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Supplier Stories: Second Careers in Food

Date: 03/01/12 | Source: Specialty Food Magazine | Author: Denise Shoukas
Categories: Industry Operations; Suppliers; Retailers; Distributors
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Supplier Stories: Second Careers in Food

Having reached the peak of success in their first vocations, these career changers took the leap into the specialty food industry. Read on to learn how the people behind Askinosie Chocolate, Dulcet Cuisine and Bone Doctors’ BBQ found their second calling, proving that food isn’t just for culinary pros.

By Denise Shoukas


Before: Defense attorney
After: Chocolatier with a charitable angle

After 20 years as a defense attorney known for winning murder cases on a national level, Shawn Askinosie knew it was time to try something different. “In the middle of a very emotional murder trial, something in the back of my head knew I needed to make a change,” says the founder and owner of Askinosie Chocolate, Springfield, Mo., a small-batch chocolatier known for its award-winning singleorigin chocolates. But it wasn’t for lack of passion for his chosen profession. “I loved the courtroom and the challenge, and it gave me the opportunity to work on issues of social justice,” he says. “Now it’s just a different arena.”

Askinosie had had no prior interest in cooking, but an encounter with a client changed his course. “A client’s mom gave me an apple pie recipe during jury deliberations. I just jumped in and started to use food and grilling as a hobby and stress reliever,” he recalls. And then he did with cooking what he had done with cases. “I turned it into an obsession.”

As his hobby evolved, Askinosie began making cupcakes from premium dark chocolate and considered opening a cupcake bakery. During a road trip in 2005, with a lot of time to think, he reviewed his options and realized that becoming a premium chocolate maker was his purpose. He set out to research and educate himself on every element of his new venture.

After his last trial in 2006, Askinosie spent a year setting up the company, and in May 2007 he sold his first single-origin chocolate bar. The former lawyer prides himself on not only sourcing 100 percent of the beans directly from farmers in Ecuador, Honduras, the Philippines and Tanzania but also establishing an equitable business. He created A Stake in the Outcome, a profit-sharing program for the farmers. “It’s better than fair trade,” Askinosie contends. “We’re very tied into the communities we work with.”

The company has since won numerous awards for its single-origin chocolates and, with only 10 full-time employees, has made an impact on the local community as well. “The area we’re in is being revitalized, and there are a lot of social services including a homeless center down the block that houses many kids and their families. From the first chocolate bar, we started a project in our community called Chocolate University [], where we engage young people in our business, from elementary through high school,” to broaden their worldview and introduce them to entrepreneurship, Askinosie explains. In a recent project with the local high school, the chocolate company selected 13 juniors to help choose a location in Africa to source beans. “They chose Tanzania, and we were able to bring all 13 kids over with us, where we built and dedicated a water well to the community,” Askinosie says. “We funded that trip by doing tours of the factory, of which 100 percent of proceeds go to the project, as well as from donations around the country.”

Today, Askinosie Chocolate has 500 retail accounts, plus a Swedish distributor who is the company’s single largest customer. The business grew by exhibiting at the Fancy Food Shows and continues to call on retailers domestically. With approximately 20 products, the company is lauded for its single-origin dark chocolate bars, such as the 34 Percent Cocoa Butter pressed from cacao beans from Davao in the Philippines, and sells award-winning white chocolate bars, chocolate nibs, baking ingredients and bulk items. Partnering with other premium manufacturers, Askinosie Chocolate introduced its CollaBARation Bars, the first of which was made with 62 percent dark milk chocolate, fleur de sel, salted black licorice and anise seed, with Scandinavian distributor Martin Jörgensen and his licorice factory, Lakritsfabriken.

A selection of gifts fill Askinosie Chocolate’s online shop, such as the C-Ration Month Supply of Chocolate (a box filled with 94 miniature bars) and beverages like Tableya, a traditional Filipino hot chocolate made of roasted cocoa beans that are milled into tablets—a joint effort with the community where he sources beans in the Philippines.

“I’m more excited about this project than anything else,” Askinosie says of the collaboration. “There’s a little elementary school in Davao, Philippines, where there are a number of kids who are malnourished. I asked the PTA of this school to create a product, so they came up with Tableya, a hot chocolate–type beverage. They put it on my container; I bought them for $1 each and sold them for $10 each. We bought 800.”

