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Costly Lesson: Proof of the Pudding Is in the Eating

One bite is all it takes to hook a customer, say three successful Southland businesswomen who each create and sell a unique, handmade delicacy.

Although Christmas is their busiest season, all three have parlayed their culinary talents into thriving, year-round small businesses.

Patti Garrity makes plum puddings. One recent Sunday afternoon, Garrity, owner of Patti’s Plum Puddings, braved blasts of cold air from a refrigerated deli case to slice up her pudding for tasting by shoppers at a Bristol Farms grocery.

Patty Newkirk bakes and decorates cakes. Newkirk, co-founder of the Creative Cakery bakery in Long Beach, takes a bag of heart-shaped chocolate cake samples everywhere she goes--even to the post office, where she treated people standing in long Christmas lines.

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Judith Norton of Huntington Beach designs and produces custom chocolates for corporate gift giving. When she meets with potential clients, she gives them her own chocolate rose logo for tasting. Even if clients appreciate the beauty of their logo silk-screened on a chocolate bar, it is the taste of the chocolate that they remember, Norton said.

All three agree that when it comes to selling something to eat, expensive advertising and slick publicity fail to bring in the sales that a few free samples can.

At one time or another, Garrity and Newkirk tried newspaper and magazine advertising, but both said the free samples are the most effective means of reaching customers.

About five years ago, Garrity learned an expensive lesson. She spent $700 on a slick local magazine ad and received one order. “Now I don’t advertise anywhere at all. I know where every pudding goes. It’s like making them for my own guests,” she said.

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Inspired by Dickens

Capitalizing on the personal touch, Garrity sends out handwritten post cards to remind repeat customers to order their puddings early. Most new customers have received a pudding as a gift from a friend or co-worker.

“I probably give away $3,000 worth of puddings a year,” said Garrity. This year, she prepared and steamed 7,000 plum puddings in a rented school kitchen in Manhattan Beach, beginning after Labor Day.

“When I just send out letters to caterers and chefs, I get a 1% return,” said Garrity, who believes she is the only plum pudding maker in the country who makes each pudding by hand. “But when I send someone a pudding, I get a 60% to 70% response rate.” Inspired by a mention of plum pudding in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Garrity said she spent eight years trying various recipes before settling on one she liked. Patti’s Plum Puddings contain no plums, just a secret blend of ingredients including raisins and spices. Each one is wrapped in brandy-soaked cheesecloth and aged up to four months.

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Garrity’s first sales were to friends at her health club. This year, she sold about $25,000 worth of puddings ranging in price from $5 to $30.

While Garrity’s business is seasonal, Patty Newkirk and her daughters, Laurie and Nancy, are busy at their Creative Cakery year round. They not only pass out free samples wherever they go, but have samples available in the bakery.

“When you see an ad, you can’t taste the ad,” said Patty Newkirk. “When I go out and give away samples, we get calls before I get back.”

Newkirk said she and her daughters kind of fell into the bakery business.

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Her daughter, Nancy, was interested in nutrition and began baking sugar-free cakes for health food stores. Eventually, the family wanted to try something with wider appeal and, Newkirk admitted with a laugh, “decided to do something that tasted good.”

Newkirk and her daughters each contributed $3,000 to start the business six years ago. As the business grew beyond their home kitchen, they rented a defunct chicken pie shop and bought a used refrigerator and freezer from a closed discount store. Today, sales are in the six figures and growing every month, she said.

Unusual Shape

To give their cakes a special cachet, the Newkirks bake in fluted bundt pans. The unusual shape offers interesting decorating possibilities as they stack, frost and decorate the layers with ribbons, toys and miniature props designed to signify various events. “People get excited about putting together their own design,” said Newkirk.

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Judith Norton also specializes in meeting a customer’s unique needs by creating their logo in chocolate. Norton started her business, Judith Norton Designer Chocolates, 2 1/2 years ago after she was laid off from her job as an office automation consultant for an aerospace corporation. When she completed her market research and a business plan, she took out a $60,000 second mortgage on her home to parlay her passion for chocolate into a new career.

“It seemed easier to deal with the corporate market, and there was more money in it,” said Norton, whose clients pay casting fees plus $1.50 to $3 apiece for their edible logos.

Some recent projects have included a likeness of the Embassy Suites hotel in Santa Ana silk-screened on a white chocolate bar and a three-dimensional firefighter’s hat for the Fireman’s Fund insurance company. She is also creating a molded chocolate pacemaker for an Orange County maker of cardiovascular products.

“We had a lot of technical problems when we first got started,” said Norton, who studied chocolate making in Paris.

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But, she said, her supplier, Guittard Chocolate Co. in Burlingame, Calif., has been extremely supportive, once offering to fly a consultant down to solve a problem in the factory.

Because good taste was as important as technical perfection, Norton said, she sampled various kinds of chocolate before settling on the domestic brand.

“Frankly,” she said, “the Swiss chocolate was too rich for a molded piece.”

Free Mailing List Tips

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“How to Compile and Maintain a Mailing List” is a free, informative 40-page booklet available from Quill Corp., an independent office supply distributor. The booklet covers all aspects of creating and maintaining mailing lists and gives suggestions for how to store information.

“We decided to publish this booklet because, as a mail-order company, we know how important good mailing lists are,” said Jack Miller, president of Quill. “We wanted to share our 32 years of mailing list experience.”

The booklet is available for a limited time by writing Quill Corp., Box 464, Lincolnshire, Ill. 60069-0464.

A Readable Tax Guide

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Many accounting firms are publishing tax guides these days, and one of the more readable ones is the Laventhol & Horwath “Small Business Tax Planning Guide.”

The book, by business writer Allen B. Ellentuck, gives case histories, tax tips and “tax traps” to watch out for. For example, he writes that if you operate a car wash and are tempted to leave a portion of your cash revenue off your return--don’t. “The government can figure out if you under-reported your income by simply toting up the amount of water and soap you used.”

The book is published by Avon Books and sells for $8.95.


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