Real Women Who Inspire Us

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Real Women's Stories: 'I Turned My Family Recipe Into Big Business'

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: Effie's Homemade

Who: Joan MacIsaac, 52, and Irene Costello, 53, Boston

Year launched: 2008

Sells in: About 1,400 stores

Annual revenue: $1 million

Number of employees: 4 in Boston, plus 30 at the plant in New Jersey where Effie's products are made

Joan MacIsaac and Irene Costello go together like peas and carrots. Or, in their case, butter and flour. And that alchemy might be just as important to the success of their business, Effie's Homemade, as Joan's third-generation family oatcake recipe, which they used to launch the company.

Joan (who'd had years of experience as a restaurant chef, caterer, cooking instructor and bakery owner) and Irene (who had been a vice president of sales for a bank) began their culinary partnership about a decade ago by offering cooking classes. Their dream was to eventually open a cooking school, but they could never find a good permanent space. "So we said, 'Let's dust off Effie's oatcake recipe instead,' " Irene recalls. The old Scottish recipe came from Joan's mom, Effie, who'd inherited it from her mom back in Nova Scotia. "It was my dream food," Joan says. "It's crispy. It's not too sweet. It's very homey."

Starting with a product they completely believed in, Joan and Irene next turned for guidance to two friends who ran a successful wholesale baking company. "They got us started on the right foot," Joan says, "teaching us about packaging and design, how to scale up, how to be ready for shelf-life tests, the best way to do sales. It was invaluable advice—probably saved us two years of pitfalls."

They began by making the oatcakes in a friend's pie shop at night and selling in 13 Boston-area stores. They quickly expanded, however, and had the cakes manufactured by a third party that was already making similar products. By the end of their first year, Joan and Irene's products were in 200 stores. They now sell a variety of flavors, including corn cakes, pecan nutcakes, a malted cocoa cake and a rye-walnut biscuit.

And what does Effie think of the company's success? "She loves it!" Irene says. After Joan told Effie that her oatcakes had won an award from the Specialty Food Association, Irene recalls, "Effie said, 'That's nice, Dear. But just don't give out my phone number to anyone.' "

  • BEST ADVICE: "Do your research. We went to a lot of classes offered by the Specialty Food Association on how to start a business, how to price and how to market," Joan says. "We also did lots of consumer testing on our own—we'd blindfold friends at parties and ask them, 'What do you taste in this? What would you pay for this?' "
  • HARD LESSON: "We would highly recommend to anyone starting out that they launch a line of items and flavors rather than a single one," Joan says. "It ends up saving money on packaging costs, marketing, design—everything."