March 23, 2012
When demand for Michelle Miller and Jennifer Chapman’s Polka Dot Bake Shop Sweet Potato Crackers first took off, they looked at working with a co-packer to help them manufacture the product but in the end, they say one of the best decisions they ever made was to keep the entire production process in-house.
Polka Dot Bake Shop’s Sweet Start
Michelle Miller and Jennifer Chapman first met when both their husbands were transferred to Charlotte, CA about 8 years ago. Jennifer, a CPA and tax consultant with a penchant for cake decorating, was making the move from Texas while Michelle, who has a background in restaurant management, moved east from Memphis. As fate would have it, they both moved into the same corporate apartments in town and since they had children around the same age they soon became fast friends.
Over the years the two talked about how they’d like to open a business together that would combine their skills and interest. Time and time again they came back to the idea of doing something around food but it wasn’t until they visited New York to attend the Fancy Food Show to do some research that they realized that there were cupcake stores on every corner in New York. At that time, the cupcake trend hadn’t migrated down to Charlotte yet and the two thought this might be the idea they’d been looking for. Upon returning home, they built out a bakery kitchen with retail space – a true neighborhood bakery – and started sharing their specialty cupcakes, cookies, and savory treats with a fast-growing fan base.
When they weren’t running the everyday operations of the bakery, Michelle and Jennifer started playing around with sweet potato products. With the help of the North Carolina Specialty Foods Association they’d learned that sweet potatoes were the largest crop in the state with North Carolina producing about 40% of the sweet potatoes in the country. Through the North Carolina Specialty Foods Association, a group which is focused on helping small food producers get their products on shelves, Michelle and Jennifer met many people in the sweet potato business and learned how critical the sweet potato is to the livelihood of people throughout the state.
Around that same time, Michelle and Jennifer also noticed that after years of being forgotten with the exception of Thanksgiving dinners, the sweet potato was starting to take center stage. Suddenly, everywhere you turned people were offering up sweet potato fries, sweep potato pies, and other sweet potato goodies. Jennifer and Michelle still dreamt about creating a shelf-stable product that could be sold into stores so they started experimenting with sweet potato recipes. Michelle admits that they initially thought they’d create a sweet potato cookie but nearly six months later they’d perfected a thin, crispy, utterly-delicious sweet potato cracker unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.
Taking The Sweet Potato Crackers On The Road
Michelle and Jennifer knew that their product tasted great and was totally unique, but whether retailers and customers would actually ever buy it was another question entirely. In 2009, with the help of the North Carolina Specialty Food Association and the Southern Trade Association, they took their four original flavors of sweet potato crackers to the New York Fancy Food Show. “We wanted to see what the response was,” Michelle says. “We kind of held our breath and had no idea of what we were doing.”
The success they experienced at the Fancy Foods Show showed Michelle and Jennifer that they were onto something and now, with retailers banging on their doors, they had to figure out how to quickly grow. Michelle admits that trying to ramp up from selling individual cupcakes to selling a product wholesale on a national level was filled with challenges and without the Specialty Food Association Michelle questions whether they could have gotten so far so quickly. “Sourcing the equipment, sourcing the paper goods, sourcing the ingredients and finding the right contacts and keeping those going was a whole other ballgame all together!”
Initially they thought that they would outsource the production of their crackers to a third-party manufacturer but no matter what they tried, the crackers coming off the line just weren’t “their” crackers. “Getting the recipe to run correctly through the equipment the manufacturers had meant they had to change the formula,” Michelle explains, “and it just wasn’t our cracker anymore at the end. It just didn’t work for us.”
With few other options available, Jennifer and Michelle realized that they were going to have to build out a facility themselves that could produce the cracker they’d created. “Looking back,” Michelle remembers, “I don’t know how we did it but we did. We had three months to build out things from gas lines to water and fire escapes. You quickly become an engineer!” Michelle says she and Jennifer learned fun things like how to put in the production ovens they use and dealt with their fair share of inspectors who came to check out the space before they could begin production. “For anyone who decides to manufacture their own product I would say that some of those little logistical steps were the biggest challenges we faced,” Michelle admits.
The Upside Of Keeping Product Production In-House
Michelle says that despite the hurdles, looking back she and Jennifer are glad they’ve kept control of the product production. In the past 2.5 years that they’ve been manufacturing and selling their Polka Dot Bake Shop Sweet Potato Crackers they’ve noticed more and more competitors spending time in their booth at tradeshows trying to figure out how they’re able to make their crackers. The fact that the crackers are not outsourced means that it’s significantly harder for their competitors to hire the same manufacturer to develop a similar product not to mention that the production process is kept secret.
By keeping control of the production, they’ve also been able to be the first to market with sweet potato crackers which has enabled them to grow more quickly since they have limited competition going up against them head-to-head. This has given them the flexibility to experiment with new recipes and this past year they introduced a gluten-free sweet potato cracker which has been a huge hit with both retailers and customers.
Michelle knows that their competitors are breathing down their necks, anxious to figure out a way to break into the sweet potato cracker market, but she hopes that due to the fact they do all their own manufacturing, it will be at least another 2 to 3 years before a competitor is able to mimic their product. By then, she hopes, they will have cornered the market and be the brand to beat.