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It's officially the holiday shopping season, and the small businesses of MetroWest that cater to the sweet tooth can be thankful that the affliction intensifies this time of year.
Consumers tend to buy more cookies, chocolates, custom cakes and other goods from Thanksgiving through late December, which can mean a third of annual sales in a one-month period for some bakeries and shops. With so much at stake, things need to run smoothly, as the following three business owners recently told MetroWest495 Biz.
Sue George is used to the holiday sales rush, having run a successful baked-goods ecommerce business for the past five years in Hudson. The company started with a focus on care packages full of cookies, brownies and other treats for college and boarding students, and has expanded from there.
George is getting her first taste of the brick-and-mortar life at Harvard Sweet Boutique's newly opened retail storefront, in the South Street plaza where the company has run its baking and shipping operation since 2007.
"I decided to do a retail location because I have people coming in all the time off the street and saying 'Are you open?'" George said. "Someone walked in yesterday and asked 'Are you a franchise?'"
For the record, she's not. But George saw an opportunity in the local interest she was seeing in her company. Plus, she can do some market research for new products by watching customers' reactions. And people can submit an order and pick it up at the store, which is a new feature for her business.
The month between Thanksgiving and Dec. 23 is a crucial one for George's business, which does 30 to 35 percent of its sales for the year in that time.
"This is it. This is the big one," she said.
With about double the space, George still seems worried that there will be enough room for her and her dozen or so employees to do the extra baking and gift packaging this month to meet increased orders.
"You come back here and you won't be able to walk," she said. "We've got the assembly lines going and it can be hundreds of boxes going out to many different addresses."
That presents a challenge to hurried employees, who must make sure not to mix up orders or addresses, she said.
"I tell them it's really stressful and you've got to be able to move fast, and you've got to be accurate at the same time," she said.
Weddings tend to taper off in December. So one might think Kristen Livoti, who spends much of the year designing and building custom wedding cakes at BellaCakes in Marlborough, would be able to take a break.
But instead, Livoti finds herself busier than usual as her focus shifts to holiday offerings like pies, sugar cookies, gingerbread house-building parties, and her special yule log cakes —chocolate roulade adorned with edible holly leaves and berries, which are baked just days before Christmas. Livoti also bakes for several charitable late in the year, such as an annual fundraiser for Roland's House in Marlborough. And she fills packages with baked goods for Air Force members serving in Afghanistan.
"The holidays are a different type of busy," Livoti said.
BellaCakes opened in 2009, and Livoti has deliberately kept the operation lean. The shop is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, offering cupcakes, cookies, blondies, shortbreads and other goods. Staying lean is necessary for her to continue offering a high-end product, she said. All of her cakes must be pre-ordered and custom made, and they are never frozen. BellaCakes also offers nut-free and gluten-free options.
Livoti knows custom cakes, which are often sculpted and carved into ornate designs, are a luxury item that can be subject to the throes of the economy. This year, she has noticed some customers more hesitant about prices, but she's hopeful that holiday sales can help make up the difference. To help with that, she has started offering more items for walk-in customers, like cocoa mixes, marshmallows, jellies and other goods.
"This is a make-or-break year and I think we're doing better," she said.
Paul McMahon has been enamored with chocolate for a long time. He once worked for Hebert Candies in Shrewsbury, before moving into a marketing and product development position in the corporate world for the next 14 years.
So it was a big change for McMahon to start his own chocolate business, The Happy Chocolatier, in Acton last year. He readily admits to making a number of mistakes starting out, as many new business owners do. For example, his company's sign didn't arrive until six weeks after he opened last year.
But McMahon said he is constantly learning from his mistakes and improving his operation.
"Building something from what was nothing is really exciting," McMahon said.
He loves being in the sweet tooth business, especially when he gives out samples that elicit happy reactions from adults and children alike.
The Happy Chocolatier's signature treat is one McMahon developed himself called Cubez, which are chocolate-coated fudge truffles in different flavors wrapped in colorful foil. Inside each is an inspirational message about happiness, complete with his store's website address.
The Cubez are popular sellers in the store, and McMahon also wholesales them to other retailers.
His 10 part-time employees are constantly pouring chocolate into molds, creating various shapes and flavors. The holiday season is huge for the Happy Chocolatier – with just one year under his belt, McMahon thinks it will account for up to 40 percent of annual sales.
The store makes chocolates shaped like snowmen, Christmas trees and also offered Thanksgiving themes treats this year, like chocolate turkey pops.
He feels much better prepared for the 2012 holiday season than he did last year, having opened just before it in October.
"It was the busiest part of that year but it was certainly below my expectations," he said.
He thinks that will change this year, thanks to some changes. The store has introduced boxes of chocolates with different price points and introduced new packaging and assortment options based on customer feedback.
"There are more headwinds than I thought there would be in this economy," he said. "It was about: 'What do we change and how do we change it, so we could make it through the summer and be in a position we're in now for the holidays?'" n