Without the help of a Georgia Institute of Technology program that assists manufacturers, Laura Darnall and Lois Judy might still be churning out fondant in a building in Ms. Darnall’s Savannah backyard.
But today, Fondarific has a 10,000-square-foot factory and ships internationally. The company in 2011 sold $2.5 million worth of fondant, a creamy confection mostly used in decorating cake. The rollable icing covers the cake with a smooth layer, almost like wrapping paper, which allows for elaborate decorations.
“We really couldn’t have done any of this without Georgia Tech,” said Ms. Judy of the university’s Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership “They have a friendly attitude, really knew what we needed and how to help us. Their confidentiality was important. I was getting the quality help I needed by people who were impartial, had nothing to gain and wouldn’t go in competition with me.”
The story behind Fondarific reads like a classic American tale of entrepreneurship. Ms. Darnall and Ms. Judy struck up a friendship watching their children play soccer. Ms. Judy was a nurse; Ms. Darnall was kindergarten teacher who had developed an edible product she called “candy clay dough” for her students to use as an art project.
“Laura was always into crafts and candy making and she went to the largest cake show, which is in Oklahoma. One of the judges, who was from the Food Network, told her to turn her product into fondant,” Ms. Darnall recalled. “We weren’t even sure what fondant was but we thought that we should take the advice.”
With their children mostly grown, in 2008 the women started Candy Craft Creations, which does business as Fondarific, marketing the fondant at trade shows. The product was an immediate hit because “most of the fondants on the market tasted bad and cracked,” said Ms. Judy.
“Our product didn’t crack and it tasted great. That’s what separates us from the competition. We have 16 products and our fruit flavor fondants taste like Skittles and Starburst, which is great for the cupcake industry and children’s parties,” she said.
The two friends made the fondant in a small building in Ms. Darnall’s backyard and handled all aspects of the growing business. A month after opening, they sold 3,000 pounds of fondant. When sales hit $250,000 they added employees and moved into a 1,500-square-foot space, then doubled it. But even with 3,000 square feet the design wasn’t efficient.
The women knew they needed professional assistance and turned the the Small Business Development Center, who referred them to GaMEP’s Coastal Region, which stepped up to help the company’s production flow, select the right equipment and provide market research and a plan for growth. GaMEP is a program of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute and has offices in nine regions across the state.
Danny Duggar, a project manager with GaMEP’s Lean Services Group, worked on the new facility. He helped design the building’s layout and automate its processes, which reduced labor costs by 18 percent.
They also worked with Matthew W.Oxley III, GaMEP’s strategic business manager, who tackled growing their marketing, both nationally and internationally.
“I helped them with their marketing strategy and make sure their strategy worked from a financial standpoint,” said Mr. Oxley, who also helped mentor the women and assisted them in interviewing key sales players. “I’ve owned about 12 businesses and I know what they’re going through and can see where their strengths are and help fill in their weaknesses. I essentially teach entrepreneurship 101.”
Now Fondarific’s main challenge is getting a greater “slice of the marketplace,” he said. “They’re going up against big companies, but I have no doubt they can do it.”
Fondant is a $100 million market, and Fondarific’s products are sold as a private label product in Michael’s craft stores. It recently landed a test contract at Walmart for 500 stores to sell the fondant under the Fondarific name, which is also available in other craft stores, baking stores and online.
Fondarific is also dipping into the international market and is sold in Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Guatemala and the United Kingdom.
“I think the sky is the limit internationally but I see our major growth right now in this country,” Ms. Judy said. “Plus, when you export you have to deal with all these rules, regulations, labeling, exporting issues. Some countries have a tax on sugar so pricing is a little touchy. It’s not hard; it’s just tedious. Georgia Tech helped us on that too.”
Fondarific was featured at the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Go Global” reception in February, where it won a GLOBE award for expanding into a new market overseas. In 2012, the duo were honored as top businesspeople by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Fresh with a $2.5 million loan from a local bank, the Fondarific team is looking to expand. They are also going back to GaMEP for more advice.
“I couldn’t afford to get such expertise elsewhere. As a small business you have to watch every penny and we honestly would be where we are with Georgia Tech and we’ll continue working with them.”
Learn more about Georgia Tech’s Manufacturing Extension Partership at www.gamep.org.