Babson Magazine

Summer 2015

Sweet Treats

Chocolates, ice cream, and cupcakes, oh my! For these Babson alumni, making and selling treats is the route to a sweet life.

Celyn Brazier

The summer after graduating from Babson, Zak Barry ’14 was living in Santa Cruz, Calif., with longtime friend Matt Hong, who, like Barry, was born and raised in Hawaii. Along with surfing, the duo was working to launch a crowdfunding platform for nonprofits. Barry also was applying for jobs at tech startups in the San Francisco area, hoping to start his new life soon.

That summer another close friend originally from Hawaii, Galen McCleary, had met a woman who introduced him to a simple recipe for a vegan version of ice cream. She froze bananas and ran them through the blender, creating a surprisingly creamy treat. McCleary couldn’t wait to show Barry and Hong. “The three of us are all pretty health conscious,” Barry says, “so I think it blew our minds how much it tasted like ice cream, even though it was just one ingredient and no dairy.”

After that night, the friends couldn’t stop talking about the frozen treat. “It became a joke around the dinner table,” says Barry. “When are we going to Hawaii to start our banana ice cream company?”

Celyn Brazier

Barry decided to do some research and discovered that Hawaii is one of only two U.S. states to grow bananas (Florida produces a limited amount). While a junior at Babson, Barry had spent eight months in South Africa studying urban development and sustainability. The topics made him think about the food system in his home state, and he figured that some day—in the distant future—he would return to Hawaii and apply sustainable thinking to a business. But he couldn’t overlook the opportunity that existed today. By summer’s end, the friends had moved back to Hawaii, where joined by a fourth friend, Luke Untermann, the group launched Banan, vendor of frozen treats featuring locally grown ingredients.

Originally, the plan called for Banan to have a storefront in Honolulu, but then the group came across a food truck for sale on Craigslist. The comparatively inexpensive price intrigued them, and they talked the owner into selling them the truck for $2,000. The friends also spent weeks working on recipes and creating a menu built around local ingredients. Their offerings are based on frozen banana puree, but additional flavors were created by adding ingredients such as Kona coffee and lilikoi, a type of passion fruit. The resulting treats look like soft-serve ice cream, and they’re offered with optional toppings in a compostable cup or half a Hawaiian papaya.

Launched this past January, the food truck is parked in a rented 4,000-square-foot lot near Diamond Head, a top tourist destination. The friends created a seating area near the truck and quickly developed a loyal following. During passion fruit season, when Banan announced via social media that its lilikoi flavor was available, customers flocked in to try it. Using locally grown ingredients is only part of the equation, adds Barry. With the help of a local farmer, Banan composts 100 percent of its food waste.

The partners nearly have recouped their initial investment, Barry says. They recently invested in new machinery to make and serve their treats, and they expect to scale up soon, possibly to a storefront. They’re negotiating with local farmers to increase banana supply and establish their own composting operation.

Despite the successes, Barry admits that the experience has changed his feelings toward bananas. “I’ve peeled close to 50,000 bananas in the last eight months,” he says. “Some mornings Banan is still my breakfast. But I cannot even eat a banana by itself anymore.”

Hand-dipped Delights

Kristin Thalheimer Bingham, MBA’02, has the dream job of chocoholics everywhere. She and her husband, Dean Bingham, run Dean’s Sweets, offering hand-dipped truffles made in their Portland, Maine, shop.

The couple launched the venture 10 years ago, when Dean, an architect, decided to take his love of chocolate to the next level. A talented cook, Dean made chocolates as gifts for friends. “Anytime anyone would bite into a truffle, their eyes would open wide, and they’d say, ‘You should be selling these,’” Bingham remembers. She was working as a self-employed career coach and fitness instructor, and she welcomed the new entrepreneurial venture. “We were essentially creating jobs for ourselves in a city and state where good jobs are hard to come by,” she says.

The couple briefly considered opening an ice cream shop (Dean also makes killer ice cream), but that involved extra attention to temperature and food handling regulations. It also would require more space, so they settled on chocolate. The couple launched the business in their home kitchen, making brandy and rum truffles sold mainly through their website. Both kept their day jobs in the beginning, but when the housing market tanked in 2008, “it took architecture with it,” Bingham says, and Dean was happy to turn his full attention to chocolate.

Celyn Brazier

That fall, they moved to a small retail and production space in downtown Portland. The move felt risky, given the precarious state of the economy, Bingham says, but the company has seen growth every year since its inception. “We’ve been careful to invest in the business only to the point that we could do it without borrowing money,” she says.

Last September, they moved to a larger spot near the city’s port, doubling their space to about 1,400 square feet. They now employ four part-timers and make about 30 types of truffles, specializing in Maine flavors, such as blueberry, maple, and salt caramel. They also make a truffle known as the Needham, based on a traditional Maine candy typically made with chocolate, coconut, and mashed potatoes. (“The potato starch helps hold it all together,” Bingham explains.) But the Dean’s Sweets version offers a twist: In place of mashed potatoes, the couple uses potato vodka from the Maine-based Cold River Vodka company.

Bingham says she leaves the truffle-making to her husband, while she focuses on marketing and managing the retail side of the business, including plans for new products. “I’m also proud to say that I tie a beautiful bow,” she says, as every truffle box is decorated with a ribbon.

Last year, the couple entered the wholesale market, selling their truffles to gift shops, wine and beer stores, and other chocolate shops, which created new challenges. “The profit margin is very, very thin with wholesale,” she says. “We have to be super careful that we are being as efficient as possible.”

