We had the pleasure of speaking with Erin Mann, owner of the food manufacturing company Erin’s Elderberries, about what it’s like to run a small business. The foundations of the business are rooted in family and community, reaching customers online thanks to website builder Square Online and selling products in-person in Erin’s physical store.
We also discussed how Erin’s Elderberries got started, the company’s plans for the future, and the hurdles that come with selling food online. Read on to hear more from Erin!
“My customers know if they reach out, I will be there.”
“I am an elderberry, honey, and aronia-themed food manufacturing company that started out of the need to help my son with his chronic health issues when he was two years old. I’ve gone from two handmade products to now 20, with a retail store focused on the community and highlighting other handmade businesses.
I went to college to be in the FBI, which I did for 15 years until I had my son. So going from that to being an entrepreneur with no business experience has been interesting! But I learn as I go, I’m a quick study, and I have learned over the years that if I don’t know someone, I can find someone who does and is willing to help.
I tackled [building my business] all in-house because I didn’t have the funds to outsource! I didn’t want to put our family at financial risk, so I paid for things as I earned the funds.”
Finding Family Time
“The best part [of my work] is that it’s never the same. An average day is getting my son to school, heading over to the shop to check in, figure out what needs to be made/bottled, and do that. Then I’ll spend time up front chatting with customers or meeting mentees for their appointments. I also serve on the board of a few organizations and volunteer groups, such as Rotary International, so I do my best to get to those weekly. I’ll also throw on paint clothes or “get dirty clothes” to work on my new commercial kitchen or fix something that I don’t want to hire someone to do.
Basically all day, every day, I am meeting, talking, making, or facilitating something new, possible, or established. But when I grab my son from school it’s “off work” time until he goes to bed. I try and make sure we get some family time in there too!”
“I tell people my start was mainly to help people and share our family’s story so that others might benefit from it. The selling at markets was me – as a stay-at-home Mom – wanting to get out of the house two Saturdays a month, to talk to adults about things other than potty training! But it evolved into being very community-focused. I started it because I care about kids and health and, in that, I was out in the community at large, seeing kids, families, business owners – their struggles, their accomplishments. I felt very connected to that. I wanted to be a positive impact on that.
My business is my hobby, which allows me to make decisions based on community growth, instead of dollars in my pocket.
It allows me to take a little more risk, but that has a high community reward. I also make sure I am still front and center to those who have always supported me. While I may have a lot of help nowadays for all Erin’s Elderberries does, I don’t sit at home or go on trips all the time – I go to markets and connect, or I’m in the store to connect with everyone. My customers know if they reach out, I will be there.”
I respond to emails myself. If there’s an issue, I handle it. If someone wants to meet me, I will make sure they do. I post things on social media that I want to connect to my followers with – or want them to understand about me. Many feel they know me without ever having met me, and that is what I always want, no matter how large my company grows.”
Managing Local Events
“I grew up with my Mom throwing some awesome parties, and I watched and learned as a mentor of mine ran our local farmers market… which led me to take a job in a local town as their Event Coordinator, so I could build up their farmers market for them and lay a good foundation for success. So I guess it was only natural when I had my own “space” that I would facilitate things that would bring the community together in fun ways.
But also my son… Lucas. He’s really the inspiration behind it all. He had the idea for a Pokemon trading card day. He wanted to watch a movie outside one night and I thought – we should do this at the shop, for our community. I guess I think of things I feel kids and people in our area would like to do, and I give them a place to do it! You know, as far as strategy goes, I think it’s good because it helps get the name out there. People visit just for that and then come in and learn about us.”
“Food laws are tricky. You have your individual state laws and then you have USDA regulations and then FDA regulations. Trying to understand where you fit and how you are legally required to do things can be confusing. I spent so much time running in circles trying to understand exactly how I was supposed to do things. I probably wasted six to seven months of time, which is why I now volunteer my time mentoring small food businesses. I try to be the person I needed four years ago since I now have an in-depth understanding that I did not have when I started out.”
“Winning small business of the year by my local chamber of commerce [is one of Erin’s favorite success stories], because it was voted on by other businesses in the country. So to have that respect from hundreds of other local businesses just amazes me.
[Erin’s Elderberries] has helped pay off bills and, most importantly, it’s helped me expand into retail, a larger space, and I’ve created my second business with no business loans. It also formed my scholarship program this year where I got to award the first Erin’s Elderberries scholarship to a local high school senior with a financial need. I elect to put funds back into the business to grow it, so while I can’t say “Oh, I have 15 Mercedes in the driveway”, I can say I’ve expanded my business 30-fold and started a second, completely different, business with zero debt.
I have increased my monthly sales by 450% since starting, and I have also mentored 58 small food businesses on their start-ups since 2020!
However, the biggest highlight was the opening day at the store. I never in a million years even thought of a retail shop. My proudest moment was watching my son help me cut the big giant ribbon at our ribbon-cutting ceremony.”
“I wanted people all across the country to have access to the products I made! I did look at others, but Square Online, for me, was the most user-friendly looking! I am not a tech person and never will be, so the fact that I could create something that looked nice and professional – without having to pay someone money I didn’t have – was what sealed the deal.
I love that it links to my shipping label portal. I also like that you can message customers directly through it or they can message you.”
“There were things I wanted to do or offer but I couldn’t figure out how to do it exactly at the time, such as having drop-down menus for variations or options. I didn’t know that’s what it was called at the time so I listed everything separately. But the longer you use it, the more you understand. So I fixed that over time!
The biggest thing I have been wanting is a customer-based subscription service sign-up. Currently, you have to create a subscription and send the sign-up link to the customer. They can’t just go on your website and sign up for an auto-ship every month or three months. I have to use a totally different platform/company for our subscription boxes. We all know the less clicks someone has to make, the more likely they are to checkout. A customer emailing that they want a subscription, then emailing back and forth till they pay is just not good practice. I’ve been waiting four years… hoping they will one day hear us!
The second thing is the ability to have a second “buying page” for wholesale accounts. I’d love for my wholesalers to be able to just go online and buy off my website from their account/sign-in and have it give pricing, but Square Online does not have that capability.”
“Trust your gut always, don’t question it for a second.
Look at other websites that you like using, write down those features that you really like (it takes PayPal, the formatting of pictures, it runs Instagram highlights, etc.), and use that list as you create your own website – so you don’t end up wishing you did something else.”
“My business is now basically three businesses… we have the retail shop that carries over 88 small handmade goods from local businesses, then we have EE OG – which is the elderberry and aronia manufacturing (handmade) – and now the rentable kitchen. The future of the store is to work to become the place our community wants to come to, rest, and support other businesses. For my elderberry company, my all-time goal is to land a major retailer such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target, or Giant. I want to get my syrup to people faster and have accessibility at later times in the evening.”