Farm-to-table catering company expands unique business model through local lending.
For many business owners, finding your passion is the first step towards success. Once that passion has been fully realized, the next adventure begins: Turning that passion into a viable, sustainable business plan. This is a challenging step for all small business owners, and one that Abbey Duke, owner of Sugarsnap Vermont Catering, experienced when she established her business 12 years ago.
Abbey had two dreams back in 2003: One was to obtain a large plot of land in the Intervale, the second was to develop a business that involved growing produce and selling its end-product to Vermonters.
It was my first time going through that process and Opportunities was wonderful.
“I love local food,” said Abbey recalling her first days on the Intervale. “I thought I could start a farm and sell pickled products or some kind of value-added process, like catering.”
After bringing on two partner/chefs and one part-time employee, Sugarsnap naturally unfolded into a farm-to-table catering company that serves Vermont individuals, businesses, events, and weddings with premium quality, freshly grown ingredients. “It started as a very small business on the intersection of Riverside Ave. and Intervale Rd. in Burlington,” said Abbey. “ We were focused on take-home dinners and really nice, freshly prepared meals. Fresh farm-to-table, but take-out.”
“In the beginning, it was mostly just the three of us putting in long hours,” said Abbey. “We had a little space (about 1,000 square feet) and that was for a kitchen as well as a take-out cafe and catering services. We were able to slowly grow the business on the whole and after about four years, we were completely out of space.”
With three acres at the Intervale devoted to the business, Abbey found that storage space for her produce was becoming scarce. “We really needed space to process our product and store it for use year-round,” said Abbey.
Additional pressures arose with the success of the catering side of the business. According to Abbey, “the catering side started growing at about 40% compared to the prepared food business that was growing at 10%.”
At this point, Abbey was faced with an entirely new challenge: To grow or not to grow. “We had to ask ourselves, do we want to keep doing what we’re doing and come up with ways to do it more efficiently, or do we want to expand in a significant way?” said Abbey.
Recognizing the success of Sugarsnap’s catering side, Abbey felt ready to make big changes. “I think an important piece of running a business is learning to adapt,” she said. “It was important at the time to adapt to what was working. There are a lot of things about the catering business that really suit me and suit the way the business has grown.”
With this revelation, Abbey began talking to financial institutions about acquiring a loan that would allow for more storage space and equipment to make her business an even greater success.
Because the business had been bootstrapped from the beginning, the prospect of taking out a loan was completely unknown territory for Sugarsnap. “We hadn’t taken out any loans at all,” recalled Abbey. “We really didn’t do any financing until we were ready to expand. Then I started learning how it all works: We started to put together a business plan, soliciting lenders, and the like.”
Having unique lending needs proved to be an additional challenge. “When I first started looking for a bank and starting talking to other financial institutions, it was clear that it was going to be a really hard road,” recalled Abbey. “They were not going to make it easy for me.”
Eventually, Abbey began a conversation with the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) to determine how to best proceed with her financing needs. VEDA soon recommended that Abbey meet with Opportunities Credit Union. “They thought Opportunities would be a really good fit,” said Abbey. “In 2010, Opportunities set up a package with VEDA to fund the equipment and expansion. It was great. It was my first time going through that process and Opportunities was wonderful.They communicated really closely with VEDA so that it felt seamless.”
Abbey also worked with Greg Huysman, Senior Business Development Manager at Opportunities, throughout the process. “Greg was able to walk me through it and was also able to pull it all together very quickly. He was very straightforward and clear about what needed to happen to make everything come together.”
Best yet, Abbey felt that Greg was able to empathise with her unique lending needs. “Greg was not surprised by anything,” Abbey said. “Running a small business is challenging. The cash flow, seasonality, and a variety of pieces make it challenging; Greg was very understanding and open to figuring those out. It felt like he was a partner in the success of the business, and not just someone who was giving us money.”
Today, Sugarsnap employs 15 people, although this number swells in the summer months to accommodate for seasonality. Along with catering various events, Sugarsnap also runs two counter service cafes: One in South Burlington and the other at the Echo Center in Burlington. “The cafes really complement the catering side of the business, which works well and helps with our visibility,” said Abbey.
Sugarsnap stands out from other Vermont catering operations for a number of reasons. For one, they focus on being a year-round farm-to-table business; no easy feat and not for the faint of heart. “With catering, there is a lot of seasonality to it,” said Abbey, “but we’ve really honed in on how we can be a thriving, year-round business.” Sugarsnap now grows 50 varieties of culinary herbs as well as products you can’t find at your local supermarket. “This saves us money and allows us to have a super high quality product,” said Abbey.
Sugarsnap also offers two divisions, which is uncommon in the catering world. “We have our drop-off division, which works mostly with businesses doing sandwich platters, prepared salads, soups, and casseroles for meetings,” said Abbey. “Then we have a full-service division that does weddings and corporate receptions. It’s all integrated into our cafes as well. That is unique; I don’t think there are any other caterers doing it quite to the same level as we are. It makes it complicated but also provides a lot of opportunities, which is great.
Additionally, Sugarsnap developed a long-standing partnership with the Echo Center after many years of work together. For the past five years, Sugarsnap has run a counter service take-out foods area within the Echo Center and became its exclusive caterer two and a half years ago.
“My business philosophy is focused on partnerships and working with people, organizations, and businesses,” said Abbey.
Along with her 10-year ongoing relationship with Echo, Abbey has also partnered with the Committee On Temporary Shelter (COTS) to develop the “Cookies for Good initiative. Sugarsnap donates 30% of all cookie proceeds to COTS and has been a partner now for the past four years. Through this program, Sugarsnap has been able to raise over $40,000 that goes directly to COTS to support their non-profit organization.
“It feels really good and it’s really exciting,” said Abbey. “We also work to use our catering business to help non-profits through donations, but the Cookies for Good results in very clear money for the community.”
The past twelve years have been an adventurous road for Abbey, but her business has blossomed into something truly unique for Vermonters. Her passion for food, and dedication to her business, have allowed her dream to become a reality, while helping the state in a variety of creative ways.
Every business is different and this is something that Opportunities Credit Union can appreciate. “For small business lending I think they’re great,” said Abbey. “They are understanding of the challenges small business owners face.”
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