Business

Candy is dandy, but data are more exciting for Tacoma food broker Fred Larkins

The story starts at a funeral in 2010 when someone hands Fred Larkins a piece of Ice Chips Candy.

“It was incredible,” he said.

It was the start of a new career. Larkins, now 44, had worked in outside sales for The Seattle Times and he had worked for a fence and metal railing manufacturer.

“I was looking for something different,” he said a few weeks ago at his Tacoma office. “I tasted the candy and I had this flash,” he said. “I just saw the future. I remember the first bite. I saw success. I saw myself being a part. In two seconds, that went through my mind.”

His fiancee’s sister, it turned out, knew the women – two grandmothers who worked out of a home in Yelm – who made Ice Chips, a sugar-free candy flavored with xylitol.

“I had to know who made these,” Larkins said.

He made the call. He went to Yelm.

“They were cooking in the kitchen and packaging in the garage,” Larkins said. “I told them I wanted to sell Ice Chips. I knew nothing at all about retail. I knew nothing at all about food. I just had a feeling. I knew that I’m able to sell.”

SELLING

Back in middle school in Seattle, Larkins would take his allowance and the money he’d earned at odd jobs to buy snacks and candy, which he would then sell to classmates at a 300 percent markup.

What he lacked in real-world retail expertise, he made up for with enthusiasm.

That first meeting in Yelm lasted two hours.

“I had no idea how to do it. I just knew I could do it. And they believed me,” Larkins said.

At the time, the grandmothers had 13 accounts and no customer database.

Larkins told the women that in one year he would place their candy in stores in all 50 states.

“I said I would do commission only,” he said. “After I said that, it mitigated their risk.”

Larkins developed a database, inserting some 3,000 stores — mostly mom-and-pop and brick-and-mortar — drug stores, health-food stores, gift shops and the like.

He started the database in July and started selling in October.

“I didn’t know how to start,” he said. “I got on the phone. I didn’t know who to talk to until I figured out to ask for the buyer. I developed a simple pitch, and offered to send a sample.”

He made one sale in October, 10 in November, 12 in December.

The owners, he said, “were starting to get excited.”

By February 2011 he had secured 72 new accounts; by April, 100.

May was “a defining moment” for Larkins, a moment that touched his heart.

The grandmothers honored him with a steak-and-lobster dinner.

“I’d managed to get us into 24 stores,” said Charlotte Clary, a co-founder, along with partner Beverly Vines-Haines, of the company that makes Ice Chips.

Between them, they count 41 grandchildren. Their original in-home business has grown to a 4,000-sq.-ft. facility in Yelm, and the women have recently signed a lease for a 21,000-sq.-ft. building in Tumwater.

“Just keeping up with the calls to get 24 stores, and make the candy, was already overwhelming,” she said.

Then came Fred Larkins.

“He had the vision and jumped right in,” she said. “He said, ‘I can take this and make it happen.’ I was not about to squelch that kind of enthusiasm. I think he is a fabulous salesman. He’s an all-around gregarious, fabulous people person. He’s magic on the phones.”

BEYOND CANDY

Two years ago the Ice Chips campaign earned continued growth as Clary and Vines-Haines were guests on “Shark Tank,” an ABC TV show featuring aspiring entrepreneurs. Although they signed no final deal with investors after the show, the grandmothers did begin receiving orders from 300 new accounts that had signed on by January 2013.

In the meantime, Larkins began representing Chateau d’Lanz, another family owned Washington business, this one producing licorice candy.

“I cleared it with Charlotte,” Larkins said. “She was OK with it.”

With his company Living Well Food Brokers, Larkins now counts 2,100 accounts in all 50 states. His clients include health food stores, co-ops, specialty stores, gift shops and drug stores, mostly smaller, mostly independent.

Along with Ice Chips and Chateau d’Lanz, Larkins represents 10 manufacturers whose products include Lollipop Rooster, Henry’s Humdingers spiced honey, Ladybugs cookies, Dragonfly Nutrition Bars, Missy J’s Carob Confections and Betty Lou’s gluten-free snacks.

He makes most sales calls over the phone, and always explains that he is “dedicated to selling on quality, not on price. Some products are expensive, but I don’t care. Either you like it because you like the quality, or you don’t, and we move on. I also strongly believe in customer service. That’s the heart of my business. I sell on quality and I do lose accounts. Food brokers can undercut me on price, but not on customer service.”

John Rodenberg, a certified business adviser with the Small Business Development Center in Tacoma, has worked with Larkins for nine years, beginning when Larkins was in the fence and metal industry. The two continue to meet regularly to discuss business.

“He has a good track history of promoting and selling products,” Rodenberg said last week. “I think he’s got something going for him.”

“You don’t find people like him in this industry. A lot of people are cut-throat. He’s not that kind of person,” said Lalita Coker, a food broker with Natural Southern Exposure in Greenville, South Carolina.

Coker said she expects that in the world of natural food brokers, Larkins and Living Well will one day “be a household name. No one is doing anything like him. Brokers and distributors and small manufacturers will know his company. I think it’s going to be huge.”

And she’s not just talking about food.

IT’S THE DATA

Next January, Larkins expects to launch “Mozbee,” an online retail store that targets food enthusiasts.

“We’ll sell to consumers, but we’ll also collect data to see what should go to the brick-and-mortar customers.”

A burst of of online licorice orders from Phoenix? Larkins will fulfill the orders and then suggest to stores in the Phoenix area that they might want to increase their profits by selling licorice, or gluten-free fruit bars, or xylitol-sweetened candy or whatever else the data indicate.

“If a ZIP code is buying licorice, I have the data in a report I can take to the customer in that ZIP code,” Larkins said.

He found the database idea about three years ago, he said. He had already been collecting information about clients — the type of store, the kinds of customers, information concerning demographics of the area where the stores were located.

“I didn’t make sense just to provide just a sample (of a product) when you have all the data,” he said. “What are we doing that could be improved so a buyer can make a better decision? With Mozbee I can see what’s selling in what Zip Codes. We want to open the door to all kinds of products, and use data to leverage sales.”

He won’t sell the data to other brokers or mega-data agencies, rather he will offer it to customers so they can increase their sales.

He’ll see where that takes him, but he still has elsewhere to go.

“This isn’t my dream business,” he said. “My dream is to start a business. For me, it’s about the start-up, scrumming, being innovative. My biggest fear is to tell my son or grandchildren that ‘I would have, I could have, I should have.’

“To me, the unknown is beautiful. This can turn into something I never would have thought of. That’s the dream that I will pursue always. I feel blessed, to be honest. I feel that God puts an opportunity in front of you, and it’s up to you if you’re going to take it.

“This is the American dream.”

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