Business lessons from a Burgermaster

Being in the specialty foods industry for nearly 16 years has given me a different perspective on food and the people who help make it.  I have admiration for the large companies, like Chobani, who churn out millions of units of their products every day as well as chefs like David Mao at David’s Noodle Bar, who lovingly hand rolls his famous pork dumplings, one at a time.

Anna was home for spring break and we decided to take a road trip to visit a small lunch spot in Siler City, named by OnlyInYourState as ‘The Best Burger Joint’ in the state.  It was about a 90 minute ride, but spending the afternoon with my daughter while searching for burger nirvana ranks up there as the perfect way to spend an afternoon for me.

Best Burgers in North Carolina

We arrived at Johnson’s Drive In just before the lunch rush and a line had already formed.  One line for take out and one for dine in.  It’s a small place by today’s standards.  A dozen stools at the counter and about six booths all covered in green leatherette – it feels like stepping back in time, in a good way.

The place was busy for sure, but there was no feeling of anyone being rushed.  Johnson works the grill like a master conductor with skills only time and experience can produce.  The waitress attends to each of the diners, welcoming ‘outsiders’ like us, as well as regulars who don’t even need to order – she knows.

The menu is on the wall above the grill, no need for printed paper in this place.  I think I remember seeing an option for hot dogs, but I’d be surprised if Johnson sells more than a few every now and then.  People come here mostly for one thing – cheeseburgers.  I struck up a conversation with another traveler who made a detour to stop in that day.  He recommended the cheeseburger all the way with homemade chili, slaw, onions and mustard.

We were seated at a booth and the waitress came by to take our order – cheeseburger all the way, fries and a sweet tea.  If you are going to sample the best of Southern cuisine, this is a must.

This cheeseburger was so good it gave me goose bumps

Burgers are cooked to order, so it takes a few minutes longer than your typical fast food variety.  But when she delivered them in a sheet of waxed paper, they were piping hot.  I mustered up the self restraint to stop for a couple of quick photos, then carefully bit into Johnson’s hand crafted masterpiece.  It was so good, I actually got goose bumps.

Wanting to take in the full experience, we decided to try a slice of Chocolate Pie from the menu.  The waitress apologized, but they were all out.  “I could bring you another burger?”  Sold.

We savored every bite, taking in not only the food but the atmosphere.  The burgers were good to be sure, but Johnson’s was more than that for me, it was an experience, something we focus on every day at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.  Watching the customers, the staff and the Burgermaster himself gave me pause to think about our cookie business and what I might learn from someone who has been doing basically the same thing for nearly 71 years.

Here are a few of my observations:

Made from scratch

Claxton Johnson starts his day early in the morning when a delivery truck comes by with full sides of Western grain-fed USDA Choice beef.  He picks out only the best beef, and then grinds it fresh into portions for the day’s burgers.  No frozen, pre-made patties here.

We pick up our flour from Lindley Mills, crack fresh eggs, and mix each batch of cookies adding one ingredient at a time.  No pre-mix in our bakery.

A well-defined business

Johnson’s Drive In is open Tuesday thru Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.  No nights, no mornings.  No telephone to call in orders.  No credit cards.  No expanded seating or second location.  When the day’s meat is all cooked, he shuts down the grill.

We operate our business via  We bake and ship cookies Monday thru Friday throughout the year, with some exception made during the Holiday Season.  We have no plans to open a store or distribute cookies via retailers.

Do one thing really well

Claxton Johnson makes great cheeseburgers.  His hamburgers are good and I’m sure the hot dogs are as well.  But cheeseburgers are his masterpiece.

We make chocolate chip cookies.  Our oatmeal raisin cookies, brownies and shortbread are all very good, but our chocolate chip cookies are outstanding.

As we stood up to leave, I took in one last look around, watching the master at work on the grill and at the lunch counter.  I started to edge over and tell him about our experience, but I decided not to break his stride.  He knows.

