The Little Family-Owned Goat Dairy That Could – and Did
2014 FedEx Small Business Grant Grand Prize Winner
Fat Toad Farm: www.fattoadfarm.com
Makers of Creamy, Delicious Goat’s Milk Caramel Sauces
Some small businesses are lifelong dreams fulfilled. Others are born less deliberately, quietly evolving, one small decision at a time. Such is the case of Fat Toad Farm, the creators of namesake goat’s milk caramel sauces and the grand prize winner of the 2014 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest.
The whole thing started as a family experiment in homesteading.
“We live in rural Vermont, and have always been involved with the land in terms of planting vegetables and flowers. My husband, Steve, was in commercial real estate and I was in higher education and then worked at the Vermont Commission on Women,” explained Judith Irving, founder and partner of Fat Toad Farm. “One of our three daughters, Calley, graduated from the Environmental Studies and Sustainable Agriculture Program at University of Vermont and Steve had raised sheep earlier in his life, but that was the closest thing to a farming background we had at the beginning. We just wanted to see how self-sufficient we could be living off the land.”
They bought a few goats, then a few more, and began making artisan cheese from the milk. But, when oldest daughter, Josey, came home from Mexico with a recipe for goat’s milk caramel (the traditional Mexican confection known as cajeta), that changed everything.
“We were making cheese and caramel and giving it away as gifts and said, ‘This is a very expensive hobby.’ We really thought we had something special in the caramel, but if we wanted to sell it, we had to make a commitment. We needed to get licensed as a dairy and as a commercial kitchen—and that took a significant financial investment,” Judith said. “But, we decided that if we wanted to make a go of it, we had to take the plunge.”
With that, Judith, husband Steve Reid and daughters Calley and Josey Hastings joined forces with their growing herd of eager French Alpine goats to make Fat Toad Farm’s Goat’s Milk Caramel Sauces a household name. The company officially became an LLC in 2009.
From Local Farmers Markets to National Distribution
“We started selling at the Montpelier (VT) farmers market, testing our products to see which flavors the market liked. By year two, we started approaching local stores, and were surprised when they said yes,” Judith said.
But, even though the local distribution was growing, this just wasn’t enough to sustain the business.
“The population of Vermont is 625,000, and people don’t buy caramel every day. If we were going to make a go of this, we knew we had to reach out to other wholesalers and customers nationwide,” Judith said. “We believed that we were the first U.S. company to produce farmstead goat’s milk caramel on any scale, so we had a real opportunity—if we could get our product out there.”
So, daughter Calley hit the road. First stop? The Fancy Food Show in New York, where she shared a table with other Vermont food producers. Then, to a show in San Francisco and back to New York.
“I also went up and down the streets of New York and Boston, calling on specialty food retailers, and telling them the story of Fat Toad Farm goat’s milk caramel,” Calley said.
That effort indirectly landed one of the business’ first big orders.
“A buyer from a major retailer picked up our product at a local specialty store in New York, went back to her office and said, ‘We need to order this,’” Judith said. “I can still remember getting the call. ‘Who? What? Really?’ It was one of the biggest orders we had gotten to that point—and it came from one of the most recognized names in the industry.”
Ramping Up E-Commerce Efforts—with a Personal Touch
Meanwhile, back at the farm, daughter Hannah moved back to Vermont from San Francisco, joined the Fat Toad team and dug into marketing and building customer relationships through social media, connecting people with the Fat Toad Farm story, and its e-commerce site.
“We have a real relationship model. We connect to people. They understand our core values as a real farmstead,” Judith said. “At the same time, if we’re competing against other specialty food products on the shelf and online, we have to look professional. What works at a farmers market doesn’t work on a retail shelf or an online store.”
To improve visual imaging, Hannah and Calley learned the art of food photography, mentored by professional food photographer Susie Cushner. They also built a mini-photo studio in the farmhouse, which doubles as office space, so they could quickly (and professionally) photograph new recipes and products to keep their web site fresh.
Slowly but surely, Fat Toad Farm’s fan base started to grow, one jar of caramel at a time.
Getting that Goat’s Milk Caramel Where It Needed to Go
Marketing and selling are only part of the challenge of a remotely located small business. After the sale is completed, the bigger issue becomes logistics. What’s the best way to get that goat’s milk caramel sauce into the hands of waiting customers?
“When we first started, I tried to figure out the U.S. Postal Service, but we had too many sizes to fit the flat-rate boxes. So I called FedEx. I didn’t know a thing about shipping, and they helped me navigate the options, step by step,” Judith recalls.
In those early days, Judith logged on to FedEx Ship ManagerR at fedex.com and printed out the labels, then schlepped a car filled with caramel to the local FedEx dropoff location, in the side room of a small computer repair shop.
“One day, our account manager called and said, ‘We can supply you with a thermal printer’—and that was great. The labels looked so much more professional,” Judith said. “And I have to say, I was impressed that he called me with a solution to a problem I didn’t really know I had.”
She eventually got tired of the thrice-a-week trip into town and asked if FedEx could pick up those shipments. Now, FedEx picks up five days a week at the farm.
“We are seven miles down a dirt road and it’s pretty rugged. Our FedEx Ground driver, Sean, comes every day, through snow squalls and mud pits, braving the back roads of Vermont to pick up our packages,” Judith said. “Not only is he always here with a smile on his face, he brings bones for our two dogs, Poppy and Mollie.”
The winter presents Sean with a special challenge, beyond the snow and slush.
“All winter, I like to take the goats out for a mid-day walk. They need exercise when they’re pregnant. The problem is, mid-day is when Sean arrives,” Judith said. “Inevitably, he’s coming up the road, I’m heading down the road with the goats. He looks at them. They look at him. And, he patiently waits until we pass and heads on his way. Just about the time he’s driving back into town with our packages, we meet on the road again.”
Winning the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest
When Judith got the call that Fat Toad Farm was the grand prize winner in the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest, she reacted with a very long pause, (possibly a gasp), followed by “Wait, are you serious? You wouldn’t joke around with me, right?” It was a lot like how she reacted to the first call from a major retailer.
But, now that the initial shock has worn off, Judith and family are planning how to use the grant money to make their growing business grow even more.
“We have important improvements to make to our caramel production room,” Judith said. “We also want to improve our data management system and enhance our e-commerce site to make it more customer-friendly. The grant will help with all of this.”
Creating a Legacy, One Jar of Goat’s Milk Caramel at a Time
Sometimes, the real success in life doesn’t come from a deliberate choice, but by letting your story unfold on its own. That’s how Fat Toad Farm’s Goat’s Milk Caramel was born. A series of events; people smart enough to recognize opportunity, and a product that’s unique, authentic and fun.
“We had no inkling that this would be our future. We didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘Let’s save every penny we have and run a goat dairy,’ We stumbled upon the idea and we’re working more now than when we were at our day jobs,” Judith said. “At the end of a long day, my husband and I ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing?’ But then we say, ‘What the heck else would we be doing?’ It’s hard work, yes. But, we have a family business, we have a connection with our customers, and we do something we love every day.”
Is there any better definition of success?