The following is a recent interview I had with the owner of Dave's Sweet Tooth Toffee - Andrew Chmielewski. Andrew has taken his home toffee recipe to a national level with his product which is now in many stores nationwide including Krogers, Sam’s and many others. I spent a few minutes with Andrew recently as he gave me the '411' of his success…
Catalpha: Hi Andrew - Can you give me a little background on a Daves Sweet Tooth? Such as how you got started?
Andrew: Sure, a normal question I get is, “If you're Andrew, then who's Dave? Dave is my dad. He's a retired Detroit firefighter who used made our toffee for the guys at The Engine House and packaged it in mason jars. That’s where the whole mason jar motif comes from. And people really liked it and they started calling the house to buy it. We started selling at local craft shows. After a little while I decided to start a business with it.
So I dropped out of college and started the candy company in my home kitchen. Started off selling at craft shows and local farmer’s markets.
And it’s just taken off over the years. Its one of those things where we have a really great product to start and its kind of sold itself. And that’s been really, really helpful.
As we’ve grown we tweaked the packaging and came up with a pretty unique package for the product and its eye catching.
And that helps to sell it when we’re not around.
It's kind of grown pretty organically I’d say for the last 3 years to where we are today.
And now we're kind of actively pouring fuel on the fire and trying to grow it even larger. That's kind of it in a nutshell of how we got started and how the brand came to be.
Catalpha: You are located in Michigan correct?
AC: Correct everything is in Harrison Township. Just north of Detroit. I'm right around where where I grew up.
Catalpha: You mentioned that you've been doing this about three years. Is that from the very start?
AC: I actually started it in 2011. That's when I filed an LLC. In earnest I’ve really been doing it for about the last 3 years. That's kind of when we moved out of my parents kitchen and started to sell to stores and and not just doing craft shows and farmers markets.
Catalpha: So when you were working out of your parent's kitchen. When people started calling. You probably had to do bigger and bigger batches. When you do that I just assumed that you would need a lot of room to do such a thing?
AC: It wasn't necessarily bigger batches. We started making it in this small pot you know we'd make about a pound and a half of toffee at a time. So it was very labor-intensive process. You know every patch was handmade in them, two or three jars of it at a time.
And yes I mean, it got to the point where my mom kicked us out of the kitchen cuz she's said “you need to find somewhere else to go!” because when we were there making candy for like 8 or 9 hours a day and it looked like a bomb went off in her kitchen. And just had chocolate and nuts everywhere!
So when when we finally ended up moving into our own place that was a relief on her end. But that obviously gave us much more space to start making larger batches. A larger pot and a larger stove and kind of streamlining the process if you will. Making it more of a production line and you could do multiple pans of toffee at one time.
The first time we expanded the recipe, we went from making three jars at a time to more like 30 jars at a time. At that time we were thrilled. It really cut down on the amount of work we were doing.
Catalpha: You said ‘we’. I guess you had some help?
AC: Oh Yes. I had a couple people helping me including my Dad. I brought on some employees pretty early in the process. It's not something you can do by yourself. Some of them are still with me today. They’ve been making toffee as long as I have.
Catalpha: You mentioned, you’ve got a new space and if I recall now that you've done that, you've gone and moved again? Is that correct? Now you're into another space?
AC: We actually took over a space that was next to us. We basically doubled in size. That’s more of warehousing. In the last 16 months we built out a plan for an AIB audit, a third-party audit. We've done a whole bunch of improvements.
We did everything from the floors to the walls to the new kettles and stainless steel everything and new freezers and packaging machine and so put a lot of money into it over over the last the last year, year-and-a-half year now. And we passed that audit about 2 months ago so now we're actually able to sell to any business anywhere in the world, really, I mean that this third-party audit carries a lot of weight as far as first food safety goes!
It's kind of giving us a chance to look at our business and and see how see how to streamline different processes and basically - the idea is, you can pick up this series of binders and if everybody here fell off the face of the Earth tomorrow, someone could pick up this and be able to run our business.
Catalpha: You mentioned that you were doing some trade shows but you were doing some fairs and I guess local events. Where was that time that you were able to take it to a bigger audience? Was there a particular event that did that? Maybe you can explain how that marketing got started.
AC: I guess there's kind of a few right? One of the big ones was we were on Good Morning America. They were doing this tour across the country and they stopped in Detroit and they somehow came across our product and wanted to have it on the show for the Deals and Steals segment that they do and that was kind of a big deal for us. We sold a lot of toffee and we were able to build an email list of about 10,000 people from that, just from that segment. That’s been a great resource for us. Great to get people to try the product.
We're kind of taking it one step at a time aside from a couple of events like that. Where we were able to take three or four steps. We are really more of a one at a time I mean getting the product into people's mouths and let them taste it and kind of converting people one by one and as our audience and our customer base grows, they share it with more people and it kind of has that exponential growth aspect to it
Catalpha: When they share it do they - is that online or do they physically share it or how has that been working?
AC: Its been a little of both. You know social media has been a great tool for us. Building a following there. And advertising / marketing our product to different people in that avenue.
Buying and sharing it with other people is huge. People buy it a lot around the holidays to give as gifts for client, gifts for co-workers things like that so the product really lends itself to being sharable and spreading in that way too.
Catalpha: I know that you recently you've gone to some trade shows is that something that you've always done or is that a recent addition to your marketing?
AC: We’ve done them. You know I guess there's there's a few different kinds of trade shows if you will right like there's your big festival. That’s like consumer-facing where people customers like direct-to-consumer they are walking around and trying your product for the first time. Then you have kind of like your distributor shows where your partnered with a distributor like a KeHE or LIPARI and they have their own show where potential wholesalers or vendors / retails walk the show and decide to bring them into their store or series of stores.
And then you've got like your big shows like Sweets and Snacks, or Fancy Foods where you’ve got your buyers and Distributors from all over the country just coming to see you like what's new in the industry and getting new accounts that way.
We also work with a company called ECRM, which is kind of l like speed dating for vendors and retailers like us. That’s a been a great one. That’s one of my favorites. As far as like the value proposition goes. Its expensive to get in, but you get 60 to 70 meetings over a 3 day period with buyers who have the power to make the decision to bring in your products.
You know there's a few different ones. We layered them in and looked at what works for us and what we’ve done and what do we get the most value out of. As a small business we can only go to so many. We don't have to go to all of them but you know we tried quite a few and we got a pretty good blend of what we think works.
Catalpha: What does I guess for any of these meetings that has initial interest. What are they looking for?
AC: They are looking at a couple of different things right off the bat like they want to taste it and see the product and having a great product is you know probably Step 1. You know having good packaging. Something that is eye catching. Probably goes hand-in-hand with that I say its a close close second but sometimes it could be even more important depending on what the market looks like for the product.
I think if you know what you're selling hot sauce then your packaging is probably more important than the product right? Because there's a million different choices. if your like us and selling toffee while there's not a whole lot of competition and direct competition in that space. Your package could be a little less great if you will and then if it's what people are looking for there’s less options right?
But I think those are like one and two. And then people want to see the size of the operation and what other retailers you are working with , where else it's sold, what's the price point. They're going to kind of look at all of those things and see if you can handle the demand for you know the volume that that they are going to forecast there. I think there's a lot of different factors it just really depends on the outlet / retailer and what they are looking for.
Catalpha: Things have been going well for you recently and I would assume that people obviously have good response to the product and they want to bring you on so when you make an appointment with a with a buyer at these the shows that you go to.
I guess what I'm looking for is, do they have an interest in filling out a category within their store or do they say I just need a snack product or I need a candy product and I'm not quite sure where you fall. I would assume it's candy.
