Yesterday I posted Part One of the Grand Street Candy Saga. That post left off with our hero (that'd be me) having abandoned his idiotic low-carb diet in favor of the sweet, sweet life of making candy bars....
After I had made my first batch of Monkey Bars, it still took a while to turn them into a reasonably marketable product. I needed to figure out how to make them efficiently and consistently, not to mention come up with packaging, distribution and marketing plans, all of which had to be both affordable and practical to do by myself.
I started with the packaging, specifically the wrappers. I needed both a good wrapper design and some simple process for actually wrapping the bars. At first I tried to find a way to use regular candy-bar wrappers, the thin plastic kind that you normally see. But it seemed like there was no small scale way of doing that. It required machinery and if I were to outsource it, I'd need to do it on a large scale which I wasn't at all prepared for at that stage. After a few other false starts I settled on wrapping the bars in small foil sheets and then wrapping them again with a paper sleeve printed with the logo, ingredients, etc. This looked pretty good, professional enough, was easy to do myself, but wasn't exactly fast.
But I didn't have a good design for the labels. I wanted something that looked catchy in an old fashion way. I tried my hand at it with Adobe Illustrator, trying to capture the feel of classic candy bar logo designs, but none of them came out right. I'd never used Illustrator, so was teaching myself as I went and it was very slow going. I soon realized that I was wasting my time and that I needed the help of a pro. Fortunately, my friend's then-girlfriend, Kay, was an excellent graphic designer with a great eye for pop and retro logos. Also, unlike a lot designers these days, she specialized in print rather than Web design, so she knew how to deliver graphics that were print-ready and color corrected for paper. I told her what I wanted and gave her some examples of classic candy bar wrappers to use for inspiration. She understood what I was looking for exactly and after a couple iterations of different ideas she came up designs that I really liked for Monkey Bar, Easy $treet as well as a logo for Grand Street Candy itself.
While the design looked good and the wrapping process was easy to do in low volume, it was still very time consuming. Every bar needed to be carefully wrapped in a little rectangle of foil, and then wrapped with a paper label that had to be glued together. I figured it would be fine since I didn't expect to be making a ton of them. And if demand grew quickly, I figured I'd upgrade to a real wrapping process, buy a machine, outsource it or something.
Next, I set to work on the Web site. I made low res versions of the graphics that Kay had designed for the labels, but otherwise designed and built the Web site myself. After all, that's something I was actually qualified to do. I should have just used Yahoo checkout or whatever it's called or something similar, but because I knew how, I decided to implement my own credit card processing connection. This was a waste of time, of course, and though it saved my a bit on per-transaction fees, it cost more up front to set myself up to process credit cards. That in turn required me to become an official company, deal with tax forms, etc. What's worse, it took up weeks of my time that could have been spent working on other things. I really wanted to be in business before the holiday season and by this time it was already September.
I also needed to work out my business plan in more detail before I launched, not so much because I needed it to get started, but so that I would be prepared to expand to a real production facility if things picked up. I wanted to avoid having the business fail just because I couldn't handle the demand for candy bars if these things really started selling. I researched candy making equipment, looked at commercial real-estate to lease in order to get an idea of what it would cost, did research on marketing and distribution, and studied other small artisinal food and candy businesses to see how they worked. Once I had a draft of the plan and a spreadsheet of the detailed financial model, I contacted some candy consultants (yes, there are such people) and had them review it. I got some good suggestions and ideas on how to do things better, but in general was very encouraged by the positive feedback.
To start off, my plan was to sell the candy primarily online (higher margins) but also to target a few key cafes in lower Manhattan to test the waters with resellers and generate word-of-mouth awareness. But before I could start I still needed to do more work on the packaging. I already had a way to wrap the bars, but I needed to be able to box them. This isn't particularly interesting, but I mention it only because it was another detail to be figured out. Find the boxes online with the right dimensions, order in bulk, get logo stickers made, etc. Then once the boxes came and I tried it out, I found that a dozen bars fit too loosely in the box and I needed something to pack it in. Again, search online find a place that sells crinkly tissue paper in a matching color, order it.
Then there was the shipping. I decided to only use Fed-Ex because I figured the bars might get ruined if they took too long to get to there since they had no preservatives or anything. I set up an account with them and integrated it with my Web site so that each order that came in would generate a Fed-Ex label. I won't go into every similar little detail that needed to be taken care of, but there were many more. At this point I was working from the moment my son went to bed around 7:30 or 8:00 until after midnight every day.
Fortunately by mid-November I was ready to be in business, just in time for the holiday season. I sent out an email to everybody I knew telling them I was in the candy business and linking to my Web site.
Right away I got a few orders. It was cool watching them come in; I couldn't believe I was actually in the candy business. Sitting there watching the list of orders from the Web site, I had to laugh. All these months working on this idea I had been under a sort of spell, completely focused on planning the business, but still feeling in a sense like the whole thing was just a lark. But now here I was. I was actually in the candy business!
That night I started a fresh batch of Monkey Bars. I had bought a bunch of large pots and trays for cooking and cooling the candy. Between that and all the packaging materials, my small apartment kitchen was overflowing. Of course I wasn't supposed to be selling food that was made in my house and if I got caught, that would be the end of Grand Street Candy. I decided to take that risk just because I didn't see how I could get started otherwise. But my plan was to find a local kitchen I could rent out as quickly as possible. In the meantime I took extra care to be perfectly sanitary and careful in the preparation.
By the end of the next day I had shipped out three orders. But by then there were four more that had come in.
Making a batch of Monkey Bars, from raw ingredients to final shipment, involved these steps:
- Cook a large batch of caramel
- Mix in nuts and spread out in a large tray to cool
- Cook a large batch of nougat
- Mix in peanut butter and spread out on the tray on top of the caramel to cool
- Once cool and hardened, cut the sheet of candy into bar-sized pieces (The candy is hard and this is one of the most difficult and exhausting parts of the whole process.)
- Temper the chocolate. (Tricky to do, especially when you need it to last for a whole batch and doing it by hand.)
- Pick up a center, dip in tempered chocolate, set on wax paper, repeat
- Once the chocolate has set, assuming it was tempered properly, wrap each bar in foil. (If it any were not tempered, throw them out and do it all again!)
- Wrap and glue a paper label around each bar
- Pack the bars into the box, add tissue paper, label sticker to box
- Pack box into a Fed-Ex box with plenty of foam peanuts and the packing slip
- Print out the Fed-Ex label and stick it on the (right) box
- Bring the boxes to Fed-Ex or arrange for a pickup
If I worked quickly from 7:30 to about 12:30 and didn't make mistakes, I could make and ship up to about 100 bars a day. But things went wrong and sometimes I'd lose some of or even an entire batch, which was maddening.
But I managed to keep up with orders through New Year's when orders started to slow down for a while. By February I was able to deliver on the steady flow of orders without having to work all night every night. More like every other night.
Business continued at a steady but modest pace for a couple more months. So far I had just relied on word of mouth, which was enthusiastic and extremely positive. People really loved the candy. But I knew that if I wanted to really make the company work, I'd need to do some actual marketing. However if I did that I wouldn't be able to meet the demand while making and packing everything by hand. I would need to implement the larger scale production process that I'd already worked out. I'd need to take Grand Street Candy to the next level.
To be continued... yet again...