For Heidi and Tim Sanders, the meat counter represents more than how their parents made a living or where they met and fell in love- it’s the inspiration for their second careers as entrepreneurs. Tim apprenticed for three years to his father, a butcher in Nashua, New Hampshire, before beginning a 30-year career in the supermarket field. Heidi’s mother worked in a meat market in Westfield, Massachusetts and taught her how to bake from scratch. To honor their history, both Tim and Heidi’s parents are featured in framed photographs on the walls of their successful startup, Sanders Meat Market.
During their time at Shaw’s Supermarket in New Hampshire, Tim worked in the meat department and then as store director for 11 years, while Heidi worked her way up from cake decorator to deli and seafood department manager over 22 years. Ready for retirement from their supermarket careers, the Sanders vacationed in the Saratoga area in 2008 and fell in love with the place and the people. They relocated to the area and worked for several months to stay busy, but Tim and Heidi quickly realized they didn’t want to work for anyone else any longer.
“With our skill set, we looked around and thought the area was ripe for a high quality meat market,” Tim recounts. “We used Northeast NY SCORE in Saratoga Springs to help build our business plan, working with counselors Bill Hunt, Bill Edwards, and Dennis Crimi. They were very knowledgeable about this particular area. We needed help putting it all down on paper to create a plan and pursue the financing.”
Heidi and Tim sought a startup loan during the credit crunch of 2009, and found that in spite of their extensive industry experience, their business loan application was turned down by several banks. The Sanders increased their equity investment and decreased the loan amount, trimming back the extras they could add later. Their revamped business plan was approved by Saratoga National Bank & Trust Company. The SBA-backed loan provided working capital for the Sanders to run their fledgling store, coming through the same month they opened the shop’s doors in February 2010.
The Sanders set out to create a local meat market that offered Ballston Spa area residents top quality meats previously unavailable, without steroids, hormones or antibiotics. Their slogan “A Cut Above” is more than just a marketing slogan-it’s a mantra. Tim’s longstanding relationship with distributors ensures the shop receives top quality cuts such as USDA Prime and Certified Choice. And if a cut of meat doesn’t meet Tim’s high standard, it’s promptly rejected and returned to the distributor.
“I’d rather have to tell a customer that I didn’t like the way something looked than sell sub-standard products,” explains Tim. “When people ask our customers where tonight’s dinner is from, I want them to proudly say Sanders Meat Market.”
Increasingly, customers are asking more questions about what is in their meat and where it comes from. Last year’s controversy over “pink slime” or lean, finely textured beef brought national attention to the content and quality of mass-produced meat products. The Sanders saw a dramatic increase in new customers as locals switched from buying their meat at regional chain grocery stores.
“The same day the news broke, our phone was ringing off the hook from people asking if we sold ground beef without pink slime,” recalls Tim. “We’ve never sold it and we never will. Ever since then, I sell more hamburger than I can possibly keep up with.”
“Our beef isn’t sprayed with ammonia or squeezed from a plastic tube into packages. You can’t get any fresher than our ground chuck and sirloin, which sits in the display case just 20 to 40 minutes,” adds Heidi.
Ballston Spa residents have discovered that Sanders Meat Market offers more than top quality meats; customers can pick up everything to make tonight’s supper in the store. The shelves are stocked with salad and bread items, appetizers, vegetables, drinks and desserts. The desserts are scratch-baker Heidi’s specialty, ranging from dish-size chocolate chip cookies to flaky apple pies just like her Grandma used to make. Customers who prefer ready-to-cook meals enjoy bacon-wrapped pork tenderloins stuffed with apricot and dates and savory chicken pot pies.
As their business turns three in 2013, Heidi and Tim are completely at ease in their second careers as entrepreneurs. With persistence and a great team of employees, the Sanders turned their passion into a successful small business. They haven’t had a second thought about trading the corporate pay, benefits and security for something they can call their own: “After years of being serious, now is the time to have a little fun. We’re free of the golden handcuffs and we laugh a lot here. It’s the best thing we ever did,” says Tim.
