Z CRACKER STORY
We make Z crackers and are currently in many stores around the country
including Whole Foods. For nearly 30 years we have come up against a series
of obstacles but have adapted along the way. Actually, it’s really been a
slow and sloppy attempt to create what I longed for: a “real business”. I
think that our story might be instructive, if terrifying.
I am unhappy as a recording engineer. No money, long hours, and I’m hearing disco songs repeated endlessly, and at full volume. I long to see daylight. My wife, Pam, is earning money as a graphic designer. This allows me the luxury of considering other possibilities. My godfather, Pete, a rotund Sicilian, is opening a pizzeria and wants to know if I would be his partner. I accept. Pam protests. I should have listened. It becomes a two-year incarceration, but I learn a lot about business, and pizza. At one point we are shown on TV making our specialty pies based on old Sicilian recipes. The location is rough, though, and we sell the place for next to nothing. Pete retires to Arizona. We travel to Europe and are impressed with a French bread called, “pain de son”. We learn that the main ingredient is bran.
Pam is laid off and I have nothing going on at all. When the wolf is at your door, you do what you have to. I make a few of Pete’s specialty pizzas in our home oven, adding bran to the dough. Lacking a baking stone I make the pies in tart pans. I take them on the subway to Dean and Deluca on Prince Street in Soho. Joel Dean finds them interesting and when a curious employee asks what they are he says, “savory pies”. He orders a dozen for the weekend. I go outside and jump up and down.
At this time there are only three fancy food stores in New York. Elated from my fresh success I bring my “savory pies” to Zabar’s. The surly manager yells at me, right in front of the customers, saying he sold quiche with LOBSTER in it for less than I was asking. I take my samples back on the bus, tears in my eyes. Balducci’s is not interested either.
The pies are doing well in Dean and Deluca, and small specialty shops are starting to open up. I make my pitch to them and manage to add a few outlets. Thank goodness that Pam got some work in graphic design. We’re calling ourselves, “Belly Timber Kitchen” (an obscure term for food). I am constantly explaining the name. Still making the pies at home. For packaging I am removing cardboard dividers from soda cases in a local beverage shop. A little plastic wrap, and then into the trunk of my 1968 Chevelle. I go around our Cobble Hill neighborhood with a shopping cart for ingredients. By now I’ve abandoned Pete’s recipes and have come up with some pies that are right for the times. Meatless, all natural and very pretty.
Our building is sold and we find another apartment around the corner. We don’t tell the landlord that we will be running a baking business out of it. We diversify by coming up with some tarts. I am spending a lot of time sculpting fruit into gorgeous creations. On my first delivery I drop the entire order on the shop floor. The owner laughs. By winter I have abandoned the tarts. Too labor intensive.
Our landlord tells us to take our baking business and leave. He makes us replace the oven. Our families help us with the down payment for a house in Ditmas Park. We set up our new kitchen with a small convection oven and use our new basement for storage. We are getting some meetings with chain stores like Fresh Fields and King Kullen. I am still delivering to every store and doing weekend demo’s. We hear that people use something called a “distributor” to help expand their business. I park in front of the Javits center while Pam runs in on a borrowed pass, holding a bag of the pies, and looks up and down the isles for a distributor. She meets a friendly woman named Jennifer Richards at the Gourmeco booth who is intrigued.
We have adopted two baby girls from Korea. One is constantly asking questions while the other is on my back, making the oven work a little more difficult. Some days we all go on deliveries together. Quite a show. We’ve got a distributor, finally, but the only way to make it work is to freeze and ‘slack out’ the pies at the stores. Not ideal. We’re tired of explaining “Belly Timber” and incorporate ourselves as “The Savory Pie Company”.
By now I’m getting nervous that cooking in my home may not be the best way to go. When a store becomes available around the corner I take it. It seems cavernous as we put our few pieces of equipment in a corner. A gas line must be installed from the front to the rear of the store, along with electric and plumbing. This is running into money. I hire my first employee.
The pies are just too expensive. The shelf life is too short. I’m taking more and more returns. I’ve got to come up with a cheaper recipe that still looks special. When I was a kid my family took a trip to the South where I had my first hushpuppies. Ever since then I had a love of cornmeal, so I put some of that in the dough. I fold the edges back over the pie, thinking that I had invented the technique. Years later I was surprised to see that the French had been doing it with galetttes for some time. But my new “Brooklyn Pizzas” took up some of the slack of the Savory Pies. Now I used pizza boxes for deliveries in my new Previa.
