The fact that Betsy Thagard’s father was an Army doctor meant the family moved a lot and experienced many different food cultures. And the fact that her mother is Greek meant that meals were home cooked extravaganzas. “Dad’s specialty was Béarnaise Sauce,” Betsy recalls. “Mom didn’t just make one roast. Abundance was key, she’d make three roasts of different meats. There was lots of cooking going on in our house! Growing up, I especially loved being in the kitchen with my Yaya (grandmother).”
As an adult Betsy invited her parents to her first apartment for dinner. “I made Shrimp Scampi, complete with lemon wedges and parsley garnish. “They laughed, ‘So you were paying attention in the kitchen!’ “
Along with a love of food and cooking, Betsy was drawn to sales. “I was intrigued by stories about entrepreneurs in Forbes and Inc. magazines. Starting a business has always been part of my make-up.”
Off and running at not-quite 16, she begged McDonald’s to hire her and became an assistant manager when she was still in high school. Her next step was the fashion world, working first for Saks Fifth Avenue and then for Nordstrom’s. “As Saddleback Community College I got my AA degree, but I was already doing what I wanted to do. Nordstrom’s was my college. I made so many friends and mentors who influenced my career.”
Her love of cooking was still important, and she started making shortbread cookies and then toffee. “I wanted to make something both delicious and beautiful, and I also wanted to make something uniquely my own, that no one else in the family was making.”
She gave the toffee to family and friends in pretty bowls, which she often found empty on her porch later, a not-so-subtle request for a refill. She also donated toffee to charity fundraisers. A number of people encouraged her to sell it, including two specialty stores in Newport Beach.
“At the time, I was just beginning, and I couldn’t fathom making my toffee as a business. But word of mouth was starting to grow, and corporations were asking me to do gifts for their clients. The big turning point came through my sister Pauline, who lives in the Napa Valley. When I would visit, we’d always shop at Dean & Deluca. A few years ago, I met Gina, the manager, and told her that I aspired to sell my toffee in the store. She asked for a taste, and the staff reaction was so enthusiastic, it was sent to New York for approval, and now B.toffee is carried in all the Dean & Deluca stores in the U.S.”
Whole Food soon followed. Having met the stringent vendor requirements of these two large (and prestigious) retailers, Betsy is in a position to sell to a wide range of retailers. “We have four sales channels in our business,” she says. “Wholesale customers, such as Dean & Deluca, corporate gift programs, event planners, and through our website.”
Graduating from sharing space in a commercial kitchen to her own space, gave Betsy the ability to meet demand. Anticipating outgrowing her current space, she will be in an even bigger one before the rush of holiday orders.
“One of the most wonderful experiences I had early on has inspired me ever since. I was doing my first demo in a small gourmet market, and a gentleman who had worked for a very well known international toffee brand told me ‘You’re going to give them a run for their money.’ He even went to the effort of calling the store after he’d left, asked for me, and said he wished me the best of luck. I’ve never forgotten that!”