham area.  We learned later that in addition to several serious and life-threatening injuries, sadly, the sole fatality was the owner of the coffee shop where the explosion happened.  He spent his last minutes warning his customers to stay away from the danger.  Standing in a group of business owners made the impact of such a tragic loss even more personal.

Our building was closed and had to be evacuated.  Fortunately, one of the attendees offered up his spacious rooftop home in downtown Durham.  The entire group walked to our new location and gathered to continue the journey.  Howie led us in a moment of silence for the victims of the explosion.  This close-knit group gathered in, a little closer.

We continued the schedule for the day, not missing a beat.  I’ve been to conferences and seminars with breakout sessions, but nothing like this event.  Most are led by speakers and experts who have experience and knowledge, but are ultimately there because they have something to sell.  No one at Duke Transform was there to sell.  It was an event focused completely on sharing experiences, wisdom, being transparent, vulnerable, and in many cases, asking for help.

The day ended with a fireside chat from a man who knows what it means to transform an organization.  Coach Cutcliffe came to the Duke football program in 2007 at a time when it was not uncommon to give away game tickets just to fill the stands.  With some of his first team members in attendance as successful entrepreneurs after their football careers, Coach shared his stories of what it takes to win, to take a hit, and to get back up again.

One of his first actions as the new head coach was to cut the locks off all the lockers.  When you build a team of quality people like Coach Cut, you don’t need them.  Coach reminded us of the importance of surrounding yourself with good people.  “They will determine your future.”

The goal of Duke Transform was more than simply a conference where entrepreneurs gather and learn a few things.  It really was about creating an environment where people from all types of businesses, backgrounds and cultures were comfortable enough to not only share what they know, but where they need help.  That is the point where transformation is possible.

My favorite definition of transformation comes from my friend and mentor August Turak.  He describes transformation like this:

“When you give a thirsty man a drink of water, you transform his condition.  When a poor man wins the lottery, you transform his circumstance.  But when Mr. Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, he has a transformation of being.”

Ultimately, I think we all want to end up transforming more than simply our condition and circumstances.  Those measurements come and go.  At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies we always strive to go beyond simply making products and filling orders, to changing the way people feel after they receive a gift of our products.  People quickly forget what you say, but they always remember how you make them feel.

Getting outside the oven and spending time with good people who share the same struggles, challenges and passion is a great way to remember the real purpose of the journey.  And for these few days, my boat was full and I definitely enjoyed the ride.

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It’s not just about the cookies

I’ve been fascinated with marketing since my experience learning about business as a member of Junior Achievement in high school.  I’ve read books on marketing, followed marketing experts like Jeff Slater at and focused some of my studies at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in marketing, including a class from then professor and now Dean,  Bill Boulding.  Great marketers see the world through a different lens.  One of my favorite marketing teachers is Seth Godin.

Seth is a technology entrepreneur, a world-renowned blogger and a prolific author.  Seth uses simple, eloquent language, combined with his unique ability to look beyond the obvious, to inspire ‘ah hah’ moments.  I recently subscribed to his new podcast called Akimbo and the first episode I listened to was titled ‘It’s not about the chocolate’.

As a baker of chocolate chip cookies, it immediately caught my attention.  Listening to Seth tell the story of how criminal defense attorney Shawn Askinosie founded Askinosie Chocolate struck a few chords with some of my experiences at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.

Shawn was making lots of money as a lawyer.  And yet, he realized two important things:  he had no life outside of work; the stress of his job would, sooner rather than later, kill him.  He took his skills of the legal trade and applied them to learning all he could about chocolate.  Not only how it is grown, but how each step in the process turns a raw material into the finished product that we Americans consume about 9.5 lbs. of each year.