Since 1823, New Hope Mills Manufacturing flour-based mixes have had the recipe for small business success. The company’s stitched-top products have been a Central New York household name through the ups and downs of the last two centuries. Leland Weed purchased New Hope Mills in 1947 and built the company’s brand with his hard work and strong salesman skills. Leland’s sons, David and Dale, purchased the business when he was ready for retirement in 1980. The Weed family bonds are intertwined with the business; both David and Dale raised their families next door to the mill. Today, half of the third-generation works there under the new leadership of Dale’s son Doug.
“I’ve worked for the company since I was able to walk,” recounts Doug with a laugh. “I started at the smallest level of cleaning up after the production workers at the end of the day, taking care of the trash, and helping out in any way I could. One of my eighteenth birthday presents was a full-time job. I always had a strong connection to the family business and to my grandfather, so it felt very natural for me.”
Seven years later, the business was bursting at the seams in the original mill in New Hope. Doug helped his father manage the transition of the company to its current Auburn location with minimal down time in 2004.
“We operated very efficiently at the old mill, but we knew we couldn’t get any larger because of the tight space,” explains Doug, “Since the move, we gradually increased its staff from 10 to 44 full and part-time employees in 2012.”
On the manufacturing floor, employees hoist dry ingredients and sift spices into industrial size mixers, which then drop the mixed product into 2,000-pound canvas tote bags. Each batch is tracked on the company’s computer system with bar codes and number strings for the list of ingredients required by a specific recipe. With four different kinds of buttermilk as just an example, employees must rely on the ingredient’s ID number to avoid costly mistakes. The tote bags are then ferried to the production area, where the bulk of the employees work at up to four different production lines. The company’s bar coding is replicated on each product and customized for the retailer where it will eventually be sold.
The nearby test kitchen can be found by following freshly-baked aromas of cinnamon, ginger and berries that waft from hot ovens. Every batch of mix is sampled by the test kitchen team, an exacting quality control practice that the company’s customers appreciate in a world of increasing food recalls. New Hope Mills meets safety requirements with regular inspections by the FDA and NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets and certifications from Safe Quality Food (SQF- level two), the Orthodox Union for Kosher foods, and NOFA-NY for organic foods.
“Obtaining our food quality certification has solidified our place as a player in the marketplace. Retailers are now demanding certain food certifications to carry products in response to health scares from undeclared ingredients,” says Doug.
In the test kitchen, the texture and taste of different recipes are compared in a relentless search for the best flavor combinations. The mix maestros have been busy in the last two years, adding Vanilla Chai, Pumpkin, and Gingerbread flavors to the pancake mix line. Besides their well-known pancake mix, New Hope Mills also makes waffle, crepe, muffin, cookie, scone, brownie and hot cocoa mixes. Many products are also available in organic, low carbohydrate, sugar-free or gluten-free versions.
Products with the New Hope Mills label can be found in the company’s factory store in Auburn; bulk, natural or specialty stores; Amish and Mennonite stores; and regional grocery chains such as Wegmans, Tops and Price Chopper. As a small business marketing to large grocery chains, high slotting fees, navigating corporate structure and intense competition for shelf space remain challenges for New Hope Mills.
New Hope Mills manufactures more than its own brand of mixes, with private label products comprising 40 percent of the company’s revenues. In 2010, the Weed family acquired the assets of New Hampshire-based competitor The Lollipop Tree, adding their flour-based mixes as well as Lollipop Tree brand jams, jellies and grilling sauces to the New Hope Mills portfolio. With extra manufacturing capacity available, making Lollipop Tree brand products in Auburn helped maximize production and significantly expanded the company’s geographic footprint.
As part of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Emerging Leaders e200 program in Syracuse, Doug developed his Strategic Growth Action Plan to map out the company’s direction for the next three years. Funded by the SBA, the free MBA-style program guides high-growth entrepreneurs through a nine-month course on topics ranging from financial dashboards and sales trends analytics to employee development and training.
