Switching Career Gears

How two friends turned one treasured family recipe into a best-selling cookie

by Terri Slater
Irene and Joan received the "Outstanding Cookie" award at the Fancy Food Show, June 2010.
Photograph: Effie's Homemade

Imagine two longtime friends coming together to create a new business based on a time-honored family recipe for cookies.  Well that’s exactly what Joan MacIsaac (51) and Irene Costello (52) did in 2007 when they joined forces and launched Effie’s Homemade, a wholesale baking company located in Boston.      

In 1996, after five years in Seattle building a career as executive chef, Joan returned to Boston and started her own catering business.  In time Ruby Chard became a well-known catering service, and Joan expanded it to include a take-away cafĂ© and then teaching cooking classes at her shop.    

Meanwhile, Irene spent two decades building a career in the corporate world holding various positions in marketing, product development and sales.  She became a vice president of a large bank managing sales and services to other financial firms.  She enjoyed a successful career, but something was missing. “As my 40th birthday approached, I began to realize that I didn't want to be doing the same thing when I turned 50,” she recalls.

In 2000, Irene decided to pursue her passion for cooking.  She went back to school and earned a certificate in Culinary Arts followed by a Master's of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy from Boston University."   Joan, who had been through that program, tried to talk her out of it, knowing her friend would never make the kind of salary she was commanding at the time. “I heard her, but I didn’t take the advice.” said Irene, who now admits Joan was right about the money, but has zero regrets. “I never ever miss the corporate life.”

In 2005, recognizing a unique combination of culinary and business expertise the two women decided to partner together.  They had a few ideas in mind.  The first was to expand Ruby Chard into experiential team building classes.  “We had fun doing this for a few years, but we never found our own space to offer the classes” says Joan. 

Another idea was to wholesale Joan’s family recipe for oatcakes.  The two started to develop a plan.  Their first break came in 2006 when they decided to bake a few trays of the oatcakes for a local holiday fair.  They sold out in less than an hour!  New fans of the family oatcake kept calling afterwards to ask for more.  “We’d bake a few more trays and ship the product” says Irene.

Buoyed by the overwhelming response to their oatcakes, Joan and Irene consulted with friends in the food industry on a business plan, and in 2007 they formally established Effie’s Homemade. With start-up money borrowed from friends and family to help buy computers, develop a Web site, create a package design, and start initial production, the first “Effie’s Oatcakes" product was shipped in 2008.  

Effie’s got its next shot in the arm in 2008 when Joan and Irene took their oatcakes to The Summer Fancy Food Show, a trade show in New York, and signed an order from a well known Vermont cheese company for 45 cases to be used in gift baskets!  With the order in hand and a feeling of success, the women went back to the kitchen in creative mode and developed Effie's Corncakes and Effie's Pecan Nutcakes, the 2nd and 3rd biscuit recipes in its now growing line.

When Joan and Irene returned to the same show in 2010, Effie’s Oatcakes was recognized by the specialty food trade with its version of the Oscar — the coveted "Gold sofi ™ Award for Outstanding Cookie"!  And later that same year they were named a silver finalist in the "Outstanding Cracker" category for Effie's Corncakes.

Two major awards later, and now “selling like hotcakes,” Effie's continues to expand.  Their tea biscuits are now in specialty food stores all along the east coast and in other parts of the country.  And earlier this year, Joan and Irene stepped beyond biscuit baking and entered a new baked goods category — beginning with the cracker market and Effie's new (and growing in popularity) line of Mediterranean inspired rustic semolina crackers.

When asked about their greatest challenges, they are quick to explain that they both came from the service businesses.  “We never had to move a product from one location to another” says Irene. “Inventory, shipping, and distribution were all new to us, and to be honest, it’s still a bit daunting.”

And as for their greatest reward, that’s simple “We’re so relieved that the company is now financially sustainable and we can finally pay ourselves” says Joan.  Effie’s Homemade is on track to do a $1 million in sales this year.

What’s next for Effie’s? Joan and Irene have several ideas brewing for new products but one thing is for sure they will continue to build upon the company’s reputation for unique baked good, always wholesome, always all-natural and always simply delicious.
Next: 9 Reinvention Tips for Any Age

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First Published Thu, 2012-10-18 16:11

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