When most people think of coffee cake, they envision a highly processed food snack wrapped in cellophane, labeled “coffee cake,” and available on convenience store or supermarket racks. But for Massachusetts-headquartered My Grandma’s of New England – a producer of world-class, gourmet cakes – it’s a whole different ballgame, Dan Harvey explains why.
When it comes to coffee cakes, the Boston-based My Grandma’s of New England hits it out of the ballpark every time it places a product at the plate. The late, great Ted Williams – who hit 521 home runs exclusively for the Boston Red Sox in his 22-year Major League Baseball career – knew about “moon shots.” And he knew a grand-slam product when he tasted one.
Williams loved the company’s cinnamon-walnut coffee cake products so much that he suggested that My Grandma’s produce a chocolate version. “We did, and we asked him if he liked it,” recalls Bruce Mills, the company’s executive vice president and co-owner. “Absolutely,” responded the “Beantown” superstar.
“So we asked him if we could put his name on our chocolate version,” Mills continues. The Hall-of-Fame slugger readily agreed.
Here’s another metaphor that the high-quality product inspires: My Grandma’s of New England’s coffee cakes are a box-office smash. That’s because many movie and music industry people are highly enamored of this flavorful dessert. That started when Irwin Winkler, producer of director Martin Scorsese’s classic film “Goodfellas” (1990), became another fervent customer. Celebrities who came to enjoy the product include Robert DeNiro, Madonna, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Barbara Streisand. Another well-known actress so loves the product that she once ordered 80 cakes for friends and colleagues.
Subsequently, we garnered a lot of Hollywood names on our mailing list, as well as politicians and other famous athletes such as Roger Clemens, the All-Star pitcher who began his career with the Boston Red Sox.” So the Boston connection proved strong. Further, the product has been served up at The Vatican, at a Major League Baseball All-Star Game, at a Ryder Cup event, and at a US Tennis Open.
Mills recalls another unofficial endorsement: Unsolicited, Henry Winkler – fondly remembered as “The Fonz” on the hit TV series “Happy Days” – sent the company a picture of himself decked out in a tuxedo. Winkler inscribed on the picture this message: “This cake is so good, I dress up to eat it.”
The Best Ingredients
Winkler’s dressing up underscores the passion for the product among the most discerning customers: My Grandma’s of New England doesn’t skimp when it comes to production costs. True, that may translate into a higher price, but loyal customers are willing to pay the expense.
“In this category, our products are a bit more expensive, but they attract those with discriminating tastes,” Mills says. “Those who appreciate quality are willing to pay.”
All cakes, he indicates are made from the most expensive and freshest ingredients available. For example, the company is willing to put out $140 a gallon for Bourbon Vanilla produced in Madagascar, which produces most of the commercially sold vanilla. There’s nothing artificial about the taste. “Some companies may be satisfied to spend about $19 dollars a gallon on imitation vanilla flavoring. We won’t do that,” Mills says. “We simply don’t believe that you can imitate the rich, full, intense flavor of real vanilla. Also, we use fresh – and never frozen – light medium pieces of walnuts that come directly from the best grower in California, Mariani Walnuts. They offer the highest quality walnuts on the planet. But they’re also the most expensive. Still, we spend the money because it makes a huge difference in product quality. About 50 walnut companies have sent me samples over the years, and nothing compares. We’re not about to settle for something less because of cost.”
My Grandma’s of New England not only eschews usage of artificial flavoring – don’t expect to find any artificial coloring, preservatives, or trans fats in its product. Further, this is a hands-in-the-ingredients operation. Products are hand mixed and hand baked, six days a week, in rack ovens.
“While our single biggest differentiator is taste, the other major differentiator is how we make the products,” Mills says. “When most people think of a coffee cake, they envision a square piece with a crumbling topping cut from a sheet. That’s not what we do. We make old-fashioned, sourcream based Bundt-style cake.”
For those not baking savvy, the Bundt style means a cake in a distinctive ring shape with a hole in the center, a European tradition. This mold shape has increased in popularity.
But more important is the proprietary recipe. “It’s an old German-Jewish recipe,” Mills says. “That helps it make the coffee cake quite different from the average person’s expectations. That goes back to taste. When people put it in their mouth, they understand why it might be a little more expensive than other coffee cakes, and they understand why it has been written up in more than 80 publications.”
