This American dream brought to you by a chocolate habit

by Robin Dalmas

Monica Archondo is a self-proclaimed chocoholic. To indulge her shameless passion, she began making chocolate bonbons years ago as a hobby.

“I used to work for a dessert manufacturer, and then I started working on chocolates to learn something new,” Archondo said. “In that process I started giving it away. And then I started giving it away at cost, so that I wouldn't lose money on my hobby, and then it turned into a price list, which turned into a price list with pictures, which then turned into our website.”

In 2008, she officially turned her hobby into a business. She launched Sweet Signatures, a dessert company selling chocolates, treats, and gourmet sweets. The company’s “signature” item is customized cookies, graham crackers, krispie treats, or marshmallow pops decorated with photos or logos made out of edible sugar paper and edible ink. A recent example is Google-branded, chocolate-dipped Oreos with multi-colored sprinkles.

Since launch, the business has grown from a one-woman operation using rented kitchen space to a family business with a 3,200-square-foot store and manufacturing facility in Sterling, Virginia. Archondo’s mother, Sherri, works as CFO; her father, Fernando, works as the warehouse manager; and her aunt Meryl is employed in the store, too. Thanks to the e-commerce site, sweet treats get shipped across the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska.

Sweet Signatures caters primarily to corporate clients but also sells to individual consumers. Large companies from Capital One and ADP to the United States Marine Corps have ordered customized treats with logos. Folks preparing for family celebrations can order, too. On a smaller scale, the store sells gourmet food and chocolates, pastries, coffee, gifts, and greeting cards to satisfy a local customer base.

Why would companies such as Ted Britt Ford order boxes and boxes of cookies with their logo emblazoned on them? Perhaps they are closing a business deal, thanking clients, or sending birthday gifts to their employees. Maybe they want to advertise at a trade show. “All the corporate stuff is pretty consistent, it's just branding,” Archondo said. Families preparing for parties, however, sometimes get more creative. “It's great when we're part of someone's 70th birthday and they'll put a picture of this birthday person who's now turning 70, but it might be a picture of when he was younger, when he got married, or maybe when he was in grade school. So that's always fun to be a part of—really important memories of somebody's life.”

Scaling up with technology

Archondo launched as a sole proprietorship and hustled to make everything by hand. “I had to make a lot of sacrifices when I was starting the business to make it happen,” she said. That included saving up cash to buy her first conveyor belt. “The company that manufacturers that conveyor belt is based out of Canada, and they didn't have a financing policy or anything like that, so I had to make the decision that I'm going to invest in that technology to be able to advance ourselves and be more efficient.”

Technology and bringing her family into the operation as co-owners have allowed her to scale the business. Her mom, the CFO, uses QuickBooks to balance the books. “When you use the online version, it's easy for a CPA to see all of the data that we're putting in in real time,” Archondo said. “So, we can both be logged in, and be on the phone, and walk through something at the same time.”

The team uses Revel, an iPad point of sale system, to ring up orders, gather customer information, create rewards programs, and keep track of delivery dates. Mobile banking also saves time. It’s convenient to use a smartphone and a banking app to take a picture of the check and quickly deposit it as opposed to going to the bank, she said.

One of the chocolatier’s favorite tools is Wunderlist, a smartphone app that allows you to create to-do lists and share them with other people.  Tasks can be given deadlines. Checking off a task results in a satisfying chiming noise. Archondo and her employees use it to notify each other when something sells out, something needs to be ordered, or something is ordered. Even when someone isn’t in the store for a couple of days, the team can stay on the same page.

Sweet Signatures uses other technology to help them stay mobile. David Behrens, the company’s IT and marketing guru, uses AT&T Unite Explore, a rugged mobile hotspot to increase his mobility. “I use it to run our websites and e-commerce platforms, and edit web and social media content on the fly,” Behrens said. “I find that the speeds and network availability are perfect for my development/marketing needs, and that the hotspot is built like a tank (it’s survived far more bruises that my iPhone has).”

Sweet Signatures has a bank of wireless printers to help create treats with edible photos and logos. The company’s sugar paper supplier also provides software that allows them to print with precision on paper circles that land on the treats.The business has discovered some creative ways to use Facebook in the business. Archondo belongs to Virginia county groups that are employment-specific, for example, to post job openings. She also posts job openings directly to the Sweet Signatures Facebook page.

The dessert manufacturer also relies on Facebook Ads to get the word out about some of its fun events. A recent one, for example, allowed kids to create their own chocolate bars, put them in a box, and create their own label so it looks like a professional candy bar.

What will Sweet Signatures look like in 5 years? Archondo wants to continue growing both the storefront and her business-to-business manufacturing and shipping. “We're open to seeing where it takes us, considering it started kind of organically.”

In the meantime, she’s enjoying the customer interaction and working with her family.

“I love being able to work with people that I enjoy being around. People that motivate me, people that inspire me. We can be creative, we can have fun, we make our own rules. This is the dream. What’s there not to love?”

Sweet Signatures

http://www.sweetsignatures.com

Monica Archondo owns Sweet Signatures, a dessert company that sells chocolates, treats, and gourmet sweets located in Sterling, Virginia.