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How to Expand Without Losing Your Indie Culture
In the early days of Amy's Kitchen, founder Andy Berliner got a few calls a year from large companies looking to purchase the budding maker of natural frozen foods. More than 20 years later, the company now gets calls from suitors every single day.
Berliner says none of the offers have ever tempted him to sell the family business.
"We really kind of love what we're doing," he says. "In the long run, it's worth it to have that independence. Particularly if you like what you're doing."
Amy's has been a huge success story for an independent business that started with one frozen pot pie and has rocketed to control about half of the natural frozen food market in the United States. All through its growth, the company has held onto the core fan base that made it a hit in natural food stores in the late '80s.
In short, though the company has expanded to 1,800 employees and two plants with a third opening soon in England, no one has tarnished Amy's with the dreaded label of "selling out."
Berliner credits the success to ability to keep the business in family hands all these years, and a dedication to customer service that aims to provide everyone with the small-company feel.
Keeping true to your roots can be tricky for independent businesses that want to grow and expand into new areas. No one wants to be seen as selling out the base as soon as a big paycheck comes along. Businesses who've forged ahead without ditching their roots offer these tips:
Expanding Without Losing Your Indie Culture: Focus on Customer Service
What's the main thing that separates an independent shop from a big box chain?
"All of it comes down to how they treat their customers," says Woody Sumner, publisher of the trade magazine Independent Retailer. "The price issue is always going to be an issue against the chains. The battle for the independents is won on the field of customer service."
Business observers say independent companies that have hit the big time always make their customers feel like they're still working with a small, personal operation. While a major chain might direct you to a call center or generic service e-mail, successful independents treat their customers with individuality.
"My wife reads every single consumer e-mail or letter," Berliner says. "And we respond to some of them personally. That's basically what we are: we feel we are a service-oriented company trying to fill people's needs for healthy food."
The company has 150 employees, but 11 of those are full-time educators who teach others the proper way to make an espresso and serve Stumptown coffee. With such a big bicoastal operation now, the company wanted to make sure the quality isn't diluted, says Matt Lounsbury, director of operations.
"It can go right out the window depending on who's handling that coffee," he says.
Stumptown also hosted a holiday party where it invited wholesale customers to play the video game Rock Band and interact with the company.
"A lot of our full time job is not just spending time with employees, its spending time with customers," he says. "[Sales people] spend better part of the week going out and seeing people."