There must be something to the adage about “the sweet smell of success.” Especially when you’re launching a dessert business, and getting a great response from local supermarkets and customers.
Mary O’Brien and Joy Gifford have created Heavenly Bites, a Wilton-based baking company that makes bite-sized desserts they describe as “portioned perfectly for an elegant cocktail party or for simply enjoying as a mid-afternoon snack.” The duo is finding success with local retail markets–Wilton’s Village Market, Walter Stewart’s in New Canaan and Palmer’s in Darien–who are now carrying their delicious cake bites, and they’re also managing a thriving corporate gift-giving program and website business for selling directly to customers online. All the while they’re balancing the company’s rapid growth with the juggle of trying to get halloween costumes for their kids on time and manage their home life.
The two women share a love of baking that stretches back years. O’Brien pretty much learned to bake around the time she learned to walk. Renowned for her family-recipe chocolate chip cookies, she made a career out of her passion, eventually becoming the pastry chef at famed Montrachet Restaurant in New York.
Gifford also grew up with a deep love of baking, and found that her experience as a marketing executive has helped her on the branding and business side of the company.
It was three years ago during a party at a mutual friend’s house when they sort of half-jokingly, half-seriously said, “We should start a business together!”
O’Brien recounted that the following morning: “Joy called me and said, ‘Were you serious?’ Because everyone else last night was like, ‘Yeah!'”
She knew from previous experience making wedding cakes how difficult the business could be. “It’s so hard. The food business is just a beast unto its own–licensing, food inspections, things have changed so much that you cannot work out of your home. I told Joy, ‘The only way we’re doing this is if we get licensed. We have to be legit or else I’m not doing it.’ Otherwise it closes the door to retail, it closes the doors to corporate. You’re just selling to friends and family.”
Gifford agreed. “It was the best statement, and it’s gotten us to where we are today. The first thing they asked at Village Market was, ‘Are you licensed?’ They take you seriously.”
Shortly after their launch in 2011, they realized that focusing on just one item was crucial. “There were so many steps–take 10, go back 20, but once we focused, it just went ‘woosh!'”
Lucky Wilton Connection
The pair gives a lot of credit for a boost to their initial success to another Wiltonite, Jeff Snyder, who owns a local marketing company called Inspira.
“They are an event marketing company and work with Jim Beam which has Pinnacle Vodka–it’s a French vodka with 34 flavors at the time. There are certain states where you can’t do pourings in liquor stores to let people try it, so Jeff came to us and asked us to infuse our cake bites with the flavors they were trying to promote,” Gifford described.
O’Brien explained how that really made a difference. “That changed our lives. The order was so huge. We started doing it, last August, a year and a half ago. The order came in and we were like, “Holy!” But we didn’t let that show, we just said, ‘Ok. We can do this.’ We got that from Jay-Z.” The two women laugh at the memory and at the fact that their inspiration was an urban rap mogul, albeit one immensely successful. Their humor and moxie obviously paid off–Inspira and Jim Bean have done three other infused cake bite campaigns with Heavenly Bites since then.
“It showed us we could do it. And that making just a dozen is not worth it,” Gifford said. It also forced them to refine other aspects of their model sooner to help propel their business, like figuring out packaging, shelf-life and networking at events like the Fancy Food Show. They realized they also needed to sharpen their product branding and identity.
“Inspira enabled us to believe in ourselves, and made us realize that we could do what we’re doing. They inspired us! And it allowed us to reinvest into rebranding,” Gifford said. “We’ve learned so much, it’s amazing with what you’ve got to do.”
Heavenly Expansion–and Partnership
Developing their product and taking the Heavenly Bites to the next level is something the partners reflect on with awe, recognizing the transformation from “I used to be a pastry chef” to food-scientist-shipping-and-packaging-expert-marketing-guru, in just two years. “We used to be like, ‘We’ll transfer you to the shipping department,’ [mimes putting someone on hold and getting back on the phone] and then ‘Hi! This is shipping!'” O’Brien laughed knowingly, as a small business owner that has to really be a jack-of-all-trades to make a go of it.