Did I say that there were only three fancy food stores in Manhattan when we began? I left out Fairway. And they are the roughest of all. Since the shelves are so crowded, your product has to be good enough for them to remove someone else’s. We make hundreds of attempts to get in. At one point we asked if we should keep calling. David Grotenstien, the manager, says we should. They like people who don’t give up. He is an unusually friendly guy for such a tough business. More typical is one of Fairway’s owners. When I have my young daughters with me, this guy brags to me about his new pizza oven. “I’m going to put your daddy out of business”, he says.
At this point I’m getting burnt out. Sales are slow. Returns are high. I’m jealous of products that have a shelf life. No returns, infrequent deliveries….profits. Pam gets involved. She is the gutsy, energetic and realistic member of the family. She says I shouldn’t be so fussy with the recipes, and tosses some spinach over some cheese. “That’s a pie”. And, so, the Savory Pizzas are born. Fast and cheap, but with an excellent sauce, good dough and a mixture of cheeses. They sell.
The business is now supporting three employees, two of whom I have sponsored for citizenship. Unfortunately I didn’t know that I couldn’t employ them until their working permits come through. I am brought down to the INS and fined $1400.
Meanwhile, when I’m not around, they fight. When I speak to each one privately, the others are always to blame. I pick one and fire him. It takes two hours because he nearly talks me out of it. But, thankfully, I make the right choice and there is harmony in the bakery, now equipped with a wrapping machine, a dough roller, and a third oven. But now the ovens aren’t working so well. Three experts tell me the gas line we installed needs to be replaced with a bigger one. We close down during the process. The gas company breaks up the street to supply more gas to the store. The ovens still don’t work. I am feeling very light headed and long for the days back in our home kitchen. Then it is discovered that there is a problem within the new oven. The old gas line would have been fine.
Now I’m getting very burnt out. Distributors have come and gone. I can’t seem to make the pies last more than a week, and I’m not willing to take the chance to create a frozen pizza. That would put me in an aisle full of competition. I visit various labs to see if they can help with mold issues. Now I’ve got petrie dishes all over the bakery. Nothing helps.
Some people think that the path they are on is an inevitable one, while others have no problem taking a detour. “We’re going to make crackers”, says Pam. And, despite my skepticism, we begin experimenting with the various pizza doughs we have come up with over the years. The one with the corn meal and bran actually makes a nice cracker. We are tired of explaining “Savory Pies” and decide on a very simple name: “Z crackers”. Z best!
Fancy Food Show, New York. We are a finalist for Best Cracker. We tell everyone we can find of our achievement. The crackers sell. And just as important, they last. Sweet. A distributor is willing to give us another try. But they want exclusivity. We accept.
September 11, 2001
I am about to leave for a delivery to Amish Market near the World Trade Center. Pam calls from work to tell me to stay home. Amish Market is destroyed. All of the employees get out safely.
September 12, 2001
I’ve got fresh pies from the day before, and I need the money, so I decide to go on deliveries despite the pandemonium. I find a spot at 14th Street and take the pies downtown by luggage cart. Storeowners are very surprised to see me.
We hire Linda Luke as our broker. She becomes our fairy godmother, is indispensable and leads us through rapids that lesser people couldn’t navigate. Our exclusive distributor deal has become a strangle hold. It’s a very awkward moment. We decide to move forward.
August 14, 2003
I am doing a demo at Garden of Eden on 14th Street when the lights go out. The owners bring perishable food out to the sidewalk to sell. I give away pies to eager pedestrians. Dozens are gone in seconds.
Things are really improving. We start to have what I call “good problems”. We can’t fill the cracker orders and the Savory Pizza orders at the same time. We make a big decision and stop all pizza making. We are now a shelf stable company. But the crackers are breaking the plastic bags. We change plastics. They still break. We find a clear, strong box. Pam designs a label for any display option.
We are starting to outgrow our store. Because of the small door we are carrying the cases out to trucks by hand. Drivers are not happy with the delay or the fact that they must build a pallet while double parked on Beverley Road. And our distributors are tired of waiting for product. We look at other locations, but are nervous about the large investment. Could we actually get someone else to do the baking?
We’re outdoors at a wedding in Saratoga Springs. I’m hot and miserable in my suit. We make small talk with some distant cousins. These people are from the moneyed, sophisticated, Connecticut branch of the family. They condescend to speak to us. I mention the crackers and their faces light up. “We LOVE those crackers! You make them?!” We have arrived.
We have a co packer out in Long Island City. It is a hell of a transition but they do a great job. We have a new attention grabbing package. My former employees have taken over the store lease and are running a successful Mexican deli. Pam and I are spending more time traveling around to shows and potential distributors. And for the first time in 30 years I feel like everything is in place and that we finally have a “real business”.