In his book The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours required to master a skill. Claxton Johnson passed that mark long before I was born.  And I like to think we’ve passed that mark making our gourmet cookie and brownie gifts a while back as well.

I love to seek out other artisans and masters in the food world to see what I can learn from them.  While I don’t expect to ever be in the cheeseburger business, I walked away with more than a full stomach and a smile, feeling as though I spent a little time in the presence of a master of his craft.   That’s the feeling we strive to create every time someone bites into our chocolate chip cookies.  Goosebumps would also be nice.

The ripple effect of kindness

One of my favorite memories from childhood is skipping rocks at our family’s house on Nolin Lake. Some mornings, when the water was still like a piece of glass, with a hint of fog rising just above the surface, we’d skip rocks and watch the ripples gently spread across the silvery surface, eventually joining together and fading in the distance. I was reminded of this recently after watching a simple act of kindness and experiencing the ripple effect of that act for myself.

Early in the morning on one of my long walks through the historic district of Wake Forest I noticed my friend Durward Matheny in the distance. His office is in the Wake Forest Museum property and I commonly see him out and about, even on a Saturday morning. He stopped his car in front of a B&B that just sold after the owner’s husband died. He picked up the newspaper off the front lawn, carefully put in on the front porch, and walked back to his car.

It was a simple act of kindness, done without any thought of repayment or acknowledgement. Having known Durward for more than 20 years, it is not the least bit surprising he would do something like this, but it struck me at that moment just how important even the smallest of gestures can be. I had not spoken with him recently and struck up a conversation. He told me he was speaking at a fundraiser for the Koinonia Foundation later that day. They were having a silent auction and dinner to raise money.

After catching up, I continued my walk, determined to continue the ‘ripple of kindness’ I saw in Durward that morning. I went back to the bakery, put together a tin of cookies and brownies and dropped it by the location where the auction was to be held that evening. No paperwork. No receipt. I just wanted to create a ripple that ultimately would benefit someone less fortunate and blessed than I am.

A few days later, as Valentine’s Day rolled around I found an opportunity to create yet another ripple. Anna asked me to sell a very large stuffed bear (almost 4’ tall) she received as a Valentine’s present that no longer held any meaning for her. Instead of selling the bear, we picked up a bucket, baked up a batch of cookies, added some balloons and dropped off both at Duke Cancer Center Raleigh.

I met Kim, one of the nurses there, and explained that we simply wanted to offer up cookies to the nurses and patients in the chemo ward, spreading a little love on Valentine’s Day. I also wanted some patient in need of a little kindness, to take home the bear. She immediately understood my intent and with a big smile on her face, proceeded to take the cookies and the bear off to create yet another ripple.

The lady at the gift shop smiled as I was leaving and told me that it was a ‘sweet gesture’. I explained how the nurses and staff had done such an amazing job taking care of Dawn, one of our ‘cookie helpers’ during her chemo therapy. Fighting back the tears, I let her know that it was me who received the gift that day.

I share stories like this with our friends at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies in hopes that it will inspire even one person, in some way. We’re in the gift business, creating memories for those recipients who enjoy our cookies and brownies. But over the years I’ve found that when it comes to giving back, I’m the one who actually receives the gift of being able to make a ripple every now and then.

I can’t remember a time in our nation’s history when we are in need of more ‘ripples of kindness’. If you agree, here’s a recipe that might help:

Step one: Take a break from the news

Step two: Stop complaining about or talking about supporting/not supporting anything

Step three: Find someone who is in need and do something to help, even if it’s as simple as picking up the paper and putting it on their porch.

I’ll never know where the money from the silent auction goes or who got the bear. But just like skipping rocks at Nolin Lake on one of those cool mornings, I’m pretty sure I created a small ripple. Imagine what might happen if more and more people started creating ripples of kindness.

In the meantime, we’ll be baking up cookies and sending them out to people for their birthday, as a thank you gift or as we did on Valentine’s Day, to a student away at school as a reminder that Mom and Dad love him very much. If there’s someone in your company or personal life that might benefit from a little recognition, please click on over to our website and let us know how we can help. We promise to take special care of every package that goes out of our bakery and to help you create a ripple of kindness whenever possible.

