Christmas all year

Laura Aiken
November 15, 2012
Written by
At 78 years old, Mary Macleod is retired from her successful shortbread business, which means she still likes to “come down and do a bit.” This translates into creating two new shortbread flavours – lemon poppy and chocolate fudge – for a 2013 launch.

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Mary Macleod (left) handed the reins of the business to her daughter-in-law Sharon (right) in 2010 when she retired, but is still very involved in the business.
 

“I find it exciting if I’m going to do some product development. I get all excited about that,” says Macleod in her soft Scottish accent. At this time, my interview with Macleod and her daughter-in-law Sharon is coming to a close and I can see Macleod’s eyes and mind drifting towards the kitchen. It’s 10 a.m. and Mary Macleod’s Shortbread is now open for the day, signalled by a customer rolling in at the turn of the clock.

Macleod, who immigrated from Scotland in 1955, founded the iconic shortbread brand on her own in 1981 and built a worldwide customer base before handing the reins to Sharon in 2010 so she could retire. The company began as a small retail shop in the Yonge and Eglinton area of Toronto before moving to a larger production space in the Queen East Riverdale community in 1997.

“There was a chap down on Yonge Street, who, when I decided it was going to be shortbread [made at her shop] took bets up and down the street that I would only last six weeks. So he lost a lot of money,” Macleod says, with a chuckle, of those very early days. “But I was so disorganized. I didn’t even have a price because I didn’t know what to charge. People were coming in and I’d say just help yourself because I didn’t want to say I don’t have my costs yet.” When asked if she ever thought the business would fail, she said it had never crossed her mind.

It’s safe to say she got her costs figured out and then some. A canister of eight signature chocolate crunch cookies now sells for $16.75 online and one of her longest-running customers is luxury retailer Holt Renfrew, who has been buying the cookies for 29 of the shortbread company’s 31 years.

“Back in 1982 one of their buyers came in and she told me that they’ll buy but there’s a few things you had to do,” says Macleod. “You had to get a PO number and had to be on time with your delivery and all of that happened for us. It was a small order, $300 or something, but it was big for me.”

Now, Macleod’s shortbread is sold in their own shop, at retailers across Canada and shipped worldwide at customer request, says Sharon, adding that the company has evolved more through word of mouth than traditional advertising but the company is beginning to attend more trade shows now to reach out to boutique shops across the country.

Sharon, whose background was in banking before she donned her full-time baker’s business hat, walks the talk of a woman ready to lead Mary Macleod’s Shortbread into its next chapter.

“I don’t want to be changing any of the recipes or the qualities and the methods,” says Sharon. “I am looking to scale up the business through operational efficiencies.”

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Mary Macleod’s window display makes mouths water upon entrance.

 
While Macleod appears to be relishing her new primary role of having fun in the kitchen, Sharon is navigating her new world of bakery staffing, managing resources and expanding a business that is currently a 50-50 split between retail and the rest of it. Since she’s come on board in 2010, the bakery has gone from being open three days a week to being open seven days a week. A new website to enhance online ordering is coming in the new year. She’s created new ways of packaging the cookies as gifts for their own retail shop and others. A co-branded tea line was brought in that carries their logo and specifically pairs with their cookies. In addition, she’s re-jigging the marketing campaign to “a shortbread for all seasons, a shortbread for all reasons” to help push year-round sales.

“We’re growing a lot now, but it’s a small business with limited resources and it’s tough sometimes,” says Sharon. “Resources are my biggest constraint – staff, equipment, space – so it’s figuring out how to do that. I am cautious but I will push the limits and my staff will tell you I push the limits of what I ask them to do. I am learning too, as to how much is too much.”

Macleod pushed limits too, certainly the limits of shortbread, with the development of her top-selling chocolate crunch.

“No one had ever taken a mass of butter and a mass of chocolate and joined them into something edible,” says Macleod. “I worked on it for about 18 months, every weekend, and tried out different flours – soft flours, hard flours, heavy flours – and one Saturday night it just happened.

I’ve never broken it down so I don’t know when the crunch comes but it’s magical. The police [local division] all came, everybody from church all came, so I sat up until four in the afternoon. Everybody was so excited and, oh, the smell, it was marvellous. That became the chocolate crunch. It is our number 1 bestseller.”

