Sweet Business Reinventions

All it took was a passion for food—and a little moolah—for each of these women to go into the “delicious!” business

by Nicole Blades
baker image
Photograph: Ben Hoffmann

Danielle Verzone

From fashion merchandiser to artisanal chocolatier

Danielle Verzone, 52, used to live for warm, sunny weather, but on this June morning she’s praying that the day will stay cloudy. She’s at a farmers’ market in Scituate, Massachusetts, selling her handmade chocolates, and while most of the batch is stored in a cooler, the ones on display will be ruined if it turns hot or humid. Laid out in boxes trailing silky, lime-green ribbon, they have names like Basil Infusion and Sesame Truffle.

A bubbly woman stops to buy Verzone’s latest creation, Vernal Refresh: $8 for a box of four chocolates, $22 for 12. The ingredients for the various flavors—strawberry, mint, lavender, honey—all come from either a nearby farm or Verzone’s own backyard. “I’m the superstar of my family after sending them your chocolates for Christmas,” says the shopper. Word-of-mouth raves like this account for much of the success of Verzone’s business, Sirenetta Seaside Chocolatier (sirenettachocolatier.com). Launched out of her Scituate home in November 2009, the company turned a profit in its second year, and revenues have increased steadily since then.

Only three years ago, Verzone was spending four hours a day commuting to her job as a merchandise planner for a Boston fashion company. Away from home for 12 hours at a stretch, she felt like a stranger in her own town. “The only upside,” she says, “was that I knew so few people, I could go to the grocery store looking like hell!” She wanted a more balanced life, one more connected to her community, but couldn’t see how to make it happen. Then, in August 2009, as her 49th birthday loomed, she was laid off. On her last day in the office, she got a mass e-mail from her favorite confectioner, L.A. Burdick Chocolate. “They were hosting a chocolate-making class the following week in New Hampshire,” she says. Verzone loved to cook—and had always wanted to have her own business, though she’d never thought of an idea that was good enough—so she signed up.

She enjoyed the course so much that she went home determined to become a professional chocolatier. But first she had to master some complicated science. “There was more chemistry involved than I’d realized,” she says. “But I knew if I put my mind to it, I’d succeed.” It took her a week to master tempering, the precise melting and cooling technique that gives chocolate its glossy appeal and snap. “My husband told me it was wonderful to watch me become the person I was meant to be,” says Verzone. That was all the validation she needed. With $12,000 from her severance package, she secured the necessary permits and bought ingredients, boxes and ribbons. She enlisted her husband, a marketing executive, to design the logo and set up a website. In September she took an online course with Ecole Chocolat, a renowned chocolatier in Vancouver, to learn about the business side. When she discovered that professional confectioners pull in 80 percent of their income between Thanksgiving and Christmas, she knew she had to launch immediately.

“I worked from 7 am to midnight seven days a week during the four weeks before Christmas,” says Verzone. When she wasn’t making chocolates, she was selling them. A friend invited Verzone to set up a booth at a support-our-artisans party. “It was my first time bringing my chocolates to the public, and I was a wreck,” she says. “Then a woman came by and tasted a sample of the limoncello flavor. She closed her eyes, savored it carefully and said, ‘Oh my, this is incredible. May I sit down so I can hear all about your business?’ She gave me the confidence I needed.”

Verzone received about 25 orders that night. And she got hooked into the local circuit of holiday fairs. By May 2010 she was heading for her first farmers’ market, and in 2012 she logged 120 stints at markets along Massachusetts’ southern shore. She nets $20,000 to $30,000 a year, with about a third coming from corporate gift orders for the Christmas season.

Verzone’s days still begin at 5 am, when she takes her dog, Isabella, for a walk on the beach. Back in her kitchen by 6:30, she lays out slabs of ganache that have been allowed to set for 48 hours and cuts them into smooth cubes that will become the rich, creamy centers of her chocolates. Each batch of ganache is infused with a puree of flavors—for example, blueberries and hyssop, an aromatic herb that grows in Verzone’s garden. Later in the morning, she dips each cube into molten chocolate.

