"Do you like black licorice?"
Our family manufactures and sells gourmet black licorice. It's a unique niche; it's candy; and it's far more difficult than most would imagine.
In 2003, Ron, Terri, Jon, and Molly Love purchased a formula and a name, and have worked the past six years to build that base into a successful business. Chateau D' Lanz Swiss Licorice is an all-natural gourmet licorice candy. As with many family owned businesses, our progress is a perpetual dance of two steps forward, one step back. But slowly and steadily we've made progress toward growth and stability in our business.
While we all play important roles, our story starts with Ron Love. A stockbroker for 15 years, Ron suffered a heart attack and stroke in February of 1995. Unable to continue in his profession as a result of his stroke, Ron met this new adversity head-on. Our family came together to face the challenge as a team, and rather than dividing us it brought us closer together. After several years of recovery and writing about his experience, Ron rallied our family around the idea of a licorice company. At the time it seemed so simple- make licorice, sell licorice, cash paychecks. Everyone brought something to the table: Ron had years of business experience; Jon was finishing his law degree and MBA; Molly had just finished her Masters in Communications, and Terri was the ever present glue that held the family together and could run the back-end operations.
"Do you like black licorice?"
Six years of successes and failures followed. We made our first sales call as a family, the four of us walking into a local candy shop, telling them about our licorice, and walking out with our first order. We met our first broker as a family, the four of us sitting around a table and getting our first real insight into the workings of the candy industry. We worked our first show as a family, each of us taking on the role of a carnival barker- a feeling of exposure and vulnerability both frightening and freeing. Our neighboring entrepreneurs often mock our customer pickup line: "Do you like black licorice?" It's understandable, as we say it thousands of times, asking generically to the crowd of passing customers like casting a line into a slow moving stream. The responses we often receive would be disheartening to most if they weren't so comical. To many, licorice is revolting, and they have no compunction in sharing their disgust. But about 30% of the population has the opposite reaction- they LOVE black licorice. Not only do they love black licorice, they'll seek it out when they find quality black licorice. We cast our line into the crowd, it catches the ears of a licorice lover, and they stop in their tracks, forgetting their momentary purpose, and making the shortest line possible to our waiting sample, their eyes filled with the "licorice twinkle."
In six years our family has built our single product company from zero store distribution to being sold on-and-off in over 700 stores. We have revamped our packaging, built relationships with distributors, and learned more about the manufacturing of licorice than any of us thought possible.
Two steps forward. One step back.
Starting a business in an established industry with no prior industry experience comes with a steep learning curve. We keep, to this day, 50 beautiful acrylic POS displays on which our licorice bags were intended to hang. At a cost of $52 each no store would touch them, and they became a visual reminder of a valuable lesson learned: think before you step; walk before you run. Manufacturing our product has presented its own hurdles. After several years of inconsistent quality, our family took over production of 100% of our product in our hometown of Arlington, Washington. Recipes are a good start, but consistently manufacturing professional quality candy requires a level of consistency of factors that is difficult to anticipate and control. In the summer of 2008 we started making the licorice ourselves in the reclaimed ice cream room of a long inactive dairy. We started with greater than 50% waste, virtually doubling our product costs while we took our on-the-job course in licorice production. After much experimentation we've managed to reduce that waste to less than 1%. We live 50 miles apart; Jon and Molly are both employed with other full-time jobs, but we come together several days a week to stir the pots, pour the batch, and package our product. It gives us several hours at a time with no interruptions where we can sit, as a family, to talk about our day, stay up to date on each other's lives, and strategize about licorice.
"How about now? Do you like black licorice?"
Our business is a numbers game. There are thousands of chocolate companies in the world, but only about 118 licorice companies. Of those 118 companies, only a handful use real licorice in their product as we do, and we target a small 30% segment of the population. We can almost guarantee that you'll never meet another person who owns a black licorice company. The numbers just don't support it. A person has to have a thick skin to sell licorice; rejection has to be a learning experience, a way of honing your sales pitch. And believe me when I say we get plenty of opportunities to hone our sales pitch. But success is built on learning from those failures, and the more times you try, the more chances you have for success. We keep asking people if they like black licorice because, eventually, one says yes. It's a numbers game: two steps forward, one step back. Eventually those small gains add up, and all those little steps carry you to your goal. Our family, and our business, is on its way, one step at a time.