To market, to market

Lauren Cuskey dreams big for her double coconut cupcakes.
Lauren Cuskey dreams big for her double coconut cupcakes. (Tony Fitts)

Want to peddle your own pickles or pumpkin bread? The time may be right, but getting a pantry product on the shelves isn't easy.

Posted: May 20, 2010

Lauren Cuskey of Havertown wants to feed you double coconut cupcakes with edible orchids.

Rosalind Roberts Smalls of Bala Cynwyd has a secret family recipe for pumpkin bread.

And Eric Heinbockel of Moorestown wants to create a Belgian chocolate bar to your specifications.

A down economy is said to be the best time to cook up new ideas - or so goes the conventional wisdom, says Liz Thomas, who teaches "How to Market and Sell Your Food Product" for Albertson's Cooking School.

" 'When you can't find a job, consider starting your own small business!' You hear that all the time," Thomas says.

But along with other parts of the American dream, such as owning a home and earning more than your parents, successfully marketing a pantry product is no longer as easy as pie.

In the 1980s, Thomas and her husband, Nick, had a line of gourmet mustards, but they lost their share of the company in 1992.

She cautions that getting a food product to market has become more difficult since the 1980s. One reason is that supermarkets are stocking more specialty products than ever before.

"For many years, supermarket food was ordinary and mainstream," Thomas says. "Imported olive oils and cheeses were only sold in specialty shops."

But in the 1980s, as interest in food grew, consumers began asking for Dijon mustard and balsamic vinegar at supermarkets. Soon, supermarket buyers were attending fancy-food shows.

"They saw a gold mine in profits from selling gourmet products," Thomas says. "And that created a rude awakening for people who had an American dream story in mind for themselves."

In addition, Food and Drug Administration regulations are more stringent now.

"Most people don't have the scientific knowledge to make products safely," Thomas says. "There are bacterial considerations, labeling laws, etc., that make the food businesses more complicated."

So, Thomas' message is tempered.

"We tell people: If you have the fire in your belly, that's fine. But don't expect to become the next Heinz or Campbell."

Find your niche, budget tightly, and be satisfied making a few thousand dollars a year, she advises. Don't expect to sell your company to a larger manufacturer in five years and make a mint. That doesn't happen anymore.

As brutally honest as she is, Thomas cannot dissuade everyone, because some people do manage to succeed beyond even their own dreams.

"Every now and then," Thomas says, "somebody makes it."

As a student at Columbia University, Eric Heinbockel envisioned a future in finance. But that was in 2008, and as the year ended the economy tanked, and Heinbockel couldn't even afford to share an apartment in the Wall Street area where he'd landed an unpaid internship.

So, at 23, he moved into the walk-in closet of a friend's dorm room at Columbia.

When that friend, Nick LaCava, graduated and couldn't find a job, the two enlisted a third buddy from their rowing crew, Fabian Kaempfer, and the three decided to make their own work.

They did some research and learned about "mass customization" as a business trend. But what could they customize? Certainly, they thought, the world did not need another T-shirt company.

Then came the proverbial ah-ha moment.

Cava had moved in with Heinbockel and his parents in Moorestown. On his way to a regatta, LaCava stocked up on nibbles at Wegmans. He bought chocolate chips and Gummi Bears, nuts and dried fruits, and then accidentally left them in the back of the car.

The stuff melted, of course, "and there it was!" Heinbockel says. "Mass customized chocolate."

The trio (ages 23, 23, and 24) decided to create a European-quality chocolate bar individualized for customers with a choice of toppings, including wasabi peas, dry-roasted edamame, beef jerky, macadamia nuts, roasted pistachios, and Teddy Grahams.

The guys launched Chocomize ( in November 2009 and have sold 1,500 bars. They import the chocolate from Belgium, manufacture the candy bars in a Cherry Hill industrial park, market their product on Facebook and Twitter, and take orders online.

"Luckily, the manufacturing process is fairly straightforward," says Heinbockel, noting that none of them knows much about cooking or baking.

And as a bonus, they've learned that eligible young women find the chocolate-bar business intriguing.

Rosalind Roberts Smalls is still in the planning stage of bringing her eight varieties of pumpkin bread to market.

