In graduate school I took a class on how to write a business plan, and my professor (who made millions by running cable lines in office buildings) said only one thing I remember – business is personal. The people you do business with are as important as the deals you make. If you can’t trust them to take care of your product, convey it properly to customers, and pay their bills on time, you will be out of business. This is particularly important in a food business where freshness and presentation are critical. You also need to observe your customers in action to learn what is working (or not) with your products, and identify opportunities to expand your business further.
Over the past month, Amai began providing Tea Sweets to two stores I am proud to be involved with; Takashimaya in New York City and Teaism in Washington DC. Both stores are carrying our new 24-cookie Tea Sweets Gift Box, and Teaism is also carrying the 3-packs in all four flavors. You will notice that the gift box displayed in Takashimaya and Teaism is different than the one available online, which allows them to have an exclusive product in stores. We’re in the process of having more custom boxes made to offer online, but this will take a little time.
My partner Kathryn is the one who initially contacted each store and showed them the product. She also handles sales orders and most day-to-day contact with our wholesale customers, leaving me free to bake and manage operations. I am grateful for her sales efforts and am happy to have someone else show our products to the world since I feel too close to everything to present it objectively (and I am usually covered in flour and unpresentable to the public anyway). While having Kathryn as a sales partner is a huge advantage for the company, it leaves me behind the scenes, receiving feedback from customers second hand. Comments are different when heard directly, and I feel it is important to personally connect with our customers and see how things are going myself.
I made it my mission to get out of the kitchen the past few weeks. I went down to Washington DC for a weekend to visit Teaism and spent the afternoon having tea at Takashimaya in New York City. Takashimaya is only a few minutes from my house but my crazy schedule barely allows time for lunch most days, and unless I made a plan to escape my regular duties I would have never made it over. Both trips taught me a great deal about what each business is facing and how our products fit in.
I stopped by Teaism on a Monday during the lunch rush hour, and the store was packed with people ordering from their innovative menu of sushi, noodles, rice, teas, desserts and much more. The interesting thing to me was the variety of people visiting the store. One man looked like he spends his day working in a garage, while others looked like they just stepped out of a law office. Everyone seemed comfortable in the store and the line didn’t slow down once. Our 3-packs were sitting on the counter by the cash register, in what seemed like the best location in the store, but while I was watching no one bought any. What could I learn from this?
I tried to think of every reason our cookies were not flying off the shelf while I watched. Things I asked myself:
- Were they noticed? Most people were looking overhead at the menu while ordering, not at the counter in front of them.
- Were people able to tell what they were? Our cookies were displayed in a basket, leaving the label visible but blocking the view of the cookies themselves.
- Did they look appetizing? Maybe people just don’t want to try them.
- Was it the right time of day to observe? Maybe it was simply that customers at lunchtime don’t want pre-wrapped cookies and are only interested in the meals.
Based on reorder numbers I know they are selling well, so it could have been bad observation timing. Regardless, there is something to learn in the answers to all of these questions, and more observation must be done.
While I was at Teaism I had the opportunity to talk to the owner, who told me that she was concerned that her staff wasn’t going to come in that day because of the immigrant strike. It was a good reminder that businesses face many other problems besides selling my cookies, and that their daily issues need to be considered when following up with them in the future.
On my visit to Takashimaya I was so excited to see our box I wanted to tell everyone in the store that I made it. I even (embarassingly) took pictures. Once I regained my composure, I approached the manager and introduced myself and asked how everything was going. She told me that she loved the cookies, but needed more information. Customers had been asking for nutrition information, particularly around amounts of salt and sugar used. Since we are a small company we are only required to list the ingredients used in our product, and do not have to list nutrition facts on the label. Based on her feedback I realize this is a critical piece of information to customers and that we need to invest time in making this available, even if it is not required. The manager also wanted to know what the “Best Before:” expiration date really means, and how long the product will actually be good for. Our products are dated for freshness, not based on when they will actually spoil, but that leads customers to question what to do after the “Best Before” date has passed. This is a good point to consider.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get out of your usual space and see how the rest of the world views your hard work. Spending time in these two stores, and meeting the owners and managers of each, was so refreshing. It gives me a sense of focus going forward. It was also fun to have tea in both stores, and take a break from the heat of the kitchen.
Takashimaya New York
693 5th Ave (Between 54th Street and 55th Street)
New York, NY 10022
(212) 350-0111 phone
Subway: E, V at 5th Ave
400 8th Street N.W.
Washington DC 20004
(202) 638-6010 phone
*This location has a great shop selling tea products located next to the restaurant
2009 R Street N.W.
Washington DC 20009
(202) 667-3827 phone
800 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington DC, 20006
(202) 835-2233 phone