I don’t know what I did to deserve the privilege of touring a commercial caramel kitchen–for work, no less. (Must be my excellent contributions to our blog.) I left home on a gorgeous, sunny day and strolled for a half-hour to a magical place where I got to taste sweet, buttery caramel sauce. Don’t hate me because my job is beautiful.
Michelle Lewis‘s caramel sauce company is located in a re-purposed factory building where a lot of ultra-Brooklyn-y small food firms make their products. Each floor is packed with entrepreneurs cooking up old-timey pickles, small-batch ice cream, kombucha, organic kimchee, pasta, bread, cookies, gourmet popsicles…it’s a veritable artisanal cornucopia. After we talked, Michelle gave me a few jars of insanely scrumptious caramel sauce to take home. It was fan-sticky-tastic.
Here’s what Michelle had to say about evolving from a neophyte entrepreneur into a budding caramel sauce tycoon whose products are internationally craved.
What are your most essential tools?
The people who work with me are the most essential “tools” I have. Since 2015 I rely on a refugee couple from Myanmar (Burma) to make the kitchen hum. Lwin and Haron make sauces, label all 3 sizes of jars and package them to send out to our 250 plus stores around the USA. I was lucky enough to meet Lwin and Haron through the IRC (International Refugee Committee). The IRC sent out an email to see if there was any interest in hiring through them. I invited them to come visit my space and it went from there.
Where do you find inspiration within this space?
I like inviting friends to dinner in the company “kitchen” in the evening. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s a fabulous setting for a sit-down dinner for 8 or 10 people. It also inspires a lot of food talk!
Where does downtime fit into a day’s work?
This year I’m trying to make time for getting back into cello. Sounds pretentious but it’s the perfect balance to running a business, especially since I’m taking classes with kids. (I last played cello in elementary school.) There’s no room for feeling embarrassed with 8-year-old class mates!
What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young maker starting a business?
First off, please take the word “young” out of the equation. I was 48 when I started Spoonable. Not young. And also not old. Mid-deep into middle age, picking up 50 pound bags of sugar brings special physical problems.
And it’s also where starting a food business is not part of the hipster conversation. I don’t think I’m purposely ignored because of my age. I think it’s more about missing out on the socializing that happens naturally among people of a similar age. And that socializing leads to opportunities that I may be missing out on.
So, there are difficult strength and PR lessons to learn. But the toughest lesson was that food companies, at least small and medium sized ones, do not work on contracts. The first purchase order is your contract. Agreements made by handshake, email or even a promissory note are not valid until you get a sacred P.O.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Learn how to say “no”. It’s a lesson I’m still learning. I think the inclination is to say yes to every opportunity that’s presented to you. You don’t want to miss a possible sale. And you feel a little panic when you do. But not all sales opportunities are healthy.
For instance, there’s lots of interest in buyers from overseas. And to be able to say I sell internationally is quite sexy! But for the most part, at the stage the company is, it’s not good for my bottom line, because I have to lower the price (exchange rates, shipping, etc.) so much I’m barely making anything per jar.
How do you set goals for yourself?
I’ve set various goals — I want to be in x amount of stores by the end of the year. Or I want to get 8 new stores a week. Or I want to be making x amount of dollars by the end of my 5th year. There are all types of different goals you set for yourself. I make lists — daily, weekly and monthly.
What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
No single quote by a famous person keeps me motivated, but honest opinions from the people closest to me are great motivators. Close friends are my cheer leaders. Close friends who have their own businesses are those I can bitch to, because they get it. My accountant keeps me down to earth. And my investors keep me striving.
What are some new skills you are trying to acquire?
How to have a more nuanced reading of our numbers – something more than saying I made “this much” in 2015. P&L, profits, projections, individual account summaries – and then how to apply them to make us a more efficient company. Breaking it down into by region sales (NYC vs NY State), type of sales (retail vs. wholesale vs. bulk) and which flavor and size of jar sells best in which type of store (cheese stores do well with lavender).
How do you recharge your creativity?
Watching a great movie. Cooking a delectable meal. Reading. Or going out for a martini with friend.