By Rick Romell Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Not quite two years ago, an early-winter snowstorm shook both Nikki Taylor's business and her life.
For nearly three decades, she and Bill Danner, together, had owned and run a small, upscale food business, Nikki's Cookies Inc. They were more than business partners, though. They were a couple, and best friends.
So when Danner died of injuries received in a highway accident during a storm that saw scores of crashes involving literally hundreds of vehicles on a Sunday in early December, the blow to Taylor was doubly sharp.
"It was the most difficult time of my life," she said.
She and Danner had started the company in the mid-1980s. Taylor had wrapped up a 15-year modeling career that had taken her to Chicago, New York and abroad, and wasn't quite sure what to do next. Then, while walking through Bloomingdale's in New York, she hit upon an idea:
Specialty foods seemed to be proliferating, and she just happened to have a family recipe for shortbread cookies dating back more than 350 years. She returned to Milwaukee and, with Danner, launched the company.
It never became Nabisco, but it has endured longer than many small businesses, and has landed such customers as Williams-Sonoma and Cost Plus World Market.
Taylor and Danner split their duties more or less on an inside-outside basis. Taylor oversaw sales and marketing, as well as new-product development. Danner kept the books and was in charge of production.
Shortly after Danner died, the firm's packaging manager had to quit because of illness. Nikki's contracts out the baking of its cookies according to company specifications, then packages them for distribution.
"So I found myself a few months later with no one to do the production at all," Taylor said. " ... It's been a very, very difficult (transition). The first year especially was extremely difficult. But we got through it."
The firm pulled through for several reasons.
While Taylor didn't have extensive hands-on experience with the packaging operation, she had helped Danner set it up, and the two had spent many hours talking business.
Meanwhile, Taylor's brother, Jim Gauger, an accountant who had long handled that function for Nikki's, took over the bookkeeping too. Taylor's sister, Kathy Klotz, who had sold the cookies on the West Coast, moved from California to Milwaukee to help out.
"We've always been there for each other," Taylor said.
And Eleanor Gauger, Taylor's 84-year-old mother, has continued to work 30-35 hours a week, running the office, taking orders and coordinating shipping.
The family does indeed get along well, Gauger said.
"You know, you don't always agree with this or that, but we don't have any big thing about it," she said. "We just talk about it and resolve it and that's it. So, no grudges, no fighting, nothing."
Now, Nikki's is hoping to grow. The company recently moved into new quarters and is exploring new markets both geographically (China) and product-wise (nibble-sized cookies).
Cookies, generally speaking, have been "on trend" for some time, Wade Hanson, a principal at food industry consulting and research firm Technomic Inc., said in an email.
"They meet many of consumers' most important demands, portable, low-cost, flavorful, indulgent," he said.
With the 36 percent butter content of Nikki's shortbreads, more than any cookie on the market, the firm says, the cookies can't be described as nutritious, Hanson said. But today butter can be positioned as a "real" ingredient, he said, and the butter Nikki's uses contains no antibiotics or hormones.
That resonates with shoppers who want natural foods, and so does Nikki's story of baking the cookies by a recipe an ancestor brought to America from England in 1629, Hanson said.
"Many suppliers are desperately trying to appeal to consumers by marketing their food as having a 'story,'" he said.
Nikki's has six full-time employees. It contracts with a temp service to provide packaging workers, as many as 45 at the busiest times. Taylor declined to disclose the company's annual sales.
She has been working with a strategic business developer who has helped position the firm to shift more of its focus to upscale grocery stores, which have become an increasingly important channel for selling specialty foods.
At the same time, Nikki's is nearing completion of packaging for a line of grab and go items, pouches of bite-sized cookies that can be sold in a wide variety of outlets, from convenience stores to airports.
And a few weeks ago, Klotz represented the firm at a natural and organic products trade show in Hong Kong. Nikki's has had an account in Japan for seven years, but the Hong Kong show holds the promise of breaking into the immense market in China. The early results look good.
"We have more leads than we've ever had at any show," Taylor said.
The relocation, meanwhile, has generated a few other benefits, putting Nikki's in a free-standing building with a loading and unloading area all to itself.
"And I have windows now," Taylor said, laughing. "This was very exciting. It is very nice."