Building a business on sunflower seed butter cookies.
Sharon Early’s company – Early’s Edibles – launched in stores in 2014 after three years of research and hundreds of recipe tests. In her previous life, Sharon spent 25 years in the fashion industry – during which time she used baking to ease stress from her job duties and long commute.
“Customers want to share their personal stories and arrive at a comfort level with your product.”
Back then, her go-to recipe was an easy four-ingredient flourless peanut butter cookie. But now her company’s best-selling and most popular product is a sunflower seed butter cookie.
The idea for it came to Sharon after a trip to Italy where she and her husband took numerous pictures of Tuscan fields of sunflowers, where she had her aha moment: Why not substitute the peanut butter in her recipe with sunflower seed butter?
The benefit would be two-fold: Her acupuncturist had suggested giving up gluten while she was trying to conceive a child, and her nephew had just been diagnosed with a peanut allergy. This new cookie would be free of both gluten and peanuts.
The power of hashtags
Sharon got her first customer by visiting all the stores in nearby Vermont where she thought her cookies would sell. She’d ask to speak to the store buyer or manager, and most managers would taste her cookies on the spot and often order them immediately. Sunflower Natural Foods near Stowe was her first sale – very appropriate, considering that her cookies’ main ingredient is sunflower seeds.
Sharon gets new leads by telling her story wherever she goes, including at trade shows. Other leads come from store employees who try her cookies and also store buyers who, even if they don’t want her product, will offer Sharon ideas of where she could sell it.
In addition, she finds many leads at new stores using social media. She receives direct messages online that result in conversations for sales. As she says, “I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a hashtag!” To manage all these customers, Sharon uses a very simple WordPress plugin.
Listening pays off
Over these last four years in business, she’s learned that her ideal customer has discovered her product because of a specific reason related to dietary needs or personal health goals.
As Sharon also explains, “Listening is the most important tool in keeping customers happy. Customers want to share their personal stories and arrive at a comfort level with your product. The conversations that come from listening are most important to our brand.”
“Every happy taster is a potential customer or a lead to a potential customer.”
Sharon also keeps customers happy by making sure every online order is sent with a personal touch, such as a handwritten note or an extra pack of cookies. When customers are happy, she posts their positive reviews and testimonials on social media and her website.
Her biggest success story involved a customer with ulcerative colitis who discovered Sharon’s cookies in a local healthy food market and says Sharon’s cookies are one of the only gluten-free cookies she can tolerate. Active on social media, that customer provided Early’s Edibles with an excellent testimonial and a large monthly order of cookies for herself and her grandchildren.
Word of mouth is extremely important in Sharon’s business. As she explains, “Every happy taster is a potential customer or a lead to a potential customer. I’ve heard so many times, ‘I don’t eat gluten-free, but my friend does and she is going to love your cookies.'”
Personalized service and the taste of the sunflower seed butter help Sharon’s business stand out from the competition.
“We often hear that our cookies are ‘addictive,’ and most people are thrilled to find out we are peanut-free and tree nut-free,” she said. “Many customers who don’t have any food allergies love our cookies because of our unique taste.”
This article was developed in partnership with The Hartford. Check out their blog, Small Biz Ahead, a destination where you can discover insights and advice to help you manage and grow your small business.
[Photos: Early’s Edibles]
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