From the crumble

Karly O'Brien
September 11, 2013
Written by
Jill Lawrence always pictured herself owning a business. It wasn’t until she found herself divorced, unemployed and facing limited job prospects in her late 40s that she found her perfect product to market, and created The Apple Crumble Company.

IMG_6418  
Jill’s dream team hold the Port-Hope based apples that help to create the 300 pies per week The Apple Crumble Company sells: from left to right, Lisa Sauve, bakery assistant; Charlene Jessome, bakery assistant; Brenda Pace, kitchen manager; Jill Lawrence, owner; and Amanda Bray, office manager.

 

“I knew I needed to do something,” she says. “There were no jobs for someone like myself, so I had to create my own job and my own business.”

The idea for a bakery came to Lawrence when she decided to make her first pear and cranberry crumble (now her favourite) for members of her family who were visiting from England in August 2011. The recipe was adapted from In the Sweet Kitchen by Regan Daley, and it was a hit.

“Everyone went silent, and for a cook that’s the best noise to hear because they were enjoying it so much,” says Lawrence. She calls this her “aha” moment when everything came together – her dream of owning a business in the food industry.

With family members’ ages ranging from 25 to 65, Lawrence felt confident that crumble would be a marketable product for a broad audience.

She was inspired to own a food-related business after she graduated from high school and got her first job as a server. It was a small business owned by a European pastry chef with multiple locations.

“He was traditional, and never shy of perfection,” she begins. “I was in complete awe of him and how he ran his business, and there is this one thing he told me that really made me want to own my own food business. He told me: ‘I own a food business because my children will never go without work, and will never starve.’ That will always resonate with me.”

She admired their comfortable life, which was different from hers. “It didn’t come together right away, but once I made that crumble it all clicked, and I knew how I could try to achieve the same lifestyle he had.”

A brave entrepreneur
Once she made up her mind, Lawrence went on a road trip to New York to learn about trends, niches, style and taste. She tried crumbles in Quebec and Vermont, to name a few stops she made along the way.

“I researched all my favourite chefs, and from there decided how I was going to create my original crumble,” she says, adding that there are several different names to call a crumble, such as crisp or cobbler.

“I put a lot of time into the planning stages and outlined everything, because after you create the business it is so hard to take time off to keep learning,” she says.

After seven months of planning, she registered the name, built a business plan, and launched a website. She also took advantage of a local business opportunity for startups where she could have her rent subsidized for three years.

“I was only going to sell the crumble, a simple item, and I wanted a simple name too,” explains Lawrence of her Port Hope business. “That is how it came to be The Apple Crumble Company.”

While creating a business plan, Lawrence wanted a particular emphasis on locality. She made a list of the ingredients she needed and found the ones grown locally such as apples, and peaches. For the ingredients she couldn’t get locally, she found a local distributor.

“I wanted to make sure people in my community had jobs and were getting business,” she begins. “I also wanted to reduce my carbon footprint, so I did my research and made sure the distributors I chose were already making their way near my area.”

So naturally, when she was thinking about how to brand the product’s package she hired a local designer. 

“I’m a big believer in people eating with their eyes first,” she says. “So I wanted the package to not only look beautiful, but to also appear appetizing too.” 

A year later, Lawrence took the next leap and began setting up shop.

The operations
Her company eventually settled into a quaint kitchen and office space with a warm and friendly staff of five that Lawrence refers to as her “dream team.” Using two ovens, the team makes eight different flavours  (classic apple, apple blueberry, apple peach, apple cherry, rhubarb, pear ginger, pear cranberry, and gluten-free apple cherry almond) that are rotated throughout the year depending on what’s in season.

The kitchen operates on a tight schedule, beginning with prepping the ingredients on Monday, baking Tuesday and Wednesday, then delivering Thursday and Friday.

“I still deliver, I always try to, and probably always will,” she says. “I talk to bakery managers, and let their customers sample the products regularly.” She adds that this is how she continues to grow her customer base and get her company name exposed.

In her first year of business, Lawrence gained quite an impressive customer list, landing Pusateri’s Fine Foods in Toronto as her first customer. From there, she got Whole Foods (Canada), Foodland in Port Hope, Fiesta Farms and Rowe Farms.

“I figured my best bet was to get all the big names, so when I’m selling my brand I may not be in a ton of stores, but I would be in the best.” She currently distributes to about 50 stores.

A lesson (or two) 
Early on, Lawrence remembers asking a woman, a known local foodie, to try her crumble and provide some feedback. A couple weeks later the woman came back to her booth and said, “with the sugar content, I wouldn’t touch your crumbles with a ten-foot pole.”

She went back to the drawing board, and began stripping the recipe of sugar, relaunching the product a month later.

“I always take into consideration the things that people tell me. I never turn away from an opinion because that opinion may help my business grow in the future.”

In May 2012, she faced the dragons on CBC’s Dragon’s Den to propose a diner-like atmosphere where she could serve ice cream with several flavours of crumble. In the back, she imagined a large kitchen that would produce freshly made crumbles daily and deliver wholesale to food companies. The dragons immediately advised her to step away from the retail aspect and to focus on wholesale before expanding into other areas.

Not only did this flexible businesswoman relaunch her product twice after that, but upon hearing the dragons’ advice, she also walked away from a $10,000 down payment on a retail space. The stakes were high for a startup that needed every cent, but still she walked away with no regrets.

“They made me realize that you can’t grow too quickly and expand into another area when you haven’t mastered the first one,” she says. “I realized I needed to focus on wholesale and learn all I need to know here.”

Lawrence may have a flexible attitude now, but she wasn’t always this way. While attending a community outreach group, she became inspired by other people’s courage and motivation, despite their difficult situations. As a result, she became more receptive to opinions, new ideas, and outlooks on life.

“I inherited this attitude in the last few years,” she says with a smile. “I wasn’t always like this. You think you have it bad, and then you hear someone else’s hardships. They are still getting out of bed, and moving on with their life, and then you believe that you can do it too.”

Having a successful business comes with its share of failures, but this outlook has allowed her to grow the startup and celebrate its one-year anniversary on July 1. She continues to absorb knowledge of the industry as well as the business side.

In her spare time, she listens to podcasts, tapes and reads a large quantity of books and autobiographies by successful business people – including dragons Kevin O’Leary and Arlene Dickinson. She also has a mentor that she speaks with for advice on her business.

The future
Lawrence attends the Peterborough Farmers’ Market every Saturday from 7 to 11 a.m. to try something new and expand her clientele. Two thousand people make the market trek each weekend, meaning there are plenty of potential new fans for her to reel in.

At the market, Lawrence faces the challenge of her current stall being inside of a building instead of on the road, where most of the people are walking around. However, next year, she foresees moving into a high-traffic spot outside.

She hopes this will help get her name out there, and contribute to her dream of growing her business so she has the means to help people as much as she can.

Her more immediate goals include reaching a customer base of 100, and in three years she hopes to reach 350. Some of her plans to help her reach these goals include branching out from her current single-product of crumble into apple cider and jelly that will have a long shelf life.

“I want to grow big, spread it, and do something meaningful in life,” she says with excitement. She currently employs her two daughters part time: Emily, 19, who works as an apple peeler, and Chelsea, 21, who helps on the business side.

“I really feel there’s a sense of calm, and empowerment. A lot of sweat and emotion were put into creating this business and to know I’m successful is magical.”

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