“I’m easy to spot. I’m six-foot-two,” says Kristine (McClary) Vannoy, as we plan our meeting at an upscale grocery in Seattle. But when she appears, it’s not her height that’s eye-catching, or even her long red hair. It’s the packages of freshly-made fudge that fill her hands.
Vannoy (’87 Comm.) is the founder, owner, and main employee of Fat Cat Fudge, a company that makes three different varieties of fudge sold in 20 grocery stores in the Puget Sound area.
“It’s a fresh fudge,” she says. “It’s not meant to sit on a shelf for six months in a candy aisle. That’s why I generally go through the bakery department. Bread is fresh. Cookies are fresh. Brownies are fresh. It’s meant to be enjoyed within a month.”
Her foray into fudge started in 2003 when she decided to make it as a Christmas gift for her family and friends. Anyone who tries to make classic fudge knows it can be tricky. It can have strange ingredients, it needs precise cooking times, and its outcome can be affected by the weather. Some versions are crumbly. Some are grainy. Some just don’t taste right. “I just really didn’t see any that seemed different,” she says.
So she turned to a family standard, her aunt’s decades-old fudge recipe printed in her own family’s cookbook. Good chocolate, real butter, sugar, and a few secrets. It was good. It was great. Vannoy gave it out that holiday season and started bringing it to family events. “It didn’t matter what amazing thing I spent hours making,” she says. “I couldn’t walk in the door without someone saying, ‘Where’s the fudge?’”
Wondering how it compared to commercial candy, she took it to Nama’s Candy Store in Edmonds. Her product was a departure from most other commercial fudge, says owner Pat McKee. “It was smooth and creamy. We loved it. And she’s local, which is important to us.”
By Christmas that year, she delivered the first order to Nama’s. “It took a little while to find a commercial kitchen and get licensed to figure out commercial packaging,” she says.
Her communications degree and ensuing advertising sales experience came in handy. “I sold airtime on cable in the late ’80s when not everyone knew what CNN was,” she says. Then she went into jewelry design for a time. “I like doing things with my hands,” she says. “I like being creative. And I’ve always been a self-starter.”
At the time she was imagining her business, she was headed into a divorce. She used her portion of the sale of her home as seed money. “What an opportunity to reinvent myself, to take on a challenge, to get my mind off of the divorce, to just move forward in life and recreate who I am,” she says.
She went to women’s business centers and tapped into a women’s entrepreneurial network. “I just started educating myself,” she says. She even called fellow WSU alum James Donaldson for advice. The retired pro-basketball player met her for coffee, talked about his own businesses, and introduced her to a woman who owns a cookie business and candy company in Tacoma. “He really went out of his way,” she says. “I’ve been blessed all along to meet generous supportive people.”
That’s not to say she didn’t have a few missteps. “I was so inefficient,” she says of her early efforts. “I was bringing what I was doing at home into a commercial kitchen.” She was also super-packaging the fudge: hand cutting it, wrapping it, wrapping it again. “And then it had a label, and then it had a bow, and then it had a tag,” she says. “I couldn’t keep doing that.” Now the fudge comes in an easy-to-close clear clamshell container that she seals with her Fat Cat label.
She built up her customers by cold-calling stores and later doing in-store demonstrations. She targeted grocery stores, candy shops, specialty stores and wine shops. The real coup was landing a spot at the Metropolitan Market. Other stores shop this high-end Seattle market for new products, and a few have spotted her fudge there and called to inquire.
Now this mother of two teenagers is starting to rethink her production and distribution process. She plans to expand by adding a co-packer, a candy company with a larger facility so she can bring her costs down and streamline her distribution.
“It has taken me I would say five years to figure out how this works, who the players are, who can I trust, what are real costs, what taxes are there, what are the fluctuations in sugar and butter and nuts,” she says. “I needed to do it all myself first.”
Her incentive for a co-packer came in 2008 when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Vannoy doesn’t mind talking about her illness. The disease is on the rise in women over 40, she says. Women are all encouraged to have breast exams, but don’t forget to “check your neck.”
Her treatment involved surgery and therapy. “But it didn’t really interfere with production in such a way that I couldn’t work around it,” she says. It did make her realize that if something happened to her she would lose everything for which she had worked so hard. That’s when she started thinking about how to change her role. “I don’t have to be the one in there stirring the fudge every day.”
Was there anything in her childhood to indicate that she would be in the fudge-making business? “No. I don’t think so,” she says. But then reflects a little. “My dad is an entrepreneur.” She saw firsthand how he made decisions and worked with employees. Maybe that had something to do with her confidence to go into business for herself, she says.
And then there’s the sales aspect. As a Girl Scout and a Catholic school student, she spent weeks every year selling things door-to-door. “And you know,” she says, cracking a smile as she comes to a realization, “I was out there selling candy.”