You Don’t Know Until You Know

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When people learn that you are starting your own business, many of them offer advice. Hearing about others’ ups and downs while owning their own business is helpful, but we’ve learned that there are many things that no one can tell you. Some things you just don’t know until you know them.

Pizzelles Chocolates-7My sister and I own and operate Pizzelle’s Confections, an artisan chocolate and confectionary shop at Lowe Mill. When we were dreaming of having our own chocolate shop, we thought mostly about the kinds of chocolate we wanted to make, the kind of atmosphere we wanted the shop to have and  the decorations — and not so much about the business end of things. Once we started making our actual business plan, we realized there was so much more to think about.

Expenses were the biggest consideration. We spent between $20,000 and $25,000 just to open our doors for the first day. This number built gradually, so we were able to slowly wrap our heads around it and make adjustments when necessary, but I’m not sure anyone can really prepare you for how expensive it is to open a food establishment.

Our space had to be built-out from scratch: there was no water, plumbing, electricity, or HVAC in the original railroad room that we’re in. There were business licenses and permits to buy, and inspections that we had to pass. This process took about 4 – 6 months longer than we’d expected, but the extra time ended up being good for us. We worked on our initial equipment list and stalked Craigslist and other websites to find gently used restaurant equipment. This saved us thousands of dollars.

We were able to compile our starting inventory and ingredient list slowly, instead of rushing and buying things that we didn’t really need, and were able to take our time at recipe development. We still had a clear vision of what kind of chocolate shop we wanted to be when we opened, and those extra months gave us time to be deliberate about our process.

The final hurdle was researching our market and figuring out our pricing. Here again, those extra months were a blessing in disguise. We had time to cost out each and every recipe, look at the current market in Huntsville, and find our price point. Of course that price point can change, but it was crucial to crunch those numbers before opening day. We knew how much we had to sell in a week, in a month, and in a year to make our bills.

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We took advantage of small business resources available in Huntsville. We met with a business mentor at the local SCORE office and an intake coach at the WBCNA. Even though neither person had owned a food business, they were both extremely helpful. If there are free resources for small business start-ups in your city, use them! Certain aspects of owning a business are the same, no matter what type of business it is.

We learned quickly to expect the unexpected and to remain flexible.

  • We thought we could get through the first 6 months without hiring any employees: we hired our first employee (who is still with us!) the second week we were open.
  • We thought I would keep my office job for the first 3 to 5 years: I quit the office job after 9 months to go full-time at our shop.
  • We had certain product ideas that haven’t panned out.
  • We learned that you can’t hold your original vision so tightly that you don’t pay attention to what your customers actually want. They will tell you what they love and what they don’t: if it’s not selling, they don’t love it, and we should maybe discontinue it. If it keeps selling out, we should probably be making more of it, or making it all the time instead of seasonally.

My biggest advice for would-be entrepreneurs? Be flexible. Commit to your idea, but if it doesn’t fly, be able to let it go and try something different.

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Caitlin Lyon (left) and Michelle Novosel (right), co-owners of Pizzelle's Chocolates.
Caitlin Lyon (left) and Michelle Novosel (right), co-owners of Pizzelle’s Chocolates.