She has no employees, although her husband manages her website (“He gets paid in chocolates,” she says). She works six days a week—three days at the stove, three at markets. “But the work doesn’t feel as time pressured as it used to,” she says. “I can take a break to walk the dog or pick blueberries.” On market days, she has time to chat and get to know her customers. And she’s nestled into her community. She’s helped Girl Scouts earn their candy-making badges, and when she develops a new recipe, neighbors taste-test the results for her. There’s just one downside to her success. “I have to put on mascara when I go to the grocery store,” she says. “Now I actually know people!”

Laurie Gutstein

From radiologist to Calamondin-cake queen

Very Florida, a little whimsical and all handmade: That’s the vibe Laurie Gutstein, 52, was going for when she exhibited at her first Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C., in June. The biannual trade show for specialty food products is a big deal for food producers like Gutstein and attracts more than 17,000 people from all over the world. Gutstein was dressed for the three-day event in a head-to-toe orange outfit. Like her company’s aprons, tablecloths and banner, her clothes were chosen to match the color of the product she was promoting: calamondin, the tiny, prized citrus at the center of her three-and-a-half-year-old business, now called Calamondin Café (calamondincafe.com). The flavor is like a blend of kumquat, tangerine and yuzu, she told visitors, offering them samples of a pound cake laced with calamondin puree.

Gutstein first encountered the rare fruit more than 20 years ago, in Florida, where her father and his friend Jack Spencer had planted calamondin trees in their gardens. Spencer made jam from the fruit and gave the recipe to Gutstein’s dad, who started making it for friends and relatives. Four years ago, Gutstein took over the family jam-making tradition, and for an Independence Day party in 2008, she baked the fruit into a cake, following a recipe that Spencer’s wife had created. “My friend Mary Lou took a few bites and gave me a where-has-this-been-all-my-life look. She liked it so much, she said I should start a business,” says Gutstein. “I decided she was right. You couldn’t buy calamondin cake or jam anywhere.”

Gutstein began researching the fruit between her shifts as a diagnostic teleradiologist (she works from home, analyzing medical X-rays transmitted over the Internet). She envisioned selling her cakes and the fresh fruit around the country. “But all citrus that leaves Florida must be dipped in a fungicide,” she says. “Since the peel is used in cooking, I wasn’t comfortable doing that.” It didn’t help that the fruit is so delicate, ithas to be hand-harvested with a pair of scissors. Gutstein decided to focus on growing calamondin to use in her cakes. In May 2009 she hired workers and planted 22 saplings on land she owned near her home, in Fort Myers. In the ensuing months, she tweaked the cake recipe more than 30 times. “I gave out samples to friends, my accountant, my bank manager,” she says. “They all gave me ‘the look.’ ” Encouraged by their responses, Gutstein, who is single, plowed “several years of pension contributions” into gearing up for business.

Since then, she’s had her share of nightmare moments. In December 2009 she decided to expand her calamondin grove by planting seeds instead of buying expensive saplings from a nursery. “I believed I’d done my homework with the USDA and the Florida Department of Agriculture and was told time and again that calamondins are not regulated,” she says. “But it turns out their propagation is heavily regulated.” To avoid the possibility of contaminating commercial trees with diseases lurking in backyard trees, calamondin seedlings may be grown only in licensed citrus propagation nurseries. “We had 1,077 beautiful healthy seedlings, some bearing fruit,” she recalls. They all had to be destroyed. “It was like watching your cat get run over by a truck.”

Despite the setback, Gutstein started selling her first cakes online in November 2011. With about $20,000 in sales to date and six employees—to manage the grove, handle sales, bake and pack—she expects to turn a profit in mid-2014. This fall she’s launching a calamondin coulis. “When the Whole Foods people sampled it at the food show, they said, ‘You won’t be able to make enough of this,’ ” Gutstein recalls. She still puts in five eight- to nine-hour shifts reading medical X-rays every week. “Radiology pays for my passion,” she says. “A friend once said to me, ‘Ask yourself if you have 10 years to give to your venture. If your answer is no, then find your happiness doing something else.’ ” For now, her answer is yes. 