As Shawn built the company, he designed it so that Askinosie Chocolate has a purpose that goes beyond chasing sales dollars.  They were one of the first ‘bean to bar’ chocolate companies, working directly with cocoa farmers to convert their labor of love into a superior product.  Askinosie Chocolate does not focus on getting into big box stores or every specialty retail outlet that would have their product.  Instead, Shawn focuses on using the company and the profits to solve other problems.  Like providing 1 million school lunches to students in Tanzania and the Philippines where much of his raw material is sourced.  Like building a school for at-risk kids in Missouri.  It wasn’t just about the chocolate, but rather about doing something that makes an impact on people’s lives.

“Everything you do, from the way you answer the phone to the design of your packaging, from your location to the downstream effects of your work, from the hold music to the behavior of your executives, and even the kind of packing peanuts you use – all of it is a form of marketing your brand”
            -Seth Godin, This is Marketing

In his latest book, “This is Marketing”, Seth explains that marketing really comes down to all the things a company does and why they do it.  Marketing is not just ink on paper or a catchy slogan, it’s how a business operates in the world and how each part of that business interacts with customers, suppliers and employees.  The greatest marketers in the world understand their role is not to seek out anyone who can fog a mirror and call them a customer, but rather to attract those people who value the things that are most important to a business.

This past holiday season during one of our frantic days packing and shipping our gourmet cookie gifts, I was having a conversation with my friend, colleague and mentor, Jack Spain, who was there helping us get products out the door.  I shared a phone call from someone who received a gift box from us and called to share some feedback.  “Of course, everyone loved the cookies, but what made me do a happy dance was the fact that you used biodegradable peanuts for packing”.  It caught me a little off guard, but we are always happy to get feedback of any kind.

As Jack was putting together another package and inserting the little business card that encourages feedback, he reminded me, “Don’t you see Chris, this is all part of your brand, your marketing”.

It gave me pause to stop and thing about all the things we do at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies not only to make great products, but to take care of our suppliers and our customers in a way that makes them feel good about doing business with us.  How we answer the phone.  Spell check customer’s message on the gift card.  Double check shipping addresses.  Cut the end of our ribbons in a ‘V’ shape.  Include instructions on warming cookies.  And of course, using biodegradable peanuts.

The label for our chocolate chip cookies has a total of (10) ingredients.  However, the ingredients that go into building our brand and marketing our business are infinitely more complex.  Seth and Jack reminded me of that.  We want people to love our cookies and brownies, but if that was all there was to our business, it would be easy for customers to find another product they liked.

Askinosie Chocolate has done a remarkable job of scaling their business in a scant 12 years.  And while Anna’s Gourmet Goodies has yet to reach some of their milestones, I’d like to think we have a few things in common.  You’ll probably not find either of us in a warehouse club, a discount store, or food mart any time soon.  Anna’s won’t be opening a café where we’d end up selling sandwiches, coffee and other such things to keep the doors open.  We’ll continue to look for ways to impact our community beyond what happens in the bakery.  And we certainly won’t be saving a few pennies by cutting back on the quality of our ingredients.

We make, bake and ship cookie and brownie gifts for customers who understand that sending someone a gift is an act of kindness that can have profound benefits for many years to come.  And we do all those other little things that when added together, make up the recipe for our brand.  Because you see, it’s not just about the cookies.  But it doesn’t hurt that they are really, really good.

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There’s a story behind our most expensive ingredient

Josephine Lochhead is the third generation of the founder of Cook’s Vanilla.

One of the biggest challenges for any food business, especially a small business, is sourcing and managing ingredients.  We’ve designed our business and pricing so that the inevitable fluctuations in the price of flour, eggs (sometimes they double in price), butter and sugar don’t have too much of a negative impact on us.  But when the global vanilla crisis tipped the scale over the $500 a gallon mark, it was painful.  I cautiously started researching other suppliers and thankfully, I met Josephine.

