Recently, the Mad River Valley’s Liz Lovely Cookies received the long sought after capital needed to grow the popular gluten free, vegan, and non-GMO cookie company located in Waitsfield. Last fall owners Liz and Dan Holtz competed on Shark Tank, a national television show where entrepreneurs pitch their business to multi-million dollar investors. The money didn’t come from the sharks; who were only interested in a quick financial return, not an investment in Vermont’s economic sustainability; but rather from Vermont’s increasing pool of alternative financing options.
The more than $200,000 needed to grow Liz Lovely came from a financing package unique to Vermont. The business park landlord agreed to lease additional space and provide a lease-to-own commercial freezer. Northfield Savings Bank was able to refinance the business and offer more asset-secured capital. The State of Vermont provided an employee training grant. And, the working capital came from the VSJF Flexible Capital Fund, L3C, a mission-based royalty financing source that provides equity-like loans through revenue sharing for expanding Vermont food and energy businesses.
Liz and Dan met in high school in Indiana, Pennsylvania. While living in Philadelphia in 2002, the couple was encouraged by friends to visit Burlington. While exploring, Liz and Dan took a drive through the Mad River Valley and knew this was where they ultimately wanted to lay down roots. Strong values in altruism and a small pool of career opportunities in rural Vermont led Liz and Dan to decide to develop and grow a business and bring it with them to Vermont to contribute to the local economy. As a baker and a salesman respectively, Liz and Dan settled on the artisan food market and in 2003 opened Liz Lovely Cookies in Philadelphia.
2003 was premature for specialty foods and Liz and Dan found themselves forging new ground without much guidance or infrastructure in place. “We were really fortunate to secure shelf space early in the natural and artisan food game with our first Whole Foods placement in the mid-Atlantic region in 2003,” Dan recalls. “By early 2004, we were casting a wide net up and down the East coast with distribution through United Natural Foods.”
In the summer of 2004, Liz and Dan moved to Waitsfield, Vermont to restart the business in a setting more receptive to their mission. An opportune meeting with American Flatbread storage freezer landlords in the Irasville Business Park generated a win-win situation where Liz Lovely could rent both unused freezer and commercial space. In 2010, American Flatbread had relocated, and Liz Lovely's freezer storage was incorporated into the newly developed Mad River Food Hub.
“Liz Lovely has been a customer of the food hub since we opened. We provide them with over-flow cold storage as needed and distribution services to Burlington and Montpelier. The Mad River Food Hub's ‘very local distribution’ is part of Liz Lovely's national distribution strategy, delivering Liz Lovely cookies to Healthy Living, Hunger Mountain Coop, and other local natural food stores,” reflects Robin Morris, director of the Mad River Food Hub.
Liz and Dan adopted a baby girl in 2011 and were scheduled to open a retail store in Waitsfield village three days before Hurricane Irene. As ‘Vermont Strong’ implies, Liz Lovely persevered. “Money, infrastructure, and time all washed down the MadRiver. Irene was a set-back, but the recession had actually been more devastating. We shifted focus from the retail store to growth of the wholesale business, and while we’ll never get back the long hours setting up a retail space, it may have been a blessing in disguise,” Dan shares.
Liz Lovely started as a way for a young couple in love to get to Vermont, build a life together, grow a business committed to the local economy, and provide a safe and healthy alternative to mainstream, commercially produced cookies. It took ten years to reach a million dollars in sales, and the publicity generated by Shark Tank sharply increased demand and customer engagement, turning the growth curve from a steady climb into a steep incline. Liz Lovely would not give up on their quest for financing and thankfully socially responsible investing is on the rise in Vermont.
Janice St. Onge, president of the Flex Fund explains, “Our royalty financing program preserves equity and decision-making abilities which was a good fit for a company whose mission is ‘real food, good jobs, and environmentally sustainable business practices’. In turn, we saw great market opportunity and a strong management team with good advisory capacity, and, it fit with our mission and food system goal of conserving and protecting agriculturally productive land in Vermont and the region.”
Liz Lovely currently employs 18 full time, salaried, full-benefits employees and may reach 20 by the end of the year. Growth plans include launching a new, single serve gluten free cookie line for the purpose of selling to institutions such as hospitals and ski resorts. Many of the ingredients used in Liz Lovely’s bakery are not currently part of Vermont's agricultural landscape (except maple syrup, which they buy exclusively in Vermont). However, Liz Lovely is committed to working to facilitate demand and/or access to the nascent market of wheat and rice production in Vermont and the region. They are looking to source unbleached wheat flour this year from Vermont producers.
Written by Rachel Carter.