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Startup City: Food is a powerful connector

Michelle Waite

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Holly Noah (second from right) opened Eat Your Words Custom Cookies, an e-commerce “confectionary communications company," in 2017. Photo provided.

My grandmother loved sweets. This jovial, full-bosom Polish-German soul was famously known (at least in our family) for saying “dessert before dinner is always better.”

A few years back, I decided to explore those dessert-loving Polish roots. After a European business trip, I took a three-day stopover to meet relatives in and around Warsaw, Poland. It was a short, but fulfilling visit prompted by my desire to learn more about my great-grandmother Bronislawa (a.k.a Blanche) and the land in which she was born.

These Polish relatives made a deep impression on me. Many of them arranged their schedules and time around my visit, including the younger generation who served as the translators. I met with, stayed overnight at, and had tea, lunch, dinner and dessert (and more dessert and more dessert) with about 30 distant cousins there, both young and old. I was hugged and kissed, taken care of, well-fed, driven to locations where generations before had lived (and the grave sites where they were buried), and shown pictures and told stories about my great-grandmother, her parents and eight siblings.

Many times during that weekend, I also found myself thinking about my deceased grandparents on my mother’s side, both of whom had parents that settled in the U.S. from Poland, including Blanche. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was more educated in my youth than I remembered on what it meant to be Polish.

I recognized much of the cuisine that existed on the Polish menus at restaurants that we visited, including pierogi, galumpki and nalesniki. And, at a 14th birthday party for a distant cousin’s son, I was even able to sing along in Polish, as he blew out birthday candles on his beautifully decorated cake. This was a particularly proud moment for me, as many of the other people in the room did not speak English – so I felt just a bit more connected. 

Unlike my grandmother, I have never been a big sweets person. Give me a bag of potato chips, and I’ll eat the whole thing in one sitting. However, I learned on that trip to appreciate the cultural implications much better. Every house that I visited laid out a spread that included at least one, if not three or four plates crammed full with layered cakes, pastries, cookies and candies. I’ve never seen so much sugar in one place at one time. Regardless, it was the connection over that food that resonated and will last a lifetime. I’m still connected with many of those relatives over social media to this day.

I believe that food connects us as human beings and fosters communication, togetherness and  innovation.

A new food culture in St. Pete

In recent years, St. Petersburg has witnessed a boom in innovative new restaurants and food stores. Craft Kafe on Central Avenue in St. Pete is just one small example. This purveyor of  “gluten-free artisan fare” has become a community gathering spot in downtown St. Pete for interesting conversation around all things business, politics and the arts.

In fact, new food and drink concepts have popped up all along Central Avenue including near the waterfront and in many of the main arts districts including M.L.K. North, Central Arts, The Edge, Grand Central, Deuces Live and the Warehouse Arts.

“Good food brings people together,” notes St. Pete-based Marc Matyas, a former New York City restaurant owner and now Hospitality Consultant for many of the up and coming restaurants throughout Tampa Bay, including Union New American and Boulon Brasserie from Next Level Brands

“Gathering over food is a centuries-long tradition,” continues Matyas. “The right environment with great food and drinks can provide the perfect atmosphere for family sharing, business dealings, philosophical conversation and, perhaps, even discussing the next best innovation or startup.”

A local founder telling stories through cookies

Holly Noah, founder of Eat Your Words Custom Cookies, is doing her part to facilitate communication and bring joy, love, laughter, appreciation and encouragement in a sweet new food medium. Her e-commerce bakery company creates and delivers unique cookie gifts made up of letters, numbers, logos and photos which are arranged as a customizable message that can be delivered anywhere in the world.

“We are not a cookie company. We are a confectionary communications company,” explains Noah. “We send joy in cookie form. That’s at the very heart of the business. That is why I do this.”

Baking and entrepreneurship is in Noah’s blood. In 1916, her great-grandmother started Nills Bakery, a family legacy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Noah’s career, however, took a different path after earning her undergraduate degree in communications, marketing and French from Florida State and her MBA from the University of Central Florida.

In the early days of her career, she was given the opportunity to build and lead the newly created web services division of Tech Data (now known as TD Synnex) in Clearwater. “I learned a ton,” Noah recalls. “And in the back of my head, I remember thinking – if I ever start a business, it will have to be online, because that way you are not constrained by location. You can go anywhere. That was a seed that sort of got planted.”

“Everything I have done in my career is being utilized in what I am doing today,” says Noah.

At one point, her career took her to Atlanta for a few years where she first worked for an up-and-coming startup called Streamlite – a last mile delivery service company. “I learned a lot about the industry and how shipping works,” she explains. This became extremely useful as she later worked through all the details of shipping cookies around the world.

In Atlanta, a family friend gifted her with a set of alphabet-shaped cookie cutters. “I always thought they would be cool to do something with,” recalls Noah. “But I had no idea what to do with them at the time. So, I just tucked them aside.” Noah had even developed a business plan around letter-shaped cookies that was stashed away until 2017, when Eat Your Words Custom Cookies was first launched out of her kitchen.

Today, the company is flourishing and has been able to scale, with its commercial bakery located in Kenneth City in Pinellas County. Noah is proud to note that they will soon ship their 10,000th order. “We’ve done a lot of cookies that bring a smile to people’s faces. We appeal to consumers who want to do something fun, but also to commercial enterprises,” says Noah. Alongside the e-commerce strategy, this has been an integral part of the company’s growth.

Ultimately, whether for personal or professional consumers, the purpose remains the same. “We definitely communicate in cookie,” says Noah. “#sayitincookie is our thing.”

Startup City will continue to explore topics on what it takes to have a thriving startup ecosystem, on a bi-weekly basis through stories and thoughts of local residents.

Michelle Waite is the VP of Marketing at Florida Funders, a locally-based venture capital firm and angel investor network who enables tech startups to thrive through monetary and business-intellectual capital. She has invested in, co-founded and worked for tech startups for the last 10 years. She counts herself lucky everyday to work for and alongside some pretty amazing entrepreneurs. You can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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