As the winner of awards such as 'Best Sweets of the South' by Southern Living Magazine, Willa's Shortbread has built something pretty special. Dating back to the 70's, owner Eric Rion tells the incredible story of the longevity of the company. Willa's Shortbread has stood the test of time and has continued to grow in an industry where many specialty food companies have vanished from the market. How did they do it? We're going to find out.
How did your journey begin?
My journey with Willa's Shortbread started in 2006, but Willa's has history dating back to the 70s. Willa's Shortbread was started by Willa Allen, my sister-in-law's mother-in-law - it's the fastest way of saying it. Willa started the company in her home kitchen located in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Her country club needed a dessert recipe, so Willa baked a pan of her traditional shortbread and people loved it. She began selling it and had scaled it into a nice business by the 80's. Snowbirds on their way to Florida discovered Willa's Shortbread and would ask her to ship it to them. She also sold it in various stores throughout the south.
In 2005, Willa was ready to hang up her apron. The four of us, myself and my wife Teresa, my brother-in-law Clark (Willa's son) and sister-in-law, wanted to do this as a part-time job to keep the business in the family and make some extra money. At that time we were all working full time jobs. When my brother-in-law and sister-in-law stepped out of the business, we almost sold. But my wife and I decided to continue on with it. Eight years ago, I had a parting of ways with my career of 30 years, and I started working on Willa's Shortbread full time.
How did you grow your business?
At first we relied on the clientele Willa built in North Carolina. When we first started in Tennessee, the boom of specialty and gourmet food companies wasn't around I had to develop the market for our product. I personally called on specialty shops, gourmet shops, any store I thought we might be a fit all across the southeast, taking samples in and asking for their business. The business really started to develop about 5 years ago when the gourmet and specialty food scene started in Nashville. Nowadays, everything has shifted, and I get wholesale requests daily. In 12 years, we have turned Willa's Shortbread into a Tennessee company that started in North Carolina. Yesterday, we got an order for $600 and when I asked how they found us, the answer was online. They told us we were all over the internet.
When you're growing a company, it's important to have reasonable expectations of the short term and the long term. We've had opportunities to be in stores such as Kroger or Cracker Barrel, but I didn't want it. It's vital to look at the cost of what you want to do and know what you can do. I’d like to double our customer base with the right customers. Right now I'm finding new business - the right size business. Big orders for companies such as Kroger are not a fit right now.
What is your approach to finding new business?
My approach is relationship-based because if you lose relationships then you lose the connection. I still take a day to do deliveries because I want to stay in touch with the customer. It's good to talk with people, see what else is out there and stay in the loop.
What was your big break?
We've had a few. We developed a good relationship with Savannah Bee, who I've known for 10 years. They carry us in their stores nationwide and we do co-branding with them in addition to our custom flavor of tupelo honey. That's what really encouraged us to try different honey flavors, which we now do all sorts of stuff with honey.
Another big shift for us was when Whole Foods came to town. They had interviews for companies to be evaluated on whether they met Whole Foods standards. That's when we decided to go all-natural which was a great move for us. Now, we use unenriched and unbleached flour, butter instead of margarine, and cane sugar with all-natural flavorings. We are also non-GMO by default. About the only thing we can't do is gluten free.
How do you come up with new flavors?
Often, flavors come to us. Our base recipe is so simple, it nicely compliments flavors. Our Nashville Hot Cheddar seasoning we get from J.M. Thompson seasoning out of Franklin, Tennessee. I had tried the flavor before before but it wasn't spicy enough and sat it aside. With that one, I was at the East Nashville Beer Fest and was introduced to the spice. I went from not having anything to having a very good product in under 24 hours.
Who is an entrepreneur you admire?
Ted Dennard at Savannah Bee Co. He’s a guy that could've done whatever, but he went into the Peace Corps. That's when he discovered an interest in bees. He came back to Savannah and starting managing his own hives and bees. Ted has scaled Savannah Bee's into a huge company that is very popular. Now they're opening their 10th store and I remember when they had one little store. When Ted and I get together, we can talk back and forth for an hour. Click to follow Savannah Bee Co. on Instagram.
How would your life be if you wouldn't have taken over Willa Shortbread?
I probably would've been better off financially and probably had more free time. But, when I think of all the people I’ve met and places I’ve been...it's pretty cool. It’s about doing something on my own and making it successful.
What is the biggest struggle you've had to overcome as a business owner?
We need to hire and consolidate our facilities. We bake in a different location than where we have our retail space, Willa's Mercantile, which is in Goodlettsville. Equipment is another big challenge. It's expensive and I've had to figure out how to fix it on my own.
Can you think of any qualities or skills you feel an entrepreneur needs to be successful?
A little bit of crazy! You have to have a vision of where you want to be and set reasonable expectations for the short term and long term.
What is your best advice to a someone on the verge of starting a business?
Discipline yourself to spend the time getting the financial part of the business figured out. Take any courses you can to learn about running a business and mentor with people who have done what you want to do. When we first started with Willa's Shortbread, we went to shows and I was constantly asking others questions such as: How do you go to market? How do you find new customers? I was a sponge soaking it all in. Now I’m the person people come to. I’m one of the old-timers which is pretty cool.
Why has Willa's Shortbread continued to grow when other small food companies in the area have vanished?
We've outlasted everyone by knowing our limitations. A lot of people grow too fast and they pay the price for it. If you have a passion for the business and want to leave a legacy, then take it slow. If you're in it for the money, so people will say get in, make the money, and get out. That's not what I was trying to do.
I like having Ginger Snaps straight out of the freezer with a cup of coffee in the morning. (YUM!!)
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