Suzie and Lizann started Among Friends over a cup of coffee and a cookie. Their goal is simple they want to help people fill their kitchens fresh from the oven baked goods made from the best ingredients. Their mixes make baking easy for people on the days when treats from scratch are impractical or impossible and what I loved most about their products is that each of their mixes is handcrafted and named someone they loved.
Tell us a little bit about both of you and Among Friends Baking Company.
The business started as a natural outgrowth of spending time together raising young children. For the first time we were out of the conventional workplace. We were doing quite different projects such as decorating all of the tables for some event or designing birth announcements, children’s bedrooms, just so much fun. As the kids were getting older they were starting to want more treats that had sugar in them and so I found this great oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe that was so easy and loaded with oats and I made some and took them to the lake and the kids just gobbled them up. From there Luzan really started tinkering around with the recipe and making them whole grain, getting rid the white flour and that’s really what we’re all about is creating whole grains for everybody that are so easy to make and are delicious.
(Lizann)I am a born tinkerer. I cannot leave a recipe alone. I have notes in all my cookbooks. I am somewhat of a nutrition zealot, I like to think that I’m open to all kinds of ways of eating but I certainly was very adamant that I pass on some of this to my children. I have 3 boys and they were gobbling everything in sight and much what was available ten years ago was not good. When Suzie came to the lake with this cookie and I saw the kids gobbling it up and I thought, “They’re getting a decent amount of oatmeal.” I just have to make this even better. I think it was a couple years ago when I heard my kids say, “Mom we need more flax seed to make the smoothies,” I almost cried. It’s finally happening, they want to eat healthy and that’s really so satisfying.
How did that first conversation go when you actually decided to go from making cookies as mom to becoming an actual business owner?
Lizann: Because I was a writer who was very theme oriented and Suzy as the designer we moved very quickly from making cookies to concept. The concept in that part came actually quite easily for us. We really wanted something that symbolized our friendship and offered friendship to other people out there. The truth is you can’t do everything you want for your kids, so sometimes you have to find some good shortcuts. One of the things that I read was, “One of the nicest things you can do for your kids is to make them homemade treats because you know what’s going in them…” I really took that to heart and Suzie did as well.
Suzie: I actually said, “Oh my gosh! Our mom friends are going to love these…” And that’s how it started. We just put all of the ingredients in a clear bag with the bow on it and said, “Would you be interested in these for 5$?” Everybody loved them. We couldn’t keep up with demand.
Do you think that when you went into business it made it easier having a partner?
Suzie: Absolutely! There are just so many facets of the business that you cannot even comprehend, so to have someone else to bounce ideas off of it’s just wonderful and Lizann is like a sister to me.
Do you have clear assignments and delegations? Or do you blur the lines and work on the same things?
In the beginning the lines were blurry. We worked on everything together from the concept to packaging to writing to the recipe development. We couldn’t sustain that. At this point we actually are in very separate spheres, we have to make time to get together just to have fun.Innovate from what you know #blissfulbitespodcast Click To Tweet
We focused on sales initially. I started taking the mixes door-to-door to smaller stores and now I focus on the natural stores like Whole Foods, Sprouts and retailers such as that. There are a lot that goes into sales instead of just not knocking on the door and say, “Hey! Do you want these?” You have to make sure they’re going to sell and you have to make sure that the store that you go to has the right product mix. It’s just critical to your business.
In all the things you have done in the past few years, what has been your most proud moment so far?
We decided Among Friends was the name of our company and we had to submit that and wait for it to be approved. When got the official certificate in the mail that was a big moment.
My nieces a couple of years ago were so cute. They were sitting at my counter, we were baking and they turned the package around and they said, “Wait a minute! Aunt Suzie is that your picture on the package?” They said, “You’re famous!” That just warms your heart.
Can you tell us specific time where you did something that was like a flop or just a struggle you went through or a disappointment?
I made a hundreds of cakes, gluten-free cakes before I got one to rise because when you take the starches out of a cake you recognize how critical it is to get the exact combination of dry ingredients to wet ingredients.
When we first started we need to get new UPC’s for all of these products so what did I do? I went on the internet. You can buy them inexpensively. I got ones that had been previously owned which is not a problem when you’re in some smaller stores but as soon as you become larger and at a national scale you have to have a family owned code. We had to change all of our UPC’s. So live and learn.
