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SMB to Big Business: Interview with Chelsie Gazdar & Kristelle Keisner, founders and owners of Blondies Kitchen

SMB to Big Business: Interview with Chelsie Gazdar & Kristelle Keisner, founders and owners of Blondies Kitchen

SMB to Big Business

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8

min read

From a pop-up in Selfridges to a nationwide brand, Blondies Kitchen has fast become the biggest cookie company in the UK, serving up American-style soft baked cookies. Anna Solemani talks to founders Chelsie and Kristelle about their rise to the top.

When did you start your business and how did it come about?

Kristelle: We started in 2016. We both had full-time jobs in different areas of the food industry – I used to work in restaurants, and Chelsie used to work at BBC Good Food magazine, and she used to do catering on the side. We both wanted to make some extra money, then Chelsie approached me – she asked me if I wanted to work with her on the weekends when she got booked for jobs. I said, “Absolutely not, I'm so busy, I work 16 hours a day, I don't have time.” But she didn't stop, and messaged again!

Chelsie (laughing): I don't take rejection.

Kristelle: I thought I’d just meet her for a coffee to shut her up. But when we met, we couldn't shut up. We got on so well – we both had the same passion for food, and it just seemed to click.

 

Chelsie: And from there we decided on cookies. Kristelle baked the original recipe as a child, and she had them on the menu in a restaurant she was working in. She said to me, “We need to get these cookies on our menu. They just fly whenever I bake them in the restaurant.”

 

Really, I wasn't 100% hooked on the idea, but the cookie sold so well, we became known as the “cookie girls” in our area. So, that's when we decided, “Let's do one thing, and do it really well.” And that's where the whole “milk-and-cookie” idea was born.

 

Anna: So nice. So you took turns, persuading each other.

 

Both (laughing): Yeah!

 

What drew you to starting a business or becoming a business owner initially?

Kristelle: We were never drawn towards it – we kind of fell into it. We wanted to have our own company – when I was making cookies in the restaurant, I could see how well they were doing. And I just thought, “Why are we doing this for somebody else?”

 

Chelsie: We never set out to be businesswomen. We were just two girls from Bushey that loved cooking and baking. And that was really why we did it. We never ever thought it would actually be a fully-functioning business that relied on us, hiring staff, purchasing equipment. It was just Kristelle and I standing in the kitchen doing it together. I don't think we saw beyond that when we started.

 

What was your mission when you started out as an SMB?

 

Chelsie: Our original mission has always been to be the UK number one go-to for cookies and be the best at making cookies. That was always the vision.

 

How many employees did you start out with, and how many do you have now?

 

Chelsie: There's around 15 of us in total, not including the casual staff that come on board. For example, we work with an agency to work on our stalls when we're understaffed or when we're just doing a pop-up. So 15 not including the casual staff.

 

What would you say is your USP (Unique Selling Point)?

 

Chelsie: We believe we are the only cookie business in the UK serving up American style, fresh baked cookies] . We use quality ingredients, and we're constantly evolving and coming up with new ideas. There's no one item that stays the same. We're constantly reinventing and coming up with different things – that's what sets us apart.

 

What are your company goals for the future?

 

Chelsie: The company goal is to really get that message out there that we're not just London-based. We are UK-wide. Recently, during COVID, we launched our online store to be able to ship across the whole of the UK. We’re making sure that as many people as possible can try our products, and hopefully opening more locations to push the brand out there – so that people not just in London, but UK-wide, associate our brand as THE cookie brand.

 

Was growing the company a conscious decision or something that happened over time? Can you talk to us about how you scaled up from SMB, and grew to where you are now?

 

Chelsie: I think it has been so organic – it's been a really natural progression that hasn't necessarily been so noticeable. I think COVID was definitely the turning point for us. We were heavily store-focused – in Selfridges, we were on the ground, running constantly. We were so involved with the day-to-day that we didn't really take a step outside to look at the overarching view of where we wanted the business to go, and how we saw it growing.

 

But COVID gave us the opportunity to do that. That's when we really developed the online side of things and realised there’s more than just Selfridges – we can tap into a whole market across the whole UK.

 

What changes have you made to your business strategy over the past few years? And how often do you reevaluate it?

 

Chelsie: We have been very responsive. We're proactive in terms of coming up with content creation and product development. We're constantly coming up with ideas monthly, and we plan about a year ahead. And we're always eating out and getting new ideas and inspiration from around us.

 

In terms of our actual strategy, we have a board of directors. We have monthly management meetings where we go through a 100-day plan and try and work towards it. We always love to set a goal.