These publications include The Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Times, USA Today, and Good Housekeeping. The product also made the Oprah Winfrey magazine’s celebrated “O” list – not to mention further exposure on television (which includes the QVC Network, The Today Show, and Roker on the Road [with Al Roker).
Founded By A Real “Grandma”
The company was established in 1990, and there was really a genuine, living grandma behind its founding. Her name was Esther Cluck, and she used a very old German-Jewish recipe to produce her cakes in her kitchen. The original product was the company’s signature cinnamon-walnut coffee cake. As demand grew, the operation expanded from her kitchen and into a 250-square-foot bakery located in Newtown, Mass. As with many businesses, word of mouth was enough to propel growth: Soon customers traveled from as far away as one hour to purchase a cake that they had come to know and love. The purchased cakes were always still warm from the oven. “Grandson” Barry Cohen – who came up with the idea that Grandma’s delicious cakes should form that basis of a business founded the company. Then, in 1993, Bob Katz and his father, Edmond, purchased the business. “Mr. Katz is now my partner and the company president,” says Mills. “He used to buy the coffee cakes from Mr. Cohen. He used the cakes as corporate gifts – sort of like a business card – and thus he became one of Barry’s biggest customers.”
As Katz loved the product so much, he had some ideas about running the business. “Essentially, Barry challenged him. He told Bob that if he thought he could do it better, than he should purchase it. That’s exactly what happened,” recalls Mills.
Expansion soon followed. As demand increased, the company shifted to a larger facility in Dedham, Mass., in 1994. This move included establishment of a shipping department, which would prove vital to the company’s ongoing success. In the next three years, demand continued increasing, and the company moved to its current location in Boston’s Hyde Park section. By 1996, annual sales reached the $1 million mark. The following year, Grandma’s made its first presentation on the QVC home shopping network.
Small Size, Huge Output
Despite all of the exposure and success, My Grandma’s of New England is still a relatively small operation.
“We only have one production facility, and it is only about 10,000 square feet, but the amount of cake we can put of this tiny building is unbelievable,” Mills says. “We’re expecting to make close to a million cakes next year which includes a new line of equally delicious gluten-free products. As far as revenue, our annual sales figure was $8 million last year. This year, it should reach $9 million.”
Along with the famous customers, who else buys Grandma’s product? They’re every day people who either remember the taste of the product or were exposed to the product by a third party – and they live all throughout the United States.
My Grandma’s of New England products are primarily sold through mail order catalogs – both directly and through other mail order catalogs, as well as through a Boston retail outlet. In addition, the cake is available through upscale groceries, gourmet and specialty vendors and gift shops throughout the United States as well as direct sales through the Web site and phone orders. “But our main focus is mail order,” Mills says. “As we buy the best ingredients, we charge what we have to. So our customers are people who appreciate and are willing to pay for that quality. While we send cakes all over the world, most orders end up in the United States. A lot of the internationally shipped orders go to military addresses. We have a special program – Salute a Soldier – that has a reduced shipping charge, in appreciation for all that the military does.”
Cakes are packaged in plastic freezer bags that preserve freshness, whether fresh or frozen. Shelf life in the bag is 14 days when unrefrigerated and up to a year if frozen. Cakes are shipped via Federal Express to arrive at their destination within 3 business days.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
With My Grandma’s of New England distinctive product quality – and the passion that quality has generated in customers – success appears to have been easy for the company. But Mills scoffs at that notion. “The early years, in the early to mid-1990s were a struggle,” he recalls. “I sometimes slept on the office floor with my dog, and I used to wait on tables four nights a week, because we were paying ourselves almost nothing.”
But growth did come, because of the nature of the product. “Our cakes sold themselves,” says Mills. “Word of mouth was tremendous, and that led to exposure on television and in print publications. It’s not that we are necessarily business geniuses; it’s just that the cake is so good.”
As far as the future, the company is going to continue what it has been doing. “We’re not going to change the nature of our business,” emphasizes Mills. “We want to continue to grow. We need to grow. Even though we’ve developed a great reputation among buyers, if you said the name Grandma’s of New England to 100,000 people across the country, I’d be willing to bet that no more than four percent would know the product. Thus, we still have a long ways to go.”