June 14, 2013
The food business is nothing new to Tina Birdsall. She has worked in a lot of restaurants and ran mobile marketing tours for some big players (names you’d recognize and likely admire!) in the natural foods industry. But running her own food business, while something she daydreamed about, wasn’t on her horizon until a move back to the east coast gave her the perfect opportunity to give food entrepreneurship a try.
Looking back, Tina realizes that the first germ of an idea for what has become Tomina’s actually came about 7 years ago when she was standing in a Whole Foods in Bellevue, Washington. “I said to myself,” Tina recalls, “you know what I would like to do? I like to make cookies and I think that would be a lot of fun.”
Fun is one thing and business is another so Tina shelved the idea and kept her marketing position for natural foods companies. The idea resurfaced years later when, after she and her husband had moved back to New Hampshire, she toyed with the idea of creating designer cookies. “I came up with a mental roadblock though,” she says. “I couldn’t see how the process would work so I just put the idea away again.”
The saying is that things often work out for a reason. In Tina’s case, the idea kept percolating in the back of her mind and when the small marketing agency began downsizing she realized that this was the perfect time to strike out on her own. By then, the rise in gluten-intolerance had made national news and Tina was interested in trying to substitute out ingredients and create a gluten-free cookie. “I thought it would be as easy as switching out ingredients but it wasn’t,” she says. “I starting developing recipes and it took me a good three months to come up with five working recipes I was happy with.”
Shipping Plays a Major Role in Product Development
The challenges didn’t end there though. Tina still couldn’t quite figure out a way that she could bake fresh gluten-free cookies that would still taste great days later when, after sitting on a store shelf or having been shipped, customers finally had the chance to eat them. “Shipping and transportation concerns had me worried from day one,” she says. “I didn’t want the cookies to break but I could visualize packaging that I actually liked.”
That, combined with the fact that she didn’t have access to a gluten-free facility where she could bake her cookies, made her think about creating cookie dough. Like many of us who are drawn to the kitchen, Tina had fond memories of making cookies with her mother and how great the kitchen smelled and she wanted to give families the opportunity to have that experience together.
“The actual plan of the dough,” Tina says, “sat better with me. Plus I like to eat cookie dough and it’s far more versatile than a single cookie is.” Tina comments that her cookie dough can be rolled out and used for pie crusts, as one giant cookie, added to ice cream base, or simply eaten directly from the packaging with a spoon. Because Tomina’s are vegan, meaning that they use no eggs, there is no salmonella concern with eating the raw dough.
Making Marketing Personal
Tomina’s are currently sold in 25 retail locations throughout New Hampshire, a few stores in Vermont, and 1 store in Massachusetts. Tina is also actively working on trying to get her products into summer camps so as to provide a safe treat option for kids with food allergies. The cookie dough has to be kept frozen which means she had to secure freezer space in stores which, in most cases, is very limited real estate that’s highly competitive with ice creams and other freezer products.
“Initially I make phone calls and find out who the point person for a store would be,” Tina says of her strategy to open a new wholesale account. “I always set up a time and literally just state that I’d like to drop off some information and samples. That gives me an opportunity to get in front of someone so they can see the product and so they can bake it in the store or share it with their employees or bake it at home. I think it’s important for retailers to know who you are and what your values are and you want to form a relationship with them.” For this reason Tina currently does all the distribution to her stores herself. While she knows she will have to work with a distribution company in the future as her business grows, currently she likes the hands-on approach she can take with her retailers and it helps build a strong level of trust.
“I initially found, when working with Bare Naked Granola, that working directly with the customer had a huge impact on sales. Whether these were people who were already customers or potential customers, simply allowing the customers to taste the product converts them.” Tina has taken this same approach with Tomina’s and does between 2- 4 store demonstrations and samplings at the retailers she sells through. Not only does this show the stores that she’s ready and willing to support them, but it gives customers the chance to try her products which are almost always well received even by people who eat conventional (not gluten-free/vegan) diets.
Biggest Lesson Learned
With one official year of operation under her belt, Tina is not shy about sharing the biggest lesson she’s learned. “When I started this I had a guesstimate on how much it would cost me to make the cookie,” she recalls. “I was trying to use as many organic ingredients as possible – 97 – 98% – but I had no real idea of how much that was costing me.”
As the entire business to date has been self-funded, using that high a percentage of organic ingredients was simply cost prohibitive. Because organic ingredients are important to Tina personally, she worked hard to tweak her recipes so that they had at least 70% organic ingredients. This also made Tomina’s eligible for a State of New Hampshire organic certification. “I am certified to say on my label Made With Organic Ingredients,” Tina tells us. “It’s a wonderful thing because not only am I certified to use the organic logo but that also means that there are no GMO ingredients in my products.
That change helped balance out the cost of the cookie dough so that Tomina’s has a substantially better chance at profitability. After learning that lesson, Tina realized she needed another business person to help her bounce ideas off of and provide expertise so she turned to her local SCORE office. “I have a SCORE mentor now,” Tina says, “who is really great in making me think about things I wouldn’t have thought about and who makes me plan for the future in stages so that I can make things actually happen.”