Both Kristin and Dean love eating their chocolates and have some daily. “It helps that I teach fitness classes a few times a week,” she says. “Those two things cancel each other out fairly well.” Bingham is unlikely to binge on the truffles anyway, because they’re so intensely flavorful. “It’s so much more satisfying than the chocolate you would buy at a grocery store,” she says. “It makes it a lot easier to be moderate in your intake.”

Experiments in Flavor

For Karim El-Gamal and Michael Kasseris, both MBA’11, ice cream is more than a tasty summer treat. It’s a way to educate diners and expand their palates, while helping rejuvenate a once-languishing Massachusetts town.

New City also uses a high-end liquid-nitrogen freezing technique that works in minutes. “It yields a really small, crystalline structure, which creates a creamier texture,” El-Gamal says. “The freezing process looks like a dramatic science experiment with lots of pluming vapor, so we do it where customers can watch.” The founders say they purposely limited their freezer space to ensure the ice cream is always fresh. “What is consumed today is replenished tomorrow,” Kasseris says.In May, El-Gamal, Kasseris, and partner Jason Kleinerman opened New City Microcreamery on Main Street in Hudson. Their shop is to ice cream as a microbrewery is to beer, they explain. “We’re making small-batch ice cream from scratch, in house, right in front of your eyes,” El-Gamal says. Most ice cream shops use a factory-made base, says Kasseris, but New City makes its own base with cream from nearby dairies and then flavors it with seasonal and locally sourced ingredients.

New City is a second venture for El-Gamal and Kasseris, who opened The Rail Trail Flatbread Company in Hudson in 2012, shortly after graduating from Babson. The restaurant offers wood-fired flatbreads and 20 craft beers on tap. “When we first opened, we had to educate people who were unfamiliar with craft beer,” El-Gamal says. “As people became more comfortable in their food and beer choices, we started to go a little further away from the middle of the bell curve to introduce new flavors.”

Celyn Brazier

They’re applying a similar formula at New City, offering not only the traditional chocolate and vanilla but also choices such as popcorn, cannoli, hibiscus cabernet, and fennel pistachio. Weekly specials include flavors featuring seasonal ingredients deemed especially delicious or ripe at the moment. Offerings have included strawberry Greek yogurt, made with fruit from a farm down the road, and Singin’ the Blues, which featured Massachusetts-grown blueberries. In addition to selling ice cream, the shop makes ice cream cakes, micro cones (a European chocolate-dipped treat), and pastries such as beignets and brownies. Coffee and cocktails are available as well.

In 2012, Hudson was full of vacant storefronts, says Kasseris; low rent was part of what attracted them to open Rail Trail in the central-Massachusetts town. They’ve seen dramatic changes in the last three years, with businesses such as a cafe, doughnut shop, and craft beer bar opening nearby. El-Gamal and Kasseris both moved to Hudson, and so far they’ve hired about 75 employees. “We’re not just creating a restaurant here,” Kasseris says. “We’re changing a downtown.”

The partners settled on the name of their ice cream business after learning that their town was called New City for a time during the 19th century. “Given the revitalization of the town,” El-Gamal says, “we felt it was an appropriate way to connect to the community.”

No Eggs, No Problem

Anushka Kakkar ’05 says the success of her bakery, Divin-e-licious in New Delhi, owes plenty to lucky timing.

When she returned home to India from Boston in 2008, she struggled to find an entrepreneurial venture that appealed to her. She looked into purchasing a franchise for a gym or bakery, but then it occurred to her that the answer might be closer to home. Her sister, Gayatri, who had attended a Le Cordon Bleu French pastry course, was a talented baker who made treats that were popular with family and friends. The sisters discussed launching a fancy, high-end bakery, but Gayatri had one condition: None of the products could contain eggs, which she recently had stopped eating.

“She was quite persistent about doing it that way,” Kakkar says. “I was hesitant at the beginning that we would be limiting our options.” So when the sisters first began selling their treats, they didn’t advertise their egg-free status, worried that customers would assume their products didn’t taste good. However, soon after opening their shop, the sisters received a large order from Cartier, the luxury jeweler, which had recently arrived in India. The company liked a then-new technology offered by Divin-e-licious called photo printing, which uses edible ink on a sugar sheet. The company ordered cakes with the Cartier logo to give as holiday gifts to top customers in Delhi. The sisters rushed to complete the order in their home kitchen, with Gayatri baking the cakes and Anushka printing the edible frosting. No one missed the eggs, Kakkar recalls.

Celyn Brazier

After launching the business from their home, the sisters opened retail bakeries in two upscale malls. In addition to photo printing on cakes, the sisters also offered cupcakes. While Kakkar was at Babson, cupcake bakeries abounded in the Boston area, but few people in India had ever tried one. Divin-e-licious customers responded enthusiastically.

As word among customers spread, the demand for high-quality, egg-free treats became clear. “It was actually a very great opportunity to target that niche market,” Kakkar says. In place of eggs, Gayatri uses ingredients such as flaxseeds, banana puree, applesauce, and yogurt, and Kakkar says customers love that the cupcakes are moist and not too sweet.

As more bakeries began following the cupcake trend, the sisters looked for new ways to innovate. They decided to focus on the gift market, making and packaging treats for companies to send as gifts to clients and for families to offer as favors for events such as weddings and birthdays. In 2011, the sisters closed their retail operations and moved to a space in New Delhi where they bake to order. They still offer photo printing and cupcakes, but they also make what they call dessert jars, which are treats placed in vacuum-sealed jars to maintain freshness. Divin-e-licious also offers personalized packaging and prepares products for shipping, which Kakkar says is an unusual service in India.

The sisters are glad to have ended up in the sweets business. “This is a happy business to be in,” says Kakkar. “We’re always getting a call from a happy person planning a happy occasion, and that’s very nice.”