Gifford agreed. “We laugh a lot.” Clearly, their friendship has lasted the partnership’s trajectory. “We complement one another, and neither of us could do it alone. We’re the yin and yang to each other, we push each other.”
Crucial to that, O’Brien added, was division of labor. “The hugely important thing we did was separate duties. We had to divide and conquer. We each bring strengths to the table and any weaknesses we support each other.” Their friendship stays strong, as they often finish one another’s sentences.
“She’s the pastry chef,” says Gifford, and O’Brien quickly adds, “stay outta my kitchen!”
“Joy was so funny, in the beginning I’d say, ‘We need 20 cakes.’ Joy would be like, ‘Whaaaaat?’ And I’d look at her starting to make two cakes! I said, ‘No, we gotta make 18 at once,’ and she’d be like, ‘But I like to bake one at a time,'” laughed O’Brien, adding, “But then she’d say, ‘Okay, let’s do spreadsheets,’ and I’d just go, ‘I canNOT do spreadsheets!'”
While it’s still (sadly) a question that’s only asked of moms, the two friends answer the one about work-homelife balance with characteristic laughs.”I have to say both of our husbands are incredibly supportive. We would not be able to do it without them. You know, we took to rising before 6 a.m. to get all that stuff done before getting out of the house,” O’Brien said.
“The good thing is the kids are in school. We race home at three to go to sports, we’ve got to work at night, and we’ve started doing weekend events. The guys had to do all the Halloween parties–but they did it! They believe in us. They say, ‘Take us to the promised land ladies!” Gifford laughed. “They see our commitment and that we’ve done it. My husband walked into Village Market, and almost fell over when he saw our stuff in the case. To take it all the way to that, from last January when we said, ‘We need to design a box.'”
Their kids are also big supporters, and not just because the business is all about dessert. “They’re really proud,” Joy said. “We got Heavenly Bites magnets for the cars this week. They thought that was the coolest thing ever. They said, ‘Look, my mom has the “heavenly car.”‘”
Heavenly Bites showcases four core flavors of cake bites that they call “classic,” which are sold in retail stores–carrot, lemon, red velvet and devil’s food cake. They also feature several seasonal varieties and specialty items that are showcased online: pumpkin for Thanksgiving; chocolate mint for Christmas; s’mores over the summer; chocolate raspberry for Valentine’s Day; and sweet-and-salty. They also have two ‘signature flavors’–vanilla latte and chocolate espresso.
“They’re all classic and delicious. Something you remember your grandmother or mother used to make, that’s why there’s no outlandish, crazy flavors because that’s not who we are. It’s that favorite chocolate cake your grandma made–you took a bite, and said, ‘Oh my God, that’s the best chocolate cake ever!'” they explained. They also don’t do cutesy snowmen or decorations, or put their cake bites on a stick. “We might sprinkle a special color shugar for a theme, or change the drizzle on top a bit. But if someone wants ‘cutesy’ there are plenty of other people who do that.”
They’re particular about ingredients too–“We use Valrhona chocolate, the highest quality butter, everything is homemade,” O’Brien touted. “That’s why we’re in the freezer section, there are no preservatives to keep it on the shelf a little longer. You take it out of the freezer–one at a time or six at a time, however you want!” They can arrange ‘towers’ of boxes, and ship their product nationwide, especially for gifts.
The welcoming response from stores and markets has been the best feeling for the women, validating their hard work and knowing that their concept will pay off in spades. “The people who make decisions in the marketplace, that they say we have something here, that there’s nothing else like it in the stores, and they want to make an appointment [to order] it was so awesome to hear, ‘How can we get you?’!” Gifford said.
A year from now, the duo hopes to be in 30 stores. “We’re from Fairfield County, we really want to be concentrated in retail in Fairfield County. Without a doubt, also, we’d love to expand our corporate gift-giving. We’d love to be in catalogs like Neiman-Marcus or Dean & Deluca.”
Get them now, so you can say you knew them when.
Heavenly Bites can be found at Village Market or on the company’s website, http://heavenly-bites.com/.