STEFANIE AND PATRICK O’NEILL own a third generation family business called Vern’s Toffee House. It was started by Stefanie’s grandfather, Vern Hackbarth, in 1976, as his second “retirement project” at the age of 60. I met her father last year, as the company was in the process of transitioning to Patrick and Stefanie.
It’s a fascinating little business. They had survived quite nicely for 36 years with just family and some seasonal part-time employees, and just last year took on someone year-round.
How does this survive? Quite simply: An amazingly wonderful product, a simple business model, and flawless quality.
I’ve experienced this first-hand, of course, having purchased toffee from them several times now. It’s a rough job, but it comes with the territory.
Here’s their business: They make almond toffee from natural ingredients with no preservatives. They sell products either at their factory/store or over the internet. They ship those products out, always attentive to delays or errors. Marketing is basically word-of-mouth.
When I talked with Stefanie about this recently, she was wonderfully relaxed and gracious, handling my incessant questions in between people who stopped in. It’s not complicated, it’s not especially stressful. They’re open just Monday through Friday, able to enjoy the weekends as family time.
You can call that a “lifestyle business” if you like, but that term now carries some negative overtones. But these folks do indeed have an enviable lifestyle.
There’s an amazing number of family businesses in this country. Some you know, because they have a storefront, but others may exist unseen.
And you hear heartfelt stories when these companies fail, fearing that somehow the corporate behemoths have obliterated the alternatives. But most will survive for decades, lifetimes, and sometimes centuries without becoming “big” in the traditional sense.
Take heart in a story of a little homegrown business that’s in its third generation and doing quite well, thank you.
What’s the secret?
Grandpa Vern was a frugal Midwesterner with an eye for great food. After starting the Colonial Hickory House – his first “retirement project” – he sold it but still had the itch to do more. So he bought a unit away from downtown Fort Collins, and set up shop. The company has never paid any rent, something which can be crushing for small startups.
This is a seasonal business, doing most of its work from September through Christmas. This is one reason why they’ve been reluctant to take on permanent employees – because they can’t assure people stable work year round. It’s the way this business works, and they’re quite happy with it.
I talked with Stefanie a lot about growth, because that’s usually where the pressure comes in this kind of company. It’s no surprise that they receive all kinds of supportive “advice” from customers or friends who see huge potential. “You could go national!” “You should expand your product line!”
But it all comes down to quality. Seriously, enthusiastically, almost fanatically – quality. As she told me, “this has my grandpop’s name on it and we won’t sacrifice.”
Why is it that they’ve always had a family member make the toffee? Because “no one else will have the degree of dedication that we do.” So Patrick does all the cooking – hard, physical labor. But the result is perfection.
They could get machines to do the work, but quality would suffer. They could bring on more employees, but quality would suffer. They could ramp up marketing and drastically increase their volume, but quality would suffer.
It really is that simple.
Yes, they’ve improved things here and there. I heard great stories about how customer service improved when they could track packages as they were shipped across the country. They’ve added new gift boxing and offer corporate branding. They expanded to offer packages of nuts.
But that’s just nice stuff around the edges. The core is stable. You get an amazingly wonderful toffee that people love to share on Christmas morning. When you call them, you talk to the business owner. When you need it in your hands by Valentine’s Day, it’s going to happen. You know exactly what you’re getting.
I was amused to hear that they were offered a slot in a TV reality show. It made for a good chuckle. After we got more serious, though, it became apparent why this would be an incredibly bad idea. How would the artificiality of a “reality” show affect their family and their business? What would happen if the marketing exposure took off and they couldn’t handle the volume?
No, thank you.
I especially appreciate how they’ve designed this as a well-defined, stable, enjoyable business. I really can see them sticking with it until they retire many years from now, hopefully keeping it in the family. This is the kind of success that happens when you’re clear on your values and stick with them for a lifetime. Multiple lifetimes.