We’re in the H2H business

internet-summitI’ve been going to the Internet Summit in Raleigh every year since it began. It’s a chance to not only hear from thought leaders and rock stars in the digital world, but to network with peers who are interested in learning more about the technologies that have infiltrated and changed our lives forever.

Anna’s Gourmet Goodies has been on the web since 2002. We’ve evolved over the years, allowing me to combine my technology skills and background with a passion for creating products that feed people’s soul. I love meeting people who know something I don’t and are willing to share that knowledge. One of the people I met this year is Melanie from Sisarina.

Melanie has a gift for engaging the audience with her authenticity and passion. Her company, Sisarina, is named after her imaginary childhood friend. I was drawn to her topic, which was different than some of the heavy technology being shared that day, “Rock Your Business – Stop Selling. Build a Club.”

melanie-spring-laughShe used the example of Mini Cooper cars and how their marketing is focused not so much on the cars themselves, but the people who drive them. Apparently driving a Mini means you’re in the club. You wave at other drivers. You go on adventures instead of drives. It’s not about steel, rubber and petroleum products, it’s about the soul of the people behind the wheel.

Technology folks are famous for acronyms. I can’t tell you how many surveys I’ve taken where they ask what kind of business we are at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. Are we a B2C (business to consumer) or B2B (business to business)? Melanie challenged all of us that we are neither. “You see”, she said, “we are all in the H2H business. Human to Human”.

What a simple and profound concept. I immediately thought about a recent experience I had meeting a new friend from the Ukraine. I was at Crossroads Infiniti and Yuri (the sales manager) was speaking with a client in Russian. My Russian has faded to a few words, but Yuri introduced me to the customer, whose name was Yuriy. He had recently moved to the United States and was there with his wife and his infant son, also named Yuriy.

I was in no position to try and speak Russian, but Yuriy was kind enough to practice his English. We talked about his coming to the US and their experience starting a new life here. The conversation moved to Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and our chocolate chip cookies. As an Infiniti customer, he absolutely loved them.

He described some of the cookies from the Ukraine and said that oatmeal raisin was very popular there and one of his favorites. He shared other treats and things about his culture. He was incredibly kind, respectful and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him and his family.

Afterwards, I asked Yuri (the sales manager) to send me his address. I baked up a couple of packages of our oatmeal raisin cookies and sent them to Yuriy and his wife along with a brief note. I welcomed him to the US and confirmed what he already knew, that Yuri and the other people at Crossroads Infiniti were not just professionals, but really good human beings.

yuriyAbout a week later, I was in the dealership and Yuriy (from the Ukraine) was there with his wife and infant. He had brought in a bag of candies from Russia for me. He walked up and with a huge grin on his face, hugged me and thanked me profusely for my kindness. All I did was send him a few cookies, but it was clear that the impact and connection went way beyond that. I was overwhelmed and even got a little misty.

We send out cookie and brownie gifts to people every day. We hope the connections we make generates this type of reaction from the people who receive them. But we rarely get a chance to experience this side of the human connection. It had an impact on how I view our business.

Sadly, not everyone has heard Melanie’s message and understands they are in the H2H business. We lost an order this week to a technology company who is stuck in the B2B business. The admin who prepared the gift list, sent us the order without a person’s name for the packages, only a company. These were going to large companies and I asked if they were sure they wanted to do this. She said yes.

From our experience, we knew the packages would be delivered, but we would likely get a phone call from the recipients asking who the packages were for. The opportunity for the technology company sending the gifts, to make a human connection to their customer, would be lost. When I asked a second time, just to be sure, they went with another large cookie company who will simply take their money and ship the order.

I can’t think of a time when it is more important to be reminded that we are in the human to human business. Things get busy this time of year. We’ll be working hard to hand craft our cookie and brownie gifts, and make sure they get to the right destination.

