By GREGORY ZELLER //
Ms. Michelle’s is going to Walmart.
Still baking inside Stony Brook University’s Calverton Business Incubator, gluten-free goodie gourmet Michelle Gillette Kelly and her husband/business partner Chris Kelly have cooked up a deal with the preeminent retailer that puts the Ms. Michelle brand inside Walmart Stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Contractually, Kelly can’t reveal the numbers, but she confirmed this week that four varieties of her gluten-free cookies – chocolate chip, sugar, oatmeal raisin and double chocolate – are now gracing Walmart stores in the tristate area.
The entrepreneurs actually baked the Walmart partnership last summer, though it took several months to work out the logistics and get cookies on the shelves. They connected with the national kingpin at its 2015 U.S. Manufacturing Summit and Open Call event, held last July at Walmart’s Arkansas headquarters, and while they struck the deal almost immediately, they haven’t been able to officially announce it until now.
“It was such a thrill, just to fly to Arkansas and pitch the cookies,” Kelly told Innovate LI. “Never mind hoping that they would accept us.”
But accept Ms. Michelle’s Walmart did, one of several U.S.-manufactured products the retailer has started carrying since its annual U.S. supplier summit (the next open-call event is scheduled for June).
The basic agreement involves weekly invoices from Walmart – never the same order twice, Kelly noted – with the Kellys shipping their wares via UPS to a distribution center in the Town of Marcy in upstate Oneida County.
So far, the wife and husband team – he earned an engineering doctorate at St. John’s University, handles the startup’s business end and is often pressed into kitchen duty – are handling the extra load, though the Walmart arrangement has required “a lot of extra baking hours,” according to Kelly.
Now, the cookie queen is about ready to hire some extra hands.
“I’ll definitely be hiring in the very near future, starting with kitchen help,” she said. “Of course I want marketing help, but first we need help on the manufacturing end.”
And they’ll need it soon, if the entrepreneurs have their way. While they feel “comfortable handling the tristate area,” Kelly noted, the end game is to ship cookies to Walmart stores around the country.
And not just to Walmarts: The arrangement with the national retailer doesn’t preclude Cooking With Ms. Michelle from forming alliances with other retailers or distributors, and emboldened by their Walmart success, the couple is hungry for new deals. Next up is an appearance at the Summer Fancy Food Show, the largest specialty food trade event in North America, scheduled for June 26-28 at New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center.
“The partnership with Walmart is just the beginning of an exciting expansion period for the company,” Kelly noted.
It’s been a whirlwind few years for the brand, which Kelly – a graduate of Manhattan’s Krups Culinary Institute, now the Institute of Culinary Education – first introduced at local farmer’s markets six years ago. Her cookies, cakes and muffins were an instant hit, prompting the entrepreneurs to open a brick-and-mortar bakery in Bayport.
Ms. Michelle’s Urban Gourmet quickly attracted attention and awards, including honors from The Long Island Press, Delight Gluten Free magazine and various local governments. While it produced both gluten-free and “regular” selections, the bakery’s gluten-free products were its most popular, even among customers not suffering from celiac disease, the most-common gluten-based disorder, affecting nearly 3 million cookie lovers in the United States alone.
The Kellys eventually closed the bakery to focus on their burgeoning online enterprise. They’ve since focused their product line on gluten-free cookies only; in addition to the four flagship varieties, Kelly is planning seasonal “holiday flavors” for later in the year.
For now, the company will continue to do all of its baking inside the Calverton Incubator – though one or two more distribution deals, Kelly noted, and they’ll have to start looking for a larger and more permanent workspace.
“When demand outpaces capacity, we’ll definitely look to work with economic development agencies to find a larger commercial space,” she said, adding that wherever that space is, it will “absolutely” be on Long Island.
“Other states are already calling us, which is crazy,” Kelly said. “But I want to stay where my roots are.”
A new distribution agreement with a big-time distributor is a distinct possibility at the Summer Fancy Food Show, which puts specialty food’s top manufacturers and buyers under one roof for three full days. Such a deal would definitely push Ms. Michelle’s beyond its current production capacities, but she’s tucking that in her Good Problem to Have file.
“I would take that opportunity in a heartbeat,” Kelly said. “And I would make it happen.”