The profit will fund hot school lunches for the students for a year and a half, totaling 185,000 meals. “There were no donations; it was all self-sustaining,” he says.

With plans to do the same in Tanzania, Askinosie never forgets his own community. “We have a number of kids in the U.S. who are hungry, so we’re doing the same exact thing a couple of miles from our factory, where the PTA of that school will make
a product. This is a huge, huge part of our mission.”

With social causes at the heart of the company, Askinosie knows that without the chocolate, he wouldn’t be able to achieve his mission. “If we didn’t make great-tasting chocolate, then we couldn’t do these things,” he says. “And it’s true for any other socially minded company. We create a great product that affords us the chance to make a big difference.” And despite the seemingly drastic career change, Askinosie found a way to continue helping people, just through a different (and delicious) medium.


Before: Band Manager/Film Industry Professional & Flight Attendant
After: Sauce and condiment savants

As a Delta flight attendant for 19 years, Pam Kraemer fed her passion for food and cooking by using the time on her layovers to explore food markets and eat local cuisines all over the world. She would invariably return home with exotic ingredients to experiment with in her own kitchen.

“I had a keen interest in cooking and food—and eating in particular,” says Kraemer, founder and chef of Dulcet Cuisine. So when she retired from flying and was looking to start a new career, food was the natural next step.

“I didn’t know how much of a risk it was at the time,” Kraemer says. “I knew I was done flying and I knew I wanted to be challenged.” She had some experience in the food industry. During a time when airlines were offering flight attendants frequent leaves of absence, Kraemer opened a café with her family. Drawing from a popular dressing she made to serve at the café, she recalls thinking, “If I bottled the dressing and made a salad and showed people this is what you can do, it would work.”

Starting at the Portland Farmers Market in Portland, Ore., in 2004, she did just that. By August Kraemer had a booth at the Seattle Gift Show. The night before the show, she had a labeling party where friends came to her garage to help ready the products for sale. But after a successful show where “lots of mom-and-pops and distributors came by my booth,” she knew she could no longer hand-fill and -label each item. The budding entrepreneur hired a co-packer, a move that would allow her to source her own ingredients and be on-site during the making of her product. “I couldn’t imagine not being in control of making the product,” she adds. By November of that year, she signed with her first distributor.

“Once I went beyond the farmers market and attended a trade show, I realized you need a lot of money,” Kraemer explains. “So my biggest risk came from borrowing money from family.” To help her grow, her sister-in-law Alison Auth, now chief strategist and managing partner of Dulcet, came on board in 2008. Matching Kraemer’s passion for food was Auth’s passion for strategy and managing, a skill she honed over many years of starting and managing companies and bands and working in the film industry. Auth began by focusing on the graphic design of the products.

“I was up to my elbows in the business plan and it just exploded from there,” Auth says. She worked on how best to grow the business, particularly amid and after the recession. “For some products we reduced the prices and got new packaging to make them less expensive,” Auth says. “As we evolved, our roles solidified. When I came on board, Pam was able to get back into the kitchen.” Auth made some immediate changes; among them, “I made Pam stop packing boxes and hired a fulfillment company,” she says.

A true creative in the kitchen, Kraemer built her line organically. She started with sauces, like Toasted Sesame & Ginger Asian Sauce, later adding spices at the behest of her farmers-market patrons. Today Dulcet sells three cooking spices and rubs: Creole, Madras and Moroccan. A love of mustard led Kraemer to create Madras Curry Mustard, which won the Grand Champion Award at the Napa Valley Mustard Festival soon after its debut. “So I decided to make more mustards,” Kraemer says. “There was no strategy at that point, it just evolved.”

With 15 products today, the Dulcet Cuisine line includes five sauces, three spices, four mustards and three ketchups, with multiple award winners in each category, including Mild Indian Curry Ketchup, which took home two sofi Gold Awards in 2011 for Outstanding Shelf Stable Foodservice and in 2010 for Outstanding Condiment. Today, Dulcet Cuisine sells all over the country, both direct wholesale and through a variety of distributors, and can be found at thousands of stores, from Whole Foods Markets to small specialty shops.

