Photo: Chococoa Baking Co.
When Julie Ganong and Alan Mons lost their finance jobs in 2009, they decided to venture into an entirely new industry: the business of whoopie pies. Now they’re in the midst of negotiations to bring their product into grocery stores very soon.
Before creating Chococoa Baking Company, Ganong was senior vice president at The Provident Bank and her husband was a business analyst at Sun Life Financial. They were both laid off around the same time.
Instead of growing hopeless, Ganong and Mons decided to take advantage of the opportunity and try their hands at the food industry.
“If you look at businesses, I would say cupcakes are a mature market and whoopie pies are an emerging market,” Ganong told us. “We looked around and we thought the whoopie pies needed a makeover. Based on dessert trends, everything else was smaller and most whoopie pies were a good 4-inches in diameter, made from chocolate that didn’t have a lot of flavour and filled with a crisco filling. And we felt like it would be better with more chocolate flavour and an organic buttercream in a bite-sized appeal.”
The couple tapped into their home equity line for $15,000 to get started.
Now Chococoa Baking Co. in Newburyport, Mass., features whoopie pies, but also serves as a place where other local bakers can display their products.
Photo: Chococoa Baking Co.
“I used to work in corporate, but one of the things I learned with this cafe is how much small businesses drive the economy. We order from local venues, we get raw materials from local suppliers. We hire local people. We sell to local people. You think, ‘It’s just a small business,’ but it’s all multi-faceted in what we need. Now I really do understand how small businesses drive the economy.”
We sat down with Ganong to talk to her about how Chococoa Baking Co. became so successful. Here’s what she had to say:
Why did you guys decide to go into the food business with whoopie pies?
It’s always been my husband’s life-long dream to develop a food product. It ties in with the fact that I grew up in Maine, having made whoopie pies with my mother and my grandmother.
It took only three weeks for you guys to open up Chococoa Baking Co. Why do you think this happened so quickly?
We just felt like it was the right thing to do. We were looking for a production fit. A friend of ours works right next to a local bakery and contacted us when it opened up for lease. It had everything there that we needed. It’s like everything lined up. This was an instant bakery — all we had to do was add the ingredients. It was the right price, it was the right setup.
We were laid off and playing with packaging, but honestly, when we saw the space, we knew it was time to go. We saw it on a Tuesday and got in on a Wednesday.
You were in an entirely different professional field and launched Chococoa later in life. What does this mean for both of you?
We’re both in our 50s so it means the safety net is really gone — 401k plan, bonuses, a regular salary, all of that disappeared. This was a big risk. But it also felt like this was our best chance for long-term success, by working and developing this business and product.
What are the advantages of having a smaller bakery compared to a bigger business?
We have the advantage of a small space you can grow into. It’s much easier to grow into a business than it is to pare down. We were able to build a business in small steps which has been very positive. We weren’t overwhelmed. For us, we didn’t overtap any of our resources and we were able to get a feel for the business. We moved at a steady pace and we didn’t take any steps backward.
Do you have plans to scale out or grow the business to parts of the country where the whoopie pie is not as well known?
Right now, we’re at capacity of storing the whoopie pies and we’re taking on larger accounts. We feel confident in growing out. In the next three to five years, our next step is to be able to take this product as far as we can go with it and we’re committed to grow this company as much as we can. The next step will be becoming a strong brand. We are becoming known in a regional area locally. Our next step will be regional New England.
And something that we weren’t expecting, but ended up being fun, is whoopie pie wedding cakes. We had not even thought about that. They’re bite-sized and last year, we probably did around 15 weddings. This year, between the showers and weddings, the orders are really starting to come in.
If you were to blow up overnight, how are you going to prepare for this?
We would definitely have to step up production around the clock. We’re definitely ready for that at this point.
How many whoopie pies are you making weekly and how much revenue are you bringing in?
We make around 4,000 whoopie pies a week. In 2011, we had sales of more than $200,000 and that was a 40 per cent increase over the year before.
You have had a lot of success, but what about the struggles?
A lot of [our struggles] have to do with deciding what’s the next move. You’re always thinking about this. What area do you go after? It’s dividing your space and your resources, finding the right people and bringing them in. What is the next flavour? How do you build an online business?
I think whoopie pies are a big challenge because they’re so regional. Everyone knows what a cupcake is, but if you’re not from New England, or from Amish-country Pennsylvania, a lot of people elsewhere don’t know what a whoopie pie is. I think that’s one of our biggest challenges in trying to grow. People ask “What’s a whoopie pie?” And I have learned that different parts of the country call it different things. But a cupcake is a cupcake.
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