Crepini®: A Specialty-Food Business Pivots and Prospers
Crepini® is a great example of how a specialty business can grow exponentially when the business responds to consumer demand. Founded in 2007 by husband-and-wife team Eric Shkolnik and Paula Rimer, Crepini initially produced a fusion of French crepes and Russian blinis (Paula had emigrated to America from the Soviet Union, via France, in the 1970s and the Crepini reflects her love of these heritage foods).
Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Shkolnik picks up the success story from there, telling about the company’s pivot and how their commercial bank and Pursuit helped Crepini secure an SBA 504 loan, relocate to a larger production facility and significantly scale the business.
Limited success after a decade of crepes
In 2007, Paula and Eric introduced the first Crepini crepe. Before long, Crepini’s offerings were winning awards at prestigious food-industry trade shows and by 2018, Crepini crepes were sold in 4,000 stores around the U.S.
Still, as Lisa explains, “Consumer demand for Crepini’s traditional crepe was enthusiastic but relatively small, compared to the market potential. It was hard to maintain as a year-round business, too.”
Listening to vendors and customers leads to a pivot, an expansion and skyrocketing sales
In response to consumer demands for low-carb, low-calorie and gluten-free wraps, Crepini introduced a new product, Egg Thins®, in 2018 and as Lisa says, “Once we developed these egg-based wraps, everything changed for us. This pivot was a result of necessity, consumer demand and trends.”
The response was so remarkable, in fact, that Crepini changed its production to focus solely on the egg-based wraps (although the company may soon reintroduce the original crepe for a specialty coffee/breakfast chain).
In 2018, the Crepini team talked to their commercial bankers at JP Morgan Chase about plans to relocate and expand the business’s operations. The bank recommended an SBA 504 loan in partnership with Pursuit. The SBA 504 program is the SBA’s most popular loan option for projects involving real estate purchases and renovations, as well as the purchase of major equipment, such as manufacturing and distribution equipment.
“We trust our bank and when they recommended the SBA 504 loan with Pursuit, we knew it would be a great option and moved forward,” Lisa says. She continues, “JP Morgan Chase and our dedicated Pursuit team made it very easy. The process was lengthy and thorough, and we’re grateful to the teams at Chase and at Pursuit, who did lots of hand-holding.”
The project was significant, too: Crepini brought $3 million worth of equipment from the existing location in Brooklyn to the new facility at iPark 84, in Dutchess County, NY. In addition, the company spent $4 million on the facility buildout. And, Lisa explains, “With our new equipment, each line can produce more than 30 million wraps each year. We’re also prepared now for continued expansion, including planning and funding.”
A pandemic bounce, a slowdown and the introduction of e-commerce
For years, Crepini’s sales were driven through supermarkets and other grocery outlets across the U.S. and that continues to be a focus for growth. “There’s so much potential out there for our product,” Lisa says. “We haven’t even penetrated food service and we’re working hard on expanding into new grocery chains as well.”
With the onset of the pandemic, sales were initially “through the roof” as people stocked up in March but by April, sales had slowed down significantly, due to the loss of foot traffic to stores. Lisa says that several of the retail clients that normally stock Crepini goods had to reduce orders – and even cut out orders completely. Fortunately, Crepini received an SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and the company kept employees on.
Lisa explains that Crepini already had extensive safety protocols in place and continued production through the pandemic. The company also instituted additional safety measures to ensure staff care and compliance. “Crepini has the highest food-safety certification in our industry. Still, we’ve added measures such as social distancing in production and break-room areas.”
And a new revenue line emerged during the pandemic, too: direct-to-consumer online sales. “We just launched e-commerce, which has become a necessity for the times we’re living in,” she explains.
Flexibility leads to new opportunities for growth
Lisa acknowledges that some of Crepini’s best opportunities – like the Egg Wraps and e-commerce subscriptions – weren’t things that they set out to do but, rather, they arose because the company was open-minded and flexible. The team is also focused on creating great relationships – with employees, distributors, vendors, customers, mentors and colleagues in the field – and that leads to new business, too.
Lisa explains, “In January 2020, we launched our products nationwide in Canada thru Costco®, which has fortunately been a very successful program for us. By March 2020, the largest supermarket in Canada, Loblaws®, took notice that their competitor was having success with our products, and Loblaws reached out to see if they could carry our products. Similarly, we had launched with ALDI® stores and a regional competitor reached out to see if they could carry our items, too. We hope to see more situations like this continue as our business grows.”
Lisa offers these insights to business owners who aim to grow:
1. If you don’t already have e-commerce setup for your business, don’t wait any longer.
“Having e-commerce available is so important and has become the way in which consumers want to buy products. The pandemic accelerated this behavior, but it is here to stay. We received SO many emails requesting us to ship direct. We finally have it up and running and ordering began in August. We hope the virus won’t get bad again but if it does, we’re better prepared. We even have subscriptions available online.”
2. Show your employees you care by taking steps to keep them safe and feeling appreciated
“We take steps to continuously reinforce to our employees that we care and our priority is to keep them happy and safe – always.”
3. Whatever stage your business is in, get the right professionals to help you.
“There are always growing pains, but with the right team in place, you can make better decisions. For example, we’ve been in our new facility for about a year now and we’re still learning and improving. One important lesson we learned with this recent expansion was that next time, we need to hire an engineer to plan and manage the process.”