4. The Wandering

…heading into 2014

The brokers we hired started lining up appointments with some big retailers, and right off the bat in January of 2014 I had an appointment with Cracker Barrel. I was pumped as I was told that this is a premier account, and if you are able to get them you’ll quickly become a $1 million dollar brand.

The headquarter was in Lebanon, Tn just outside of Nashville and the day I left there was a winter advisory warning for snow. It was the “snowmageddon” day in Birmingham and it had just started to snow as I got there. It took me 4 hours to go 30 miles as I was dodging sliding cars, having to go off-road to go around car pile ups …and barely missing sliding into the backend of a few 18 wheelers. It was nuts, but I made it. (google “snowmageddon” and see the pics — see it here)

Coming into Bham during the Snowmageddon

I stayed with a buddy of mine that night and woke up to the pipes being frozen in the bathroom — so I washed my hair in the kitchen sink. It was a bachelor pad so use your imagination for what the sink looked like as I washed my head in it. It was the coldest shower I’ve ever taken!!!

Met my broker at his hotel, and headed to the Cracker Barrel HQ. I was pretty nervous.

Our appt. started at 8am and by 8:30 the buyer agreed to do a test for all 700 stores. It was crazy! I headed back to Selma that day feeling like I was going to take over the world.

The very next day I met with a videographer at 7 am and we shot a video of my story. Here is the video: VIDEO

Although I had an order from Cracker Barrel coming, it was January 2014 at the time and I wouldn’t actually deliver the order until October 2014. That’s how far out the larger retailers plan.

During the Spring of 2014 we were picking up new retailers left and right. Independents, the Navy’s Nexcom stores, Home Goods, HyVee in the midwest, Reny’s in Maine, Distributor in Michigan, Distributor in Florida, another Distributor in Alabama.

It was pretty exciting to be getting so many new retailers as well as a lot of PR requests. Here is a pic of a special Absolutely Alabama did on us in 2014.

However, the bakery continued to have issues with keeping the quality consistent and I had multiple bakes that were not baked right. Like I said before, I just didn’t know I needed to have a close eye on the baking. I just thought once you have the recipe and systems in place just repeat it each time you bake and it’ll turn out right. Not the case as you’ve got to adjust things based on the conditions you are dealing with such as temp, humidity, butter temp, etc.

I also learned quickly that just getting into a larger retail chain didn’t mean they would sell, as in May of 2014 I shipped half an 18 wheeler load of cookies to World Market all the way out to CA and the truck driver called saying they wouldn’t receive the order, so I reached out to the buyer and she said we’d been discontinued….it was news to me. SO I had to ship the product back to me and had it delivered to my climate control storage unit. When they showed up it looked like a bull dozer had run over all the pallets of cookies. SO I had to just throw away a 10+ pallets of cookies….not an easy thing to do with a toyota tacoma and no forklift in the high heat of July in Alabama.

At the same time, the bakery in PA had just hired a new Ops Manager and he was a “hard ass”. He came in changing a lot of things that initially didn’t work well for me, but he did have my product baking perfectly. He had the baking down pat, but the biggest change that happened towards the end of 2014 was that they weren’t going to pack cookies for me anymore.

I didn’t mention it previously, but the bakery didn’t have the ability to automatically package the cookies in our bags. To start they would just hand pack all of my orders until our volume grew …so I was told. Once I achieved a “certain” level of volume they would invest in the needed packaging equipment — but they didn’t do that and just as we entered 2015 I was informed that they would no longer hand pack the cookies for us. They would be sending them to me in bulk and I could figure out how to get them in bags myself. It was not up for negotiation.

Remember we were selling to some really big retailers that require certain food safety certificates that take time to attain. This basically meant I would not be able to sell to them unless the facility I packed in also had the necessary food safety certifications.

Side note: you might ask, “why not just find another bakery?”, trust me I was trying but I was too big for a smaller bakery and too small for the bigger ones. The packaging I was using was not very common for baked products either so most of the contract bakeries that could bake my cookies didn’t have the needed packaging equipment either.

I was in a predicament as the only space I had as an office in a new incubator and a 10x10 climate controlled storage unit.

So what I did was I convinced the bakery to pack for the retailers that absolutely needed the certificates (i.e. Cracker Barrel). They would start charging me extra to pack — to the tune of $2150 per day and it was usually a 3 day packing time.

I then found an empty building here in Selma. It was an old Karate Center on Broad Street in downtown… right on the main drag.

I covered the windows with Cardboard, built a ramp to be able to roll cookies in, shipped all the packaging materials to Selma, and figured out a layout to efficiently hand pack the cookies.

I went from making money to hemorrhaging money overnight. It also created a logistical circus — and since I had 0 experience with shipping freight, it was a nightmare.

Also, with this setup I had to become HACCP certified, which stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. Basically it’s procedures and a plan to identify and avoid potential hazards in food production. Every retailer requires we have one in order to do business with us — if we touch the product in any way.

So …I went to Nashville for a 3 day class to become HACCP Certified (food safety certification). Cost $1000 …of which I didn’t have!

I then began packing the cookies in this little building.

I would hire 12 to 15 guys from the nearby projects to come and handpack the product for a few days.

Our first run was crazy. I ordered the cookies which were shipped as a “reefer” (refrigerated) LTL shipment, and was told the cookies would arrive on a Wednesday. So I went ahead and got 12 guys ready to show up at 6 am Thursday morning. Wednesday comes and by 2:30 the cookies still haven’t arrived.

I called around and found the phone number for the terminal in Atlanta where the cookies were and they said “they didn’t know when they would deliver…as they didn’t have a truck headed my way for awhile”. I was totally confused …BUT I needed them now so I went and rented the biggest U-Haul in town and headed towards Atlanta at about 4PM CST. It’s a 4 hour drive and it took me about 1.5 hours to get loaded as the truck I was in was too small to back up to the loading dock so I had to convince the forklift driver to drive down a ramp and load my UHaul truck from outside the building.

I didn’t get back to Selma until around 2am — and woke my dad up to help unload a few thousand pounds of cookies.

I ended up having to just stay up all night to get ready for the next day.

The guys showed up and we packed for the next 2 days and got all the pending orders out.

I knew this wasn’t a long-term solution, and I knew I needed to find one in a hurry! I figured I had 3 choices:

  1. Buy the packaging equipment myself and put it in PA at the Contract Bakery
  2. Build my own bakery

I chose #3.

P.S.

Oh …almost forgot on top of all the above I had the Orthodox Union call and claim we were in violation of their requirements. The Kosher icon needed to have a “D” added to it to show it was Kosher Dairy not just Kosher.

The issue was that I had 60,000 bags on hand that were printed with the wrong icon and I couldn’t afford to buy all new bags. My first solution was I first purchased a cheap hot stamp printer to see if I could print a D onto the bag …found out quickly that wouldn’t work. I then convinced the Orthodox Union to allow me to cover the icon all together with a tiny sticker about 1 cm in diameter. I hired the same guys helping pack the cookies to cover all 60K bags by hand…and in about 2 weeks they were all covered.

You don’t know what you don’t know — until you find out you didn’t know it.

…onward

Next: The Facility

If you want to read them all now here are the links:

  1. The Relaunch
  2. The Early Mishaps
  3. The Wandering
  4. The Facility
  5. The Progress
  6. The Growth
  7. The Crumbling (pun intended)
  8. Putting it to bed
  9. Reasons it failed and what I’d do different

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Robert Armstrong

I like to build things. Founded @gmommasays . Grew it to 2000 stores & failed. Currently helping others not make the same mistakes.