A human-resources professional, Smalls was living in Los Angeles when a cousin told her about an old family recipe. When she returned to this region, Smalls baked the bread as a gift for friends, who oo-ed and ahh-ed.

"Why are you giving it away - you should sell it," Smalls recalls hearing from friends.

After taking Thomas' class last month, Smalls knows she is unlikely to get much financial backing in today's economy. Instead, she hopes to sell to caterers.

"But I need a commercial kitchen," Smalls says.

According to federal law, you cannot sell food products unless they are made in a kitchen that is accessible to inspectors. She's looking into renting space by the hour in a commercial kitchen at

And because you can't get a patent for a recipe or food product, anyone could analyze her bread, tweak the recipe, and claim it.

Still, Smalls sees the pumpkin-bread business as a second career for her retirement years.

Lauren Cuskey of Havertown learned to bake from her mother and grandmother.

She makes mini cannolis stuffed with ricotta and chocolate chips, dipped in dark chocolate, and rolled in crushed pistachios ($20/dozen); Boston cream cake with chocolate ganache and fresh strawberries ($22.50); and double coconut cupcakes topped with edible orchids ($3 each). Her full menu is online at

Cuskey, who attended Thomas' class last month, worked at her father's computer consulting business in Havertown since she was 10 and will likely continue there.

"I started out licking stamps," she says. Now she can create her own website and host it, too.

She's marketing her goodies to country clubs and restaurants near her home, and she dreams of opening a shop and then going national.

She says Thomas' cautionary talk was not all that discouraging. Sure, there are some desserts, such as her fabulous tiramisu, that don't ship easily to mail-order customers. But baking allows her to live her passion, Cuskey says: "I feel like my soul is opening up."

Success stories to encourage food entrepreneurs

Success seems to be the exception rather than the rule among those attempting to start new food businesses. But there are a few stories that offer sparks of hope.

Nora Schultz of Princeton, N.J., for example, now has a thriving business with Naturally Nora's, a line of all-natural baking mixes she developed. Schultz experimented in her home kitchen for nearly two years and now her line is available at supermarkets in 30 states (locally at Giant and Whole Foods) and online at Amazon.

Heather Carter and Maki Garcia Evans started in tried-and-true fashion by baking cupcakes for friends and church fund-raisers. Evans had her home kitchen certified, and the two friends launched Cupcakes Gourmet as a home-based business.

Now they have bakeries in Malvern and Wayne, and they ship their mini-cupcakes nationwide through catalogs from Williams-Sonoma and Chesapeake Bay Gourmet.

Evans had the advantage of prior business experience. In her native Philippines, Evans' mother had a chain of bakeries, and once Evans was settled locally, she had an online business selling bridal accessories.

"Oh, my gosh, you won't make a million" with a food product, she says.

She advises newbies to consider using a wholesale bakery such as Desserts International in Exton (, which bakes for people with private labels, using your ingredients and recipes.

She also suggests selling at area restaurant festivals and farmers' markets. And your product has to taste as good as it looks.

Cupcakes Gourmet are handmade from scratch using premium ingredients, such as Belgian dark chocolate, Madagascar bourbon vanilla, and French vermicelli sprinkles. A drop of olive oil in the batter makes them moister than most.

Brian and Pam Sharkey, a husband-and-wife team in Royersford, started Sharkey's Sauces and Marinades in 2003.

"I always enjoyed cooking," says Brian Sharkey, a former financial adviser who has quit his day job and devotes his attention to marketing the sauces. Pam Sharkey still works full time as a human-resources professional.

"We've had our ups and downs," he says.

An attempt at going wholesale from 2005 to 2008 flopped, and Sharkey says online sales don't seem to work well for a product such as his that sells for less than $4.

"Most people don't want to pay the shipping for that," he says.

Still, his brand is available in Giant supermarkets and some specialty shops. And the line of sauces was just revamped to make it all-natural.

Sharkey says he opted not to seek organic certification because of the maze of rules and regulations involved.

What would he tell others who consider entering the food marketplace?

"I'd tell them what Liz Thomas once told me - that a lot of apparent overnight successes are really the result of decades of work."

- Dianna Marder

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or

Read her recent work at

comments powered by Disqus