We were told about Maria Lange from a friend. Maria started a Biscotti business called, well…Maria’s Biscotti. It is inspiring to us to see people who strive to succeed during these rough economic times (Maria reminded us of Marlo Scott of Sweet Revenge); women who are not put off by challenges and thrive when they are told that their dreams won’t be reached.
Intrigued, we decided to chat with her about the advantages and hurdles of going into the food industry. Here’s part of our conversation with her, maybe it will inspire you to start your own.
FE: Maria, tell us a bit about why you decided to start your own business:
Maria Lange: I’m just an average woman multi-tasking between responsibilities, wants, desires and dreams. Maybe it was a midlife crisis thing or maybe it was a fear of loosing my job. It seemed the company was downsizing and evolving repeatedly but I decided to going into business with a really great recipe I had. Many people chuckled under their breath not really believing in me but I knew I had something here. We all want to do something really special in our lives so I guess this is my attempt. As an immigrant, I never lost the dream that anything can happen in this great nation. I always wanted to go into some business for myself but just kept putting it off until one day I decided to bring some of my dreams to the front burners rather than keep pushing them to the back. I juggle between my job and my family, like most folks do, and I’m passionate about living each day fully. I love to bake and maybe it’s been really good therapy for me over the years. Maybe that’s why I sleep well at night. Friends, family and food are important to me. I really believe that food ties us all together, regardless of our differences. We share food when we are happy, sad or in need of comfort. It brings us together even if we don’t all speak the same language. I decided to start a business that I can be really proud of and one where I have fun every day— a business where quality and customer care are in the forefront. I have lived and worked long enough to see the opposite as many companies sell out to gain more profits—we all have. I’ve reinvented myself as a dreamer always asking… what if….?
FE: Besides becoming profitable, what exactly were your goals when you started the business?
ML: I created Maria’s Biscotti with this mission statement in mind: “Our mission is to create the most desired, sought after snacking experience without sacrificing quality, nutrition or good social values to do so.” If I continue to do this in the small way that I already have, perhaps we can change our habits tomorrow with our actions today. Maybe this sound really hokey but I really believe this.
FE: You spent a lot of time watching your mother bake biscotti and then, according to your Web site, had some formal training in Vermont. What made you decide to go into the biscotti baking business?
ML: Biscotti has always been one of my favorite crunchy snacks and I knew I had a really great recipe and a knack for making it. I always made it around Christmas and brought it to my neighborhood cookie exchange parties. Because I was working full time, going to one of these parties was always a challenge for me because of time and desire to bring something elegant and special. Biscotti became the solution. Over the years, my neighbors began dropping hints or requesting I bake my biscotti for these warm gatherings. I always wanted to go into business but didn’t quite know what kind. Someone I worked with even suggested I go into business baking biscotti. When I realized there were none on the market that tasted as great, I knew I had a chance if I could just figure out how.
FE: What kind of career did you have before you began baking biscotti?
ML:Though my background is in commercial art and I’ve worked in many areas in the art field, much of my time has been in publishing, art directing and designing covers for trade markets and in educational markets.
FE: Where is your bakery located?
ML:Right now I share kitchen space in a small restaurant in Jersey City. When the restaurant crew leaves at night, my shift begins. My only retail locations have been at the farmers markets and now online. I’ve been keeping and eye out for some unique location as I continue to grow.
FE: How many biscotti can you turn out in a day (err…night)?
ML: Approximately 650 biscotti or double that on days where we are making biscottini.
FE:Biscotti means “twice baked.” What is the process you use to bake your biscotti?
ML: We do bake our biscotti 2 times. The logs are hand rolled and first baked as you would most cookies. After the first baking we let them cool down for a short period and then they are hand sliced and returned to the oven for the second baking. This is where you get that satisfying crunch from biscotti, it’s in the second baking.
FE: Tell us about the ingredients you use in your biscotti.
ML: As part of our mission statement and what I feel is our competitive edge, we bake as nutritious a biscotti possible using quality ingredients. Any new flavor I develop has to meet these standard otherwise I won’t sell it.
The ingredients are simple and wholesome. They are made up of words we can pronounce— and not some scientifically processed reinterpretation of a simple ingredient. The flavorings are pure and organic whenever possible. Our chocolate is dark, the fruit, olives and cheese we use do not contain sulfites or any other unnatural preservatives. We use very real foods as part of our ingredients—never any processed varieties. For example, in the cheddar walnut, we start with a block of cheddar, not a powdered processed flavoring. The nuts have no additives either and we chop and roast them ourselves that way we know their natural oils are adding not only to the flavor but nutritional value. They are hand and taste-tested daily before any baking begins to insure we are using them at their freshest. The flour is not bleached or bromated so more nutrients from the wheat are in each biscotti. Our rising agent does not have aluminum so this is also healthier. There are too many processed foods and ingredients out there already so this helps to differenciate us from what’s already out there.
FE: How do you decide what flavors or varieties of biscotti to make? Do you do market research or make “limited edition” flavors for holidays or special occasions?
ML: That’s one of the hardest things about baking biscotti. I have so many ideas for flavors, deciding is so difficult. We continually test our products to be sure the flavors selected are ones that people will really rave about. As the seasons changes and holidays come aground we offer special flavors like pumpkin walnut, gingerbread or figgy parmesean. In the spring we offer flavors with nuances of roses and orange blossoms. There’s always some new flavor we’re developing. I just love that element of surprise and being able to share new flavors with my friends and customers. I think they really enjoy that also. We all want to push and expand our experiences with flavors and this is just a fun way to do it.
