Barb Kobren started her business backwards.
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Her local SPCA animal shelter needed a new building, and the cost would be at least $1 million to $1.5 million. Kobren, the ever-giving dog lover, felt compelled to help.
Most companies get big then they decide where they’ll be charitable. We were charitable first.
Normally, people think to give extra cash on hand to charities of their choice, host a bake sale, or wash cars in a local parking lot. But Kobren wanted to do more to help the shelter find more of the funds it so desperately needed. Simply put: She didn’t want to just fund-raise. She wanted to make a lasting commitment.
It turns out the answer was closer than she expected.
Nuts for Dogs
An old family recipe, collecting dust in a bowl on the counter, was the solution to Kobren’s problem.
But instead of getting right to work, whipping up several batches, and selling to locals, Kobren thought bigger.
"The idea was really sitting in front of me in my kitchen. And my partner and founder, also a member and an officer of the board of the Westchester SPCA, said we needed something other than once a year to raise money. So we decided to see if we could do something in food. We love to cook. And we said, ‘Let’s try nuts.’"
Turned out her nutty idea wasn’t so crazy.
Kobren and her partner, with the help of a few family members, set out to develop a modified version of the recipe and start their own small business in 2008, right at the start of a major market meltdown and beginning of an economic recession.
"What’s really interesting is we didn’t think about the fact that we were in this really horrible economic climate," Kobren said. “We were so focused on the mission of being able to do something in our local shelter….we said, ‘we’re just going to do this and people are going to love it.’ Everyone can afford to buy a jar of nuts and know that from that jar there’s going to be something going to a population that couldn’t get help on their own."
One Nut at a Time
Kobren is like many small business owners in that she didn’t always know entrepreneurship was the path her life would eventually take.
She’s served on the board of the Westchester SPCA for 12 years -- a position that’s been totally voluntary and pays her nothing. But it's one that fills her with so much satisfaction that she hasn’t cared.
"I’m an active board member (for the SPCA), but I had two separate careers. First, before I had children, I was an editor – and a journalism major in school. And then I worked for a consumer magazine," she said.
During her time in the world of writing, she also worked for Edwards and Hanley editing financial papers, before moving on to the Consumer Gazette where she worked with a small group of people, but learned all about the business of print media.
"I learned to write headlines there," she said. "That was a great skill, and I’ve used it in all of my marketing and outreach for BobbySue’s Nuts."
When she’d had enough of the industry, she worked part-time for her husband’s dental office because she said that’s where she felt she could connect with her community.
"We’re very community minded. Always committed to community activism. It’s the heart of neighborhoods," Kobren said.
It’s what helped give her the idea for her own business…and what’s kept it alive and growing for so many years.
Kobren said her "big break" came at a fundraiser in 2009, where she would provide 2 oz. jars of her nuts for 400 people as favors at the dinner portion of the event.
"One of the people who loved the product was part of the business end of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (a well-known food institution in New York's Westchester County). His wife worked on fundraising and internal business and he said to me, ‘Are you ready to get really big?’ It was an interesting moment, of course you say yes,” Kobren said.
From there, Kobren’s nuts made their way to small events until a harvest shed event later that fall. It just so happened the BobbySue’s Nuts table was right next door to the Murray’s Cheese table – and from there a love of nuts forged a business – and personal – relationship for Kobren and her team.
"When you talk about how that happens – it happens when you never ever stop going out to the marketplace with your product, telling your story, and giving out samples," Kobren said.
Now, Kobren’s products are found in chains like Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM), Fairway (NASDAQ:FWM), Murray’s Cheese kiosks in Kroger (NYSE:KR) stores across the nation, and even at Yankee Stadium, where Kobren has appeared as a celebrity chef.
Cracking the Keys to National Success
Seven years after launching BobbySue’s Nuts, Kobren has not only been able to make her business a success, but she’s also accomplished her original goal. She’s raised $40,000 that’s gone straight to an account to help build a new animal shelter for the Westchester SPCA.
But there’s still a long way to go before the groundbreaking can begin. The shelter, she estimates, will cost somewhere around $1 million to complete.
Still, she’s committed, and 100% dedicated to the cause. And she wouldn’t change a thing about the way she’s decided to help.
"Most companies get big then they decide where they’ll be charitable. We were charitable first. It’s not easy. I need to grow because I need to be able to keep (the business) running, and be able to do a model like this throughout the country."
She hopes to eventually scale the business to be able to help other animal shelters across the U.S. And to do that, she’s looking for another round of funding – up to $500,000.
"We’ll be able to take that and apply it to a plan for the pipeline," she said. "Put it into marketing and the production, and new R&D."
She hopes to develop two new flavors – in addition to the three already on the market – and redesign her grab-and-go bags for easier travel and distribution. And, with whatever is leftover, she’d like a few more hands on deck.
"We have four people on staff who do everything from clean the bathrooms to pack the boxes to ship," she said. "An infusion of capital will also help us streamline the process and allow people who do many tasks to focus on fewer, more specific ones."