Her sales are sweet
Dec 09, 2008 (The Berkshire Eagle - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Klara Sotonova runs one sweet business. For the past three years, cookies have been her currency. But her patrons prefer something beyond the Toll House and Oreo varieties.
An immigrant from Chrast, a small town in the Czech Republic, Sotonova specializes in the traditional, small-batch production of delicate vanilla walnut crescents, linzer cookies and bohemian coconut macaroons.
And thanks to Internet, Klara's Gourmet Cookies has become a festive part in the holiday market.
Though she said her mind for business comes from her great-grandfather, Vaclav Funda, her baking skills come straight from her grandmother, Bozena Sotonova.
"We never really shopped for baked goods. Cookies, pies, cakes, all that stuff, we did ourselves," said the baker.
Sotonova said she began baking at age 6.
"Grandma let me play with the dough, which would drive my mother crazy because I would be covered in flour from head to toe."
At age 19, she emigrated to the United States and the Berkshires, where she worked as a cook for four years at Camp Eisner here.
"That's where I really fell in love with food and interacting with the people," Sotonova said.
She went on to earn a degree in hospitality-management from Berkshire Community College and briefly entertained the idea of opening an Eastern European-style restaurant. But she decided against it, in hopes of having the
time to start a family some day. So, she began researching what was necessary to start a home-based baking business.
After getting the proper town and state wholesale licenses and passing health inspections, she applied for a credit line. And with an American Express business card, began her business online two years ago with a start-up investment of about $1,600. It has yet to turn a profit, but Sotonova said it sustains itself and this year looks hopeful.
"For a small business, it takes three to five years to profit. We're right on track."
The baker said she joined the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and also received technical assistance through the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network of the University of Massachusetts.
She's stayed within her niche, producing just about a dozen different kinds of cookies and flavors, and not trying to please the small, albeit growing, demand for sugar- and gluten-free treats. She said working at homespares the costs associated with leasing a storefront.
Her husband also advised her on using the Internet for marketing and sales, which account for about 15 percent of Klara's revenues. Sotonova is able to keep track of sales by subscribing to Yahoo! Small Business software and online tools.
The rest of the company's revenues come from a growing number of local retail venues, which include the bakery sections at Guido's Fresh Marketplace here and in Pittsfield; the market at Green River Farms in Williams-town; Elm Street Market in Stockbridge; the Chatham Village Bakery in Chatham, N.Y.; and The Triplex, the Mahaiwe Per-forming Arts Center, Great Barrington Bagel Company and Bizalion's Fine Food here in town.
"It's a really good community. People are really supportive," Sotonova said.
Klara's Cookies are also featured on the dessert menu at Napa restaurant here, where Sotonova also works, and are given in VIP gift boxes at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge. They were also sold this summer at the now-defunct Berkshire Open Market.
She said the key has been doing a lot of direct marketing, from giving samples to sending out online coupons.
"It's the whole concept; you have to give something to get something in return."
Ideally, the baker would like to expand sales in specialty food markets within the tri-state region, and increase online sales and a presence in farmers' markets.
And though she and her husband may look to expand their homespace, Sotonova said she's happy working for herself.
"It just goes to show that anything is possible in America. If you really want to have success and you have the will power, you can."
To reach Jenn Smith: (413) 496 6239 [email protected]
At a glance
The business: Klara's Gourmet Cookies, 34 North St., Unit B, Great Barrington, MA 01230;
The product: Chocolate walnut shortbread, chocolate almond tea cookies, linzer cookies (available in lemon dough with apricot filling and chocolate dough with raspberry filling), bohemian coconut macaroons, vanilla walnut crescents, honey glazed hazelnut kolache, mini hazelnut tortes, mini almond chocolate tortes, mini coconut tortes and mini walnut tortes.
The cost: Grab-and-go packages of cookies are about $3 at local stores. Gift tins range from $15.95 for a half-pound assortment to $54.95 for a 3-pound assortment. Sales are shipped anywhere in the U.S. for free via Priority Mail through the United States Postal Service.
Information: www.klarasgourmetcookies.com; or by phone at (413) 528-8209, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST.
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