The Next Big Thing? or Should Your Business Be Trendy?

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I came across this article on Twitter talking about food trend predictions. I happen to love statistics/mathematics in practical applications in fields I also love (FOOD!), so this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. It was also a thoroughly thought-provoking read and the inspiration for this week’s business blog post because it’s incredibly relevant given the recent closure of cupcake behemoth, Crumbs Bakeshop.

I am mostly speaking to my readers who sell ready-made food products – cottage bakers and small bakery owners. Food trends are important to follow in the blogging world, but the turnaround for a blogger is extremely short. A recipe can go from inspiration to concept, testing, photography, and posting in a matter of days. It takes a little more time for a baker contemplating selling an item to decide whether or not to bring it to market.

When Goodie Godmother was a registered cottage bakery in California (and not just a food blog), I had to evaluate each item on the menu to see how realistic it would be for “commercial” sale. All recipes were tested on a “larger than just for the family” scale. If I needed to source a special ingredient, I looked for a quality supplier, then priced out each item to figure out a cost per unit (taking into account ingredients, time, and packaging) so I could set a retail price, determine if that price was realistic given my market, and then test commercial viability with a small run, usually at the Farmer’s Market. I had my own little methods for predicting which fads would be a hit, and tailored my offerings accordingly. I skipped a lot of food fads and trends on purpose.

For the purpose of this post, I am adopting the Vox.com article’s definition of a fad and trend. A fad being a craze that arises suddenly and disappears almost as quickly, and a trend being a demand that builds slowly but steadily over a few years for a particular product and then fades into the background of mainstream culture.

To follow a trend or fad…

French macarons were a cornerstone of the Godmother menu and I developed an extensive list of flavors because I enjoyed making them. For most of the time I operated Goodie Godmother, there were only two places one could get French macarons in Santa Barbara County – Renaud’s Patisserie in Santa Barbara, and me. Macarons were already wildly popular in most major cities, but they hadn’t quite reached Central California and definitely not Vandenberg AFB. That area was just reaching the height of the cupcake craze (about five years after most major cities).

Because I liked making macarons and had done my due diligence on the business side to ensure they were viable for market, I was glad to be an early adopter for the trend in the area. As macarons became highly visible in mainstream media, demand grew, and my business benefited. But I recognized that fads don’t last forever, and I never focused 100% of my business on the tasty little sandwich cookies because demand is fickle. Now that they are no longer gracing the cover of Martha Stewart Weddings, the trend is over. It doesn’t mean macarons won’t be enjoyed and I wouldn’t still keep them on the menu, but it would have been poor business to make them my primary focus and expect a sustainable business model.

If you choose to follow a trend/fad, be sure it’s an actual “thing”

If a particular grocery store puts apples on sale at 75% less than every other store in the area, it is very likely the store will sell out and you will see a fabricated run on apples. If they keep the price incredibly low, they will show a higher-than-normal apple turnover (ha – get it?) consistently. This doesn’t mean apples are now a “thing”, it also doesn’t mean those apples are particularly special or even very good. It means a single store is stimulating demand artificially because people love cheap. Don’t be cheap (unless that’s your business model), and don’t be lured into investing your time and resources into cheap anything because you’ll find you end up taking a loss. Do your research and be sure that a trend is actually a trend and a fad is actually a fad. If it is, you’ll see it – maybe not in your market just yet (that’s good), but online or in your travels (better).

If you’ve already built a business on a fad or trend you see is fading, diversify!

Crumbs Bakeshop grew too large too quickly on the cupcake trend to allow for diversification quickly enough to save their business. Instead of going into yet another analysis of why Crumbs failed though, I’d like to share a positive example with you. This example comes purely from outside observation and not an internal working knowledge of the company and its operations.

Enjoy Cupcakes started as a tiny little cupcake stand inside a wine tasting room in Los Olivos, CA. As the name suggests, they only sold cupcakes to start – dozens of different flavors on a seasonal weekly rotation. The shop was wildly popular for not only their standard cupcake sizes, but the mini “flights” offered. The company at one point grew in the Santa Ynez Valley to include a stand-alone store in Solvang in addition to the booth. After some landlord challenges (from what the clerk at the store told me), that location closed. Recently, the cupcake shop opened a booth at the Santa Barbara Public Market – which is a nice stop if you happen to be in downtown Santa Barbara, by the way. We went to the SB Public Market a few weeks before we began our cross-country move, and I noticed something interesting about the menu at Enjoy Cupcakes… they’ve diversified. Now offering cupcake bread puddings, cookies, and even ready-made cakes (before only available by special order) at the booth. The cupcakes are still the company’s main focus, but they are choosing to adapt to the fickle public taste by offering items that are related, yet different, to their core product. Wonderful!

If this is your situation and you do plan to diversify, make sure you do it with thought. Don’t just throw things on the menu. Quality always trumps quantity.

Not to follow a trend or fad…

You don’t have to follow every trend, nor should you jump on every fad. In fact, you really shouldn’t if you are trying to build a long-term business. Fad followers risk being incredibly short-sighted and that’s not a risk a small food business can afford to take in a high-risk industry.

About 60% of the restaurants that open, close within their first three years of business per research quoted in this Newsweek article. The article was written in 2007, and I cannot imagine the numbers have gotten any better given the drawn out effects of the recession and housing market crash. These restaurants studied have a lease so most stay open at a loss until the lease runs out – I guarantee cottage bakery closures would make the numbers higher.

But I can make money NOW if I offer cronuts/cupcakes/pumpkin spice everything!

And if your focus is turning a quick buck, stop reading. Running a business is not for you. You will just frustrate yourself and annoy other entrepreneurs in your industry because chances are you will make stupid choices to sabotage yourself and others. It’s okay, there are other ways to make money that require much less time, trust me.

But food fads are fun!

I know. If you love a fad with a passion and must have it on your menu, do your research (quickly) and go for it! Have fun! Just don’t make it the cornerstone of your business. Cronuts (the croissant doughnut hybrid that seemed to enchant everyone a year or so ago) is a fun menu item, but by the time you open “Crazy for Cronuts”, the fad is over. As I type this, it’s already over. Fads are outdated as quickly as your computer or phone.

If it’s a trend that you’re looking to adopt, you have a bit more time because their lifespan is longer than that of a fad, but you need to realize that everyone else sees the same trend. So make sure that when you bring a product to market, it’s amazing – not just “good enough”. Unless you’re planning on the “it’ll do and it’s the cheapest option” marketing plan, but then is it really worth your time? Wal-Mart and other box stores can do the same thing. Going back to my earlier example, Enjoy Cupcakes makes great cupcakes – they made sure the backbone of their business, a food trend, was actually a quality product so that it would remain viable even after the trend has passed.

So what should my business do?

That’s up to you. The answer really depends on your individual business goals, structure, and operating procedures. There are very successful businesses who never introduce items based on trends or fads – they stick to their specialty/specialties and are loved for it – and there are businesses that can seamlessly incorporate fads and trends to their menus without losing the uniqueness that initially attracted customers.


The Godmother does offer freelance small business consulting services. To inquire regarding rates and availability, please e-mail.

 

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