Local specialty retailers find growing appetite for wares

Single-product stores find their niches and discover profits

5/11/2014
BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Sharon Wammes owner of the Cookie Lady, rolls chocolate chip cookie dough in the kitchen of her Maumee store. She opened her first shop in Fremont and added the Maumee site in 1997. She says she bases her business on her mother’s recipes.
Sharon Wammes owner of the Cookie Lady, rolls chocolate chip cookie dough in the kitchen of her Maumee store. She opened her first shop in Fremont and added the Maumee site in 1997. She says she bases her business on her mother’s recipes.

For seven years, Sharon Wammes would bake cookies in her Fremont home and take them to a local flea market each weekend where bargain hunters would gobble them up.

“People would say, ‘I wish I could get your cookies more than once a month,’ ” she said. “But I was not wealthy, and I thought opening a business was just for wealthy people.”

In 1989, Ms. Wammes finally rented a tiny space in downtown Fremont where she opened The Cookie Lady, a specialty-food store selling her homemade cookies. Back then, Ms. Wammes had to convince customers that a store selling only homemade cookies was worth their time and money.

Today, though, she might have found it easier to start her business.

Specialty-food retailing — including niche stores where the owners sell just one type of product — is on the rise.

Sales of specialty foods reached a record $88.3 billion in 2013, according to the New York-based Specialty Food Association. That’s a 47 percent increase from 2008, when sales were $60.1 billion.

Last year nearly 75 percent of consumers reported making a specialty-food purchase, up from 46 percent in 2009. And surveys show that consumers say they now spend about a quarter of their at-home food dollars on specialty foods, such as chocolates, cheeses, and oils.

“There’s a lot more interest in food adventures now. That has had a big impact in people’s interest in specialty foods,” said Louise Kramer, a spokesman for the Specialty Food Association.

Ms. Kramer said a variety of factors have emerged over the last few years that have piqued consumer interest in specialty foods and led to their growth. “The things we are talking about, all these factors, include the food movement, the Food Network, interest in health, interest in food quality, interest in knowing what ingredients are in your food, interest in stories behind the product, the passion a producer puts into it … are the reason retail sales of specialty foods are up,” she said.

It is also the reason why single-item niche, specialty-food retailers are rising and thriving.

“Single-serve, that fits into the culture and the desire to have limited portion control,” Ms. Kramer said. “The only risk these retailers have is: Are they too specialized? In some cases, they may have to expand.”

In the Toledo area, at least four entrepreneurs have tackled the single-item niche fairly successfully, competing in some of the fastest-growing categories of specialty foods.

Cake in a Cup, on Central Avenue in Sylvania Township, has built a loyal following in the cupcake category. Bumble Olive Oil Co., at Franklin Park Mall in Toledo, has made a name in the specialty oils and vinegar niche. Cookie Lady, which added a store in Maumee in 1997, thrives in a crowded specialty-food category — gourmet cookies — that matured many years ago. And newcomer Rachel Michael’s Gourmet Popcorn, on Monroe Street west of the mall in Toledo, is making a name in one of the fastest-growing specialty food categories in the United States.

Rachel Marciniak-Matthews makes popcorn in 30 flavors in her Rachel Michael’s  Gourmet Popcorn store on Monroe Street. She used to sell her popcorn from her home and online.
Rachel Marciniak-Matthews makes popcorn in 30 flavors in her Rachel Michael’s Gourmet Popcorn store on Monroe Street. She used to sell her popcorn from her home and online.

“We’re already breaking even and it’s getting better. Our Christmas sales were insane. We couldn’t keep up,” said Rachel Marciniak-Matthews, who opened her gourmet popcorn store in October after selling her product online and out of her home for three years.

“I was terrified at first. It’s absolutely a risk” to open a specialty-food store, Ms. Marciniak-Matthews said. “But I didn’t want to look back 20 years down the road and say woulda, shoulda, coulda. And so far, it’s been great.”

Ms. Kramer of the specialty-food association said gourmet popcorn is popular because of the numerous flavors, it is considered a healthy snack, and it’s a relatively inexpensive treat.

Ms. Marciniak-Matthews said she has trouble convincing customers that she sells more than one product.

“I know it kind of seems like it’s one item, but it’s really more like 30,” she said. “We have 30 different flavors.

