Growing up in Highland in a large extended family of Italian heritage, it wasn’t home-baked chocolate chip cookies Deanna Bellacicco came home from school to. “I was brought up with my mother and grandmother making anise biscotti,” she says. Little did she know then that the traditional Italian cookie would transcend those fond childhood memories to become the very heart of her entrepreneurial wholesale business, Bella’s Home-Baked Goods.
It started from the seed of an idea. “Whenever I would make my grandmother’s biscotti for other people, they would say, ‘You should sell these.’ But I never thought of myself as a baker, so I kept it on the back burner.”
Until 2002, that is. Deanna Bellacicco Breault was busy that year commuting from Highland every day to her job in White Plains while raising two small children with her husband. But the idea of operating her own business from home and doing something she loved to do was appealing, especially if it meant she’d get to spend more time with her kids.
Breault began Bella’s Home-Baked Goods that year while still working as an administrator for the March of Dimes Foundation, doing the baking for the fledgling business out of her home kitchen with assistance from her mother and aunts. When the opportunity arose later that year to take a voluntary buyout package from her employer, Breault made the leap into business fulltime.
Bella’s Home-Baked Goods was a success from the start. By 2004, Breault was working out of an expansive sunlit commercial kitchen she and her husband built on their property and she had a staff of employees. “It kind of snowballed quickly,” she says today. “I started with a whole slew of menu items I was going to offer but quickly realized that the biscotti was a niche that was just starting to happen then with the coffee shops. People were just learning about what biscotti is.”
The literal translation for the word means “twice cooked,” she explains. “Biscotti is twice-baked, so that’s what gives it that crunch. They’re baked in loaves, taken out of the oven, cut and re-baked.” A lot of people think biscotti is hard, she adds, but it’s supposed to be; ideal for dunking in coffee or tea. “The original reason they were made like this was to last a long time on ships. Christopher Columbus brought them over when he left on his journey as a staple that wouldn’t get rancid or moldy; they were dried out in the oven. Biscotti is naturally preserved in the baking process. We don’t use any additives or preservatives, but it lasts a long time just right on your countertop.” Using all natural ingredients is very important, says Breault. “Bella’s is just like homemade baking. There’s nothing in there that you wouldn’t have in a typical kitchen.” Biscotti also has about half the sugar and fat of traditional cookies, she adds.
The classic anise and almond biscotti are among eleven flavors offered. Product development is Breault’s favorite part of the work, she says, coming up with new flavors on the cutting edge of current trends. Salted Caramel is the number-one seller at this time with other choices including Chocolate Cherry Amaretto, Lemon Pistachio, Cappuccino Chip, Oatmeal Cranberry and a double chocolate version. Ten flavors are offered on a year-round basis supplemented by a seasonal: currently Pineapple Coconut for summer to be followed by Gingered Harvest in the fall and Peppermint Stick in winter. Three varieties are offered in sugar-free versions and there are two gluten-free options. Bella’s makes hand-poured butter toffees, as well, along with a small line of cookies and brownies made a batch at a time.
The wholesale business sells to more than 350 retailers, including Adams Fairacre Farms, several Hannaford markets locally and gourmet delis all over the tri-state region. The products are available to individuals online at Amazon.com and www.bellashbg.com, and are found at more than 20 local craft shows and festivals each year, primarily in the spring and fall. “The shows are a lot of work, but I love meeting my customers,” Breault says. “And I think it’s really important to hear the feedback. It really is a motivator.”
The winter holiday season is the busiest. Family members help out, including two aunts that Breault says still work with her regularly and her mom, who does a lot of the gift packaging. “She was a big part of my business up until a few years ago. Now she’s enjoying her retirement more, but every Christmas you’ll see her here with me.” Breault’s husband, Gary, pitches in, too, and works festivals with Deanna whenever his schedule allows him time from running his own company, Vineyard Avenue Tile & Marble. The couple have been married more than 19 years and have two teenagers, daughter Gabrielle, 16, and son Adam, 14.
