Ok, so this my rant on shelf-life… b/c frankly, for details that I won’t go into, I’m really angry right now. So, yeah, I’m blogging about it right now, as well…
As a business owner who hand-makes her own products with fresh ingredients, I’m finding it increasingly weird that a month shelf life is considered short in food retail. How long do foods usually sit on the shelf… that we pay money for… and put into our bodies (or put on our shelves at home for even longer amount of time)?
There are some products that are usually understood to have a short shelf-life, but the idea that chocolates go bad barely registers; it’s the curse of a naturally average, but not interminably long shelf-life, that can be extended with meddling… and that people have become used to. So, now we’re stuck with displays in grocery stores of chocolates like Godiva whose ingredients are engineered to last, with taste and texture as side considerations. Really, a box of 4 month old funky, dried-out chocolates with an ingredient list the size of my hand is supposed to be considered a gift? An 8 month old candy bar is a snack to look forward to? A 1 year old tinned cake is special?
Most of the food that I make at home lasts, oh… 3 days? A week, rarely? And it tastes good for it.
I know this about how my products sell in stores — they sell best in stores where the owners and store employees:
A) Have actually tasted them before or after purchasing them
B) Have read the labels and description sheet that I give them
C) Appreciate the fact that they’re selling a fresh product that’s locally handmade with real ingredients that logically go bad after many days have gone by. It helps to display the products as such, rather than put them amongst products that have sat on the shelf for months and will continue to do so. And it seems they do not sell well standing upright in jars/tall vessels b/c it obscures their appearance and label, and candy bars aren’t usually sold that way so people aren’t used to looking in jars for them, and they have to take the effort to pick it out of the jar to figure out what it is, and all that manhandling mars their appearance as well.
D) Actually talk to their customers because they sell what they like and their customers trust them.
E) Order small quantities that they reasonably expect to sell. They know their customers best. And I offer weekly deliveries.
They do great in those stores, and I’m happy that I know the store owners and I do almost anything they ask for to help the bars sell. Are those criteria so difficult to meet? Especially in “gourmet” stores with high prices? This is why my “Where to Buy” list is short on my website. For one or a combination of reasons, they don’t work in some stores, and I don’t aggressively pursue wholesale b/c there are too factors out of my control.
I want to be clear that I’m not simply blaming store owners. I work part-time in a store now, and I know something about what it’s like. It’s very hard. There’s a shaky economy, and there are slow days, or weeks, or months, and closures. And you shouldn’t have to talk to each customer that comes in. And you have a lot of products to look after. And there are some products that you make more money on than others. And the of point of packaging and product advertising is that the product can sell themselves. And they’re used to ordering in large quantities. And $5 is a lot for candy bars and $6 is a lot for marshmallows, and not everyone walks into a store wanting to buy them. And I know that not everyone will love my products (but a lot of people do). And days, weeks, months fly by.
It’s just that I’m never going to try to extend my shelf life beyond what is reasonable. Think about taking a container of cream, or milk, or butter out of your refrigerator, and letting it sit on the counter for a month. And then eating it. The chemistry of food combinations, heat, and packaging allows products made of such ingredients to last for a certain amount of time, but it’s really kind of a miracle and that doesn’t obscure the fact that there are fresh ingredients in there that, no matter what, taste best fresh.
A main advantage of my business is the focus on freshness. I’m really amazed that freshness in this area is actually novel. Even if products will be “fine” after 2 months, they’re not going to be the best that they can be b/c they’re simply not fresh and are furthermore full or ingredients that are there for preserving rather than flavor. I’m not going to put in all my hardwork for a business like that.
The only other option that I see (and have seen from the beginning) is to focus on selling them directly. It’s the only way that I can guarantee freshness. The majority of my sales have been directly from my website and phone calls, so I’m thrilled that most of the people who have eaten BonBonBars have gotten them fresh from me. They’re sent out the day after they’re made.
I’ve been reluctant to sell at farmers markets for practical reasons - I drive a very small car that might not be able to fit the tent and table, I’m pretty small myself so carrying and setting up the tent and table would be difficult, and chocolates melt in the sun.
But after successfully dealing with other issues that have come up, I’m going to go for it. If it’s too hot for the chocolates to be out (which it pretty much already is this year), I’m going to sell them out of a cooler as Frozen Candy Bars, which are delicious, too. And my marshmallows and soon-to-be-released caramels will be fine. I think I can make a cool display.
And I love interacting with customers! It’s really the best part of the job. It’s so interesting to get to know people who like the bars, and what else they like, and just the whole thing.
A lot of LA farmers markets are full, though, or are only accepting vendors that fit into their current mix, so I have to find a suitable one that has an opening for me.
I still want to sell them for special events and parties, too, but figuring out the packaging for that (eco-friendly, unique, adjustable) has been proven to be tricky. And a lot of those sales depend on word of mouth, which I’ve been lucky enough to have great experience with, but it can’t really be forecasted.
And the other option is to open my own store… That’s the rather modest goal. It may take a while, but I’m working on it.