How did you come up with your sales strategy?
Initially it was a door-to-door or a back door to back door. We used to go to Whole Foods and drop off our product. Obviously overtime when we really started to translate our business into a sustainable model we knew that wasn’t going to work. We can’t be in all these places at one time so we talked with several people. I had a close friend who was a business consultant who worked in the food area so we captured his talents and opinions and eventually he became part of our team for a short period. We had no business background but we knew what we didn’t know. We also availed ourselves of my husband’s knowledge, he’s a businessman and has lots of good insights. We made a lot of mistakes until we really brought on someone who is now our CEO with 35 years of experience in the food field and operations.
In all your growth what was the hardest part or the biggest struggle with growing?
Finding employees who have the same passion and work ethic that we do, to help us grow. The other thing is the distribution model for natural foods is a hard one to capture because you need to be with some very big distributors to get into certain places. Then you’re too small for them to pay much attention to you plus all the fees and other things associated with being involved with them are very burdensome. We started out with the gunshot really going out into that world and then we had to step back and do it more strategically.
What would you say to someone who is right in that cusp? Do you have some tips just to help them go from that small business to getting into more of a major distribution?
It’s really important to make sure that you have the support of the retailers before you go into distribution because if you go to let’s say a Whole Foods and that buyer says, “Yes. I want to put you in all my stores.” It’s much easier to go to the distributor and say, “look I’ve got 40 stores for you to put my product in.” It’s going to work a whole lot better than taking it to the distributor and hoping that it sells.
I say something even in the beginning, “Depth before breath.” I think you really need to use your test stores to figure out what works and then once you know that you can expand.
Your products are named after people you know how and why did you decide to do that?
That came up very, very early on. I’m not attracted to anything that doesn’t have meaning. They’re associated with people because you associate recipes with people. It was also a way of honoring the people we love.
What would you say is your biggest piece of advice to someone who is just starting out?
It’s really important to stay focused on the end goal and not to get too high not to get too low. You’re going to have ups and downs it’s just the way that it goes. You’re going to have struggles along the way and you have to choose to learn from those instead of beat yourself up about it.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?
(Suzie)I would like to be the leader in the whole grain world. I want to make it easy and affordable for everyone to have whole grains incorporated into their lives and have a wonderful treat that’s easy to make and brings their families together.
(Lizann): I would like us to be part of the resurgence of Michigan and the Midwest and be able to offer a place to work that is fun, creative and where the learning never stops. At the same time have a good enough business model so that we can not only make money but offer employment to people in this area.
How do you stay balanced especially both of you being moms as well?
Suzie: Every day I make sure I begin with prayer and meditation and help I can make a difference in a positive way each day. And also I have to make sure I get my work out in.
Lizann: We stay balanced through fresh air, outdoor exercise, friendship, fun, we all have to put some of that in our day. For me reading is very important that also gives me a perspective.
What has been a successful marketing technique that you have done with Among Friends whether it was a giveaway, a promotion or a partnering with a company?
When we get customers writing to us, we personally respond to those people. That has gotten us so much ground with people because they realize I’m hearing from a real person, they’ve taken time to write me and answer my question, sometimes it’s a compliment and sometimes it’s a complaint.
Share one thing that you want your customers to know about each of you that you think they don’t know.
Lizann: Our customers don’t know that I am addicted to listening to books on my CD player. I go to the library and get CD’s. When I’m baking at home I’m always listening to something that enriches my world. I love memoirs, particularly food memoirs, and actually I first heard about the Gluten-Free Girl when I read her food memoir. Last week she published a blog about us and it was such a thrill to be able to talk to her.
Suzie: I love to dance and I can still do the splits. Lastly, I still illustrate and paint in my spare time.
About Among Friends + Suzie and LizAnn:
NEW podcast giveaway! (2 Bags Blissful Eats granola, 5 Pack of Not Ketchup, sample pack the Granilla Bar and variety pack of mixes from Among Friends and Smart Cookies from Bitsy’s Brain Food) by filling out the form below AND/OR writing an iTunes review and sending a screen shot of it in an email to me!