Sugary Bliss 2.0
At Liddabit Sweets, quality (of life and ingredients) is taken very seriously, but people don’t take themselves too seriously. “We’re somewhere in between bearded, sepia-toned, folded arms-looking chef people who craft candy and the bulk candy aisle where you dig a scoop into a tub of candy bears and get totally crazy with it,” says Liz Gutman, one of the Co-founders. As a business competing to be Best for NYC, Liddabit is committed to providing their employees fair wages, maintaining quality in their supply chain, and improving their community impact. How do they manage this? Read on.
To Liz, measuring impact on people and the planet with the same rigor as one measures financials is necessary. She observes, “The tides are very much shifting towards businesses who meet rigorous standards, or at least strive to be more conscious in their business practices.” In the same vein, she suggests, “This is the ideal starting place for me, to say, ‘What questions should I be asking? What am I already doing? Hooray! What am I not doing? Most stuff. And what steps can I take to get from where I am now to where I want to be?’” What do the next five years hold for Liddabit Sweets? Three things for certain: they will support their employees as they scale, continue to participate in their community, and seek out values-aligned suppliers.
“The tides are very much shifting towards businesses who meet rigorous standards, or at least strive to be more conscious in their business practices.”
Their commitment to caring for their employees is a deeply personal one. Liz sheds light on why: “We’ve all worked food jobs where we were treated like dirt, personally and financially…You know, you are expected to work obscene hours. Sometimes you get paid under the table so you don’t have any chance at benefits…There’s the pay disparity between front of house and back of house…” Liz and Jen King, her business partner, set out to transcend the industry standard. Liddabit is Wagemark Certified, meaning the higher paid employees’ salaries are less than eight times more than the lowest paid employee’s. “If we can’t run our business in this way, then we don’t want to run a business at all,” Liz asserts.
On top of their concern for employee well-being, Liddabit prioritizes sourcing from aligned suppliers, preferably local ones. But, while local is a major consideration, the supplier must also be ethically-run and the product produced in way that is consistent with Liddabit’s values. “Whenever we find a producer we want to work with, it’s not just because they are within 20 miles of us.” The businesses they work with — among them Salvatore Brooklyn, Peanut Butter and Company, Ronnybrook Farm, Martin’s Pretzels, and Brooklyn Brewery — are ones they have real relationships with.
In Liz’s view, making decisions to do with sourcing comes down to honoring their values. “As a business you have so many opportunities to compromise. It’s really about assessing each decision and saying, ‘Does this affect my short-term thinking of how I thought this was going to go down? Yes. But does this affect my overall mission and vision for where we want to end up? Not so much. Alright, that’s probably doable.”
In line with their commitment to community involvement, Liddabit Sweets donates to local charities’ auctions and fundraisers. Thinking about the future, Liddabit looks to best practices in the Challenge for ideas for improving. Liz looks forward to being able to offer paid employee volunteer days and wants to get involved with City As School, the Sunset Park school to which experiential learning is central. She and Jen also hope to help establish or sponsor a scholarship for young women who want to start their own business.
Amusingly, while Liz is now in a position to mentor, Liz did not migrate to the Big Apple to start a business. “I was going to be” — she says in a high pitched voice with jazz hands — “an actor on Broadway!” In her words, she “half-heartedly auditioned” for a while, then spent years at a dull office job. She finally thought, something has to change, and found herself in culinary school for pastry. It was in pastry school that Liz met and befriended Jen, as well as Joan Baker, who became their first employee. After school came to an end in 2008, Jen and Liz kept in touch and started to consider the prospect of working together in some capacity. On a whim, they submitted an application to serve sweets at the Brooklyn Flea and were stunned to hear back. All of a sudden, they were in business.
They started selling at the Flea, packing in Saturday morning and packing out Saturday evening, doing their day jobs during the week. In 2009, they got into the Holiday Market in the old Tower Records store on Lafayette Avenue. They worked 18-hour days for weeks leading up to Christmas, a miserable but exciting experience. By that time, they had quit their day jobs. Joan, who was working in a bakery, would come in to help. It was the first season they admitted Liddabit Sweets could be something bigger than they had imagined.
Despite her initial reluctance to take part in an entrepreneurial roller coaster ride, Joan joined Liz and Jen. “Joan became the organizational glue that held us all together, coordinating the logistics, the day-to day bookkeeping, and wholesale management,” remarks Liz. “Jen is the Kitchen whiz. I mean, I can hold my own, but Jen is on another level. Jen does all of the recipe development and heads up production, inventory, ordering ingredients. I manage more of the business end but also the social media, sales, marketing, PR, brand voice, responding to media requests, customer service. ” In five years, they’ve worn a number of hats and worked out of five spaces. In five years, they’ve built a business that is Best for NYC.
“Okay, you can get one,” Liz says, like a parent permitting their child to indulge in a piece of candy. She describes, from the child’s point of view, “You go through this whole thought process and you finally pick your candy and it’s a big deal and you think, I’m going to enjoy this so much. And you finally bite into it and are like, ‘Ahh, sugary bliss.’” Now, “you find yourself at Duane Reade in the candy aisle thinking, ‘I haven’t had a candy bar in a while. I’m going to get me a candy bar.’ And then you bite into it and — ‘Oh. Is that what that tastes like? Did it always taste like that? I remember it tasting better.’” It is in response to this sort of dissatisfaction that Liddabit Sweets makes candy that has “grown up with your taste buds”, candy that both calls to mind the youthful joy of getting a treat and caters to adult palettes and sensibilities. That said, in the case of Liddabit Sweets, being Best for NYC means not just having a tasty product, but having a positive impact — on their employees, their community, and their environment.
Leigh Brown is a B Corps Fellow working to grow the Best for NYC campaign at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and editor of this blog. Leigh is also an environmental justice advocate and an avid cyclist.