A Taste for Business

By Cynthia Lescalleet

Success has been sweet for gourmet dessert entrepreneur Sandy Solmon, a YPO member since 1989 and Founder, CEO and “Chief Innovator” of Sweet Street Desserts.

Since its cookie-based start in 1978, the company headquartered in Reading, Pennsylvania, USA, has grown into the largest producer of frozen gourmet desserts in the world, with more than 400 tasty and tempting confections distributed to restaurants and cafes in 75 countries to serve as their own. Hotels, cruise lines, colleges and a mega-sized bookseller are also serving Sweet Street Desserts.

Solmon leads a team of 700 workers, including nine chefs and researchers, and oversees the company’s massive commercial bakery and Innovation Kitchen (where science meets sweets) in Pennsylvania and a satellite bakery in South Carolina. She travels to better understand and anticipate her global market as well as to navigate the world of food-related restrictions and regulations. And then there’s taste, which does vary with cultural traditions.

Sweet Street Desserts produces 55,000 to 60,000 cases of desserts a week — which translates to approximately 150 million portions a year, using 300,000 pounds of ingredients. Solmon good-naturedly declined to estimate her venture’s annual caloric output. But she did quip that her business is built on customer indulgence — whether for finishing a fine meal or for comfort. “We’re in the sugar and wheat business,” she said. Guilt, however, is not an ingredient.

Across country, world

A pioneer of the dessert industry, Solmon remains at the helm of the business she started. She thinks her longevity is unusual for an entrepreneur since they are more likely to start, build and sell their company. She chooses to innovate from within, an approach applied not only to products but to presence. An example of the latter is the company’s Mobile Art Kitchen, or MAK, a collaboration of art and edibles that roams and pops up on the streets and food expos of Europe.

Kismet and a thoughtful business plan was part of Solmon’s recipe for success. She had moved from the west coast — and life as a photojournalist — after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley. She remembered late night post-exam runs to the corner store to splurge on a huge cookie dispensed from a display jar. Initially, her startup delivered similar chocolate chip cookies to her new state’s convenience stores, which were starting to proliferate.

Adding a 1,000 square foot facility and equipment to make the baked goods soon followed thanks to a revised business plan, advice from a backer, a USD90,000 business loan and a fair amount of hands-on renovations. The growth trajectory continued as her fledgling direct sale venture (“We were a virtual company before the term existed,” she noted.) shifted its sights from shops to food distributors (now about 1,000 of them, including ones bringing sweets to college campuses and a chain of large bookstores. The retail market has also come knocking, she said, with supermarkets interested.

Solmon’s fresh ideas, use of highest quality ingredients and unusual flavor combinations have kept the company cooking. Creative, curious and observant, Solmon has been ahead of the curve on shifts in the foodscape that she attributes to rising food awareness and consumer interest in transparency. “There’s so much we’re learning,” she says.

Among her adaptations to ingredients were eliminating GMO (genetically modified organisms), finding alternatives to trans-fats and using hormone-free dairy in her desserts. Current trends seem to be toward simplicity and comfort and eating “clean,” she said. In response, the company has rolled out a new cookie line geared toward that societal need. Solmon thinks that shift might be due to how little control we have in the world. “We can control the food we put into our bodies,” she explained. “It’s a small victory.”

Inspiration is everywhere

As an oft-recognized expert frequently sought to speak about her venture, acumen and accomplishments, Solmon has reflected on what the landscape of selling for 38 years has brought. “It takes stamina and passion to manage all the changes, trends and downturns,” she says. Among her suggestions for doing so:

  • “The world is a lab.”
  • “Everyone has insights.” Keep an open mind when in the formulating phase.
  • Ideas will “bubble and brew.”
  • Be a bit naïve. “Naivety is what allows people like me think it might happen.”
  • Trust intuition. “All the above will lead to confirmation of intuition” or what she considers “informed intuition.”
  • Assemble the right team. “Assemble those around you who will get you where your ideas are heading.”
  • Cultivate the right culture at work to achieve that dream. Her company’s culture, for example, has a flat structure for quickly solving problems and calls the process “The Wave.” Department reps meet at the apex of the challenge and disperse to resolve their part of the solution. “We’re all in tune, like an organism,” she says.
  • Support your community. Early in her business formation, her mentor insisted she become involved in her community. “We became a fixture and a factor in the philanthropic bedrock of our town.”

She’s glad for that lesson and enriched by playing a deeper role. “YPO members should as well,” she said. “Be hands on. Pick projects that make a personal difference.” In her case, her support has revolved around the arts, family/children issues and mentoring potential entrepreneurs.

In addition, Solmon is using science and technology for the paradigm of health in a more recent venture, Celavie Biosciences LLC., which has patents on a novel pluripotent stem cell treatment product for Parkinson’s disease. Its sister project, Celavet, is for veterinarians treating ligament and tendon injuries.

Solmon said she adheres to the values shaped by her time in Berkeley. She’s a follower of the science of health and healthy eating – even when it comes to dessert.

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