Why Tamsin rocks: Owner of a small batch organic caramel shop, circa September 2011
Who is Tamsin?
Well, it depends how much information you want to know. Just going all the way back, I was born in England, moved over here when I was little and grew up in the Bay Area. I always loved food. My mom tells me that when I was little, I would follow her around in the kitchen and play with her wooden spoons. At my [Waldorf] elementary school it was definitely more of an art space… hands-on type. We had a garden. In kindergarten we had food days.. we would bring in food and cook soup together. I love the creative aspect of food!
How did you take the plunge into creating your shop?
I wanted to do something along with my passion. I’ve actually never been a big sweet eater, but I love caramels because they are salty and sweet. Which is excellent! I just wanted to leap in.. just a little bit. I’ve been kind of hemming and hawing about it. My boyfriend and I were talking and he said, “just do it!” Just going in very small at a time. So I have a website, I do the Treasure Island Flea and just last week a mobile coffee truck that I met through Treasure Island Flea started carrying my things. Right now that’s it, so I’m starting off pretty slow and seeing where it takes me.
How long did it take to perfect your recipe?
It took a couple of months at home. Once I found the base recipe I liked, I kind of tweaked it and started playing with other flavors I had– trying to have them come through strong enough. It was a challenge, but it was a lot of fun. The experimentation was almost the most fun part for me. I’m developing new flavors right now for spring and summer that has cherries in it!
How did you prepare to start your biz?
I did some basic research online, as far as, do I need a business license.. which I did. Through a friend of the family, I connected with someone from San Francisco Small Business Development Center (SFBDC). Which was actually very helpful! They do free consultation. It’s a nonprofit.. the woman I met a few times, used to own a gourmet bakery and was definitely very helpful getting me on the right path. She also connected me with the woman I rent a commercial kitchen from. Because in order to legally sell my food, I have to make it in a commercial healthy certified kitchen.
Getting a business license, was that difficult?
No, just needed to find out where to go. The difficult thing to figure out was that I had to get zoning clearance. Which was slightly bizarre because I’m not actually doing anything out of my home. So I was a little concerned about that.. thinking I would have a lot of paperwork. But I just had to explain that I was making it out of a kitchen in Berkeley where my business is registered and they said that it was fine.
So they didn’t give you much trouble?
No, not really. They gave me my temporary license that day and sent the real one in a few weeks.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the kitchen you are renting?
Basically this other woman who also runs a sweet company, she makes florentines and sells them at local stores. She had gotten to a point where she needed a bigger kitchen but rents out it to a few others. I rent by the hour once a week.. 3 or 4 times a month. I’ll go in and use it for 4 to 6 hours. In that kitchen we are all doing pastry or confections.
Oh there are other people in the kitchen, as well, when you are there?
Well, not when I’m there because I use it in the evenings, so no one else is around. There are monthly renters and 3 or 4 of them are there usually at the same time. So I’m usually alone and get into the zone. I usually have NPR on.
Have you met anyone who has become your mentor along the way?
Definitely, Annie, the woman I met at the SFBDC in getting me going. I haven’t really had someone stuck with me.. but definitely Clarine (the woman I rent the kitchen from) who’s been telling me, “down the road you need this when you are bigger and actually selling to stores”.. and got me in touch with where I should get insurance. So if I burn down her kitchen or whatever [giggles] or someone chokes on my food!
Were there any DIY projects that you took on to personalize your brand?
Yeah, it’s definitely been interesting. Have you seen that commercial, where the guy goes, “Hey Dave, the printer is broken again!” Yeah, oh shit that’s me. So that’s been kind of funny. I started my website on WordPress and included a check-out. Which wasn’t working and realized it was a really small thing… agonizing. But now I have a friend who is starting off and I was able to put together screen shots for her. Labels was definitely a huge hurdle for me, as I wanted to design it myself. It was a lot of fun and a lot of brainstorming.. but this was going to be the brand image for my product! So it took a long time, well not a long time as months, but weeks for me to settle on something. Oh and I picked to use biodegradable bags and the wraps out of parchment paper.
Where and when was the first launch?
I started the website without the check out functionality just to see where it went and then did the Treasure Island Flea. It was December when I started the online check out. I have a Facebook page as well and I did a little ad campaign. It was only $50 and it got me 250 likes but only one person bought! My current hurdle is trying to figure out how to get people to buy things online from me.