*Web Extra*

Lucy Gibney, MD, 49

From emergency room physician to president and CEO of Dr. Lucy’s LLC

More than the panic and drama, it’s the awful sound that Lucy Gibney remembers most clearly. It’s 2 p.m. on Easter Sunday, April 13, 2004, and Gibney is in the kitchen of her home in Norfolk, Virginia. In the next room, her husband, Paul, is offering their four-month-old son bottled formula for the first time. Gibney listens, ears keen. A few seconds after the formula hits the infant’s mouth, she hears the high-pitched wheezing sounds characteristic of stridor—inflammation and swelling around the vocal chords brought on by an allergic reaction. “Thankfully, I recognized the symptoms quickly, and we rushed him to the hospital,” says Gibney, who, like her husband, is an emergency room doctor.

Little Colin’s reaction to the formula was so traumatic that Gibney had him tested for other food allergies. Wheat, barley, milk, eggs and all nuts came up. He would not be able to eat most commercially available cookies and cakes, and she discovered that those he could safely eat tasted terrible. “Think about the social aspects of eating: play dates, birthday parties,” she says. “I didn’t want my son to be the outcast toting around an ugly, sawdust cookie.” So Gibney set out to bake her own treats. “I have baked all my life, and my mom was a phenomenal baker,” she says. At first, most of her cookies ended up in the trash. “A huge turning point came when I applied the tricks I learned about baking without egg or wheat to my mom’s old recipes,” she says. After a month, her creations tasted so good that “Paul had his hand in the cookie jar all the time. He kept saying I should start a business. I thought he was joking.”

He wasn’t. So Gibney decided to research the number of people who have food allergies or are vegan or kosher. “It was very obvious to me then that there was a huge market,” she says. “We talked to an attorney, an accountant, people we knew locally who were in the food industry. We attended the Specialty Food Trade show, where we each took courses to learn how to launch a business. We were staying in a hotel, and every morning we would go down to this little café and have breakfast and talk about what we were learning and review our data. One morning, we just sat there and said, 'OK, we’re going to do it. Let’s go for it.' ”

The couple took out a $250,000 loan, collateralized by their home equity, to build and staff a 2,500-square-foot commercial kitchen in Norfolk, Virginia. Home food production for commercial sale isn’t legal in Norfolk, and she knew that in order to make the numbers work, she’d have to sell in large quantities nationwide. She quit her ER job, and with one part-time employee (two more joined months later) she brought her first Dr. Lucy’s cookies to market in November 2007: chocolate chip, cinnamon, oatmeal and sugar cookies.

Paul, still working his ER job, led the sales efforts, and they quickly got into local natural-food stores and 35 stores that are part of a grocery chain. By September 2008, Whole Foods mid-Atlantic stores were stocking Lucy’s cookies (drlucys.com).

Then the economic downturn hit. Gibney had moved to a larger, 12,000-square-foot baking facility to keep up with demand and expanded her staff to 20, and she struggled to cover the higher overhead. “We filled out those awful personal credit card offers that come in the mail,” she says, and began looking for private investors. Worst of all, they had to lay off three of their employees. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “But we were succeeding. We’d get emails and phone calls from people saying, 'Thank you so much! These cookies are so good, and my child loves them.' ”

Finally, in July 2011, Gibney made a deal with private investors. Paul has stepped back from the business. “He misses it, but he was getting worn out, and we didn’t want to have all of our earnings coming from one source,” says Gibney. Their staff has grown to 36, and she expects gross sales in 2012 to reach $5 million. Recently, Dr. Lucy’s products received a glowing review from a food blogger, Junk Food Guy. “Thank you,” he wrote. “You made me believe that gluten-free CAN still be indulgent.”

NICOLE BLADES is a Connecticut-based journalist and author.

Next: Switching Career Gears

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First Published Thu, 2012-09-27 12:12

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