When Suzanne Foley started a pretzel business in New Hampshire in 2015, she had no idea she’d be selling her product across the country in 2018. The entrepreneur, whose business she founded after she lost her job at 55, is a community leader in Portsmouth and an employer of disabled workers. In addition, she’s making thousands of bags of pretzels from her production facility and selling them across the country. We sat down to chat about the story of Port City Pretzels, entrepreneur self-doubt, and hard work.
Had you started a business before Port City Pretzels?
No! I’ve always worked for someone else. I was in management for most of my career.
How did you make the leap?
It’s not easy, and especially not at 55. I had lost my job, and there was a lot happening in my life, like losses in my family. I was in an unemployment meeting, and I was like, “I’m never working for anyone else, ever again. Ever.” It just hit me. It was a life-changing thing. I thought, “I’m gonna make pretzels!” Just like that!
How does the entrepreneur life compare to what you initially imagined?
It’s hard work. But it’s just so rewarding. It doesn’t phase me. Even if I’m dealing with something at 2am, I’m okay. I think people feel sorry for me because I’m working so much, but I’m okay. I won’t always be like this, and I know that.
I saw this quote: “Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life living like most people can’t.” It’s a hidden secret, and I hope it’s true.
I thought I would start a little business selling just in Portsmouth, so I didn’t even comprehend that I would be where I’m at now.
How did you build your team?
Right now I have 10 employees. Interestingly enough, I hire many workers with disabilities. I’ve gotta tell you, it’s untapped. The state has has some meetings about employment and labor issues and I’ve been to a few. I know hiring is challenging, and people bring in workers from other countries, but there are so many resources here! My daughter is a mental health counselor, and asked me, “would you consider hiring workers with disabilities?” It wasn’t even an issue for me. Profits are important, but so is quality of life. So it’s a no-brainer. They have to be able to do the job 100%, but they can. My office manager is deaf, but we make it work.
My production manager, who leads this team of workers, is a woman who managed at Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s the secret: if you want a really hard-working person, find someone who worked at Dunkin! She runs everything in the shop.
Did you have reservations about scaling?
I was very nervous. For a long time, I was like “well, who the heck is gonna buy these pretzels? They’re just pretzels!” To this day, I’m like, who the hell is buying these? There’s nothing that can prepare you for it.
I thought I had a niche for my town and it would be a fun, gift-y thing. My business plan was based on that niche. I didn’t realize it would be a repeat grocery item. But that’s what we want to be! And it took me a long time to realize that. I believe in myself and I believe in my product and I am thrilled that consumers do as well. I’m very excited about the prospect of further growth – there are no reservations about scaling anymore!
Can you talk about what your day is like now?
I tend to work later at night, but I’m trying to change that. My shop gets going at around 7am. I tend to take a bit of time in the morning because of the late nights. I know I’ve got a manager and things are running properly. I usually get in around 8:30, and it’s off to the races from there. It’s a great day if I can be at my computer and focusing on paperwork, follow-up on selling, but sometimes I need to be on the floor and that’s fun. It’s a good idea to continually double check everything for quality control.
I should let go of production and focus more on sales, so that’s what I’m trying to get to as I have folks in place to handle that. It’s kind of non-stop work all day and night at times, but it’s okay.
You’re growing quickly. How does that feel, and how do you maintain the community feel of Port City Pretzels?
At a show, I met a distributor. I hadn’t wanted to work with distributors because I didn’t feel like I was ready for it. The distributor kept saying, we want to get these pretzels out here, so I flew to meet with them, thinking “what am I doing?” And they ended up buying 7500 bags from me and kept ordering. They service 3,000 stores and I’m in 400 or so of them. There’s this issue with entrepreneurs questioning themselves. That’s something that we have to just let go of.
I have done a lot wrong as an entrepreneur, I had a folder of leads that were interested in my product that I hadn’t gotten back to, but only because I always want to make sure I can produce enough. It’s an important aspect in what we do, to manage the growth carefully. You have to have the capacity to support the increase in the levels of production as you take each new leap.
The community feel, I still have around here. I do all the local shows in New Hampshire and Maine, because that’s how I started. But I’m trying to spread that community all over the country, and bring a little love everywhere through my pretzels.
Can you talk about entrepreneurs who inspire you?
My dad. He left a lucrative position at IBM and started a business when he was in his 50’s. I lean on that to remember that it’s possible. And local entrepreneurs in the community that have helped me. I feel like I can lean on them.
Finally, stories of other hard working entrepreneurs like Stacy’s Pita Chips are always exciting. When someone comes up with an idea, and everyone in the country likes it – that’s just so cool.