The wafting smell of a homemade cinnamon walnut coffee cake cooling in his grandmother’s kitchen prompted Barry Cohen to start selling her coffee cakes right out of her kitchen in 1990. After a couple of years and a growing fan base Cohen moved out of the kitchen and to a 250-square-foot bakery in Newton, Mass. And the rest, as they say, is history as My Grandma’s of New England was born.
My Grandma’s of New England, now located in Boston, supplies coffee cakes on order and through retail locations throughout the United States and Canada. What started as a one man show peddling coffee cakes in a local area has grown into a forward thinking organization of 32 people continually finding new ways to sell coffee cakes.
In his travels Cohen sold cakes to Bob Katz, who quickly became the largest customer for My Grandma’s. Throughout their relationship Katz constantly offered unsolicited advice on how to improve the cakes, leading Cohen to eventually suggest that Katz purchase the business and in 1993 Katz did just that.
Since that time My Grandma’s has steadily grown, at first by expanding the flavor selections, and then to include special orders like low fat or nut free cakes. Bruce Mills, vice president and one of the first employees of My Grandma’s, says other than a secret recipe there is no mystery to My Grandma’s success.
“Our cakes are typically more expensive than other brands in this food category and appeal to those with discriminating tastes,” he says. “We appeal to those who appreciate quality and are willing to pay for it.”
All cakes are handmade from the finest and freshest ingredients available. Mills says the company cuts no corners when it comes to ingredients. As an example he says the company has paid as much as $140 per gallon of Bourbon Vanilla, from the Bourbon Islands, Madagascar, rather than $18/gallon for vanilla extract. Madagascar produces most of the vanilla sold commercially, and consequently is the quintessential, familiar vanilla flavor for most people. It is the flavor imitated in artificial vanilla, although the real thing has a full, rich, intense flavor that cannot be imitated, Mills says.
My Grandma’s uses those ingredients to make “the freshest and dinner-worthy cakes whose moistness and flavors are unmatched.” My Grandma’s of New England coffee cakes do not contain any artificial flavoring, artificial coloring, Trans fats, or preservatives. Today their flavor selection includes the Granny Smith Apple, Golden Raspberry, Cappuccino, New England Blueberry, Ted Williams Chocolate, Banana Walnut, and Cape Cod Cranberry. And they are makers of the original sour cream coffee cake.
These delicious coffee cakes are served all over the United States and in many parts of the world. The coffee cake is packed in a plastic freezer bag that preserves freshness whether fresh or frozen. Shelf life in the bag is 14 days when unrefrigerated and up to 12 months if frozen. Other than the Ted Williams All-Star Chocolate, all cakes can be ordered in a lower fat version which is 25 percent lower in fat and averages 15 percent lower in calories.
My Grandma’s regular cakes average between 100 and 110 calories per ounce, but the company’s dedication to fresh ingredients also applies to its lower-fat cakes, in which My Grandma’s reduces fat content by substituting non-fat yogurt for sour cream and reducing the quantity of walnuts.
Also important: The company’s products are certified OK Kosher by the OK Kashrut Laboratories. “It’s very important to be certified kosher – not only for our Jewish customers, but our non-Jewish customers as well,” Mills says. “Kosher products are seen as having higher standards of quality and purity and we chose OK Kosher because they are the most widely accepted and respected certifying organization. It’s been wonderful to work with them over the years.”
CAKE FOR THE STARS
My Grandma’s of New England Coffee Cakes were shown on the Food Network’s “Roker on the Road” program starring Al Roker. But that is not the first time My Grandma’s cakes has brushed up with celebrities, In fact, Mills says a good deal of its success can be attributed to celebrity star power.
Mills says it started with Irwin Winkler, producer of the film “Goodfellas,” who became a satisfied My Grandma’s customer. From there the Hollywood client list kept expanding to include musicians, television stars and a jet setter or two. The list reads like an A list of celebrities, including Barbara Streisand, Robert DeNiro, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna.
But the prize for most cakes ordered in a year goes to Jamie Lee Curtis who once ordered 80 cakes. She got hooked on the cakes during the filming of “True Lies” and even got her co-star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in on the act. At one point Henry Winkler sent the company his picture to use on a bulletin board ad – unsolicited.
Dreamworks Pictures has had a corporate account with My Grandma’s of New England as well as other studios like Warner Brothers. Ted Williams was such a big fan the company named a cake after him. The cakes have been praised in The New York Times, USA Today, Good Housekeeping Magazine and featured in O, The Oprah Magazine.
My Grandma’s of New England is sold through mail order catalogs – both directly and through other mail order catalogs and through a retail outlet in Boston. 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.
Mills says the company has quickly moved forward with getting the cakes to market when compared to a single salesperson peddling his wares throughout a local area. He says 85 percent of their sales come from the wholesale side of the business.
In addition, the company is active in using the cakes in fundraising agreements with schools and other institutions. My Grandmas Coffee Cake of New England fundraising program and pricing structures are designed to assist nonprofit organizations and groups. The pricing structure reflects My Grandmas commitment to the community. Mills says a Pop Warner league in Massachusetts actually raised $9,000.
But Mills says the company refuses to sit back on its laurels and is looking for other ways of distributing the cakes. The company is currently reviewing the benefits of private labeling agreements and will eventually dabble in that channel. In addition, My Grandma’s frequently appears on QVC as another means of gaining exposure and sales.
Throughout its 17-year history My Grandma’s of New England has proven to be innovators in developing markets and building a loyal fan base. Mills says the company is reviewing opportunities to partner with complementary vendors like coffee kiosk providers baking equipment vendors, and coffee makers.
“We don’t ever want to be satisfied with the status quo when it comes to bringing My Grandma’s of New England to the consumer,” he says. “We are striving to reach them the way they want to be reached and, to the end, are exploring numerous possibilities.”
The company sells through distributors but Mills says My Grandma’s only chooses those distributors that are actively engaged in the selling process. That is, no order takers. But he says My Grandma’s does its part by riding with the distributor’s reps to top accounts and even Katz participates in the ride-alongs and on site demos. He also indicated My Grandma’s has 400 to 500 corporate accounts that offer the cake as Christmas gifts to their customers, bonuses, or employee recognition giveaways and this mail order business is very important to My Grandma’s. They trust all of their order entry, inventory control and accounts receivable to very powerful and customizable software called InOrder from Morse Data, www.morsedata.com, “a valued partner in our business” according to Mr. Mills.
In the beginning the word of mouth led to customers driving from locations as far away as one hour to buy one of the cakes that were still warm from the oven. Today, Mills says that word of mouth is generated by any means they can find. Back when the company began, completely selling out was a daily occurrence. Mills would love that “problem” again.
From the whiff of a walnut coffee cake cooling on the window sill to an international powerhouse perhaps My Grandmas of New England can have its cake, and eat it too.