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The Job Interview: Cafe Indigo to use grant to expand into Canada

  • Adrienne Tuch, the lead baker at Cafe Indigo in Concord, tells Katie Cristiano where to find carrot cake that needs icing; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada. <br/>SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff

    Adrienne Tuch, the lead baker at Cafe Indigo in Concord, tells Katie Cristiano where to find carrot cake that needs icing; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada.
    SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Adrienne Tuch. head baker at Cafe Indigo in Concord, puts icing on vegan donuts; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada. <br/>SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff

    Adrienne Tuch. head baker at Cafe Indigo in Concord, puts icing on vegan donuts; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada.
    SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Adrienne Tuch, head baker at Cafe Indigo in Concord, puts icing on vegan donuts; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada. <br/>SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff

    Adrienne Tuch, head baker at Cafe Indigo in Concord, puts icing on vegan donuts; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada.
    SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Paul Dann, owner of Cafe Indigo in Concord poses for a portrait at his cafe; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Dann was inspired to start the business more than seven years ago when his daughter was seeking a vegan cake for her wedding. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada. <br/>SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff

    Paul Dann, owner of Cafe Indigo in Concord poses for a portrait at his cafe; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Dann was inspired to start the business more than seven years ago when his daughter was seeking a vegan cake for her wedding. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada.
    SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Paul Dann, owner of Cafe Indigo in Concord poses for a portrait at his cafe; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Dann was inspired to start the business more than seven years ago when his daughter was seeking a vegan cake for her wedding. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada. <br/>SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff

    Paul Dann, owner of Cafe Indigo in Concord poses for a portrait at his cafe; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Dann was inspired to start the business more than seven years ago when his daughter was seeking a vegan cake for her wedding. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada.
    SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Adrienne Tuch, the lead baker at Cafe Indigo in Concord, tells Katie Cristiano where to find carrot cake that needs icing; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada. <br/>SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff
  • Adrienne Tuch. head baker at Cafe Indigo in Concord, puts icing on vegan donuts; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada. <br/>SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff
  • Adrienne Tuch, head baker at Cafe Indigo in Concord, puts icing on vegan donuts; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada. <br/>SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff
  • Paul Dann, owner of Cafe Indigo in Concord poses for a portrait at his cafe; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Dann was inspired to start the business more than seven years ago when his daughter was seeking a vegan cake for her wedding. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada. <br/>SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff
  • Paul Dann, owner of Cafe Indigo in Concord poses for a portrait at his cafe; Thursday, January 24, 2013. Dann was inspired to start the business more than seven years ago when his daughter was seeking a vegan cake for her wedding. Cafe Indigo, which sells its vegan foods all over the United States, recently received a State Trade and Export (STEP) grant so they can start exporting their vegan foods to Canada. <br/>SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff

Paul Dann says if he put a piece of his wife’s vegan cake in your mouth, you would give him money. That’s not his slogan, but it’s been his business model for Cafe Indigo, based in Concord, and so far it’s worked.

The family business has grown from making cakes in the kitchen to sell in local food co-ops to three commercial bakeries pumping out vegan baked goods for Whole Foods and other retailers throughout the Northeast, California, Nevada and soon the central United States.

The company recently received a grant that will help it expand into Canada. As the recipient of the federal Small Business Administration’s State Trade and Export Promotion grant, Cafe Indigo will receive matching grants to help it explore export markets or boost existing efforts.

Dann recently spoke with the Monitor to share the story behind his success.

How have you grown your business over the last seven years, presumably coming from out of nowhere?

The way the story works is you have a vegan daughter marrying a vegan young man and we needed to find a cake for them that would meet our standards and be delicious. And we went everywhere and we tasted all kinds of vegan cakes, and we just weren’t satisfied. So what my wife, Patti, did – my wife Patti Dann who is the owner of Cafe Indigo – she started tinkering with our old family recipes. She got our old family carrot cake to become a vegan carrot cake. . . . That means there’s no egg and no dairy. So the cream cheese frosting has no cream cheese in it. And this cake was so good, I mean it was just so unbelievably delicious, our friends started to say you should take it over to the Concord Co-op and see if they want to sell it. . . .

And sure enough, they were interested. So we got our little kitchen in Hopkinton approved as a commercial kitchen, and we started to bake cakes for the co-op. It was selling like crazy and someone at the co-op said to us, “You should take that down to the Whole Foods, they have a local program there.”

We looked at the map and tried to find where there would be the most people interested in vegan food. . . . We picked Cambridge, Mass., at the Prospect Street store and took our samples. They have a forager program, where they are supposed to buy local foods. . . . (The woman in charge of the program) took a bite and her eyes rolled back in her head and she had this big smile on her face. And without a word she called the bakery team leader to come up. . . . And before we knew it this lovely woman with her lovely Brazilian accent was saying, “You better be ready to sell a lot of cakes.” That was our introduction to Whole Foods.

So how did you get it into all Whole Foods stores?

My job is marketing and product development, and I always say I have the easiest job in the world. If I put a piece of cake in your mouth right now, you would just give me money. You’d want cake, too, there would have to be a fair exchange.

It was almost in a way – well, maybe going viral is not a good analogy when it comes to food – but it just took off and largely through word of mouth. And what was interesting was in the early days we didn’t have a distributor. I tell you, my kitchen was a mad house. My wife and her daughter and our daughter-in-law were in there baking from the time the sun came up until probably close to midnight, trying to keep up with demand.

Because Whole Foods got very interested in us, they introduced us to a distributor, and we began the process of starting to establish our distribution line. It was interesting because our past governor, (John) Lynch – what a wonderful guy – I had known him for years and I called him at the beginning of this thing and asked if I could come up and talk to him because something was really happening with this business. . . .

And his one suggestion – and of course he said many brilliant things – but his one suggestion that was really wonderful was: “Don’t recreate the wheel when it comes to distribution lines, get involved in ways to distribute your product that aren’t going to put you out of business.” We used that philosophy and plugged into Whole Foods’s current distribution system.

And so now our cakes were all around Massachusetts.

. . . And then we went down to the next region, which was New York City, which has New Jersey and Connecticut. And again, my job was just to get a forkful of cake in their mouths and they were signed up.

Do you think part of the success, other than it sounds like it is delicious, do you think that because you’ve tapped into this vegan market and there’s not a lot out there, that’s part of the success, or what part does it play?

We have a very high-quality product. So in that niche, I’m confident we can attract customers. As you’re saying, there is a growing awareness around issues of health and a growing awareness around things that are in our food chain. . . .

There’s an interest in vegan food, a growing interest in that, but also there are people who are trying to manage various health concerns.

So what’s next? What are your ambitions when it comes to expanding?

Our mission has always been, ever since the beginning, is to create high-quality vegan food that everyone can enjoy. . . . Inherent in that is we want to have food that people can enjoy across the country. To that end we’re now in California, we’re in Hawaii, we’re in Arizona, Nevada, and we’re sort of slowly working to backfill the center part of the country.

And then along came the SBA (grant), and we saw that and thought, “Why don’t we go see our friends in Canada?”

What are you going to use that grant money for specifically?

There’s a lot of planning and strategic work that goes into any kind of advancement of a food product. So we know how to do it here in the United States, but we’re going to get some help from some talented people who know about trade in Canada, and we’re going to spend some money doing that. We have to go to those venues and meet with folks and bring them samples and work on price points and things like that.

If we’re in other places and there are places where English is not necessarily the first language or not as much the primary language, we will have to do things like pay for adjustments to our website so it can have French options.

A previous version of this article misstated the number of bakeries the business owns. There are three bakeries.

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