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Economic Development

Sept. 30 - City’s Small Business Expo highlights success stories, with an emphasis on sharing information and connecting

Category: Economic Development





By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

September 30, 2015 – The City of Savannah’s ‘Mayor’s Small Business Conference 2015, a sold out event held Wednesday at the Civic Center, highlighted a number of the City’s successful companies, and updated attendees on access to capital and small business lending.

The first speaker of the morning was Stan Strickland, father of the family of owners of River Street Sweets – Savannah’s Candy Kitchen, who shared his family’s story on how the company began and its early struggles.  (PHOTO: L to R, Tim, Stan and Jennifer Strickland, after making their presentation.)

“We want Savannah to be known for Pralines,” he said was their primary goal today, but talked about its start on River Street in 1973.  After getting out of the military, he needed a job. The company began as a gift shop on River Street because his mother-in-law said, ‘The tourists are coming;  they’re going to build a Hyatt. She was about 20 years too early,” he explained, gaining a laugh from the audience. “I planted grass out in front of the store on River Street,” he joked, about the lack of customers.

“We couldn’t make it in the gift business,” and they had a first business loan from C&S Bank of $15,000, that worried him constantly. Then, in 1978 at a gift show, they bought a fudge pot to make candy. “We thought, well, maybe we could give them something to eat, maybe that would help.”

His wife developed the praline recipe in that small pot , and they made their first commercial batch of pralines for ‘The Tour of Homes’ that year, using a table he got off of E. Broad Street.  His first batch to try to sell … all the candy broke. “But the smell in the store was amazing, and the women coming in the store didn’t care that the pralines were broken!” 

“And, as a lady walked out the door, she said to me, ‘You might want to butter that table,” he laughed. And they never looked back.   

They now mail close to 4 million catalogues a year, and ship to every state in the U.S, as well as having the ability to service from 8,000 to 10,000 customers a day in the fall… high season for them, he said.  The company now has stores in Charleston, Myrtle Beach and in a growing list of airport concourses, and building a franchise company.  “We manufacture and sell more pralines that any company in the U.S. and probably the world,” he concluded.

His son Tim then talked about the “purpose” of the company, and how he and his wife Jennifer overcame problems when the company was “stuck,” and not doing well in the past.  They read hundreds of books and listened to CD’s, including the “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” explaining that they were self-taught about business.  They developed their own personal mission statements, as well as a common mission statement for the company, which is now used by all franchisees.

“We call our customers ‘guests,’ and we make them feel like a guest,” They sample a praline on a spatula as customers come in the door. “We’re extending our hand,” admitting that they stole a lot of their customer service ideas from Walt Disney World.

There are now 15 stores and 400 employees, with a goal of 50 to 100 stores, and a launch of a “Praline University,” achieved through franchising. 

Jennifer Strickland then talked about finding something that you are passionate about. When she has an inspiration in the night, she gets up and writes it down, she said. “Success doesn’t come easily… We’re a 40 year overnight success,” she laughed. 

Next to speak was Jennifer Abshire, founder of Abshire Public Relations, who talked about building the brand of a company, and constantly pushing that brand.  Tried and true branding fundamentals – networking and developing databases and targeting the most logical potential customers - are still essential, but must be updated in a social media world, as well.   

And, she concluded by saying, “We have to start telling the small business story of Savannah.  We have to tell our story so that other small businesses are interested in coming here.” 

And while her company, and its brand, remain strong in Savannah and across Georgia, “I still work on my dining room table, I still have four employees, but we love what we’re doing,” she concluded.

The Conference Facilitator was Tatia Adams Fox, owner of The New School of Etiquette, a 19-year and integrated marketing veteran.  She has held positions with MTV Networks, Playboy Enterprises, Motown Records and Universal Music Group. In 2013, she became the first and highest ranking female executive at Warner Music. 

Other speakers included Bea Wray of The Creative Coast; Davey James with Outback;  Terri Denison with the U.S. Small Business Administration;  Stephen George of the Small Business Assistance Corporation.; Stephanie Lindley, president of Byrd Cookie Company; Ian Nott with Aetho; and Travis Sawyer with Creative Approach.

The featured luncheon speaker was Bob James, president of Carver State Bank, and Chairman of the Savannah Economic Development Authority.

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