AC: More often than not it's candy. But I mean you know our products is kind of ubiquitous in the sense that it's not you know we're not just in traditional grocery stores. We're in home goods or stores like Bed Bath & Beyond craft stores, stores like Michael's and Jo-Ann's you know. Cracker Barrel has our product. You know were on QVC you know we can do big box stores like Costco or Walmart.
There are a lot of different applications in each one of those buyers is looking for something a little bit different. One might you know how to just fill out an aisle and then they are looking for products to put in there that are going to move at a certain rate. Some of the smaller type stores might be looking for something that's more unique that you can't find at every register across the United States.
I mean it's kind of just like having a conversation with those buyers. They are looking to fill a need whatever that need is.
Generally they're pretty open with what they're looking for. You know I mean nobody wants to waste each other's time in a perfect world.
If they're interested that you know they pretty much let us know right off the bat and then there's your paperwork and stuff to fill out. They’ll send us the forecast of what they have in mind and we'll just say that you know yeah we can do that and a lot of times its a hurry-up-and-wait game where we where we know everybody's all excited and then you know the meeting is over and then you don't hear from anybody for 3 weeks, 4 weeks. The follow up is where its at. Its all in the follow up.
Catalpha: And that's that's your responsibility?
Catalpha: So a question on what they might want I know you sell the smaller stand-up pouches but you also sell a jar.
You mentioned it a little bit like some stores might want something a little bit different maybe from what another store is carrying?
How does that come into play? I guess if the volume is there maybe you could do something for them. But if its not, then maybe you know you've got a certain way you could sell it and pair some different products together?
AC: Sure, for us there’s a variety of different ways. Companies will pick up like the top two or three SKUs and not all 5 everyday. You know we merchandise it different and have our shippers so it's like in its own display. You don't have to find a place for it on the shelves. Things like power wings or mixed cases. Michaels wants it to come in a six pack. Because when they bring it out of the back and when they open a case it has to go all on the shelf. Well they don't have enough room to put all 12 of each flavor on a shelf every time they open a case. When they get down to 4 or 5 units. Well then you still have 16, 17 or 18 units once they open a 12 pack. So they want it to come in a 6 pack.
We’re lucky enough where we are small enough and nimble enough where we can accommodate those demands and wishes but big enough to fulfill the large order and but small enough to turn on a dime and give them what they want.
Catalpha: You mentioned that you had to chance to get some TV time when they came through Detroit. Do you do any other kind of PR ? Does PR just fall to you or do you have somebody that you're working with that might be able help in that department? I was just curious as to how much PR is part of your marketing?
AC: Well I mean I do most of it myself. As far as PR goes we don't have the budget to pay for like a PR agency or anything like that.
Part of my skill-set I guess it is kind of connecting the dots in that regard and I just kind of send products to different places. What does it cost me to send products to like the Today Show or different magazine or something like that? $20 or $30 bucks to ship a box of products. You know ‘product bomb’ their office. And hope for good results. Right?
That’s most of the time in PR you're paying for people's relationships. At the end of the day depending on the outlets like they're looking to fill time and pages and space. You know present the story if you will if they can just Plug and Play. You're going to have a lot better opportunity to get some airtime or get in print or something like that. That’s pretty straight forward and easy I think
Catalpha: I would imagine that that sending out your product probably has pretty good success rate ?
Yea we got quite a bit of news and media attention even new stores just by sampling the product. Once people taste it they just have to have it. It sells itself in that sense.
Catalpha: What is next for Dave’s? Once you've covered the U.S. Maybe there's European sales? Where do you go from here?
AC: Canada obviously is right there. We’re in talks with Costco Canada and Walmart Canada and some different distribution up there. But I mean for us right now, there so much to cover in the US you know I mean we're not too concerned about saturation. We’re not even close.
I mean there are hundreds of thousands of doors. We’re not just something that has to be in the grocery candy aisle. Like it could be at your FedEx Office stores, it could be at Home Depot. I mean we could be at Old Navy. I mean who knows where you're going to find it next. We do a lot of business at hardware stores.