No manufacturer likes to see the cost of materials rise.  Fortunately, we are not under the pressure large corporations face where they sometimes cut corners to keep everyone happy.  We’re always looking for better ways to manage our raw materials but refuse to shave a few pennies off by using inferior ingredients.  We upgraded our sugars awhile back to a brand-name that carries the non-GMO label, just to be sure we were giving our customers the best experience.

We’ve had the same vanilla supplier for a long time – one of the top manufacturers in the world.  We’ve watched the price climb from $95 to over $500 a gallon, sticking with the pure extract when imitation products can be had for about $6 a gallon.  But as the global supply constraints have loosened up and vanilla is more readily available, changes in their policies made it difficult to get what we needed.  My research led me to Cook’s Vanilla.

Angus Lochhead, Founder and Grandfather

When you call Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, there’s a near 100% chance you’ll be speaking with one of the owners, Debbie or myself.  When I called Cook’s I was pleasantly surprised that I got to speak with Josephine Lochhead, the third generation of owners.  I spent time on their website reading the company history and my initial conversation confirmed that the spirit of Cook’s was in alignment with our values at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.

The Cook’s story begins with Angus Lochhead in 1918.  He saw an opportunity for superior vanilla to be used in ice cream, baked goods and candies and built his first factory in 1919 starting Lochhead Manufacturing Company.  Despite losing the factory to fire in 1925 and the Great Depression of 1929, Angus persevered refusing to give up his dream and continued to grow his company.

His son Ray studied mechanical and chemical engineering at Cal Tech.  After a stint in the US Navy during WW II, he finished his studies at Cal Tech and joined the family business in 1948.

Ray Lochhead, his plane and his motorcycle

One of the things that inspires me about great entrepreneurs and business owners is the passion to ‘make it happen’ and the spirit of innovation.  Ray moved his family to Paso Robles, CA and built his own airplane to help serve customers on the west coast.  To save money, he cut his Honda 50 motorcycle (it’s really more of a scooter) in half and installed hinges so he could fold it up and carry it in the plane.  When he landed, he assembled the bike and went off to visit customers and sell vanilla.  On rainy days he hung out in the laundromat until the rain stopped and his clothes dried.  Here’s a business owner that is committed to making it happen.

Besides the mechanics of making a superior vanilla product, Ray understood the importance of ingredients and relationships with the supplier.  He forged lasting relationships with vanilla growers in Bali, Fiji, Tonga and Madagascar that continue to this day.

The Cook’s name came about in the 80’s when Ken Cook, President of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream teamed up with Ray and Lochhead Manufacturing to form a new brand, Cook’s Pure Vanilla.  When Ken passed away in 1991, Ray and his daughter Josephine acquired Cook’s and merged the two companies together.

Building relationships that span generations

I learned more about vanilla in that first conversation with Josephine than I’ve known since starting the business.  She wasn’t selling me on their product, talking about price, telling me my current supplier was not good or any of that non-sense.  She was the epitome of Simon Sinek’s mantra, ‘The goal is not to sell to people who will buy what you have, but to sell to people who believe what you believe’.  I hung up knowing that once again, Anna’s Gourmet Goodies had made the right connection.

She sent us samples and we tried them in our cookies and brownies, as well as some other baked goods we don’t sell.  We even sent out samples to some of our customers.  Our tests along with results from our trusted taste tester (no, you can’t have her job) led us to pick a winner.

We placed our first order with Cook’s and will begin adding their ingredient to our products over the next few months.  And just like our relationship with our friends at Lindley Mills, we’ve found another supplier that not only is going to provide us with a superior quality product, but who runs their business based on principles that have stood the test of time.  Both companies measure their longevity in triple digits.

I can’t say for sure that Anna’s Gourmet Goodies will hit the 100-year mark, but as we close in on 20% of that, I can tell you that we continue to refuse to compromise on the quality of our ingredients and align ourselves with businesses and people who believe what we believe.  I believe that’s a recipe that will stand the test of time.

There’s a story behind our most expensive ingredient Read More »

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