Yesterday, I rode the wrong train – obliviously, to the end of the line, waiting to get off at a stop which never came. I felt like an idiot. It would take me over an hour to reverse direction. I decided to give up and call it a day. However, I could not stop thinking about the words of Michelle Carfagno, CEO of The Greater Knead: “failure is a choice”. So, instead of pulling down the shades, putting on my pjs and binge-watching Netflix, I took the bus home, got my car, set my GPS and drove to my original destination. I am so glad I went. I met some great people and made some excellent connections. And most importantly, I no longer felt quite so incompetent. I chose not to fail.
The number of failed startups is high – about 90% by some reports. Michelle Carfagno began her start up bakery, “Sweet Note”, in 2012 and over the years, her business has faced many near-death moments. Michelle credits her survival with a conscious decision to choose success over failure. And her ability to pivot.
Michelle has wanted to be a baker for as long as she can remember. When her grandfather and sister were diagnosed with Celiac Disease, Michelle began experimenting with gluten-free dessert recipes. The diagnosis of Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance had become widespread and the need for gluten – free foods was increasing. In 2011, she bartered a deal to use a local bagel shop’s kitchen after hours in exchange for baking gluten-free goods for the shop to sell. With access to bagel-making equipment in her test kitchen, it was a no-brainer for Michelle to hone in on baking gluten-free bagels.
Michelle wanted her bagels to taste like the traditional Jewish bagels that she grew up eating every Sunday morning. It took Michelle fifteen tries to perfect the sample that she then took to local cafes. She was elated when the Green Line Cafe placed an order for a whopping THREE bagels. As the popularity of her bagels grew, so did the size of their order (thankfully!) and eventually, Michelle was selling enough bagels out of her little night kitchen to garner the interest of the owner of the bagel store (and his lawyers).
Said, greedy, owner tried to claim proprietorship of her bagel recipe and Michelle was forced to shutter her operation. Another customer offered her their kitchen. This time, she signed a formal rental agreement that protected her against litigious claims.
Sweet Note continued to grow and from one employee it grew to five and from five to fifteen. At the start, she looked for a copacker to manufacture her recipe. She had a hard time finding a manufacturer willing to work with a business as small as hers’ who could guarantee no cross-contamination and a high-quality product. After a bad experience with the quality of bagels produced by one copacker, Michelle decided to manufacture her bagels herself. But first, she needed a bagel-making machine capable of working with gluten-free dough. Experts in the field told her it could not be done. Bagel machines were designed to stretch and shape dough, and gluten-free dough has no elasticity. Michelle changed direction and instead of buying a new, $25,000 bagel making machine, she bought a $3000 used machine on Ebay that she “McGuiver-ed” to work with gluten-free dough. She still uses that machine today.
Michelle outgrew her little rental kitchen and moved to a larger space in Manayunk and then to her current, much larger, space in Bensalem. The space in Bensalem was much more conducive to larger quantity baking and Sweet Note was able to increase its efficiency. What took five days to bake in Manayunk only took two days in Bensalem. Michelle now had time to take on the manufacturing of two other brands with similar allergen-free manufacturing needs. (A Gluten Free Brownie and Sweet Megan’s Cookie Dough, sold at Wawa Stores.)
Around this time, Michelle started to question her company’s direction. Sweet Note had shifted from being a small hands-on brand to a copacker. Michelle was not baking – her first love and creative outlet – at all. But, at the same time, she was proud of her path as an entrepreneur who learned everything she knew through trial and error and through a stubborn unwillingness to fail. She began to share her story, knowledge and expertise with other female business owners in the food industry. Through mentoring and soul-searching, she realized where her passions lie. She was passionate about helping other women realize their dreams and she was passionate about producing food that was absolutely safe for people with food allergies. Her manufacturing facility would not only be gluten-free, but wheat, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish and shellfish – free.
With this realization, came the rebranding of her company. Sweet Note became “The Greater Knead”. Her business would focus on the food industry’s “knead” for an allergen-free manufacturing facility that would help other businesses with a similar mission get their products to market.
When I asked Michelle “what next?” her answer was wide open and includes continued growth of the contract manufacturing side of her business. Someday, she dreams of opening a food incubator to guide female entrepreneurs from idea to finished product. Whatever the future holds, Michelle is excited and open to any possibility – whether it be more co-branding opportunities such as the one she entered in 2018 to produce a sunflower butter and bagel chip snack, (“Sunsnackers”), or the expansion of her bagel sales nationwide or some other possibility that she hasn’t even considered yet. One thing is certain, for Michelle Carfagno, failure is not an option.
Michelle will be speaking at Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship on Thursday, October 24th at 12pm. The topic of her talk will be “My Start Up Journey: How I Funded by Start Up Using Non-Traditional Funding Sources.” To RSVP for this free event, click here.
Please visit The Greater Knead’s website: www.thegreaterknead.com to find where you can purchase The Greater Knead’s gluten free bagels and bagel chips.