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Fall 2000 Sweet Taste of Victory

Veronica Hegarty recalls dire predictions from family members when she and her husband, Tony Bassile, decided to earn a living by selling nothing but fudge and peanut brittle within the confines of a shopping mall. “They said we were crazy, absolutely nuts,” she says. “I don’t think anyone expected us to succeed at all. The whole idea of making a comfortable living selling fudge? They thought it was absolutely ridiculous.”

But within a matter of weeks, those same family members were eating their words—along with some really good candy. Purple Cow Fudge and Candy Company was a sweet success from opening day. Great candy at reasonable prices allowed Purple Cow to earn as much as $8,000* a week.

But back to the beginning: Purple Cow owes its existence to chance as much as to design. If not for a single fateful encounter almost a decade ago, Hegarty and Bassile might still be operating a retail bakery in Ottawa and just about making ends meet.

One day, a salesman came in and asked Bassile if he would be interested in buying homemade fudge for the bakery. He doubted that fudge would sell, but didn’t have the heart to say no. He put the fudge on display, and it sold—fast. After that, says Hegarty, “we could never keep it on the shelves. People were always asking, ‘When are you getting more fudge?’” The problem was that they couldn’t always get it: their supplier was too small, so the supply was erratic. But Hegarty and Bassile persevered—they loved fudge as product as much as their customers loved it as fun food—and whenever they got some in, they sold out.

In 1994, fudge actually and unexpectedly changed their lives. On a business trip to Vancouver, Bassile happened upon The Old Fashioned Fudge Company, a small chain of stores, and was very impressed. Because he knew how well fudge was selling at the bakery, he figured it was time to make a commitment to candy—and that meant a big change. “Tony phoned me from Vancouver and said, ‘Sell the house—we’re moving!’”

And they did, 3,000 miles west of Ottawa. They bought into The Old Fashioned Fudge Company franchise and learned the intricacies of making fudge. Armed with that training and a variety of recipes, they opened a 450 s/f store in a Vancouver-area mall. But the store was never busy enough to be viable under the terms of the franchise, and it closed.

The next year, they severed ties with The Old Fashioned Fudge Company and moved back to Ottawa—with their experience and faith in fudge intact. They would do it again, on their own this time, and they called their concept “Purple Cow.” All they needed was the right location. They decided on the Herongate Mall, where the Purple Cow Fudge and Candy Company came into being.

Their first major challenge was simply getting approval from mall management to cook fudge and nut brittle with propane cooking equipment. “It took two months of running around, but we finally got the necessary OKs from the mall and the fire department,” says Hegarty.

The mall may have approved, but the skepticism of family and friends ran high: the idea of going into a small mall to make a living selling fudge seemed impossible. But Hegarty strongly believed this was an opportunity for success. One positive indicator was that, except for the Laura Secord chain of candy shops, none of the area malls had quality candy retailers.

Good thing, because opening day was a disaster. Someone had stolen Bassile’s 3′-long candy thermometers, crucial to the fudge-making process. The result: “I was standing in a totally empty booth with nothing to sell,” says Hegarty. The manufacturer couriered emergency thermometers to them from Chicago, so at least by day two, Bassile was making product.

As it turned out, making fudge in the same place they sold it was brilliant marketing. The seductive aroma of freshly made fudge wafted through the mall, and proved irresistible. “People all over the mall were tracking us down because of the smell—it was incredible. Even [salespeople] were coming out of their stores to find out what in the world was causing this incredible smell.” The fudge was selling “as fast as we were making and packaging it.” As a result, they never had any for their display area. At the end of that day, sales totaled more than $500. And it wasn’t just beginner’s luck: that scenario was repeated day after day. “We ended up getting permission to stay in the mall until 1 a.m. just so we could cook without having to serve anyone,” says Hegarty.

Purple Cow was soon racking up sales of $5,000 a week when the couple decided to move to a bigger, busier area mall. Purple Cow, now in a 10′x 20′ booth, was soon averaging sales of $8,000 a week. “We figured that with food costs at 25%, if we could just take in about $2,000 to $3,000 per week, we’d have been more than happy,” says Hegarty. “Tony could also get a part-time job on the side.”

Fat chance: there weren’t enough hours in the day for Bassile to make the quantity of fudge they needed to meet demand. Hegarty says the pace was unsustainable: “He was putting in 120-hour weeks,” she recalls. “Sometimes he would stay in the mall overnight, just cooking fudge. He’d come home, get maybe four or five hours sleep, and then get up to go back and cook some more. He was the walking dead.” So was she: in addition to working in the store, she took the lead in raising their three young children.

The mall closed for the Dominion Day holiday (July 1), and for the first time, there were no customers to serve. “We paid our staff extra to come in and just package fudge that Tony had cooked,” says Hegarty. When the mall reopened for business the next day, “our shelves were fully stocked—for the first-time ever.” As the weeks passed, Purple Cow averaged sales of $1,700 per square foot.

But Hegarty and Bassile knew they couldn’t continue operating at that frenzied pace. And if Purple Cow had been that busy during the dog days of summer, how would they manage during the Christmas rush? To prepare for the rush, they decided to open a commissary and a warehouse, plus an additional booth at Ottawa’s Bayshore Mall. And as they predicted, the Christmas season was wild. “I had nine girls working the booth. We always had a line-up of people, so we’d be saying, ‘Next! Next! Next!’ We didn’t even have time to say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you.’”

But in hindsight, Hegarty feels that Purple Cow got “too big too fast.” They had 50 employees on the payroll, and inventory controls were below par. So after Christmas ’98, Bassile and Hegarty shut down for three months and went on vacation to evaluate the future of Purple Cow.

The future, they decided, would begin with moving Purple Cow to the Devonshire Mall in Windsor (where they operate today), partly to be closer to the US market. But the fudge is made off-premises now—no more seductive aroma—and sales have dropped to $3,000 a week. But there’s at least one upside: Bassile is no longer a sleep-deprived zombie.

Hegarty says that from the beginning, people inquired about a Purple Cow franchise at least three times a week. Initially and for some time, that wasn’t in their plans for Purple Cow. Bassile and Hegarty realized they don’t want the responsibilities associated with being a franchiser. Instead, they’ve decided to license the concept. For $60,000 plus an annual licensing fee of $5,000, a buyer gets a turnkey operation, plus the training needed to become a master fudge-maker. To date, two licenses have been sold, and Hegarty anticipates selling up to 10 licenses a year.

They’re also looking at having their fudge distributed to US retail accounts, and have had discussions with a major confection distributor. The challenge is that because they use no additives and preservatives in Purple Cow fudge, its shelf life is only six weeks—too short for a viable shipping/sales cycle. Bassile is currently working with food scientists to double the shelf life to move the plan—and the fudge—forward.

Obviously, family and friends are no longer laughing at fudge (in fact, one of them eventually opened his own fudge store). Instead, Purple Cow is having the last laugh. It turned out to be a cash cow after all.

David Menzies

Menzies is a Toronto-based freelance writer contributing to several newspapers and magazines over the years including the National Post, Western Standard, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Business, Profit, Marketing and several trade publications.

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