A better cookie jar

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Small retailer works to improve strategy through defined processes and a more streamlined focus

Story by Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher

On a Monday morning seated in the dining area of her own café, Chanda Anderson can tell when some aspect of her operation isn’t quite right.

“I am smelling something – what am I smelling?” she breaks from our conversation to yell to her employees. Any potential crisis averted, Anderson is back to sharing some of the elements of strategy she and her husband, Pete, are implementing into Caramel Crisp & Café in Oshkosh.

Anderson has a nose for baking cookies, which have become a staple attraction for her downtown respite. But she’s also discovering she has a nose for business.

After more than six months of work with business strategist and consultant Mike Thuecks of Green Bay-based SM Advisors, Anderson wrapped up her participation in New North B2B’s second annual Firefighters of Northeast Wisconsin initiative with the reassurance that she’s headed in the right direction. At the same time, she’s also realized she can build more objective policy and procedure into the regular operations of the business, allowing her to step back a bit and take some much needed time for herself and her husband.

“They have accomplished a lot more than she even gave herself credit for,” said Thuecks about Anderson’s commitment to standardize her operations.

Narrower focus

When Anderson began working with Thuecks back in April, Caramel Crisp was expanding into a new space for a gift shop, building upon an enterprise that had already become a successful deli, bakery, coffee shop, ice cream shop, caterer and a destination for flavored popcorn and caramel corn. She was considering possibly becoming a wine bar to cater to the late night crowd following performances at Grand Opera House or the city’s popular Gallery Walk events. Thuecks helped her rein it all in.

“She went from being all things to all people to focusing on a singular, customer demographic,” Thuecks said, helping Anderson recognize that Caramel Crisp is known for a number of approaches to tempt the palette, but above all else, its cookies are the main attraction. “You can sell anything, but there’s always primary markets and there’s always secondary markets.”

Using the proprietary Stop Selling Vanilla Ice Cream process developed by SM Advisors founder Steve Van Remortel, Thuecks and Anderson were able to identify Caramel Crisp’s competence in the market as “Best Cookies Ever,” which evolved into the branding campaign Anderson has promoted on billboards and the sides of city transit busses across Oshkosh.

The evolution of her nearly 50 different flavors of cookies bears interest because Anderson never gave it much credence before.

“Cookies were the sleeper in our business plan,” she admitted. As a result, the equipment she has for making cookie dough and baking cookies is hitting capacity. There’s not too many more cookies Caramel Crisp can make without making capital investments to enhance production.

Staff constraints

Boosting cookie output means more manpower, and Anderson is considering adding another baker to her staff. In fact, she’d like to add a few more positions to increase the size of her staff to a dozen, up from nine in mid October. Since this past summer, Caramel Crisp has had 100 percent turnover of its staff, including the loss of two long-term employees who moved on to other opportunities – one to dedicate themselves to school fulltime, and the other who just earned her degree. Of Anderson’s current staff, the most tenured has been with her just over four months.

The result: Anderson has spent quite a bit of time recruiting, interviewing, hiring and then training new employees for as long as six weeks. Some hadn’t quite worked out, which renews the staffing cycle once again.

Through Thuecks encouragement, Anderson is developing a set of policies and procedures for certain job functions at Caramel Crisp that should remain consistent, such as preparing and serving coffee in the morning, preparing salads for the lunch hour rush, or procedures for closing shop at the end of the day. Anderson currently comes in to close up every day, which is no short order when open seven days a week.

“I consider four hours at work to be a day off,” Anderson indicated, noting many days start as early as 6 or 7 a.m. and end as late as 9 or 10 p.m.

Identifying trends

A set of defined guidelines for employees to follow could take the place of some of the time Anderson spends “in the business,” allowing her to both take more time for herself as well as developing strategy to grow it moving forward. She believes the gift shop carries solid potential to be successful, and she’s committed to growing its presence in the downtown.

In that regard, Thuecks encouraged Anderson to make full use of her point-of-purchase technology that she already owns in her cash register system to capture more effective data about the products Caramel Crisp is selling its customers.

“The cash register is not new to the store,” Thuecks commented. “She would just be implementing a better way to use the capabilities it offers. Not enough data has been collected to date to draw any conclusions (regarding sales trends among customers).”

Currently everything at Caramel Crisp is rung into the cash register by price, making it difficult to digitally keep a handle on inventory and to determine the success of certain promotions. Even though Anderson has a keen sense of intuitively analyzing the data she has on hand, Thuecks observed, she doesn’t have much hard data about her products or her customers.

For her part, Anderson acknowledges she simply needs to take the time to key in individual menu items and gift products into her system.

Moving forward

Anderson and Caramel Crisp are heading into the busy holiday season beginning this month and will be working some of the longest hours of the year filling customer orders for gift baskets and tins of caramel corn and flavored popcorn. She and Thuecks agreed to meet again in January to assess the success of the process improvements implemented in the business and determine any trends from the cash register data that will be collected.

Overall, the Best Cookies Ever campaign would appear to be a smashing success. Anderson reported record sales for a Sunday at the beginning of October boosted by a number of first-time customers walking in the door and buying just one, two or a few cookies at a time. But she’s also had a few customers drive in to downtown from U.S. Highway 41 to buy four dozen cookies at a time, nearly wiping out the made-fresh inventory she keeps in the bakery case when a large order isn’t called in advance.

Looking back on her experience in this year’s Firefighters initiative, Anderson said both a behavioral profile she took at the outset of her work and Thuecks’ reassurance along the way have confirmed that she should be an entrepreneur and should assume the kinds of risks she’s been taking.

“It was nice having someone who knows what they’re talking about to hear and approve of what you’re doing,” Anderson said.

Working with small to mid-sized business owners across Wisconsin, Thuecks said Anderson’s humility as a business owner isn’t all that uncommon. But he also acknowledged that like Anderson, most business owners don’t recognize many of the successes they have achieved along the way, which can serve as the fuel to carry their entrepreneurial momentum forward.

“If there’s any advice I’d say to a small business owner, it would be to give yourself some credit sometime,” he said.