“I started this business when they were really young because I wanted to spend more time with them,” says Deanna. “This was my vehicle to do that. But as a very smart boss I had once told me — and I don’t think I believed her at the time — they need you even more as teenagers! And that’s where this business offers the flexibility to be here for them when they need me most.”
Recently New Paltz Times sat down with Deanna Bellacicco Breault to ask her a bit more about what a day’s work is like at the helm of Bella’s Home-Baked Goods.
What is the hardest thing about it?
Keeping your employees happy. To get and keep employees says a lot about your business, and I’ve had most of my employees for five or six years or better. I think that’s a testament to the hard work I’ve put into the business and the loyalty that they give back. That is so important to me. I think I employ the best workers in the Hudson Valley and I have to look out for the business and do what’s in their best interest; they rely on me for a steady job. The challenge is in keeping on top of the trends and what’s new out there, what your customers may want. You wouldn’t think after 12 years of experience doing this, but every day there’s something new that pops up. Keeping on top of all the social media, the website… there are a lot of intricate pieces to owning a business. But you grow with challenges.
How did you learn the ropes?
I do have a bachelor of science degree in business administration, and I worked as an administrator, so that gave me a great foundation, but you learn every day by doing. That’s how I learn best.
What personal attributes are necessary to run a business?
Positive attitude, perseverance.. a “no-quit” attitude. You take the good with the bad; you can’t give up, you just keep pushing forward. And believing in your product. I could never sell something I didn’t believe in. When I go to a fair and I’m in front of my customers, I believe in this product, I know this product inside and out, I created this product. You have to love it! And if you don’t, I want to know why! [laughs]. It’s very rare that I ever get anybody that doesn’t, so I’m very blessed that way.
What makes for a really good day?
No flops! We have flops sometimes… It rarely happens, but that’s not a good day. The dough isn’t mixed correctly or the biscotti isn’t baked correctly and we need to toss it because I will not put anything on the shelves that is not consistent with what we sell.
How has the job changed since you started?
It really hasn’t changed that much! Technology is really what’s developed, I think, in the last 12 years, so our web presence has increased. We’re much busier on our website than we were in the beginning. We have a bigger reach now; we’re on Amazon [.com] and we ship to the West Coast a lot. But we’re still a traditional business; we make phone calls every Monday to every store we sell to in this area and we’re constantly on the phone with our distributors. It’s very important to keep the personal touch.
Do you see yourself at the same job ten years from now?
I hope so, or some variation of it! We’ve expanded into cookies and brownies now, but we always have to have the balance of why we’re doing Bella’s. Is it the biscotti? We want to stay true to what we’re really good at doing, so it’s always a push and pull. We have to develop things that our customers want and need, but we also have to stay true to why we started. We sometimes have to make hard decisions to say, ‘No, we’re not developing any more flavors in the cookie line,’ and it’s tough, because they are successful and customers want specific things, but you can’t make decisions based on what one customer wants.
What would you be doing for a living if not this?
I’d probably still be in administration, or retail management; that’s where I started and I really love that. But I don’t know if I’d go back to a regular 9-5. I’m very creative — baking is how I get my creative energy out now — so I think my other dream job would be as a hairdresser! It intrigues me. My grandfather was a barber, so I think it’s in the genes. But my work here isn’t done yet. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m kind of excited about it, because I think Bella’s has a great future. It’s had a great past and I think it only goes up from here.
What advice would you give another entrepreneur starting their own business?
Be extremely organized. Seek help; there’s lots of great help out there. The Small Business Development Center in Kingston helped me a lot. Join some networking groups; I did that in the beginning. Your local Chamber of Commerce is there to help you; they want to support local business and they’re very loyal to each other, which is nice. And always have a mission, and a focus down the line so you know where you’re headed, and don’t deviate much. It’s hard, but just stay focused.
More info is available at (845) 691-7197 or www.bellashbg.com.