So your first soft launch was at the TI flea, where I last saw you?
Yes… the first time was in October. I think I’ve done 3. But right now due to funding and in the grand scheme of things, trying to focus on online sales. But that last time, Drip Mobile Espresso and Coffee mobile truck found me after I liked his coffee and now sells my caramels at Alameda Antique, TI and some concerts. They are selling very well for him.. doubling his order.. which is very exciting! I didn’t go looking for him, he kind of came and found me as was like, “hey I’m tired to selling cookies and biscotti and want to try something new.” That it has given me a little direction as to where to go.. as far as wholesaling. I don’t own a store and don’t plan to at the moment. But I was thinking about approaching some stores.. local cafes in my neighborhood. Have a jar out with small quantities.. kind of just play with it. So that’s given me some direction where to go next.
How did it feel when you sold your first ever caramel to a stranger?
It was really great actually, for some reason it wasn’t the first sale that was exciting. I was in the middle of, okay, give out samples, chase the sun… total booth mode. And it wasn’t until the end of the weekend, where I saw the actual money and was like, “oh yeah! I made this!” “Wow yeah, people are actually buying!” I practically sold out what I brought. It wasn’t a particular moment.. instance.. as it all kind of blurred together.. but at the end of the weekend it was like, wow.. I did that! I didn’t come home with everything I went with. I sold it! It was a woohoo moment!
You said that your hurdle was selling online, would you say that is the most challenging part of developing your business now?
There are different things that are challenging in different ways, design labels as I mentioned was kind of like giving birth to a baby, I don’t know why not for the logo. Online sales is totally tricky in different way.. trying to think outside the box and figure out where my customers are and what will make them buy.
Do you think the online channel is the way to go?
I think right now it’s more of a supplement and I have to figure out other ways (cafes, stores). At first I was thinking of selling myself at events and then online… selling through another vendor seems to be working.
Would you consider selling through other mobile trucks?
It’s not an idea I’ve considered that much, but umm..
For example, there’s all these mircoroasters.. and they obviously all compete against each other.. would you want to identify yourself with one of them or steer clear?
Oh gosh! I think I would more likely to steer clear.. but one thing I have considered down the road is if such and such coffee roaster wants a specific coffee roast caramel with one of their blends.. maybe something like that. But that’s down the road. I kind of want to keep my brand a little more independent. But would be open to different mobile vendors.
I know you said you didn’t have a particular mentor, but this is your shoutout moment.. who would you say is your #1 fan?
Honestly my mother, who’s been going around telling her colleagues about my product.. telling friends.. just really putting the word out there which is really nice. My boyfriend has been really supportive and helping me not stress too much. He’s also my taste tester.. quality control!
Now we’ve touched on challenges, would you say there are some rewards at this point?
Definitely! I tend to stress more than I let myself celebrate the wins, but it’s definitely a satisfying feeling when I’ve come out of the kitchen with a big batch and I’m wrapping them. It’s a serene like place to spend time to focus on that. And whenever I’m at a market and I get a customer.. it is almost a funny feeling. Like, “Oh I’m selling these, but I made it..” I have to remind myself that I’m not selling someone else’s product. It has my name on it. And taking a step back.. so I might not have the best website in the world, but I set it up myself and mostly figured it out on my own.. which is kind of a wow moment! I did that!
What is your vision for the future of Tamsin’s Sweet Shop (for the next year, in the next 5 years)?
I know this should be an easy question, but the business plan has been the most difficult part. The next year I will be focusing on online sales and retail.. whether it be cafes, mobile carts or store locations. I’d say café and mobile at the same time, and focus on stores a little bit later in the year. The five year plan? I’m not too sure. It’s been so recent since the start. I’ve been kind of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. The only other thing I’ve been thinking in the grand scheme is adding product, maybe some English inspired sweets. Starting a store is such a daunting idea for me right now… licensing and permitting is a bit of a nightmare [for carts], that I’d have to make sure it was something I really want to devote my time to.
From your experience thus far, do you have any advice for the newbies?
Find something you love, but that is also marketable. Something easy to produce in big quantities… you can always go small like I did. Go for it! If it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out. But at least try it.
// photos by fareandsq //