“The food industry is one big surprise; it’s like an onion with so many different layers,” Auth says, adding that it’s “absolutely challenging,” which was exactly what the sisters-in-law were looking for. “Many people go into the food industry thinking they’ll only be working with food, but you need a lot of capital and support to bring your product to market,” Kraemer notes. “When I was a flight attendant, I felt underemployed. I wasn’t being as challenged as I wanted to be.” In the food industry, however, “I’m challenged every single day,” she effuses. “I’m proud of what we’ve created and I want to see where we can take it from here.”


Before: Orthopedic surgeons
After: Barbecue sauce gurus (and still practicing doctors)

Orthopedic surgeons David Heilbronner and Bruce Wilhelmsen have successfully launched a barbecue-sauce company while continuing to administer high-level medical care to patients in their respective practices in Virginia and North Carolina.

“A lot of physicians will look to find second careers when practicing,” says Heilbronner, co-founder of Bone Doctors’ BBQ with Wilhelmsen. “For both of us, we used cooking as hobbies, and it expanded into a small business.”

Friends and colleagues for close to three decades, the two surgeons started forming their company six years ago when Heilbronner’s daughter’s soccer team was trying to raise money to play in Italy. “Since I’ve always cooked, I sold BBQ sandwiches at the soccer park,” says Heilbronner. “People said, ‘You need to open up a restaurant,’” he recalls. “But running a restaurant can be even harder work than being a doctor.”

Bringing the skills that make them excellent surgeons to the kitchen, the duo began experimenting with Heilbronner’s original recipe. “Much like being in a lab, we kept notebooks and every change was noted,” Heilbronner says. Soon the Original Bone Doctors’ BBQ Sauce was born.

They started working with co-packers, enduring trial and error in the process. “We found we would give a co-packer the recipe and, in order to bump it up to commercial sizes, they probably substituted inferior ingredients,” Heilbronner says. “It was horrible. We were very specific with what we wanted to go into the sauce to tick it up to a premium level.”

Step by step, they learned the ropes, finally landing the co-packer Bone Doctors’ BBQ uses today. To match the quality product with an appropriate exterior image, they worked with Evolve, a marketing company in Greenville, N.C., to develop the brand. Soon after, Heilbronner attended the Fancy Food Show in New York City to observe and research. He returned home knowing this would be the project’s next step to take it from a hobby to a business. Bone Doctors’ first time exhibiting at a Fancy Food Show in July 2011 brought recognition from several media outlets. Thanks to their products’ sharpened looks, in 2011 the Bone Doctors’ gift pack became a sofi Silver Finalist and won two Scovie awards.

“It can be the best sauce, but unless someone tries it they never know,” Heilbronner notes. “It’s your branding that gets them to taste it.” A few days after the Show, the executive chef from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center called to express interest in opening a barbecue restaurant using their sauces. Heilbronner believes it was the branding that initially piqued the chef’s interest and that the quality of the sauces sealed the deal. “The general on our labels is the first U.S. surgeon general,” he explains. “Because we’re sitting on the Mason-Dixon line, we wanted a military look, which fits with many of the events at the convention center.” Opened in October, the Bone Doctors restaurant is located inside the building, open during events.

For Heilbronner, the new business ends up being an icebreaker for many of his patients. “They get a big kick out of it. Both of us also were certified BBQ judges, even before we made our sauce, so I have my judging certificate up in the waiting room,” he says. “In central Virginia, there are parts that are very cosmopolitan, but three-quarters of my patients are from the rural areas. So many are afraid of what ‘this doctor’ will be like. It makes me more human.”

Today Bone Doctors’ produce three sauces—The Original, Sweet & Spicy Barbecue and Carolina Bold Barbecue—as well as a spice blend, and a variety of three gift packs. And the company will introduce two new sauces early in 2012: a hot BBQ sauce and a hot sauce. Wearing their doctors’ hats, Heilbronner and Wilhelmsen make their sauces pure, with no corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup and never using artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

Now accustomed to juggling two careers, Heilbronner admits the effort is huge. “But it’s fun too,” he adds. “Anyone who goes into medicine does it for the challenge. I’ve been in practice for more than 30 years, so now it’s time to bring in another dimension. I’ve never been one to sit still idly."

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Supplier Stories: Second Careers in Food

Having reached the peak of success in their first vocations, these career changers took the leap into the specialty food industry. Read on to learn how the people behind Askinosie Chocolate, Dulcet Cuisine and Bone Doctors’ BBQ found their second calling, proving that food isn’t ...

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