Mexico trip changes family business

Fat Toad FarmSalted Bourbon, Vanilla Bean and Cold Brew Coffee are just a few of the flavors of goat’s milk caramel that Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield, Vt. offers.

The family-owned company makes eight different caramel sauces and sells their product all over the country. The caramel sauce is based on the traditional recipe for cajeta, a slow-cooked Mexican treat made with goat's milk.

Steve Reid and his wife Judith Irving and their daughter Calley Hastings have owned and operated the company for 10 years. The “family business” also includes Christine Porcaro, a longtime employee who has been critical to the business’ success.

It all started in 2006 when Josey Hastings, their oldest daughter, came back to Vermont from living in Mexico where she had learned how to make cajeta. The family farm had a few goats so they decided to take over their kitchen to make a batch of cajeta. Irving says if it wasn’t for that trip to Mexico, they would never have landed on this unique Mexican product to bring to the US market.

When it officially launched in 2009, Fat Toad Farm was a small operation. For several years the company had many different products but eventually made the decision to focus mainly on caramel sauce. Over the next few years the business grew steadily, but in 2015 sales began to spike and the owners knew they needed to expand.

In late 2015, Fat Toad Farm sold their goats to Ayer’s Brook Goat Dairy in Randolph and then partnered with Vermont Creamery to source a year-round supply of fresh local goat's milk to meet consumers demand. By the close of 2017, sales had increased by 63% from 2015 and the company has been experiencing strong growth since.

“Purchasing goat's milk from Vermont Creamery on a year-round basis has allowed us to focus solely on the production, sales and distribution of goat's milk caramel. Purchasing milk has reduced our milk costs by half. With that, we have increased our year-round staffing and expanded in marketing, sales and production,” said Irving.

The family attributes some of the company’s success to the recent growing demand for goat’s milk in the U.S.  Goat’s milk can be easier to digest than cow’s milk and many people prefer it to cow milk substitutes such as almond or soy milk.

Although the company is in a good spot now it hasn’t been 10 years of uninterrupted success. In August 2011 like many Vermont businesses, Fat Toad Farm suffered major losses from Tropical Storm Irene resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in damages.  The storm waters swept through the warehouse and damaged much of the inventory.

The flood hit our inventory just before the holidays which is our biggest sales season and created a significant setback. Fortunately the state had some relief funding and we got a disaster loan through the Vermont Agricultural Credit Corporation to get us back on track,” said Irving.

All this time the business is still located on the very same farm where it all started in 2006, but the owners feel they are going to have to move to another site sooner rather than later.

“I’ve been told by other business owners to not move until you just can’t take it anymore. Well we are getting pretty close. We are going to outgrow this space eventually.”

To assist with expanding the business, Calley Hastings began a seven-month executive course in April for growing businesses hosted by the Small Business Administration. The course, Emerging Leaders, is a free program that connects small business owners with a network of industry experts and assists with the creation of a three-year strategic growth plan.

“Each year we have a competitive field for both our awards and Emerging Leaders,” said Darcy Carter, SBA Vermont District Director. “For Fat Toad Farm to be selected as both a winner and for the upcoming class says a lot about the growth they are experiencing.”

The award Carter refers to is the 2018 Vermont Family-Owned Business of the Year. Fat Toad Farm has been selected for the SBA award for its employment growth, financial success, expansion and successfully recovering from a disaster.

Fat Toad Farm has a long association with the SBA. Throughout the years the owners have received assistance from the Vermont Small Business Development Center, an organization funded by the SBA that provides counseling to Vermonters looking to start or grow their business.

“When I found out we had won, it was a moment of affirmation. Right now we’re at that next stage of growth and it shows we’re heading in the right direction,” said Irving.

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