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Friday, August 7, 2020

The sweet taste of success

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Piper Cochrane, the owner of the Organic Candy Factory, sat in a booth at a farmers market on a recent afternoon and couldn’t take her eyes off her 11-year-old daughter, Ginger, who looked professional and knowledgeable as she engaged a male customer.

A few days later, Cochrane got a call inviting her to a business meeting at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf’s corporate office in Mid-Wilshire. As she walked into the room, Cochrane recognized the man from the market.

It was Adam Tabachnikoff, senior vice president of global brand strategy at the coffee chain, and he wanted to talk about selling organic and gluten-free gummy bears in Coffee Bean stores. For more than two years, Tabachnikoff had been receiving promotional emails and samples from the small, family-owned Pacific Palisades candy shop, he told Cochrane, but it was not until his brief encounter with Ginger that he decided to discuss a partnership with the company.

“Adam told me that he enjoyed his conversation with Ginger,” Cochrane said. “He said she was very educated about our products.”

Now the 54-year-old Irish Catholic entrepreneur finds herself in the unexpected position of preparing the Organic Kosher Gummy Cub line — milk chocolate bars filled with gummy bears — that will be sold in Coffee Bean shops beginning this month. (Coffee Bean is owned by two Jewish brothers who are kosher observant.)

Ginger, whose father is Jewish, was 5 years old when she told her mother she had a dream to open a candy store. Cochrane, a full-time mother with an acting background, took her words seriously.

“I just wanted to empower her, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ ” Cochrane said.

Having no resources to open a shop, Cochrane decided to launch an online store. She aimed to sell organic sweets because she wanted her daughter to enjoy candies that are healthful and chemical-free.

In 2010, Cochrane and her daughter ordered gummy bears in bulk, purchased paper bags and stocked them with sweets. She also posted photos of the candies on the newly created website that featured the company’s logo: a teddy bear drawn by Ginger with colored pencils. The name for the company — the Organic Candy Factory — came naturally, inspired by Ginger’s favorite movie, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

When orders first began coming in, Cochrane was amazed how the entrepreneurial project that she developed to inspire her young daughter could turn a profit. Its sales have grown 200 percent over the past four years, and more than 240 Williams-Sonoma stores now carry the candy company’s Organic Gummy Cubs and Organic Gummy Worms.

The natural pharmacy chain Pharmaca and several L.A. hotels carry Organic Candy Factory chocolate bars, and three years ago, the company partnered with a California-based factory that produces candies based on Cochrane’s recipe, including peach- and raspberry-flavored gummy bears. 

“Some people would say it’s a slow growth, but for me it was fast,” Cochrane said.

The success of the Factory didn’t come overnight. It took time before big retailers started noticing the family’s brand that sold organic gummy bears.

It all started in a Williams-Sonoma store in Santa Monica, where a manager overheard a conversation between Cochrane and a salesperson about the Organic Candy Factory and invited the mother-daughter team to be a part of a monthly community event where family-owned businesses sold and advertised their products. The sales at the company’s booth went so well that Williams-Sonoma offered to place its candies in its stores nationally.

When Ginger entered middle school this year, her business project kept gaining steam. And now, starting this month, Coffee Bean will place the candy company’s chocolate bars in 190 stores across Southern California.

Tabachnikoff said he liked the company because it offers gluten-free and dairy-free candies, among other reasons. 

“We like the idea that it’s a local business,” he said. “Coffee Bean originated here and we like partnering with local brands and companies that have entrepreneurial spirit.”

The only condition that Coffee Bean had before placing the Organic Candy Factory’s products in its coffee shops was to make them kosher. So Cochran and Ginger started working on making sure their chocolate bars and gummy bears would adhere to Jewish dietary law. That marked the beginning of the Organic Kosher Gummy Cub line. 

To satisfy requirements, Cochrane had to make sure all ingredients were kosher. She also invited a rabbi, who reviewed the production equipment and utensils to check if they were cleaned with boiled water or steam. He also looked at the ingredients to verify that they were produced in a safe and child-labor-free factory.

There are a number of reasons why kosher food is gaining a momentum, said Ira Kalb, assistant professor of clinical marketing at USC’s Marshall School of Business. 

“Some people believe it’s healthier to eat kosher food,” he said. “The food is prepared in a certain way and doesn’t contain animal products. People who buy kosher are not necessarily Jews. Muslims have similar restrictions.”

Launching a new line is nerve-wracking, Cochran said, but the 5-year-old company has gained enough experience to take the big step. This year, Cochrane, who works from her home in Pacific Palisades, plans to hire three more employees to help with accounting and inventory. Her goal is to open an office and warehouse in the next few months.

As a single mother, Cochrane juggles everything herself, including domestic work, accounting, marketing and social media. When Ginger comes home from school, she helps her mother with company work.

As the company aims to stay ahead of the curve, it constantly searches for new flavors, a type of work that usually requires a group of experienced marketers. But the Cochranes created their own team: Every month, five of Ginger’s girlfriends gather at her house and taste a dozen flavors to test which ones they think will be popular among consumers.

“We call them the board meetings,” said Cochrane, who grew up in France, Italy and Japan before coming to the United States at 13.

The chocolate bars filled with gummy bears were Ginger’s idea. When she first pitched the concept, Cochrane didn’t approve. But Ginger persuaded her mom to give the new flavor a chance. Now, the Factory sells gummy bears in white, milk and dark chocolate, which cost $4.95 a bar. It has been the company’s biggest hit.

“We make huge orders and it’s very dangerous to buy flavors that don’t sell,” she said. “So I rely on my daughter. I hope Ginger keeps coming up with good ideas.” n

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