 

At the beginning of every month, we'll write our list of goals. We don't see ourselves as business moguls or entrepreneurs, but we set goals and see where we're getting month-to-month. We talk about where we want to be in a year, three years, five years. And we take baby steps to get there.

 

At what point did you start thinking about marketing?

 

Chelsie: To be honest, only since COVID. When COVID happened, we had money that we'd never had before. We tapped into the online market and the money came in, and we realised we actually had a budget to do marketing and PR.

 

Kristelle: You have to spend money to make money with marketing. We never had paid posts.

 

Chelsie: Without cash flow, you're not in a position to do that. So that was the constraint until 2020.

 

How involved do you get in your marketing as a business owner?

 

Chelsie: We work with an agency, and they do a lot of digital marketing and all of our paid ads. They've been amazing. They've taught us a lot. We're very good marketeers – we've got the idea and we know where we want to go – but in terms of actually putting it into operation, we're not the ones for that. So we have regular weekly meetings with our marketing agency.

 

What do you like most – and least – about running your own business?  

 

Kristelle (points at Chelsie): I like her most. What do I like the least? I never like to let myself down, and that can happen. Something  might not do as well as you thought it would, and there’s a feeling of failing yourself. There's no one else to blame. It's just you. I find that hard.

 

Chelsie: I think the thing I like the most is working with Kristelle, and being able to get up every day and bring happiness to people's lives. It sounds silly, but COVID really put it into perspective for us. You know, we're not doctors or nurses. We're not saving lives. But actually what we're doing – it isn't the be-all and end-all – but it is meaningful. We're bringing happiness to people. And that is so nice – to wake up knowing that we sell cookies for a living, and we put smiles on people's faces. It's really rewarding.

 

I think the hardest thing is definitely staff – managing people. It’s really hard – you want everyone that works for your company to be happy. You want to instill great values and morals and be able to offer perks and rewards. But that isn't always an option if you're a small business and you don't have the money. And when you put 100% into someone and then they leave, that's heartbreaking. So that can be difficult. I think the people side of anything – the human side – can be the hardest.

 

What is the biggest difference between running a small business and a large one?

 

Chelsie: The responsibility is greater and there's more money in the company. There are more people involved. There's a lot on the line, whereas before it was just us: if it didn't work out, it was just our problem. It was our money we put in and we'd get over it and get jobs. Whereas now…

 

Kristelle: Now we have people, we pay their salary, that's their livelihood. We have bank loans, we have investors. It's not just a hobby anymore.

 

What is the biggest challenge your business is facing today?

 

Chelsie: Our biggest challenge is upscaling. This has always been our challenge. Because we were such a start-up business, we find it hard to take grand steps to leap forward.

 

Kristelle: For example, we need a new kitchen unit, but we’re petrified taking on the new unit! But in the last year and a half, we've ended up taking three other units in the building, and it just keeps getting more and more. So it's just about taking that leap.

 

How do you define your successes? We’d love to hear more about your perspective on goal planning and strategy building.

 

Chelsie: What does success mean to someone? I think success to anyone in business, unfortunately, does mean money. Because if you're financially not viable as a business, how can you be successful?

 

That doesn't mean in your personal life you're not successful. But I think in business, you are only successful if you are financially in profit and you have great cash flow. You need to create a great support system around you – a team of people that are fantastic – and you can't do that without money. So, in business, for us, success is defined as money.

 

Credit: PR

How do you think that ties into company branding? How important is the concept of branding to you and how much does it extend to your business?

 

Kristelle: Everything. We started at first with us being the brand. When we had a catering company, we got so busy that we could only do one job because there are only two of us. People wanted the “Blondies” – we were the brand. People didn't want anything else.

 

Chelsie: Yeah. It’s the Blondies Kitchen. This is our kitchen – it's just two girls in a kitchen making magic. I think the brand is what got us into Selfridges. We had a brand presence on social media – they found us on Instagram and asked us to go in on a pop-up. And we were the most successful pop-up  in the history of the store’s food hall. And we got invited back permanently in 2017. And that was really all thanks to social media, and the whirlwind of the brand that we created.

 

Chelsie: We still don't use machinery to ball out our cookies. We hand-ball them. We are all real in that sense – we're authentic to what we believe, as the faces of our brand.

 

Do you believe that’s the secret to your success – the authenticity and integrity?

 

Chelsie: 100%. Also because we are so reactive and we care so much about the products we're creating. We really care, and we want to come up with new things and we're constantly creating, because we love doing that. That has definitely kept us at the forefront of what we do.