FE: If a customer wants a variety that you do not bake, will you accept special orders or consignments?
ML: I try to work with each customer as if they’re a personal friend but if the flavor doesn’t meet my expectation, I won’t bake it for them. Baking something that is good or acceptable is just not enough. It has to be remarkable. We bake for special events such as weddings and corporate events and continually welcome these. It’s such a great feeling to know that we are providing something we feel will make a difference in our customer’s experience. We also started selling wholesale packaged biscotti to a few local gourmet markets and plan to expand to more markets this year
FE: Your biscotti are available at a few markets in New Jersey, as well as online. Are you looking to expand your business into retail establishments and into other states?
ML: As a matter of fact, we are. We are currently looking to not only expand more in NJ but also in the metropolitan area
FE: How long will your biscotti remain fresh after purchase?
ML: Although biscotti was originally created as a staple for our ancient sea travelers to withstand many, many months without spoilage, we’re comfortable with a 6 month shelf life—but quite frankly, they haven’t lasted on a shelf that long!
FE: What sets your biscotti apart from your competition?
ML: When you place your order online, it is truly custom-baked for you. It’s not biscotti that was baked yesterday, last week or even last month. It is baked when you place the order.
The value we give all our customers is that our biscotti are made with the finest ingredients with chockfull of fillings. If you’re eating a cranberry almond biscotti, your are going to find lots of cranberries and lots of almonds in it. It will taste home-made because we bake in small batches. We are not trying to produce a product that will take over the entire cookie or cracker market. We offer the best tasting biscotti to folks that have a discriminating palette and want to enjoy healthy alternatives to cookies and crackers.
FE: How would you describe your biscotti to someone who has not had one before?
ML: It’s an extra crispy cookie (if we’re talking about sweet) or cracker (if we’re talking about savory) bursting with flavors and or fillings for people that like crunchy treats. But it’s not rock hard so that you’ll need a dental appointment. It is long and elegant and can be dunk in coffee, tea, or wine comfortably without worrying about it falling apart too quickly.
FE: What are your best selling flavors?
ML: Wow, that’s hard to say because they all do really well. I would have to say that maybe the cranberry almond, traditional, and creamsicle for sweet and the cheddar walnut, mexicali-blue and black olive for the savory flavors.
FE: Do customers prefer your sweet or savory biscotti?
ML: Right now the sweet flavors are selling more but this past holiday season we tripled the production of savory flavors; once customers tried them, they came back for more. I think people naturally think sweet when they think biscotti but when you get folks that want to be a bit more creative with their holiday or appetizer menus, the savory flavors set them remarkably apart.
FE: What is the biggest or most challenging order you’ve ever filled?
ML: I had committed to participate at a 2 day event which gathered over 7000 people per day. I fund out that I had to have emergency surgery the day before the event and stay off my feet the entire time. Being a small business I pretty much get my hands in every bit of it not to mention most of the details were in my head. Luckily most of the baking was done but we still had a lot of details and packaging to finish up including a biscotti sculpture to build. With a little bit of luck, good delegating and great improvisational teamwork we had a very successful show. Most importantly, is was seamless to our customers. It helped me realize my greatest asset is the talented team of equally passionate employees I have
FE: What kind of challenges have you faced as you’ve grown your business?
ML: I guess I’m continually faced with challenges because I am trying to grow Maria’s Biscotti. When I decided to do this professionally, I just went on line signed up as a legal business and thought that was it. I was so naive… but so passionate too. I quickly had to learn about local and state laws on business and food, find a commercial kitchen to work out of and find the time to bake and care for my family. After all, I had a spouse, 3 children, a cat, dog and fish and a full time job to keep going also. I ran my own market testing focus groups on family, friends, colleagues and obliging strangers. I don’t sleep very much but my passion for this business is great. I can say that my biggest challenge is funding to grow it to the next level. I have found out that even a small start up requires a lot of capital to grow. So I keep taking baby steps until I get there
FE: What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps ?
ML: Be sincerely passionate, persevere and have a strong support team. You have to be really passionate about going into your own business because you will be putting in ALL your time into it. It will consume you as it should so you and the business become one. Luckily my husband and children have been incredibly supportive. Get comfortable with resolving obstacles, because you will find many. Most people will tell you that you can’t do this or that but you can if you really focus on it.
FE: Do you have any plans to expand into other product lines?
ML: I do and I’m so excited about them but can’t elaborate at this time!
FE: If you could predict the future, what would you like to see for Maria’s Biscotti in the next five years?
ML: A well established brand available well beyond the metropolitan area.
FE: A portion of your profits is donated to breast cancer charities. What made you decide to support this worthy cause?
ML: When you say you’re going to commit to a charity the task becomes overwhelming. There are so many wonderful charities to choose from the decision was difficult. Having had breast cancer a number of years ago, I experienced first hand what an individual and family go through when faced with a challenge of this magnitude. I thought I was invincible and that this could never happen to me. There was no family history to speak of. Shortly after my recovery a much younger colleague of mine lost her battle with cancer leaving 2 very young children and a spouse behind. I recognized at that moment that Maria’s Biscotti was going to give back and keep giving back so that more men, women, mothers and daughters are better informed and go for testing to better care for themselves early. Giving always feels good so I guess selfishly speaking, it makes me feel good to give back. And, if we can inspire others to do the same how wonderful is that?
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