With his sights set on the future, Doug says his experience in the e200 class of 2012 came at just the right time: “I have a vision of where I’d like to take the company. The e200 program helped me get serious about the things that I had to start doing to achieve that vision, which includes an updated website and lean manufacturing strategies. I plan to purchase the business by the end of 2012, as my father would like to retire and begin working on a new entrepreneurial venture.”
Doug also found the peer mentoring groups instrumental to his success in the e200 program. He was grouped with other family-owned businesses who could share best practices and words of advice in a confidential setting. The challenge of “working in the business” at the same time as “working on the business” required a lot of time-literally hundreds of hours-but one that Doug believes was well worth it to ensure a successful transition.
“My work schedule is 7:30 a.m. to question mark, usually five days a week. You can never escape thinking about the business, even though you might not actually be at work. Sunday dinners with the family often lead to discussions about work-it’s just part of who we are,” says Doug, who has found family and business make the perfect mix.
When Karen Wheeler-Lockwood wanted to grow some lavender for her wedding bouquet in 2003, she never knew it would turn into a business idea. Her long-time dreams of owning her own business found the perfect match in lavandula and the fertile fields along Skaneateles Lake.
Karen’s husband Gary Lockwood is a fifth-generation farmer, with crops of wheat, rye, corn and soy beans as well as wool from Corriedale sheep on 120-acres of bucolic pastureland. In 2004, the Lockwoods went to Sequim, Washington to attend the city’s world famous lavender festival and returned to the farm inspired by the versatility of lavender and the idea of agri-tourism. More than just a pretty plant to pick, lavender buds are filled with essential oils that can be extracted for soaps, lotions, candles and cosmetic uses or dried for everlasting sachets, garlands and wreaths.
“We thought “Why couldn’t we do this?” and the next year, we ordered the first 200 plants, a variety called grosso. After planting more and more, in 2005 we started to add u-picking to help harvest all the lavender,” explained Karen.
Each year, the Lockwoods added more lavender plants and today there are over 2,000 plants of 20 varieties of white, purple and blue lavender. Besides u-picking, weekend visitors can purchase items from the farm stand stocked with over 30 different lavender products. Karen’s creative side and attention to detail show in every product that she packages and labels by hand. Lockwood Farm products can also be purchased online at Etsy.com and at Skaneateles small businesses including bookstores, hotels and spas.
In 2008, Lockwood Farm hosted its first weekend festival where artists came to paint pictures of the lavender fields and sell their work on location. In 2011, over 3,000 people attended the Lockwood Lavender Festival. This year, the fifth annual celebration will be held on July 14 and 15 with 30 vendors, artists, presentations, and lavender-themed foods. For the adventurous palates, there will even be lavender ice-cream made with Lockwood lavender buds.
Customers can find more than just lavender products at the Lockwood Farm. When a local beekeeper was ready to retire in 2010, the Lockwood lavender fields became home to seven hives of honeybees and a honey product line was quickly added to the business. Karen has also started growing rosemary and created a rosemary product line of candles and soaps. Positioning the farm as a destination along the popular winery trails in the Finger Lakes region allows the Lockwoods to attract tourists looking for an aromatic and educational experience.
Karen found invaluable support after connecting with WISE Women’s Business Center director Joanne Lenweaver in 2009. As a regular member of the Creative Business Roundtable hosted by the WISE Center, Karen views the meetings as “business therapy”.
“It can be a challenge to leave the farm, especially during the growing season, but it’s so worthwhile. Being able to network with other women entrepreneurs, listen to their successes and failures, and find a lot of common ground between us is so great,” said Karen.
The latest addition to Lockwood Farm is an 864-square-foot barn. Planned for drying bunches of lavender, the barn is only part of the farm’s expansion plans, which include dedicating additional pasture for 2,000 more lavender plants. Besides her busy schedule on the farm, Karen will complete her Apprentice Beekeeper course at Cornell University this fall and take a well-deserved vacation after another long season of 18 hour days.
Karen’s work ethic and passion for what she does show as the business reaches full bloom: “I always wanted to own my own business, but I never knew it would be this. When you’re sitting in an office working for someone else, you always think you could do better, do different. To be able to develop a product from something you’ve grown in the ground, that is so rewarding to me.”