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  • Comfort Food

    Take one casserole. Add packaging. Mix with existing product line. Toss in a dash of advertising and serve. That's the recipe for sympathy market success cooked up by Cottage Garden Flowers in McAllen, Texas, which offers home-made casseroles to go with floral condolence arrangements.

    "People who are grieving invariably turn to food for comfort — and there are few foods more comforting in a time of loss than a baked casserole," says Leigh Wooldridge, a co-owner of Cottage Garden. "Our casseroles — we've named them 'The Caring Casserole' — are proving popular for that reason."

    An Idea that Flew

    The casserole idea arose five years ago when a long-time customer walked in to purchase a gift as a token of his sympathy for a bereaved family. Not satisfied with any of the food gift baskets on display, the customer asked Dodie Wooldridge — Leigh's mother-in-law and a caterer by trade — if she would whip together a special dish of some sort that he could take instead. After mulling over the request, Dodie Wooldridge suggested a casserole.

    "The casserole Dodie made that day was a hit with the family that it went to," says Leigh Wooldridge. "Word got around, and it wasn't long afterward that other people started asking for sympathy casseroles."

    The Wooldridges quickly recognized the potential. Soon, the casserole became a formally merchandised product, aimed not just at sympathy customers but also at the get-well market and celebrants of birthdays, anniversaries, showers and the like. The casseroles are baked fresh, then frozen, so that recipients can enjoy them whenever they wish.

    Initially, favorable word-of-mouth alone drove sales. Later, the casserole was promoted in the shop's newsletter, on a Cottage Garden website and at the bottom of billing statements.

    Pluses and Minuses

    As the Wooldridges discovered, running a food-preparation business in tandem with a florist shop has its pluses and minuses. Among the lessons learned:

    Anticipate a boost, not a boom. Casserole sales help the bottom line, but a single specialty food item does not a windfall profit make. After a certain point, volume peaks and then plateaus in the absence of a major, sustained marketing push backed by R&D of new products, Leigh Wooldridge explains. However, even offering just one specialty food can be enough to stimulate impulse buying of flowers and other products, she says. "It's not unusual that customers picking up a casserole will leave with flowers or a plant as well."

    Commercial kitchens are an investment. If properly equipped for making casseroles and other food items, they also consume considerable space. Dodie Wooldridge launched into the casserole-making from home, but eventually realized she needed industrialized ovens, refrigerators and preparation tables to accommodate the growing demand for product. She considered moving the operation to Cottage Garden. Unfortunately, the space there was equally cramped and confining.

    So, Dodie Wooldridge — at the time sole owner of Cottage Garden — relocated the entire shop to a building with all the space she needed. "The cost of investing in the necessary equipment and facilities can be recouped faster if you plan to do catering in addition to making specialty food products," says Leigh Wooldridge

    Local health codes need to be observed. Nearly every county, city and town in America requires that catering kitchens like Cottage Garden's be licensed and periodically inspected for sanitary practices. Not a bad idea, except that licensing involves payment of fees (usually on an annual basis). Inspections — if failed — entail payment of fines (or loss of revenues if your kitchen is shut down until the cited problems are rectified). "Before buying any equipment, we talked to people at the health department to find out what we had to have in order to be legal," says Leigh Wooldridge.

    Casserole-making eats up time. The Wooldridges squeeze in their baker's chores at night, after hours. They also attend to casserole production during the day whenever there's a lull in business.

    Expect a demand for variety. The Wooldridges started by offering just one type of casserole. But customers wanted others. Today, they can choose from among four different types in two sizes. "We experimented with many different types of casserole, looking to see which ones would be most popular — and easiest to move," Wooldridge says.

    You have to know how to cook. Dodie Wooldridge's catering background gave her an edge in understanding not only how to please palates but also how to correctly cost out a dish's ingredients. Meanwhile, Leigh Wooldridge, formerly a food stylist, possessed skills in making the product look good.

    "Presentation counts almost as much as taste when it comes to sympathy dishes," Leigh Wooldridge says. "We package our casseroles in shiny, non-transparent wrapping paper and adorn them with bows so they look like gifts."

    To most florists, that sounds like the easy part, while other aspects of diversifying into food preparation may seem intimidating. If you're like the majority, you may want to consider teaming up with a local restaurant or professional caterer to offer this added service. But if you're ambitious and handy in the kitchen, take encouragement from Leigh Wooldridge, who says, "Any florist with the right combination of cooking talent, equipment and inventiveness," she says, "can duplicate our success with food."

     

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