Long Island City, NY—Eric Shkolnik knew he had found the recipe for a successful small business.
It was his mother-in-law’s recipe for her traditional Russian crepini, which she had tweaked after visiting relatives in Paris. The final product was a delicious cross between the delicate French crepe and the robust Russian blini with its hardy fillings.
After further refining the recipe to appeal to the more health-conscious American consumer, Eric and Paula Rimer, his wife and partner, launched Crepini by The Crepe Team in 2007. Their plan was to create a niche market for their assortment of filled crepes, which included blueberry and cherry cheese, portobello mushroom and parmesan and feta and spinach as well as their naked crepes.
The couple, which viewed the company as their next business venture after selling their successful IT company, decided that they would sell the product online. However, having little knowledge of the complexities of e-commerce, their online business failed.
But they were not discouraged. “Although it was not successful, it gave us a testing ground because we shipped to customers and received phenomenal feedback,” said Ms. Rimer. “It also gave us the opportunity to test the shelf life, freezing, and packaging of the crepes.”
Determined to make a go of it, the couple incorporated in mid-2007 and began taking business and culinary arts courses that targeted food technology, food manufacturing and food wholesale marketing.
They then leased a kitchen in Westchester, hired 10 crepe makers and began signing up such well-known wholesalers as Whole Foods, Fresh Markets and the upscale Texas chain, Central Markets. However, despite enlisting large players, Mr. Shkolnik said their growth was limited because the crepes were being made by hand. “One person with eight crepe pans could make approximately 150 crepes an hour at the most,” he said.
They knew the next step had to be automation. So in 2009 Crepini LLC acquired a Brooklyn-based company that manufactured blintzes to the Russian ethnic market.
The newly merged company officially launched its line in 2010 when Stew Leonard’s, a food chain of four supermarkets in New York and Connecticut, brought the line in. “Now we knew we were on the right track,” said Ms. Rimer.
And they were. By November of 2010, the company, which had garnered four Fancy Food Show awards, was selling its crepes in over 1,000 stores; had a contract with the New York City Department of Education to provide breakfast and lunch crepes to its 1.1 million students; and was selling its naked crepes to restaurants that were creating dishes with the thin pancake. The operation employed 10 staff members and had earned $1.4 million in revenues.
Business was humming, but Mr. Shkolnik acknowledged that to take it to the next level, they needed expert business advice. “We had to create a better plan for the business and to learn how to improve operations and product sourcing to successfully expand the business, but the question was, ‘where could we learn all this?’”
At a business symposium he got his answer: Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses at LaGuardia Community College, a free intensive business program that provides entrepreneurs with the tools and knowledge they need to help grow their businesses.
In July of 2011, Mr. Shkolnik joined the program with 28 other small business owners. “It is an amazing set up,” he said of the100-hour program that provided business workshops on such important topics as accounting, marketing, operations and negotiating; panel discussions headed by experts in the business field; and one-on-one mentoring. “No where else can you share your experiences with other small business owners from a variety of industries and learn from a staff of experts who bring academic, world and business experience to the table.”
He explained that he came away with a wealth of knowledge that has helped him to grow his business and increase his staff exponentially. Since graduating from 10,000 Small Businesses in November of 2011 the company has increased revenues by 20% and its staff has grown some 243% from seven employees in 2009 to 24 currently.
In his negotiations class, Mr. Shkolnik learned how to better deal with clients and suppliers. “As a result of the negotiating skills I learned I was able to lower prices,” he said. “And one important lesson I learned is that there are clients you don’t want. I learned I don’t have to be everything to everyone.”
As a result of a panel discussion that described ways small business owners can tap into New York City resources, Mr. Shkolnik successfully applied for a $66,000 grant from the Small Business Services for a customized training program for his employees. He also was approved for a utility reduction that lowered his monthly electric bill by $4,000.
The creation of a growth plan was another invaluable takeaway. “A lot of it is common sense,” he said, “but that common sense does not kick in until you put things on paper.”
Mr. Shkolnik pointed out that the ‘growth plan’ he developed when he participated in 100,000 Small Businesses was the all-important document that helped him secure a $600,000 bank loan for a second crepe machine and a flash freezer. “It was unbelievable,” he said. “It was because of our robust business plan, with all the bells and whistles, that convinced the bank to take a look at us.”
With the second crepe machine now in operation and the installation of the flash freezer, the company is geared for an expansion. The crepe machine will allow them to produce more crepes, but Mr. Shkolnik said the flash freezer is a real game changer. The freezer, which freezes products in minutes, extends the shelf life of the product, lowers labor costs and produces a better quality product. “By increasing the shelf life of our product we are able to sign up major clients like Costco, Sam’s, Safeway, U.S. Foods, and Publix,” he said. “This will open a totally new market and new revenue.”
“10,000 Small Businesses helped us make that leap,” said Mr. Shkolnik, who added that he is projecting $3 million in revenue. “Now we will really accelerate.”
To learn more about the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses initiative at LaGuardia Community College, please:
• Visit www.laguardia.edu/10ksb
• Call our team at (718) 730-7400 or
• Email 10KSB@lagcc.cuny.edu
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Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses is an initiative to unlock the growth and job creation potential of 10,000 small businesses across the United States through greater access to business education, financial capital, and business support services. The program operates through a national network of public and private partner organizations including community colleges, business schools and Community Development Financial Institutions. The initiative is currently active in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Long Beach, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Salt Lake Cityand will continue to expand to communities across the country. Community partners in New York City include The City of New York, LaGuardia Community College and Seedco Financial Services.
LaGuardia Community College located in Long Island City, Queens, was founded in 1971 as a bold experiment in opening the doors of higher education to all, and we proudly carry forward that legacy today. LaGuardia educates students through over 50 degree, certificate and continuing education programs, providing an inspiring place for students to achieve their dreams. Upon graduation, LaGuardia students’ lives are transformed as family income increases 17%, and students transfer to four-year colleges at three times the national average. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), LaGuardia is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges for boundary-breaking success educating underserved students. At LaGuardia we imagine new ideas, create new curriculum and pioneer programs to make our community and our country stronger. Visit www.laguardia.edu to learn more.