But thanks to Melanie and Yuriy, no matter how busy we get, we’ll remember that we are not sending cookie and brownie gifts to an address or a business. We’re sending them to a human being. And if we create even a small measure of happiness and gratitude that I saw in Yuriy’s face and felt in his hug, then I’ll sleep well knowing we’ve hit our goal by creating something that lasts long after the package is empty – a human connection.

Traditions are part of our family and our business

We’re entering the season of traditions. In a few weeks, people across America will gather with friends and family to give thanks and share a meal centered around turkey, dressing, cranberries, pumpkin pie and a host of other comfort foods that are part of their Thanksgiving tradition.

Following that, we’ll celebrate traditions again in December. In my house it’s Christmas, maybe it’s Hanukkah in yours, or another tradition. These are big traditions, but sometimes the smaller ones in our families are just as important. We recently went to the NC State Fair as part of a tradition in our family that includes roots to the beginning of our business.

Freddy Farm Bureau at the Kentucky State Fair

Growing up, my parents took me to the Kentucky State Fair. We didn’t have phones with cameras to capture the images, but I have vivid memories of talking to Freddy Farm Bureau and the time I ate a corn dog and lost a tooth (no, we did not go on a mission to find it later). Memories from traditions are more permanent than anything digital.

Debbie and I started taking Anna to the NC State Fair from the time she was an infant. I’d take off an afternoon and we’d wander around the grounds looking at the booths, the animals, the vegetables and all the other stuff that comes with the State Fair. We’d park the stroller on a grassy hill (yes – it is still there) spread out a blanket and have a picnic with Anna.erikjohnson-2015

When Anna was three, we stopped by the Village of Yesteryear where artisans and crafts people demonstrate skills from days gone by. We met Karl Johnson a scissor artist and decided to have him create a silhouette of Anna. Watching a skilled scissor artist work is truly an experience. His brother Erik now carries on the tradition of scissor art at the State Fair.

We framed the image and hung it on the wall in our office. When we started our company and named it Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, I scanned the image and 15 years later we’re still reminded that our brand was born out of a tradition.

This year, Anna found time to get away from college and come back home to go to the fair as a family. And, just as we have in years past, we followed our NC State Fair tradition. We stroll through the buildings, looking at the exhibits, stopping at least once at the House Autry booth for a fresh hushpuppy. We stopped for a quick photo in front of The Big Cart, a V8 powered shopping cart from the NC Department of Agriculture (I’m still negotiating for a chance to take it for a spin around the parking lot).

Then, we’re off to my favorite corn dog vendor where they’re hand-dipped and fried up fresh and hot. We explore the flower gardens, stop at the Village of Yesteryear and say hello to Erik and Dan Dye (a silversmith).  We take a ride on the ferris wheel, and finish off the night with some fresh made ice cream churned by John Deer tractor engines, while watching the fireworks. We’ve followed pretty much the same ritual every year.

Not everyone connects with a State Fair as an annual tradition. But for me, it is an experience that, despite whatever noise might be going on in the world at the time, reminds me that we live in a great country.

Do you have traditions in your family and/or your business? Looking back, it’s clear to me that traditions are threads that bind us together. The cord we hang on to that gets us thru the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows of the year. A reminder that it is okay to pause, to celebrate and to remember.

At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we have customers who order gifts from us once or twice, and we love that. We also have customers who’ve made sending our gifts a tradition. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to provide not only our cookies and brownies, but in some small way, be part of a tradition that binds together our customers with the people they choose to share our gifts.

I hope you’ll make some time to reflect on traditions, even small ones, in your family and your business. And if Anna’s Gourmet Goodies happens to be a part of that tradition, know that we take that responsibility seriously and always strive to deliver more than simply great cookies and brownies, but an experience that has a lasting impact on every person who opens one of our packages. That’s a tradition we’re proud to be a part of.

