A Winning Recipe

Building a company that matters

Patricia Karter, CEO of Dancing Deer Baking, is used to hearing people rave about her company's all-natural sweets, such as its Cherry Almond Ginger Chew cookies. She also often hears praise for the $8 million outfit's philanthropy and green packaging, as well as its commitment to its 65 employees and inner-city Boston. All of which makes her a bit chagrined. Great-tasting goodies aside, she thinks every company could do what she's doing. "We've created a brand with important values," says the 49-year-old Karter. "But Dancing Deer is not big enough to make an impact, to be a social or economic force. If I hit $50 million in sales, it can be."

Karter is determined to expand the company she co-founded in 1994 and to hang onto her values. She has already turned Dancing Deer from a startup selling homemade scones into a profitable wholesale, mail-order, and online business. Its cookies, brownies, cakes, and mixes, all packaged in recycled fiber and whimsically illustrated with stick-figure bakers and dancing deer, are sold in Whole Foods Market, Williams-Sonoma, and Wild Oats Markets.

Yet Karter still avoids artificial ingredients, and all employees receive stock options as well as free lunches. Some 35% of proceeds from the Sweet Home line of cakes go to help the homeless find housing and jobs through a Boston coalition of nonprofits. And although Dancing Deer will soon need more than twice the space its 18,000-square-foot quarters now provide, it will stay in low-income Roxbury rather than relocate to the less pricey suburbs.

Sticking to her guns hasn't always been easy. In the late '90s, Karter turned down a deal to sell molasses clove cookies to Williams-Sonoma. It would have doubled her sales, but it also would have meant adding preservatives. Her steadfastness impressed the bigger company, which later asked her to come up with preservative-free mixes it could sell in its stores. "I think they are a wonderful company," says Sally Geller, divisional manager of Williams-Sonoma's retail food division. "I have great respect and admiration for Trish and what she has done in providing high-quality products with natural ingredients."

Trained as a painter, Karter got her first taste of business when she returned home from Wheaton College to help her father save his recycling business. Later, she worked as a lobbyist for the glass industry and did a stint in Coca-Cola's marketing department, then went back for a master's degree from the Yale School of Management. She was painting full-time when she met baker Suzanne Lombardi in 1994. Karter loved Lombardi's cakes and cookies, and with her then-husband Ayis Antoniou invested $20,000 to launch Dancing Deer. Sales hit $283,000 in two years and more than doubled the next. In 1999, Karter divorced Antoniou and, with help from some investors, bought his and Lombardi's shares. "It was a painful, difficult time," she says, "and it nearly killed the company."

Now, growth is top of mind. To help finance it, Karter sold 10% of the company in 2005 to Christopher Gabrieli, a managing director at Boston's Ironwood Capital. To reduce the company's reliance on the holiday rush, she's adding a line of shortbread cookies that have a longer shelf life.

While Karter has had her hand in all facets of the business, from developing recipes to writing quirky packaging slogans, she recently hired a marketing officer and will bring in someone to oversee e-commerce and operations. "I knew I needed help," she says. "There are 20 opportunities a day to lose your way." And Karter isn't about to let her company, or her ideals, get lost.

By Stacy Perman

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