“Some people come in expecting plain caramel corn, but we try to broaden their horizons and get them to try flavors they wouldn’t normally do, like dill pickle.”

Product passion

A common denominator among specialty-food retailers is the owner’s passion for the product.

Growing up, Ms. Marciniak-Matthews loved caramel corn from Garrett Popcorn Shops in Chicago, which led her to create her own recipes and start a business.

Ms. Wammes, the Cookie Lady, had a passion for her mother’s cookies and began using those recipes as the foundation of her business.

“I think our secret, honestly, is that we make our cookies from scratch, and they’re mostly my mom’s recipes. Our goal is to give the very best cookie for the very best price,” she said.

Every supermarket, bakery, convenience store, and even gas station sells cookies, so differentiating her product from others was a challenge.

Cookie Lady built its reputation on cutout cookies for nearly every occasion. “We’re famous for our cutout cookies. It seems like so many people have so many events in their lives,” Ms. Wammes said. “So anything you want on a cookie, we can do it. There’s no one else who does that. It’s kind of a lost art.”

Ms. Wammes remains passionate about her business. She still gets up early each morning to make cookies and make sure that what is sold meets her standards.

“It seems like everybody can start a business. But you have to know it’s up to you to get the job done,” Ms. Wammes said. 

“So many people start seeing a little bit of success and the money coming in, and they stop doing all the hard work that got them there,” she said.

Having their cake

At Cake in a Cup, owners Lori Jacobs and Dana Iliev recognized a specialty-food niche that was taking off elsewhere and decided six years ago that the Toledo area could support it.

“I was always going to cupcake shops in New York, and I thought this would be great in Toledo,” Ms. Jacobs said.

“No matter what anyone’s going through moneywise or economywise, everybody still celebrates. That’s our nature. We have special days to treat ourselves,” she said.

“We only specialize in one thing, so I think you can make that extra good. In the end, people walk away feeling their money was well spent,” she said.

Like cookies, cupcakes can be made at home or easily purchased at supermarkets and bakeries. With so much competition, Ms. Jacobs said initially she and Ms. Iliev had doubts about a specialty-food store selling just one item, albeit one that has 33 flavors.

“We bought an espresso machine, and we actually thought that when it was slow we’d have to offer brunch. We bought a waffle machine also that we ended up selling,” Ms. Jacobs said. “We did think that we couldn’t get by just selling cupcakes.”

Their clientele proved them wrong. “I still think we’re competing with [supermarkets and bakeries], but at the same time, it’s a different style. I think for the quality and specialty of the flavors, people still prefer to come here,” Ms. Jacobs said.

Leap of faith

Of all the specialty-food stores in Toledo, Bumble Olive Oil Co. specializes in a product — olive oil — that ranks second among all specialty-food purchases, according to the Specialty Food Association.

Stephanie Harmon, who co-owns the store with her husband, Josh, said she felt the niche concept could work in Toledo after seeing it succeed in other cities.

“There’s a huge movement in farm-to-table items because people don’t want overproduced food,” Ms. Harmon said. But, “It definitely was taking a leap of faith that we could survive off of [selling] oil and vinegar. Of course, if you specialize in one thing but know it inside and out, that’s not a bad thing,” she added.

Ms. Harmon said to succeed, not only did she and her staff have to learn all they could about gourmet olive oils and vinegars, they had to educate the public.

“In retail you can’t just assume anything. You always have to raise your game,” she said. “Customer service, it’s the most important thing when you are a small-business owner. You have to make sure someone has had a good customer experience.”

To educate customers, Bumble Olive Oil gives away samples — a lot of samples.

“In our store … you can sample as much as you want as long as you want. We believe if you give, you receive,” Ms. Harmon said.

“It very much starts in the beginning. When someone walks in our store we get them sampling right away. They always come back. When you show someone the difference and educate them on the difference, it’s clear to them,” she said.

Bumble also gives advice on what to buy — and not just in their store. “If somebody comes into our store, and if you were to tell me that you love Whole Foods, I’ll tell you which olive oil to buy there,” she said. “I would tell you there’s people who would say I’m crazy for doing that, but if you do that you are improving the education of the people.”

“If you’re going to be good at something, you have to be honest at it,” she said. “And you’d better be passionate about it, because in retail the hours are crazy and the stress is high.”

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.