This gift won’t have our cookies – but it will be an experience

One of the best compliments you can receive from a customer is when they ask you for a referral. It is a signal that you have become, as my friend Chris Brogan calls it, an ally as opposed to simply a vendor looking to sell something. We had an opportunity to create something special for a customer recently and it was a true gift for us to be able to design an experience for their clients.

Our customer contacted us to provide a referral to another company for client gifts this holiday season. Not that they were unhappy with our products – it was just that they wanted something a little different. I took it as a supreme compliment they would ask my opinion on alternatives.

I looked around at some companies and sites to see what might fit. We know a few others out there who do some great work (like Berta Scott down at Southern Supreme in Bear Creek). After giving it some thought, knowing what we’ve learned about their company and how they treat their clients, we thought it might be interesting to see if we could create something beyond a gift and deliver an experience their clients would always remember.

We are fortunate to have some very talented food professionals in our area. Years ago I connected with Missy at LaFarm bakery in Cary. Her husband Lionel is a true rock star in the world of baking. In addition to running a thriving bakery, he lectures at conferences and his book, A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker, says it all. His work flows from his passion. a-passion-for-bread

I stopped in one day to discuss my idea of including some of his sweet breads in our gift and it was done. We’ll be adding Lionel’s coffee breads to our ‘gift experience’.

Next, I wanted something to go with that and naturally, I looked for coffee. Coffee roasting has exploded right up there with craft beer and once again, I found a shop, Back Alley Coffee Roasters.

back-alley-pour-overBeth and her husband Tracy started this business after an experience learning to roast coffee ‘in a back alley’ of sorts at the college where Tracy was a professor. They started, much in the same way as Lionel, out of a passion to create something wonderful. When you stand in their shop and watch the baristas create a custom pour over for customers, it’s clear they understand the difference between producing a product and crafting an experience. We checked off another item with coffee from Back Alley.

Finally, we needed something to put the bread and the coffee in. A box or a tin just did not seem right. A wood crate would be a nice touch. I started looking for solutions out there, but couldn’t find anything to fit our size and budget requirements. I did find one company that could have made the product, but after some thought, I decided to reach out to Richard.

wood-crate-2016Richard is retired and lives in Louisville. He began his career serving in the military and later went on to work at Fall City Brewery where he did a variety of jobs, including a tour guide. Richard loved to help people by building things and eventually ventured out on his own providing building and repair services.

Working on your own is never easy, especially when you have (5) children and a wife at home. But they worked together as a team, always doing the right thing for his customers, providing for the needs of his family, living responsibly and being faithful in charity to his church and community. His passion shows in his integrity and always wanting to do things right. He seemed like the perfect fit to craft the wooden crate to finish off our gift experience.

He agreed to let us use his workshop, so Debbie and I traveled to Kentucky to make some sawdust and craft some crates. The size of the order came in nearly triple what we initially expected, so we had a bit of work to do.

One of my favorite quotes is from Science Guy Bill Nye – “Everyone knows something you don’t”. It drives one of my passions, learning. Spending a weekend in the woodshop with a master craftsman like Richard was certainly an experience for me. We crafted the parts that would bring this project together.

The coffee breads, freshly roasted coffee and hand crafted crate came together nicely. To top it off and create the final piece of the experience, I put together cards with pictures of the craftspeople and their stories. In the end, we believe that creating an experience is more than just the taste of a product or the colors in the packaging, it is the story behind it and the feeling it evokes that make the difference. The recipients who get this package are in for an experience they’ll not soon forget.

This project was a chance for us to learn things that we’ll apply to gifts from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. While it is dangerous for a business to stray too far from their core mission, we felt this project fit nicely with our core mission I discussed some time ago in this post titled ‘Real magic happens when you understand the why’.

We won’t be shipping these out until the first of December as a part of our Holiday gift rush, but having the opportunity to work on a project like this has been like an early gift for us. Telling someone else’s story is extremely gratifying.

By the way, in addition to being a generous craftsman, Richard is also my father in law. Not only did I get to spend time in the workshop and learn from a master, we were there to help him celebrate is 85th birthday. For me, that is a sweeter gift than anything coming out of our oven.

