Entrepreneur carves out niche for quiche in 'real' food market


They're legends in the business, these folks whose names adorn some of the most beloved food products in markets and malls today: Mrs. Field, "Famous" Amos, Ben & Jerry, Paul Newman. In every case, the product began as a good idea in the kitchen and grew to a multimillion-dollar business. Cookies, ice cream, spaghetti sauce . . .

It seems simple. You make something your friends adore and ask for; surely everyone else will want it too. You just whip up a batch and head to the nearest supermarket.

Nancy Mueller knows the story. A chemist and mother of two, she routinely used to make 2,000 hors d'oeuvres in the weeks before she and her husband threw their annual Christmas party. Her two-bite petite quiches were always a hit, and people told her she should sell them.

Today, Nancy's Specialty Foods of Menlo Park, Calif., makers of Nancy's Quiche (as well as turnovers and other hors d'oeuvres), employs 250 people and chalks up sales of $30 million a year. Her products can be found at Giant, Safeway and Farm Fresh, as well as some membership stores. But the trip from hors d'oeuvres in the kitchen to the top of the frozen savory pastry world took 17 years, and a lot of hard work.

"The business didn't grow like this," she says, scratching a 45-degree angle on a piece of paper during a recent visit to the East Coast, where her products have just been introduced this year. "It grew like this" -- and she charts a series of small rises, with wide plateaus in between.

"When you're starting a business," she says, "it's not always what you thought it was going to be."

She compares her company to the one started a couple of years earlier by Debbi Fields: Mrs. Field's Cookies. Both have succeeded because they are "real" products, made with ingredients used by home-based cooks, she says.

"Most times food companies start at the lab bench, and they have an objective for a price point -- so they start with cost, and various selling parameters, and they make something to fit that. I didn't. I started with something I liked to eat myself, and my friends liked, and started to mass-produce it.

"There was also a need for this kind of product. There was virtually no other quiche on the market . . . nothing out there in terms of a single-serving, microwaveable, convenient entree. So it's a food product that tasted good and filled a consumer need."

And that's why it succeeded, she says, not because it was quiche. "It's taste and convenience. Nobody called and said, 'Make quiche.' "

The first two products were mini-quiches and mushroom turnovers. Ms. Mueller distributed them herself, driving all over the Bay area with a freezer in the back of her car. Later, she decided to make an entree-size quiche, "because that's what people eat every day; they just use the appetizers for holidays." The large quiche served three people, but it had to be baked before serving. Ten years later, the entree quiche evolved into single-serving item. "And this was the real winner. We don't even make the big one any more."

That kind of change is essential in the business, she says. "I had some good ideas, but had to refine them and make them right for the marketplace. And as time went on, the marketplace changed. Convenience became very important, microwaveable became very important, high quality, all-natural, all those things. And people's lifestyles became very busy . . . so this fit perfectly."

Ms. Mueller's two children were ages 3 and 5 when she began her business, and she suffered the usual pangs of parents who combine careers with child-rearing.

"I've always liked to be a little bit too busy," she says. "I had been a chemist at Syntex, but once I had my second child, I didn't want to work from 9 to 5, I wanted to be a little bit more flexible. I felt that I could spare enough time doing this to could still have time for my children . . . I was probably working half-time for about three or four years. As they grew up, my time commitment was able to grow up in the business, and that was a luxury. It's hard to find a job where you can be so flexible -- you have to work for yourself."

But success didn't come overnight. "In the early days it was easy to be discouraged," she says. "I'd go into the store and the product hadn't sold, or the boxes were dented, or a store would discontinue a product . . . there's a lot of course corrections along the way -- like going from a large quiche to a single-serving quiche -- or figuring out how to do the proper marketing, how to spend money wisely and not waste it."

Stamina is a prerequisite for any would-be executive, she says. "My life has been like a roller coaster. You hear something good at the good at the beginning of the day and something bad at the end of the day, and something good halfway through . . . You've got to be able to withstand those wild emotional swings."

People who work for large companies are insulated from upheaval by layers of management, she notes. "But when you're running a company, you've got your own funds and equity built into this company, gaining a new account is a big deal. Or losing an account is a nasty deal. . . . So you've got to have a stomach for looking at it from an overall perspective and sorting through the little minor disturbances that continually come along.

"And we've done that . . . we're doing great. But you still worry about what could come next."

Ms. Mueller's husband and father have both helped her in the business; her husband, Glenn, an investment specialist, as a counselor ("kind of the chairman of the board") and her father, a CPA, who taught her accounting. "I had a lot of people around me who helped me to learn. I've never gone to school for any of this. I've learned everything I've known through other people -- people who work for me, who I've hired, who knew more than I do, or people around me, whose brain I picked."

But the key, she says, is having a good idea to begin with. "The better your idea is, the more unique . . . the more people are going to listen and help. People need to be conscious of the quality of the concept that they have, and how needed it is in the marketplace." Erstwhile entrepreneurs often call her, she says, wanting to know how to repeat her success. "And the first thing I do is find out what they're looking to do. Because there's just too much 'me-too.' "

There are trade-offs for success, she notes. When she was building the company and raising her family, "I never had time for Nancy."

But there have also been unexpected pleasures. "One of the most exciting things I've experienced in running my own business is creating employment and opportunity," she says. "What could I do with my time that would be more socially right than to create job opportunities for 250 people . . . that's a side benefit I really didn't see when I got into this."

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