Heartwarming soups. Melt-in-your-mouth Southern biscuits. Organic tortilla chips. Scottish oatcakes. Meet five enterprising women who've taken beloved home cooking and built it into a thriving career.
Recipe: Laurie's Buffalo Gourmet
Who: Laurie Seron, 55, Salt Lake City
Year launched: 1999
Sells in: More than 150 stores
Annual revenue: Projected to be $600,000 this year
Number of employees: four full time (she outsources to a manufacturer, a sales team and a distributor)
Not all brides welcome advice from their future mothers-in-law, but when Laurie Seron's offered her a crash course in cooking authentic Mexican food—"you know, beans and Spanish rice and tortilla chips"—Laurie was thrilled. Little did she know that lesson would change her life.
Soon, Laurie says, she and her husband, Daniel, 58, were "making chips for parties, and people would always say, 'You should sell these!' " It started as a joke, the mother of six says, "but finally we said, 'Why not? We have a good product, and this is a business we could do together as a family.' "
So one night Laurie rented out a Salt Lake City hamburger joint after closing time, making chips in the fryers and then hand-bagging them. "The label was xeroxed on rustic-looking brown paper," she recalls. The next day, she says, she cried "because I thought, Who would want to buy these?" Turns out, lots of people. A local grocery took all 15 bags and, within a week, ordered 20 cases. For the next year and a half, Laurie and four employees worked overnight shifts at the burger place making chips, often with the help of Daniel and the four older Seron kids, to fill orders at area stores. "The kids loved being part of it," Laurie says. "We would play oldies on the jukebox, and they had free access to the Coke machine! It really was a big family effort."
During the day, Laurie would drive in her minivan to stores around the state to sell her chips—and soon business was sizzling. "It was like grabbing a bull by the tail," she says. A few years after spending $150,000 in savings to build her own commercial kitchen, she realized that the labor costs involved in continuing to make the chips by hand were prohibitive, so she turned to Manuel's Fine Foods, a chips manufacturer in Utah, for production and distribution. "I didn't think of myself as a business-woman when I started," she says, "but I jumped out there with a vision and said, 'If I'm going to do this, I'm going to make it work.' "
Laurie's Buffalo Gourmet line now features five flavors of chips, plus three salsas, and is sold to stores throughout the West. The company remains a family affair. "Daniel is a great problem solver," Laurie says. "And all the kids still help. We've achieved what we set out to achieve: to have a real family business."
- BEST ADVICE: "You have to have some basic things in place to make a business like this succeed: Find an approved kitchen; come up with your company name and logo; figure out packaging for a good shelf life; and, most important, understand your margins"—that's the cost of getting the products on the shelf compared with their retail price.
- HARD LESSON: "You are the one with the vision, so you have to stay engaged with the product, even as you grow. You can't always expect other people to be as vigilant as you are with what you are creating."