The Sweetest Family Business in the USA – Zelda’s from Chicago
From beginning as a simple cookie and candy store to wholesaling across the USA, Zelda’s is Chicago’s go to place for gourmet bakery goods and sweet gifts.
My name is Elliott Neiman. I am the Information Systems Manager for my family’s business, which is called Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe (after my mother’s middle name). I didn’t originally plan on joining the family business. However, when I graduated college, my father asked me to help at Zelda’s, where our bookkeeper had just left us in a lurch.
The economy was at a low point and I decided to come and help out. It was an opportunity that I didn’t fully appreciate until later on.
What produces or services does your business offer?
Zelda’s started out in 2003 as a cookie bakery and candy store and has been in a nearly constant state of expansion since then. From baking cookies and making chocolates, Zelda’s quickly graduated to producing biscotti, cakes and caramel corn, as well as a wide variety of specialty items for local dessert catering. At the same time, Zelda’s began delivering prepackaged bakery items to local grocery stores. Eventually, Zelda’s decided to pursue wholesale manufacturing and expanded to a second “factory” facility. This second facility is not fully automated, but is more like a super-sized kitchen and production center with many large pieces of equipment. As time went by, we added more equipment as it became necessary. We now have a shrink-wrap machine, walk in freezers and fridges, dough extruders, caramel corn mixers, and a chocolate enrober (which coats things in chocolate!). We have 20-30 full- and part-time employees, depending on the season. Our staff is comprised of management, production workers, and customer service.
Zelda’s is now divided into two main parts, the wholesale bakery and the local retail bakery. The wholesale side of the business ships across the country, to stores such as Whole Foods, Gristedes, ShopRite, and Jewel. The retail side includes catering orders and gifts, which are also shipped nationally. The wholesale business operates out of the “factory,” and the retail side works out of our original storefront. The two sites share essential files and access to inFlow over a VPN.
As a kosher bakery drawing on many traditional Jewish recipes, our busiest seasons are around the Jewish holidays, which are famously food-oriented. The little-known holiday of Purim is our busiest retail holiday (because of the tradition of giving food gifts baskets), followed by the winter holiday season and Thanksgiving. Our busiest wholesale holiday is Passover, which has special dietary requirements. The High Holidays are busy for both sides of the business.
My job at the family business has been a great experience for a number of reasons. First of all, it is very satisfying to know that I have been an essential part of growing my family’s business. I know that my work here as bookkeeper and technical guru has saved us time and money. (inFlow has been a big part of that and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.) My job also allows me to experiment. I have been able to learn many new skills as the job demanded them and also as my interests changed and my experience grew. Finally, I would not otherwise have gained so much practical experience and knowledge of how to operate a business.
What are some day to day challenges you face?
One challenge as Zelda’s grew was in printing out case labels for large orders. The labels needed to identify case contents for orders as large as 2,000 cases. Although inFlow doesn’t do precisely what we need (yet!), I was able to automate this process by accessing the inFlow database externally. In this case, inFlow makes life easier (and more fun) for techies by allowing experts to access the program’s database from outside the program. This same feature has allowed us to use inFlow as the main repository for all product information. I am in the process of linking all product information spreadsheets and price lists to the inFlow database so that we won’t have to worry about errors due to data duplication.
Another recurring issue is accuracy in data entry. Although inFlow is user friendly, it’s only as good as the information that gets entered into it. It’s important to check orders on a regular basis (or better, have someone check them for you) to ensure that all relevant information was entered for each order, and that there’s no ambiguity. This will make sure that orders go out without a hitch.
One of my favorite points about inFlow is their excellent customer relations. Their message board allows customers to ask questions, report bugs, and even suggest ideas to be incorporated in future versions of inFlow. It’s very exciting to see a feature that you requested pop up in a new program update.
What advice could you give to other small businesses?
My advice to others in small business is this: Growing a company is a process of continuous learning. As your company grows, you will constantly need to do new things that you have never done before. This can range from operational changes and the need for increased automation of repetitive tasks, to new fees and shipping requirements demanded by larger distributors. Make sure to think things through carefully and don’t be afraid to ask for advice when you come across a difficult hurdle.
Anything else to add?
Next time your sweet tooth is acting up or you are looking for a unique and tasty gift to give, check out Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe.