Sweet Yelm grannies are entrepreneurial sharks

Ice Chips candy business in Yelm took off following appearance on TV show

rboone@theolympian.comNovember 18, 2013 

Four years ago, Bev Vines-Haines and Charlotte Clary of Yelm, affectionately known as the two grandmothers who have 41 grandchildren between them, sat in front of 100 tins, 100 labels and a 10-pound bag of xylitol, a naturally occurring sweetener found in birch trees.

And then they set out to make a hard candy.

It took them several tries to get the recipe right, but finally they developed their first flavor — peppermint — and then they cracked the hard candy by hand, creating a chip in the process.

Those chips were given to friends and family, and before long, they were “begging for more,” Vines-Haines said.

You might say they had lightning in a tin.

“Oh, my gosh,” Vines-Haines recalled about that moment. “We had found our product.”

That product eventually would become Ice Chips, and the business just hit $2 million in sales, making it one of the most successful business startups in Thurston County — a business that thumbed its nose at the Great Recession and that can now be found in more than 2,000 stores throughout the country.

It gets better: They have grown to offer 19 flavors and expect to double their sales in the coming year.

“They embody what it is to be an entrepreneur,” Daryl Murrow said about the two women after they addressed business owners at the recent South Sound Success Small Business Conference.

Murrow manages the business resource center, a division of the Thurston County Economic Development Council, which helped organize the conference and book the Yelm grandmothers as keynote speakers.

Vines-Haines, 72, and Clary, 58, will tell you — as they did at the conference and in a follow-up interview afterward — that Ice Chips Candy had long found its groove before they made an appearance on “Shark Tank,” the Friday night show on ABC. In the show, budding or nearly established entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of investors — including Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks — in hopes of winning an investment for their business.

They also wanted to make one thing clear to the audience at the business conference:

“We didn’t take their money,” said Clary, adding that they still own 100 percent of the business.

Although the two — who were first approached by “Shark Tank” — appeared to strike a deal with Cuban and fellow investor Barbara Corcoran when they appeared on the show Nov. 9, 2012, they didn’t, in the end, come to an agreement.

But they also will tell you how fond they are of Cuban and Corcoran — they have cardboard cutouts of the two in their office — and that the exposure on Shark Tank was one “giant TV commercial” for their business.

Following that appearance, it was “crazy for weeks,” Vines-Haines said because the show generated 4,500 orders.

They also credit the show for branding them as grandmothers, because some current and future shipments of their product say “Grannie approved.”

SERIAL ENTREPRENEURS

Vines-Haines and Clary have been best buddies since 1986 and had launched several businesses before striking gold with Ice Chips.

There was the murder mystery dinner theater; there was the advertising agency; the disk recovery business; and Healing Leaf LLC, a body-care products company that was launched 10 years ago and that they continue to operate.

Healing Leaf was launched with their grandchildren in mind; they wanted to create body-care products for hard-to-heal skin issues, such as warts. They also took that same approach with Ice Chips, wanting to create a sugar-free candy for their grandchildren.

Another goal with the Ice Chips business was to provide some relief to their husbands, Larry and Bob, both longtime construction workers who were getting older and no longer so comfortable working on their knees. The construction industry, too, was slowed by the struggling economy.

Both are involved with Ice Chips today: Larry is production supervisor, while Bob is office manager.

In the early days of Ice Chips, it was just the four of them, mixing and making the candy during the day, then breaking it by hand and doing the labeling at night.

“It was awful,” said Vines-Haines about the punishing workload their first year, but they began to add more flavors and sales increased.

SECONDARY PACKAGING

Ice Chips today is operating out of a 4,600-square-foot production facility in rural Thurston County. Technically, the business is in Yelm, although it feels as though it is somewhere between Yelm and Rainier.

Drive by the production facility and you’d have no idea that it was home to a business. The property is surrounded by farmland and has a stunning view of Mount Rainier. Employees park their cars behind the building, adding to the feel that it’s just another home that dots the surrounding landscape.

But inside, 30 employees are hard at work 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m., five days a week, shipping 5,000 to 7,000 Ice Chip tins a day, sometimes more. The business preorders a half-million tins at a time, Clary said.

The production facility is where the product is mixed, cooked, packaged, labeled and shipped, plus there’s an office staff and a small information technology department.

Up next for the business is a test market run with the Navy for Ice Chips in 60 of its post exchange stores next spring. The business also is planning to launch a second xylitol candy and a mass-market secondary packaging idea for Ice Chips.

Vines-Haines, a longtime writer, also is set to release a book about the two friends and the business. It is called, “Two Grannies in a Garage: How Hard-Headed Perseverance Trumped Scrapbooking.”

But after a long career of starting and running businesses, the two think Ice Chips will be their last, saying they expect to be bought out in four to five years.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403 rboone@theolympian.com

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