Conversation with Flora Pringle, Founder, Cracked Candy
Concocting a Diabetic-Safe Candy
September 5, 2018
1. What is your business?
Cracked Candy is a guilt- and sugar-free candy made from a plant-based sweetener called Xylitol. It’s good for your teeth, safe for diabetics, and on top of everything, it’s delicious. Cracked Candy is a hard candy that sells at retail for around $4.50, comes in vintage looking tins, and the pieces look like sea glass–as though they were once a thick sheet that got smashed into pieces. We’re in 200 stores across the US, and we’re on Amazon.
When I decided that I wanted to use Xylitol, a naturally occurring sweetener, to make my candy, I bought some basic ingredients and made it myself in my kitchen. Peppermint was the first flavor I created, and once I was clear on the formula and a few other flavors, I moved to a shared kitchen. Now I outsource the production, but it is still small batch and handmade.
While it’s convenient to outsource, it’s hard to find the right people. I have gone through many co-packers. I’m not sure why, but many manufacturing groups are scared away from Xylitol because they haven’t heard of it. If I can make it at home, I am positive they can make it in a commercial kitchen!
Right now, most of my sales are wholesale directly to stores and to distributors; places like Whole Foods, Wegmans, BigY and high-end independents. I also sell directly to consumers on my website which is higher margin but much lower volume.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
I’ve worn a few hats in my life. I studied science at Oxford, then went into advertising for several years. It wasn’t good for me in the long term, so I went back to my science roots and became a high school science teacher. I taught in London and Australia and loved it. I then moved with my family to New York and discovered that part-time teaching doesn’t exist here as it does in England and Australia. After I had my first child and was ready to go back to work, I wanted flexibility in a job.
My husband and I always wanted to start our own business, so it just seemed like the right time. Then, it all happened really quickly. In a couple of weeks, I found out by chance about Xylitol, a plant-based sweetener that looks and tastes like sugar but is actually good for you. The name Xylitol sounds scary but it’s naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables, things like mushrooms, hickory, and berries, and it even is found in small quantities in our own bodies. Americans are most likely to be familiar with Xylitol because it is used in gums and toothpastes. Unlike sugar, Xylitol doesn’t mess with blood sugar levels which is why doctors and dentists recommend it. It’s good for diabetics, people struggling with blood sugar levels, people who want to be healthier, or anyone who wants to watch his or her weight.
Obesity is a problem in the United States; 50% of people struggle with their blood sugar levels. Yet, candy is found in 98% of U.S. households! That’s a scary fact and an enormous opportunity. Plus kids love candy, and even candies that say they are sugar-free have other sweeteners like cane sugar, honey, or maple syrup. Those sweeteners have the same effect on blood sugar levels. This will blow your mind: Xylitol benefits your teeth because it actually gets rid of decay-causing bacteria. The bacteria it combats causes bad breath, tooth decay, and ear, nose, and throat infections, so eating foods with Xylitol is actually better for you than not. That makes it sound like medication, but it’s actually super yummy.
So I thought why don’t we have a candy? We need a guilt-free candy. And it’s an opportunity to do something good, fun and creative. That was my epiphany. Within 5 months my product was on the shelves in my local Brooklyn stores. I have so many ideas on what to do next. Right now, we’re launching two new flavors: Watermelon and Very Berry.
3. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
Yeah, so many times. For one, I lost a whole batch of candy in a facility fire last year, and we couldn’t make any more for several months. That was a real challenge because I wasn’t sure when I would be able to send more candy to my customers. When stores buy a product and the product starts to sell, they don’t want their shelves to be empty because they lose money. If they can’t rely on a brand, they will switch to another product. Also, the fire happened before the winter holidays which is an important time for us because Cracked Candy is a perfect stocking stuffer or little gift for the holiday season. As a result, I lost out on a lot of sales. It was really hard, but I ended up finding a temporary production solution to get some candy on my key customers’ shelves.
The most valuable takeaway from that experience was to always plan for a backlog of stock. If I make too much candy in a production run, that’s just fine because Cracked Candy has a shelf life of 2 years. I’d rather have too much than not enough.
4. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
I’m proud that I’ve been in business for four years, we’re still here and we’re profitable. That, in and of itself is an achievement. Most startups fail, but we’re still standing. We also just got into all of the Northeast Whole Foods stores, which is a good win. Becoming a brand that Whole Foods carries is effectively a shortcut to gaining trust and getting bigger. And just now we got into a few more stores, Roche Brothers and BigY, which is really exciting.
5. What are some of your current challenges?
As a small business owner, it feels like every challenge I overcome ends up being replaced by another. Right now, I have two main challenges. One is that the demand for Xylitol is increasing, but the supply is not catching up. So, the cost of my ingredients is rising. But I can’t start charging more for my candy, so I have to be more efficient.
The other challenge is that the buyers who make purchases for retailers are always changing. So, for example, we got into the New York City area airports, and we felt great about our prospects. But then a new buyer came into the corporation, and that person decided it was more profitable to sell candy from the big candy brands. They make more money that way because they can sell shelf space. So suddenly, I lost a really important client and income base. Or, on a smaller scale, a newly hired manager of a store will come in and say “What’s Cracked Candy?” and remove it from the shelves. So as much traction as I get, pretty regularly I have to start from scratch and make new relationships after I’ve had a big breakthrough.
6. Have there been positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your business was off the ground?
When you run your own business, there’s no time off, maternity leave or holiday. That can be really hard on you and your family. It’s a challenge to find the balance and be disciplined about setting aside time. I have a young family, two kids under the age of six, and a partner who has a hectic work life. It’s a massive challenge.
But the positive is that I’m my own boss. I can put my business aside for the morning to exercise or help at my son’s school. Technically I can go meet someone for a long lunch…I should do that more! I can be flexible and run my business anywhere in the world which is liberating.
7. Have there ever been moments when you regretted what you started or had to abandon part of the plan?
It’s definitely a roller coaster. There are days when I love it, and I am so proud of what I have created. There are other days when there are too many things to get done, too many challenges, too many closed doors–and I want to quit. But that’s the same in any job.
In terms of abandoning part of the plan, I did have to rethink it. I originally thought I would make millions and sell out in five to eight years. Which was beautifully naive. This business is not always linear, there’s no guarantee that a big store or chain will ever place an order again or with what frequency.
I have to change the plan constantly, and there is nothing to do but be OK with rolling with the change. Anything could happen: a big investor could pull out of a deal or a factory fire could delay the launch of a new flavor.
8. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
I would say, “If you are going to create a product, create one out of need not greed.” And don’t do it alone! Do it with a 50-50 partner. Spend time with friends and drink wine. Rejoice in the upsides and have your friends help you keep the downsides in perspective.
9. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
I would like to be in every grocery store across America. I would like Cracked Candy to be the guilt-free sweet solution for people with diabetes. People are always going to want sweet things because humans are genetically programmed to want sweet, yummy foods. We can’t change people’s behavior, but we can give them a healthier solution that is just as tasty. Cracked Candy is a really fun solution. I want to help people be healthy in a fun and happy way.
10. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
Date of conversation: June 21, 2018
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