 

Who is your ideal customer and why?

 

Kristelle: Millennial, female, somebody who wants to treat themselves and doesn't take life too seriously.

 

Chelsie: Someone that cares about quality. When you're buying our product, you're not just looking for cheap and cheerful. We are a premium price point, and that's because we use the best quality ingredients. We use free range, eggs, organic flour, pure butter, Belgian chocolate – that’s the base of all of our cookie dough, and that’s quality that you can taste.

 

Our customers know what they're talking about. They're out there looking for the next best thing. And obviously, they want it to look good on Instagram! Did you even eat it if you didn't post it first?

 

Was there a moment in your business journey when you thought you wouldn’t make it and were close to closing your business?

 

Kristelle: Yes. We had a big cash flow problem. We worked out how much money we needed to take to get us to December, and we didn't think we would get there. And I remember saying, “What are we going to do? We're not going to have enough money to pay the staff.”

 

Chelsie and I sat down with my dad and I said, “We might end up having minus in the account. Do you think you could lend us the money? If it got to that?”

 

And he said, “No. You will make it work. And I promise you, this will be the best lesson. You will make it work, because you have to make it work.”

 

And it's true. We made it work. And I was so happy that he said no.

 

Credit: PR

What are the biggest changes you have made to the business in the last 5 years?

 

Chelsie: Going online. That's definitely been the biggest gamechanger.

 

Where do you see your business in3 years from now?

 

Kristelle: The same, but bigger. We want another three or four sites. If I go up to somebody in the street and ask what’s the best cookie in London or in the UK, I want them to say Blondies.

 

Chelsie: We just want people to know our brand. That's the idea for the next three years – to make sure that we are tapping into the whole UK.

 

What are your main channels of marketing?

 

Chelsie: Facebook, Instagram, Google and TikTok.

 

What do you think most people don’t know when they decide to open a new business, which they later wish that they did?

 

Kristelle: That it’s never what it seems!

 

Chelsie: One thing we say is be on the numbers at all times, because you need to make sure that you have cash. Cash is king.

 

How important do you feel marketing is for business growth? Do you think your business would have grown and succeeded just as well without actively marketing it?

 

Kristelle: I think marketing takes a while to pick up. You don't see a return straight away.

 

Chelsie: We've been working with our agency for just over a year, and now we are really reaping the rewards. You need to be able to capture data over a period of time – in order to know what you need to retest, who you want to retail and what’s your niche. It's unbelievable what you can gain insight on – on who your customer is – by actually investing in marketing.

 

What's the weirdest comment you've ever got on social media?

 

Chelsie: God. We've got some weird ones. I can't even think – people say some very odd things. You've definitely got to take feedback and comments with a pinch of salt.

 

What about the most heartwarming one?

 

Kristelle: One guy proposed to his girlfriend at our concession. And the email he sent after was the cutest thing I’ve ever read. We were crying!

 

What would you say was your biggest mistake, and the smartest thing you've ever done?

 

Chelsie: My biggest mistake was ordering some stickers. I ordered branded stickers for our milk bottles and they were all micro stickers that you couldn’t read the writing on. I was so angry at myself. It was a massive mistake, but all our biggest mistakes have been our biggest learnings. So we can't actually think about them as bad things – because if they didn't happen, then we wouldn't have evolved and learned.

 

When looking back at your business journey up until now – what moment makes you the proudest?  

 

Chelsie: Mine is still getting into Selfridges. It was always my dream to launch in Selfridges, and it genuinely was a dream come true when we did. I couldn't believe it.

 

Kristelle: When we hit our targets for the year. I like to hit targets and I like to work towards something. I need a goal. I need something to work towards. So when we hit what we wanted to in turnover last year, I think that was my proudest moment.

 

If you had one piece of advice for someone looking to start their own business completely from scratch, what would your one piece of wisdom be?

 

Chelsie: Mine would be – just go for it. Don't be scared – if you're passionate enough about something and you care enough, you're going to make your dream a reality. You're capable of anything that you set your mind to, and just go for it. If you believe in yourself, that's the best thing you can do for your future.

 

Kristelle: Um, I think test the product. (Both laugh)

 

Kristelle: Test on as many people as possible. If you're going to put your all into it and you believe in it, then that's amazing, but other people have to believe in it, too. You can't sell them something which isn't good.

 

Kristelle: And never, ever take negative feedback as negative – it's constructive criticism. You should always work to take that on board – it’s going to help you in the long run.

Now you’ve seen just how big SMBs can really grow – are you ready to do the same for your business?

 

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