Beginning this fall, high-end gourmet giant Williams-Sonoma will feature a local company's wares in its catalog and online offerings.
Salted gingerbread and cinnamon apple crisp are just two of the caramel flavors that will be included in a series of seasonal collections and variety boxes, all bearing the name of Pewaukee's Becky's Blissful Bakery.
The journey began when Rebecca Scarberry, owner of Becky's and recipient of the Business Journal's 2012 Forty Under 40 Award, Googled Williams-Sonoma and found the name of the buyer she needed to contact. Once she obtained that information, she sent him a spec sheet, along with samples of all of her caramels. The rest, as they say, is history.
"It was almost 7 o'clock at night when I got the phone call from their buyer," Scarberry recalls. "He opened the conversation by telling me that they were the best caramels he'd ever tried in his life. He also told me they were the cleanest product he'd ever seen – no extracts, no emulsifiers and no preservatives. And then he asked me how I knew Todd."
As it turns out, the buyer from Williams-Sonoma was a college roommate of Todd Wickstrom, co-owner of Rishi Tea and one of Becky's Blissful Bakery's local vendors.
Partnering with local companies has always been a large part of Scarberry's business model. With an emphasis on high-quality, organic products, her caramels incorporate offerings from Lakefront Brewery, Rishi Tea and Stone Creek Coffee, in addition to Clover Meadow Winery, the only certified organic winery in the state of Wisconsin.
"When I first started my business I always said, 'If I get into Sendik's Fine Foods, then I've made it.' Then it was, 'If I can make it into Whole Foods, I've made it.' And after that, 'If I can just make it into Williams-Sonoma ...' so I don't know where else I'm going at this point, but I really like it."
But, lest you get the idea that Scarberry's business has always traveled a fairytale path, it's useful to take a look back at her humble beginnings.
Rebecca Scarberry was seven months pregnant when she moved to Wisconsin with her now-ex-husband, after spending 10 years living in Arizona. During her first winter in the state, she spent the bulk of her time baking.
"I grew up in the kitchen with my grandma. I felt comfort in the making and baking. I don't cook much, but I love to make anything with sugar. Cookies, cakes, bars, candy, you name it. When I was pregnant with my son I shifted over to making everything with organic products."
In 2007, the manager at Good Harvest Market in Pewaukee offered to sell her organic caramels in the store. Subsequently, she met a woman at church who had just purchased a candy shop in Waukesha, and they allowed her to rent their kitchen by the hour.
Her hobby business continued through December of 2008, when Scarberry hit bottom. In the same week that her divorce was finalized, she lost her job as an executive assistant for an Elm Grove architecture firm. Her world was turned on end.
But, rather than sitting home over the holidays feeling sorry for herself, she turned to her kitchen stove and cooked up a caramel business.
As a first step, she rented a kiosk at Southridge Mall and sold caramels during the weekend before Christmas. The next season, she started selling at the Fox Point farmer's market. That's where she met Deb Deacon, and subsequently journalist Karen Herzog. Herzog was impressed with Becky's story, and ran a piece featuring her business over Thanksgiving weekend.
The publicity threw Scarberry's business into full swing. But then, as luck would have it, she was offered a full-time job. As a single mom, it seemed like a no-brainer to simply take the job, so she did.
But, after three months of work, Scarberry realized that she would regret it for the rest of her life if she didn't move forward with her caramel business.
Scarberry attended a quick-start business workshop at the Waukesha County Technical College Small Business Center. She employed a WCTC student, Brianna Dederich, to design her brochures and labels. And then she began ramping up production.
When circumstances required that she move out of her current commercial kitchen, Scarberry realized that she had to make some serious decisions about her business. She had just used up all of her capital purchasing a $9,000 cooker, and didn't know how or where she could afford to move. Fortunately, she met Pewaukee resident-turned-developer Bob Zimmerman, who had just put his money into rehabilitating the village well house at 214 Oakton Ave. in Pewaukee.
With a new roof and other repairs, Zimmerman gave the 1929 "Water Works" building a new life. He also threw Scarberry a life-line when he helped her acquire the building to house her business.
Although she had a new space, Scarberry still needed to ensure that her new digs were up to code for food production. Since banks still weren't handing out loans, let alone to a recent divorcee with a small business, she sold her minivan to pay for the $15,000 build-out for her new kitchen space.
After moving into the well house, Scarberry hit another bump in the road. Her caramels began crystallizing, creating production issues. Some were too soft. Some were too hard. She didn't know what to do. So, she hired a consultant from the American Association of Candy Technologists, who assisted her in making changes to her recipe and cooking processes to solve the crystallization issues and give her product a nine-month shelf life to boot.
"Hiring the consultant saved me," Scarberry reflects. "It cost me a lot of money, but it saved me. I wouldn't be in business had I not taken that step."
Becky's Blissful Bakery currently offers 10 flavors of caramels, including original caramels, original with sea salt, dark chocolate with sea salt, cashew, espresso dark chocolate, chai tea, salted beer and pretzel, margarita and sangria. They also produce jarred caramel sauce, and are working on a champagne caramel to push out into the market later this year. Scarberry also hopes to create a new layered marshmallow caramel using organic marshmallows.
With current production exceeding 1,750 four-ounce boxes of caramels per week, Scarberry now employs three full-time staff as well as several part-timers who help out with events. In addition to wholesale and limited retail distribution, she also continues to sell her product at three area farmer's markets.
"People ask why I still sell product at the farmer's market," remarks Scarberry. "I get real-time, true feedback, and I get to stay connected to the community, which is huge. For a small business, once you pull that plug, it changes everything."
With regard to her recent success, Scarberry attributes it to the support she's gotten from her partners and individuals in the community, in addition to good old fashioned hard work and good timing.
"Everything happens for a reason," she says. "The fact that I made it through 2011 is just amazing. Had I reached out to Williams-Sonoma before now, it would definitely have been a 'no.' Everything literally happened as it should."
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.