On changes, the elephant, the rider and the path forward

Mark Twain said, “The only person who likes a change, is a wet baby”. Do you like change? The truth is, it really doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, change comes in life and in business. We’ve experienced a few milestones recently that mark change at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and in the Duke household.

I shared the story recently of how we started our business selling pies and cheesecakes. Like many startups, we did everything by hand until purchasing equipment to help us scale the business and keep up with demand. A dough roller quickly turned those rounds of dough into perfectly formed pie crusts, before carefully placing them in the pans by hand. A cake cutter from Food Tools helped us pre-slice pies and cheesecakes, inserting a sheet of parchment paper between the slices (you’ve probably seen this before in some warehouse clubs.

We sold both pieces of equipment and shipped them off to their new owners, a baker in Minnesota and a restaurant in Arizona. While it was nice to pocket cash for equipment we haven’t used in years, it was a bittersweet moment to see it leave the bakery. We spent a lot of hours together.

2016-graduationIn our personal life we’re also facing changes, getting ready to ship off our most prized possession and the company namesake off to college. Anna graduated from high school and is preparing for the next leg of her journey in just a few short weeks. The decision to leave Sciquest and start Anna’s Gourmet Goodies was complex and based in no small part on my desire to spend as much time as possible with my little girl, now a young woman. Change happens.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to meet Dan Heath, one of the authors of “Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard”. He was concluding his book tour at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and I decided to take Anna along. She was just about to head into the teenage years, our business was undergoing some transition, and learning about change from an expert seemed to be perfect timing.

book-switch-300x391We sat in the front row. The audience was a mix of MBA students, alumni and business executives. I’m pretty confident that Anna was in fact, the youngest person in the room. When Dan came out on stage, he immediately noticed her and his facial expression confirmed that the age range of his audience would begin a little younger than he expected. Years later after the release of his next book “Decisive”, we chatted and laughed about that moment.

The Heath brothers present a framework for understanding change that I still think about to this day. It is simple, profound and makes more sense to me than programs based on lists, goals, exercises or whatever. It is based on the concept of an elephant, a rider and a path.

The elephant represents our emotional self. It is large, sometimes unwieldy and can be difficult to turn on a dime and move in another direction.

The rider represents our logical self. The rider can quickly assess a situation, apply lessons learned and come up with a decision on the best direction to proceed. Sounds easy, right?

Here’s the problem, the elephant does not always agree with the rider. And while the rider likes to think he’s in control, moving an elephant can be hard. What’s the answer? Find a path that works for both the elephant and the rider.

If you’ve ever raised a teenager or know someone who has, the elephant and the rider analogy probably rings true. Think of the teenager as the elephant, you are the rider and you’re looking for that path.

As parents we’ve worked diligently to keep Anna on a path that will allow her to achieve her potential. That’s about as much as any parent can hope for.

As for Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we’ve also been moving along a path that we hope leads us to a place where we can continue to grow our potential. It was hard giving up the wholesale dessert business to focus strictly on cookie and brownie gifts. Along the way, the elephant veered off into a few brier patches (yes, those thorns are painful).

But we’ve always tried to stay true to the values that led us to found the company. Not because it looks good on a piece of paper, but rather because we know that ultimately, the best way to deal with changes every business faces, is to keep the elephant and the rider on a path where they are both comfortable.

One of the benefits of that mindset comes when we make a connection with our customer’s elephant and rider. When we provide a path for them that makes sense for their marketing, employee satisfaction, or branding goals by sending out our gourmet cookie gifts, it really is magical.

If you are facing change in your personal or business life, and it seems hard, stop beating yourself up. Pickup a copy of Switch and spend some time getting you know the elephant and the rider. Of course, you could also order a box of chocolate chip cookies, get yourself a tall, cold glass of milk and sit out on the porch to contemplate your path.

While I can’t speak for your elephant and rider, I can say that mine are always happy to go down that path.

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