Sheila G Main’s Signature Brownies have been featured at Disney’s theme parks, bakeries, and catered events. Her Cookie Dough Brownie was the best-selling dessert three years straight at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney MGM Studios).
In 1992, forty-something Sheila was laid off from her CFO position at an industrial advertising agency. Finding herself at a crossroads, she took stock of her strengths. Her training was in finance. Her passion, though, was baking. Her fudgy, rich brownies always received two thumbs up from friends and co-workers. So she thought, why not trade bean counting for baking?
Brownie Brittle went from having 200,000 bags on store shelves in 2011 to having an estimated 40 million bags on stores shelves today. Here are insights from her journey and advice for those looking to follow suit.
After conceiving the idea for Brownie Brittle, how did you get started?
First, I handed out samples to friends and family members who I knew would be brutally honest with me. When the response was a unanimous thumbs-up, I knew I had something special. They didn’t just like Brownie Brittle; they loved it. And that was very motivating.
Next, came the challenge of finding a facility that could produce Brownie Brittle. It was no easy task since it is a very labor-intensive product to produce. I had to walk away from more than one facility due to either pricing or quality control issues.
Once production was in place, the next project was packaging and label design.
What was entailed to create and package the first round of product?
The first generation of packaging was a plastic clamshell container with a label on top and a label on the bottom. It was the least expensive option, but it didn’t protect the flavor and aroma of the product. That’s when we moved to stand-up pouches. Even the stand-up pouches went through their own metamorphosis. At first, it was a label applied to the front and back of stock pouches. It required the least upfront costs, but the actual unit cost was outrageous. It took outside investors to finally move to the pre-printed stand-up pouches we have today.
As for the process of initially producing Brownie Brittle, I spent countless hours working on the production floor making sure the batter was being spread evenly, the toppings were plentiful, the bake times were just right, and the bags were all properly sealed.
What was the hardest part about bringing your product to market?
It was all hard. Owning your own business is about problem-solving every single day. But if you love what you, and you believe in your product it becomes a labor of love.
Given your experience, for someone with an idea for a specialty food product, what’s your advice for them?
It’s very simple; believe in yourself and your product and never give up. And be sure you are ready to commit yourself fully to this journey because there will be countless sleepless nights, unending hours of work, financial strain, difficult decisions and plenty of opportunities for learning. In the end, you’ll be stronger and so will your business
What was the original sales and marketing strategy, and how has it evolved as you grew?
Three words; demo, demo, and demo. When you’ve created a product that no one has ever heard of before, it’s a must. And whatever the cost, it was always well worth it. Demoing the product worked every time. We sampled the product at numerous consumer events and handed out coupons attached to a list of retailers who carried Brownie Brittle.
Social media was another marketing tool we pulled out of our toolbox. It’s amazing how it can level the playing field when you’re up against brands with huge budgets. We were able to engage with our consumers and build a strong fan base. And we continue to build that base and strengthen those relationships.
Was there a point when your business began to “take off” so to speak?
It was July 2012. I was in NYC for an editor’s event when I received a call from our head of sales. We had just shipped two trailer loads of Chocolate Chip Brownie Brittle to Costco’s Texas region a couple weeks before, and he was calling to tell me that they had just placed an order for another two trailer loads. I knew that was it, the tipping point. Soon, the other Costco regions saw the movement, and they started ordering our Brownie Brittle. Costco customers then began calling and emailing us asking what other flavors we had and where they could find them. We all but drove them to their local grocery stores.
What’s one business mistake you made along the way and the lesson you learned?
In the words of the late great Maya Angelou, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” I had the misfortune of working with some unscrupulous individuals who almost cost me my entire business. The signs were there, all the bells and whistles were going off, and I ignored them. I had to overcome those experiences emotionally and financially. When bringing a product to market, you have to take the emotion out of it and run it like the business it is.
Knowing what you know today, if you were to start another specialty food business from scratch, what would you do differently?
That’s a tough question since I would have an advantage that I didn’t have when launching Brownie Brittle – the capital to do things right the first time. Many of the decisions I made in launching Brownie Brittle were based on what I could afford to do, and not what I needed to do. I would definitely base my decisions on the needs of the business.