One Tough Cookie of a Market

The gourmet dough business may already be too well stocked for a new entrant -- unless it has truly unique product

By Karen E. Klein

Q: I have an idea for a gourmet cookie-dough company where I would sell the dough in one-ounce disks and three-pound tubs. How do I research this industry? Outside of forming a corporation, how do I protect my idea so that I can talk about it to potential investors?

---- C.B., Philadelphia

A: Your idea is not exactly a new one. In fact, experts say, the market is crowded with fresh and frozen cookie dough, from convenience products made by megacorporations like Pillsbury and Otis Spunkmeyer, to small, upscale bakeries selling gourmet rolls of dough for $5 to $8 a batch over-the-counter.

How to find out what's out there? It's pretty simple. Start by looking around and talking to people. For products that appeal to the home market, check out supermarkets, grocery stores, and specialty-food outlets and gourmet shops in your area. If you're thinking of selling wholesale to bakers, talk to local bakery owners about what they buy now, whether they make their own dough, and whether they would buy prepared dough and at what price.

Certainly, the Internet is a wonderful research tool, and you can start just about anywhere and spend hours surfing through Web links to learn a lot about any industry. You might try looking for companies that offer this product, so you can see what they're selling, at what price, how they deliver the dough (refrigerated or frozen), and where it's available. In addition to Pillsbury and Spunkmeyer, Nestle and Rich Products offer cookie doughs. You could also try generic keyword searches, such as "frozen dough."

"There's really nothing new left to do in this product category, unless you have a very unique, different idea. The business is very, very sophisticated, and there are a bunch of players involved already. One has even come up with a special dough that makes the cookies bake up crunchy on the outside and soft inside," says Ed Engoron, a food consultant whose Perspectives Consulting Group is based in Los Angeles.

While you're researching, however, Engoron suggests that you look into related products where the market isn't so saturated. Frozen or refrigerated dough for muffins, cinnamon rolls, and other treats may appeal to the same market, for instance, but the competition is less intense than in the cookie-dough business.

Before you spend any money protecting your idea, you'll need to have a good sense of your expenses and whether this product is economically sound. How much will your ingredients cost? Production? Packaging? Shipping? Work out some rough scenarios where you sell 'X' amount of product, then figure your costs, gross, and net profits on that amount. Will you be able to make any money doing this? How much will you have to sell to break even, then make a profit? How long will that take?

If you still want to go forward after you've done your research and your cost analysis, then you'll need to talk to an attorney who specializes in intellectual property. Such a professional can help you protect your idea before you approach potential investors to see if they are interested.

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