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The Globe and Mail

Canadian biscotti queen shares recipe for success

Rae Lindsay, founder of Mom's Best Gourmet Foods

Courtesy of Mom's Best

The woman behind Mom's Best Gourmet Foods – whose homemade cookies and biscotti line the shelves of Loblaws' banner stores and fill the concession stands at Toronto's finest live event halls – never imagined she'd one day be the president of a multimillion-dollar baking company. In fact, for 15 years, the divorced mother of two worked in public relations as a communications and policy officer for the provincial government; positions she eventually learned to despise.

I met with Rae Lindsay to find out how she jumped from PR to baking, the challenges she faced out of the gates, and some of her breakthrough moments.

How did you make the transition into entrepreneurship?

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It was really scary to think about leaving, and I thought I couldn't because I had two small kids and my marriage was breaking up and [I had]a huge mortgage. It was a really hard decision.

What was it that motivated you to start your own business?

I did the '90 and dying' test. I pictured myself lying on my death bed and decided there would be nothing sadder than lying there thinking 'I wish I had…' So I did. I think the thought that you might go out with regrets gives you the courage to try. I figured, better to try and fail than to always wish I had had the nerve to give it my best shot.

Describe the challenges you faced at the start.

I started really cold. I knew nobody in the business, had no mentor and wasn't involved with any networking organizations. I had the hard-copy Yellow Pages and I just started calling smaller places that wouldn't intimidate me – little corner restaurants, that sort of thing. I would ask clients, 'Can I show you some cookies?'

You were still working full-time in PR at the time. How did you balance it with Mom's Best?

At first, I did everything: I went out to get the sale, made the samples, did the costing, did the baking, did the packing, did the delivery, did the invoicing, collected for the invoice, etc. And I had two small kids on my own. Then I got my first plant, while I still had my full-time job. It was 1,300 square feet. Lunch hours I would run up to the plant, do my stuff, run back to work, pick up my kids and then run back to the plant.

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What was your breakthrough moment?

I was so fortunate. The first thing we started doing, on evenings and weekends, was to bake gourmet cookies. Eventually we started supplying every live theatre in the city: the Princess of Wales, Royal Alexandra, the Roy Thomson Hall. I just cold-called them and they were so nice and they said, 'Sure, come down and we'll look at the samples,' so I packed up and got on the subway. My sister started calling me 'the bag lady' and that's what I felt like with my shopping bag full of cookie samples.

In general, women are more risk-averse than men. What motivated you to take the leap?

We're usually afraid of risk. I think it depends on what you have on the table and where you see yourself going. Kids are also strong motivators, especially for a mother.

But isn't that scarier because you have children relying on you?

It's true. But I was so unhappy, it was affecting how I was interacting with them. I'm the kind of person that hates complaining and don't really like when other people complain. There's no reason to complain: You either do something about it or you suck it up. I started to hear myself complaining and I thought to myself, 'I can't be one of those people – I have to live with myself.' The way I mitigated the risk was I still kept that full-time job and I had some pretty good sales happening at the same time.

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Tell me about one of your low points.

It so happened that the government went on strike which [meant]there was no income, which was scary. But it also gave me time to work on the business.

I remember one March, I spent $38 on groceries for the whole month. It's amazing how you can eat cheap – get flour, you make your own bread, tuna and peanut butter are cheap, and that's what I did.

I remember another time standing in line getting the ingredients at the cashier and I was looking at those packs of gum, and that's one time when it really hit me. Even if I wanted that pack of gum, I couldn't afford it. If it was a dime, I couldn't buy it. I had nowhere to get that dime – not in my purse, not in the bank, not on my credit card – I just didn't have it. Period. That was a really scary feeling.

But I kept knocking on doors, getting accounts and building enough nerve to send samples to Costco. The next morning, the buyer called me and listed it just like that. We were just over the top. That's how we did it -- one order at a time; one sale at a time.

What makes Mom's Best the best?

We're probably the largest biscotti manufacturer in Canada. We are unique in that we can match any customer's specification in terms of flavour profiles, product configurations, packaging requirements, price points and service levels. We're large enough to supply the 'big guys' but flexible enough to customize to each and every client.

Another distinguishing feature of the company is my sister and I, and our passion and dedication, our heart and soul that we copiously pour into our company on a daily basis. This is all reflected in the quality of our products, in the spirit of our outstanding people, and in the appreciation of our loyal customers.

Paint me a picture of sales today.

We now sell across Canada, the United States, Mexico and the Middle East. We're just under $5-million. We do a lot of private label. We do PC, Loblaws, Fortinos, Superstores, No Frills.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

When I was growing up, I was led to believe that you have to do something 'responsible' to make a living, but I think everyone should make a living at their passion. That was the big, great revelation for me. Can you imagine if everyone was making a living doing their passion? Everyone would be so happy. There'd be no wars, everything would be great! You'd jump out of bed.

If you're trapped somewhere where you're not happy and you'll feel like you can't make that change, but really you can, you just have to mitigate your risk as much as you can. But go for it, one day at a time, one account at a time. I always say to my kids, nothing worth having comes easy.

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