Mary Macleod’s Shortbread has been a real community business, which is seen not only in the actual donations to schools, women’s shelters and various arts agencies in Toronto, but also in the stories that are so swiftly recalled by the Macleods when asked about their most memorable times.

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Butterscotch shortbread crumbs and custom blended teas are also available for purchase. 

 
“This store was like a little social place,” says Macleod with a smile. “People could come and chat to me about maybe their fears or their worries . . . . One was a lawyer. She’d had a baby when she was 42 and she couldn’t cope. She came to me and I got her involved with a very good nanny system so she was very happy for that . . . I’ve got other letters in my file from people. One lady from Saskatchewan, she came every Saturday morning for a little tiny round of plain shortbread, and I got a letter a year or so later saying that it kept her mother alive because that’s all she ate.”

“My husband [Gary] used to work in the store when he was in university and I guess one of the ladies who kept coming in used to buy lots and lots of shortbread at once,” recalls Sharon. “So he mentioned that she seemed to be buying a lot of shortbread, and she said, ‘oh yes, I work for concert productions international’ and I’m bringing this to Bruce Springsteen or different rock stars, so that was always fun.”

Sharon remembers her first impressions of Macleod’s cookies, which she bought before she met Gary. The couple met through their financial jobs, where another colleague often used to tell her than Mary Macleod’s Shortbread had the best cookies ever. She says she tried them, and remembers thinking in the mindset of her first-job minimal salary that “they were expensive but boy were they good!”

“Certainly one of our challenges with our customers, especially our wholesale customers, is having them understand the value proposition,” says Sharon. It has been easier to get customers onside who are already familiar with gourmet foods. Once she discovered one of their customers was selling cookies past their best before date; she says it’s important to them to follow up to protect your brand. They have no distributors and although they are trying out some reps, sales are still very much controlled through the store.

“Our aim is to make the top quality shortbread available in Canada, and it’s all about the balance of the ingredients; we don’t skimp on the quality, and that’s reflected in the taste of the cookie,” says Sharon.

There is a big focus on handmade in the business. The cookies are made using hands, mixers and ovens. The packaging accents, such as bows and touches of evergreen, are custom creations snipped and tied by the staff. As in Santa’s workshop, preparations for Christmas begin in January and that helps keep their nine full-time staff busy year round. The bakery brings in seasonal help for times like Christmas, when they go from about 20 to 150 customers a day.

“I’ve only had one, in 30 years, disgruntled person,” notes Macleod. “And that was at Christmas when we were in the little store [on Yonge Street]. Everybody was against this wall and against that wall and I was out of my skull trying to serve everyone. She started to shout that I should have more help, and this and that, so I said to her “go through that door and don’t come back,” but that’s the only one. Afterwards I was sorry I’d said that and of course she was probably right.”

Even with the additional space of their new location, it’s still a typically small city storefront and it’s easy to imagine the chaos of the Saturday before Christmas, which Sharon says is their busiest day. They give out cookies and find that this makes people more patient and willing to take the time to look around. They keep three or four staff on to serve everyone.

“Thank goodness the team of people working in the kitchen are first class,” says Macleod. “They’ll stay here until midnight to tie a bow properly. They’re very dedicated.”

The future looks bright for Mary Macleod Shortbread’s. The two women who have driven its success are bound by lives that have intersected and in some ways mirrored one another. Macleod earned a degree in food and science and intended to be a dietitian, but rather served primarily as chief dietitian to her husband and two boys until they were grown before, ironically, starting her high-calorie business. But she says she always liked to feed people, and her sisters would save butter for her to make pies for them when she was as young as eight or nine years old. Sharon married into the family and her two daughters, ages 14 and 10, both like to come in and make cookies. She left a world of finance for a world of flour. It has become a real family affair that Sharon says she hopes will stay that way. Running a business is a tough, time-consuming gig, and Macleod offers those embarking on a business some start-up insight fitting for her 78 years of wisdom.

“I would say to them, they have to be able to take risk. It’s always a risk. And if you can live with that, then you’re all right. And don’t ever question yourself: if you want to do it, do it. If the product is good. And I always find that with family behind you, you can’t go wrong.”

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