Small business: Crunch time

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2008 - 6:39 PM

Ronni Feuer sampled some her FunkyChunky white- and dark-chocolate drizzled pretzels. Feuer has had her line of snacks featured on Rachael Ray’s show on the Food Network.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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In times like these, Ronni Feuer says, people need to feel good.

To do that, she recommends repeated servings of FunkyChunky -- her handcrafted, habit-forming mix of chocolate-drenched popcorn, pretzels and other goodies.

It's for sale at local stores, specialty shops around the country and through her Edina-based company's website.

"It makes everybody so happy," Feuer said. "I've seen how good it makes people feel. As far as I know, I feel that I was destined, I guess, to give people this feeling."

For Feuer, having her own small-but-growing company to run, while challenging at times, has been a source of solace as she has battled breast cancer the past two years.

The illness hit her in 2006 and again last year. She had surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Each time, the hardest part came as production at the company peaked in the fourth quarter.

She came in some days, tried to work but felt lousy and went home. Other times she was well enough to put in long hours.

"Having this business helped me get through it," said Feuer, who said she's still in treatment. "It was great having something to come to ... [to] get my mind off what I was going through. It was such good comfort that it gave me, to come here."

Feuer has even had her popcorn and pretzel snacks featured on Rachael Ray's show on the Food Network.

Having moved into larger production space last fall, Feuer this year hopes to double her 2007 revenue of nearly $2 million. She also has considered more-traditional approaches such as seeking investors.

Profitable from the start

"It just happened that it was profitable right away," Feuer said of the company, which she started with her own money. "If I had had some private investors before, maybe five years ago, I would have gotten to the point where I am now faster. But it's been my money. And my profits."

Feuer didn't set out to be an entrepreneur. She realized she would need something new in which to channel her creative energies when she and her husband, Sandy, and two children moved from Michigan to the Twin Cities in 1992.

Feuer, who has a fine arts degree, concluded that her abstract-expressionist style works wouldn't sell here. So she started a company called Gracious Gifts, and began making and selling gift baskets.

Looking to create a distinctive treat to include, Feuer and her daughter tried drizzling chocolate over caramel corn, and FunkyChunky was born about seven years ago. Her daughter, Erica Kopilenko, oversees product development. Her son, Brad, helped develop her website and online marketing strategy.

"Every basket had that in it," Feuer said. "Then I started getting calls from people who were receiving the baskets saying, 'Can I just buy the FunkyChunky?' "

Feuer realized that she had a breakout hit on her hands, and sought to capitalize on it. Through a friend, she got FunkyChunky into Kowalski's Markets. Lunds and Byerly's soon added it, along with specialty retailers such Balducci's, Henri Bendel (which offers it under a private label) and Cost Plus World Market.

Diane Odegard, deli director for Kowalski's eight stores, said her company likes stocking niche items from local vendors.

"It's just a great product," she said. "It makes a nice display in our stores. It's a really fun item that makes a great hostess gift."

Maria Sather of Northmarq Capital said FunkyChunky has replaced national, name-brand chocolates that the company used to send to clients in all 50 states.

"Everyone loves getting it," Sather said. "It's unique, and they treat you like family. They don't care if you're buying one gift or a thousand."

Feuer does not have an exit strategy, and said she thought about it only briefly after she was diagnosed with cancer the first time.

"Why wouldn't I question where I'm going with it?" she said. "I can have my FunkyChunky and eat it too, by having a passionate staff that feels the same way about it that I do."

The expert says: Jack Militello, management professor at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said certain fundamentals also are important, including "sensible marketing, looking at top-line revenue, bottom-line expenses and cash flow and how much she wants to give up to financial partners," if she were to take on outside investors.

He recommended having an exit target for every decision made.

"If she chooses not to exit, she still has a pretty good business," he said. "I would be encouraging; it looks like a good product for this day and age. My guess is she'll have no trouble attracting people who want to partner with her."

The risk of growing with other people's money, as Militello puts it, is how much business an owner has to give up in return for the investment.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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    Sunday March 23, 2008

    Business: Makes indulgent snack mixes featuring popcorn and pretzels drenched in chocolateFounded: 1994Headquarters: EdinaWebsite: funkychunkyinc.comEmployees: 16Executives: Ronni Feuer, owner and...

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