More than forty years ago, Susan Axelrod stepped into her kitchen, and as she baked a quiche, she had that perfect entrepreneurial inspiration. Now the owner of the fine-foods company, Love & Quiches Gourmet, she has some 200 employees and a vast distribution network (supermarkets, local restaurants, even Amazon). Here’s her story in her own words.
I started my bakery business, Love & Quiches Gourmet, in my home kitchen in 1973, purely by accident; from just one quiche.
I was a clueless suburban housewife with no preparation whatsoever for business ownership. My only qualification was my passion for everything connected to food. I was a very good cook and was cajoled into starting the business by a carpool friend, an equally great cook.
We had no plan, we simply started. We made up some quiches, took them to a few local businesses, and before we knew it we had one customer, then two, and then ten. Adding desserts soon followed.
We were the Keystone Kops Quiche Factory; two steps back for every step forward. My partner cried uncle shortly after so I bought her out and quickly realized this little business had a will and a pull of its own. I decided to stick around to see how the movie ended; that was forty years ago.
It was our product that put quiche on the map as an alternative to the hamburger, and it’s now served on menus worldwide.
I did it by knocking on a thousand doors.
I learned everything on the job, in the line of fire, just by doing it. I started asking a lot of questions of my customers, my suppliers, my newfound mentor, my peers, my competitors (who didn’t know I was watching), and, later, from my employees… and I learned from my mistakes, a vastly underestimated learning tool. And this was all before the dawn of the computer age. At the time, I was a one-man band—baker, buyer, salesman, porter, and delivery guy. I learned what business was, and how to run one.
With each new chapter we expanded our reach. Across the decades, we grew in concentric circles with customers first in Metro New York, then Tri-State, then up and down the Eastern Seaboard, across the Continent, then across the globe.
There were as many obstacles thrown in our path along the way as there were victories. There was brutal competition, key customer loss, key employee loss, location moves, and so on. But many obstacles were beyond our control—commodity spikes, 9/11 (after which the economy came to a dead halt), and the Great Recession among them. There is never a straight line to the top; prepare for the setbacks and deal with them.
When looking back at it all, one thing stands out. It is after 9/11 that the business had its “Aha” moment and we reinvented ourselves and our business model; with just-in-time and lean manufacturing methods.
A true leader knows what she doesn’t know.
So by far, after 9/11 our greatest achievement was the rebuilding of our organization from the bottom up—with strong high performance teams, and equally strong directors and middle management.
Our employees are our greatest asset and are valued insiders, each skilled in their particular area. We managed this through a combination of promoting from within and bringing in outside talent when needed. They are a passionate group—we have the right people on the bus, and in the right seats, as memorialized by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great.
As a private company, there are fewer layers in our decision-making, which helps us compete with the giants. We are known for our flexibility and receptiveness to new ideas. From the top we set strategic direction, but our teams provide the “meat and potatoes” that bring the results.
My key advice is that the customer is King. Without him you have nothing.
So a good idea is not enough, unless you can persuade someone to pay for it. So, as I did, pick a product or service not already available, or if available, give yours a point of difference or better price. Find unmet customer needs and then create products to fill them.
We partner with our customers, gearing our products to meet their needs, not the other way around. And we have never compromised on quality; we would have been caught every time. We are keenly aware the market is constantly evolving and the need to keep up or fall behind. So, we are constantly evolving: new logo, new marketing initiatives, new product introductions. It seems relentless, but it is the only way to move to the next level. This is how we go to market.
I am this book—this is my story and I think there are some valuable lessons to be gleaned from it. My book describes my journey, all of the pain and the glory, and the lessons I learned along the way. As I wrote, rewrote, and rewrote yet again, I realized I was offering a lot of solid, practical, and attainable advice, a roadmap for the next one in line; a way to avoid some of the pitfalls of business ownership.
Today, even though we more closely resemble big business, it took 1000 baby steps to get there. It has been an arduous journey, but, on the other hand, it has been quite a ride. Would I do it all over again? I would.
Susan continues to chronicle her experiences in her blog, Susan’s Sweet Talk, and in her recently published book, With Love and Quiches: A Long Island Housewife’s Surprising Journey From Kitchen to Boardroom.