You wouldn’t think that, but the impulse items at the register is probably the fastest growing segment in the hardware store industry. You can only sell so many hammers and so many saws but people eat every 4 - 6 hours and when they are checking out at that register. So instead of going across the street to 7Eleven for their popcorn, and chips and energy drinks. A lot of these stores are starting to have it right there in the check out lane. There is a lot of opportunity in different non-traditional spaces for a product like ours. We do a lot of corporate gifting. Gift basket companies are huge. Not necessarily even retailers. There’s tons of business to be had out there.
Catalpha: So Europe is going to have to wait?
AC: Yes, I think so.
Catalpha: I’m curious what's the the best piece of advice you've had in business? Anybody in particular that might have given you some wisdom?
AC: The best advice that I ever got was from a guy named Dave Zilko who is the president of Garden Fresh Salsa. Kinda of like one of my mentors. He said It’s one thing to get on the shelves. Anybody can go and sell new business into stores. You know a lot of times these stores will take a chance because they are all looking for the next big thing.
But the key to building a successful business is getting that to turn off the shelf. That’s where that repeat business is where the business is built. So we’re kind of trying to take that approach and build the business from the customers that we've already had. We’ve gone out and sold it and they brought it in and now we're looking for a new and unique ways to to get it to turn faster.
Catalpha: Is there anything in particular that that you're kind of focused on to do that ?
AC: One thing we came up with is the shipper display. We kind of made them as easy as possible. They are all made of open stock cases so when you run low on one of the flavors you can order open stock and replace it. You don’t have to throw away the whole shipper. You can keep the display. With every shipper were also including a bag of bulk samples. So as soon as the stores get the product in, they can then demo it out to the customers. We don’t need to set up a demo. Or pay some company to do it. And they don’t need to open their own product or waste their money to sample it out. We provide them with all the tools. To be able to sample the product as soon as it hits their store.
I’m just trying to think outside the box. On different ways. What’s cost effective. What’s going to help sell the product.
I mean radio ads and print ads and all that kind of stuff I mean bang for your buck like I just I would rather give away free product and let people taste it.
Catalpha: I’m curious when they get this sampler box what is it? Something they might just put on the counter and with a “take one’?…
AC: Yeah basically it's just a vacuum sealed bag. With a pound and half of bulk product. And they can put it in a bowl with some tongs and let people try it. Put it right next to the product. Set it right on top of the shipper. That goes a long way in selling the product.
Catalpha: Then I guess it might be a little bit difficult when people are going to buy a product, to know just 'who' is buying the product?
Unless they go back to your website and then make an order?
AC: I mean it's really hard to say who's the person buying it you know right what's your I guess we'll say your best guess at this point about what kind of people are buying a certain age range women over the age of 30 between like 30 and 65. Its hard to say. Online, our demographic is probably 85% women. So in stores, I can only assume in stores its probably pretty similar.
Catalpha: So what's your goal? Is there an endpoint? is there something you say hey, “Success” - It's happening now - Where do you go?
AC: For us, its to ‘build to sell’. I like doing this but if it got to a certain point, we’d be looking for larger company to take it to the next level. But who knows, if it turns out in the next year or two - it turns out to be a cash machine…. then we ‘ll hang on to it and just keep doing what we are doing and the rest will sort itself out.
Catalpha; Well, Thank you Andrew. I really do appreciate your time. Unless you want have anything else you'd like to add?
AC: I think we've covered quite a bit
Catalpha: Yeah I'm sure there's will be a lot of people that can apply this info to their own product track or their own packaging and where they might go with it. You know obviously the biggest thing is a lot of people are just not quite sure once they get into stores and then where do they go once they got into a store? And you’ve give us a lot of good background information on what the possibilities could be.
AC: OK - No problem.
Editor's note: Dave's Sweet Tooth Toffee has been a client of Catalpha's for the last 2 years. We've redesigned their packaging as well as point of purchase displays. And recently redesigned their website to be more in line with their branded packaging look.
Some of our past interviews with clients you may want to review: