Upper Crust finds a niche with its home-baked treats

  • Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 22, 2005 - 10:00 PM

The inspiration for Upper Crust Fine Food Co., Kim Dirr's home-based frozen cookie-dough business, came early in 2003, in the midst of an extended bout of unemployment.

She was sliding a sheet of cookies into the oven for her 11-year-old daughter and a school friend when the young visitor peered over the stove.

"We don't bake cookies at our house," she said wistfully. "My mom works."

Bingo! Dirr, an accomplished cook who had been musing about marketing her locally acclaimed pie crust dough, suddenly saw a wider niche: ready-to-bake frozen cookie dough, made from all-natural, mostly organic ingredients and cut into individual "pucks" for optimal convenience.

Whereupon Dirr, 49, embarked on a lengthy campaign to wedge her recipes into crowded supermarket freezers.

That quest made her two-year search for a job as an IT consultant look like a romp in the park.

It took three months to land her first client -- the Lakewinds Co-op in Minnetonka -- and it was nearly a year before she managed to sign three more. Thus, her sales in 2004, the first full year in business, barely topped $8,000, and the loss almost matched that figure.

But Dirr sees light at the end of the freezer case. With a dozen clients signed by last month, including three Whole Foods Markets, a south Minneapolis Cub Foods store and the SimonDelivers grocery-delivery company, Dirr figures to gross about $40,000 this year.

And with five new products being added this fall and next year, and a major food chain considering carrying her products regionally, Dirr is confident she'll top $100,000 next year.

What we've got here, in short, is a saga that's not just about signing clients and selling cookie dough, but also about one woman's energy, creativity and tenacity -- with a plateful of cookie samples thrown in to sweeten the process.

Smiles and samples

"That's my sales technique," Dirr said. "I just put a smile on my face and walk in [to a store] with my samples." That's how she sold a cautious Peter Doolan, merchandise manager at the Linden Hills Co-op, who was crowded for freezer space and concerned that her premium price ($5.99 for a 14-ounce package containing 28 to 30 cookies) might be a liability.

"She kept coming back, again and again, always with samples and promises to support the product [with in-store demonstrations]," he said. But here's the key: "She was persistent without being annoying," added Doolan, who acquiesced after nearly a year.

It didn't take that long to convince Tom Patterson, an assistant product manager with SimonDelivers: "I believe I was sold after the second batch [of samples]," said Patterson, who has listed Upper Crust on his company's website as one of 12 "local favorites."

The upshot: Upper Crust's product line -- including chocolate fudge, peanut butter, chocolate chip, sugar and ginger cookie recipes -- is selling briskly, in large part because of Dirr's willingness to pack up her toaster oven and do at least five in-store demonstrations a week.

"It's a very high quality product with good packaging and strong support," said Dan Blackburn, manager of the Whole Foods Market in Minneapolis. "It's one of the top sellers in the category."

Chris Nelson, general manager of Lakewinds Co-op, agreed. Upper Crust "is a local company, the product tastes good and there's a real need for it," she said. "So it quickly developed a real following."

All of which is fairly impressive for a one-woman show backed by nothing but the family checkbook, which is replenished regularly by husband Tim Dirr, a 3M Co. marketing manager.

Break-even soon?

She started with $3,000, has spent an additional $15,000 over the past two years and expects to break even this year.

Working on her computer, she did all the market research, designed her full-color labels and located a baker in Hudson, Wis., and a producer of small, resealable bags in California. She also picks up the finished product and delivers it to stores.

Dirr is in business for herself because of exceedingly bad timing. She quit a job as an IT consultant in 2001 to look for a more challenging assignment, but found the chore complicated by recession, terrorist attacks and the end of the Y2K bubble, which flooded the job market with techies.

Her decision to focus on all-natural ingredients, free of preservatives or artificial flavors or sweeteners, was inspired by authors Andrew Weil and Rosie Daley in their book, "The Healthy Kitchen." It also made Upper Crust attractive to the growing number of food co-ops, making it unnecessary for her to confront immediately the more competitive arena of conventional supermarkets.

But that's next, said Dirr, whose signing of the Cub store last month signaled her assault on that market. She's also negotiating with a national chain to carry her products regionally.

Meanwhile, she recently broadened her product line with ready-to-bake corn and pumpkin bread batter in heavy, oven-safe paper containers. And she's working on recipes for ready-to-bake angel food cake and banana and blueberry flax bread dough to be ready next year.

"My dream is a whole section of Upper Crust products in your supermarket freezer," Dirr said.

I would not doubt her.

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com

Upper Crust Fine Food Co.

Business: Markets ready-to-bake frozen cookie dough and corn and pumpkin bread batter

Founded: 2003

Headquarters: Minneapolis

Website: No corporate website. Brief company bio is listed at www.simondelivers.com; click on "Local Favorites."

Executive: Founder Kim Dirr

Employees: 1

2005 revenue: Projecting $40,000

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