|Sheila G. Mains|
Let's start with a basic but important question. How did you get into baking? Did you start as a child or was this an adult pursuit?
My love of baking was handed down by my mother and grandmother who were phenomenal bakers. My fondest childhood memories took place in the kitchen of our Upstate NY home, watching those two amazing women work their magic as I took in all the wonderful aromas.
Why did you decide to turn a love of and skills in baking into a career?
I had spent over twenty years in the corporate world, until one Friday in November, 1992 when I was told that was going to be my last day. I knew the company was in trouble financially, but I had always thought that as Exec VP, I would be going down with the ship. I was devastated. I had worked hard, putting in more hours than I should have and I knew I could never do that again for someone else. As I sat in the unemployment line the following Monday I began to think and plan. My first thought was, no matter what - I’m going to do what I love. And that was baking. I had this amazing brownie recipe handed down from my mother and grandmother that everyone loved and I decided that I would give it three months to see just how good that recipe really was. That was 24 years ago.
A lot of chocolate entrepreneurs try to do everything and often with limited success. You focused on brownies and then on the Brownie Brittle. Why did you decide to make the core of your business brownies and brownie brittle versus a wide and varied range of products?
I focused just on Brownies because it was a product that I was so passionate about. And the more I worked on it, the more I thought about flavor variations like cookie dough brownies, and macaroon brownies - the ideas would just flow. And with that I began to think of other product launches where I could use brownie batter, or even blondie batter. That’s what my new cookbook, “Butter & Chocolate" is all about. Before long people were calling me “The Brownie Lady” or “The Brownie Queen” - and it just stuck. I loved the idea of being really good at just one thing!
Would you tell us a bit about your brownie business before the transition to Brownie Brittle? Do you still sell brownies to restaurants and theme parks? (if so, which ones?)
My brownie business started out as tins and platters for gifting. It was a great idea, but the holidays were a crazy time. There weren’t enough days in December, and then phones didn’t ring in January. So I started taking brownie samples to local restaurants and cafes and the orders began to flow. My big break came when I had a call from Disney inviting me to come up to Orlando and do a presentation in front of 12 Executive Chefs. That was the turning point in my little brownie business! Becoming the primary brownie vendor for Walt Disney World not only provided a steady source of income, it also gave the brand credibility. It wasn’t long before our brownies became the base for a brownie sundaes for several restaurants and restaurant chains. All was going well until the 2008 housing crisis. People weren’t saving their money to go to Disney, they were trying to save their homes. Dining out was not an option and when it was, no one was ordering a $5 brownie sundae. I had to find something that would sell in grocery and I also knew that brownies, being a “me too” item was not the answer. Too many times I had heard “we already have a brownie.” And that’s when Brownie Brittle was born! No one could say we already have a Brownie Brittle. As for the brownies, we recently discontinued our brownie production so we could focus entirely on Brownie Brittle - but we’re proud of the fact that we had a wonderful, 22 year relationship with Walt Disney World.
How long as Brownie Brittle been around?
Brownie Brittle hit stores shelves in April, 2011.
There are many ways to operate a business and when we think chocolate we often think of the small shop owner. You've turned Brownie Brittle into a product that those of us in the eastern of the USA can find in stores such as Kroger, Sam's Club, Target, and several others. What was the biggest challenge you overcame to get your products into all of these chains?
The retail buyers had to say “yes” of course - and in almost every case they loved the product, and I think they were also excited about having something on their shelves that was totally new and different. So that part was easy. The challenge was - and still is - about building brand awareness. I used to say “the good news is, we’ve created a product that no one has ever heard of before - and the bad news is, we’ve created a product that no one has ever heard of before.” When people tried it, they liked it and they bought it. AND, they love to share it with friends. So, getting those bags ON the shelf was one thing, getting them to move OFF the shelf is another. We've had to do a lot of sampling, but we’ve learned that its the best investment we can make for our brand.
Brownie Brittle has expanded into an Organic line as well as some new flavors such as dark chocolate sea salt and peanut butter chip. Do you have plans for further flavor expansion or new product forms?
Yes - stay tuned! We are passionate about keeping this brand fresh and exciting and have some very interesting new products in the pipeline.
This might seem like an odd question, but have you gotten tired of brownies personally? Do you still enjoy brownies and those crusty edges as much as you did before you went into business?
There was a time when I was not only the CEO, the CFO, and the CMO - but also head of operations. And that meant being on the floor everyday overseeing production, and that’s when a little bit of my passion for baking and brownies began to fade. I was living on brownie scraps and I think I may have overdosed! Now Doug Scott , our VP of Operations and Ken Willis our QA specialist have taken over that roll and I’m back to loving the R&D side of the business. I love to open a bag of Brownie Brittle, savor the aroma and dig in! An each time we launch a new flavor, I’m become addicted all over again.
Do you like other chocolate products beside brownies? If so, what are some of your favorites?
I’m loving this new chocolate bark that we just launched called Thindulgent. It’s made with a high quality, melt in your mouth chocolate to which we’ve added some amazing toppings like salted caramel cashew,
You have a book coming out as well which perhaps we'll get to read and write about in the future here on The Chocolate Cult, but for now, tell us a bit about the book and how you found the experience of writing compares to baking.
The cookbook is titled Butter & Chocolate. There are some recipes using Brownie Brittle, but most of the recipes are variations based upon two of my favorite brownie recipes and one buttery rich blondie recipe. For instance, you’ll be able to use the same brownie batter to make brownie truffles, brownie bites, or even brownie waffles. The idea is to learn one basic recipe and get creative! It was quite a project - and a true labor of love. I also learned that baking for a living is one thing, but putting it all down in a cookbook is something else entirely. Having to carefully explain each step, with details on bake times and test for doneness was so outside my world of baking with just my gut instincts.
Of all of the varieties of Brownie Brittle now available, do you have a favorite? How do you enjoy eating them most? Alone or as part of a recipe?
The newest flavor is always my favorite, and that would be Dark Chocolate Sea Salt! I love to get creative using brownie brittle in recipes, but for me, there is nothing like opening a bag and savoring each and every bite on its own.
Thank you, Sheila G., for talking with us today.