Just desserts: Two nations divided by a common custard

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

You might think America is crying out for classic British puddings, yet one entrepreneur has found things decidedly sticky

Despite 35-degree-plus temperatures in Austin, Texas, where Cumbria native and baking entrepreneur Tracy Claros plies her trade, she's already thinking about Christmas due to making most of her money during the US "holiday" shopping season. So begins the complex and sometimes nerve-wracking planning and logistics needed to make sales that are far from guaranteed due to the idiosyncrasies of the US dessert market.

Claros moved to Austin in 2003 to start a dessert company, having reasoned that the UK's market was overcrowded while the US's had little exposure to British desserts. In 2004 she launched The Sticky Toffee Pudding Co, based on the British dessert classic, but it hasn't been easy. She hadn't reckoned on US demand for more sophisticated chilled desserts being almost non-existent compared to the UK and the rest of Europe.

Even the word "pudding" has a very different meaning here, usually associated with custards and creating one of a number of hurdles when trying to connect with American consumers.

The holiday sales peak results from most of those consumers viewing her product – moist sponge cake with finely chopped dates covered in a buttery toffee sauce and served warm – as a rich holiday treat and buying accordingly, which makes keeping her company afloat during the rest of the year a challenge. It has taken time and bitter experience for her to figure out the extended planning cycle to ensure her puddings get on stores' holiday shelves. "When I started, I'd approach a customer in September or October," she says, "but even if I had a great idea, by then it was too late."

Major US food retailer chains such as HEB and Costco make the big decisions for the holiday period around August, she says. Hence she spent the spring flying around to meet supermarket managers and ensure her company doesn't miss out on a crucial period that accounts for 65 per cent of sales.

She flew to Seattle and Atlanta to confirm orders with Costco totalling 50,000 puddings. She also flew to a meeting with a Baltimore Costco but came away with no order. It was a long way to fly only to be told the store's customers buy desserts at the bakery or from the freezer but aren't accustomed to getting them from the refrigerator, she says.

James Averdieck, who founded the British dessert company Gü, investigated the US dessert market in 2010. Gü products normally remain chilled throughout the supply chain and he didn't want them sold in the freezer section, he says, where they'd face stiff competition from big brands such as Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's. He was also concerned stores might defrost them after the expiration date and damage the brand's reputation. Gü's products contain cream, eggs and butter, limiting their shelf life.

"An added layer of complexity is the US is so huge, even containing different time zones," says David Wilson, a partner with Greenseed Group that advises UK food companies considering the US market and is assisting Gü. "If your product has a shelf life of three weeks and it takes a week to truck it from New York to California, that's a real challenge and is why so many US foods are frozen."

Another complication, Wilson says, is the US shopping experience is more fragmented compared to the UK's, which contains relatively few major supermarket chains. The US has many more retailers and British companies have to choose their partners wisely.

The US's immense geographic size – Texas is three times bigger than the UK – results in significant regional differences in terms of consumer habits. Bakeries tend to sell a lot of cakes in Southern cities such as Houston and New Orleans, though that declines farther west, says Jim Murphy, owner of Austin's 35-year-old Sweetish Hill Bakery.

Baked goods also prove popular in coastal areas, but ultimately it varies, with each place influenced by culture and weather. If you grow up eating ice-cream and jelly, he points out, that's likely to be what you'll shop for. Despite the challenges, Wilson says the underdeveloped dessert market means there is great potential and in cities such as New York and Chicago, where customers are increasingly purchasing fresher foods on a more frequent basis, similar to Europe.

"I think chilled desserts are on the cusp of exploding onto the market," he says, "and as new concepts emerge in urban centres they'll start to move into the mainstream."

Claros has weathered tough times while promoting her puddings to an often fastidious market but has resolutely baked on. She expects to pass $1 million (£660,000) in annual sales for the first time this year. Her small company has three employees and another three part-time during the pre-holiday push. Her ability to survive has resulted from passion for her product, tenacity and deft logistics and conundrum-solving.

She's had to max out credit cards and bounced between British and American banks to find willing lenders. She sources packaging material from Denmark due to insane US prices, she says, but must account for up to two months delivery time. Last year, packaging to fulfil a customer's order – who bought four times more than expected – got delayed. "I was panicking."

As sales increase for Claros, it appears the US is coming round to desserts like hers – Oprah Winfrey's magazine described her pudding the "sexiest English creation since Colin Firth". Ironically, she discovered the bona fide British dessert when she studied at the University of Texas at Austin during her twenties. Her mother sent the recipe for the pudding that astounded Claros by its deliciousness, she says.

Despite progress, Claros wants to smooth out her annual sales graph and is developing a new line of fabulous flapjacks that avoid any chilled dilemmas to generate more consistent sales, she says. But that's led to a new dilemma: how to retain handmade quality while increasing production economically.

"I don't want a better price if my product's not fantastic," she says, "as that's the base of what this brand is about."

Stickytoffeepuddingcompany.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
News
peopleWarning - contains a lot of swearing
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project