Many times we find entrepreneurs who have achieved massive success are more like superheroes than real people. The reality is that everyone has to start somewhere when it comes to starting a new business. Ryan Novak is one of those inspiring entrepreneurs who worked his way to success.
At 15 years old, Novak got his first job as a dishwasher at the small chocolate shop in his hometown. He washed dishes, mopped floors, and emptied the trash but he loved being around chocolate. He told the owner when she wanted to retire that he wanted to own her business. Six years later, in 2010, when his opportunity to be an entrepreneur finally came so he decided to take a chance and take it.
No bank would agree to finance him at the time as he was told that he was too young to run a business so he worked out a buy-out with the owner and he eventually took over. He juggled finishing his bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship and being a business owner but he managed to adapt quickly. Fast forward to today, and he has grown that small-town chocolate shop into Central New York’s largest chocolate maker. His company has been featured on the Food Network, Hallmark Channel, CNBC, CMT, Forbes, People, and Entrepreneur magazine. They built their own 10,000 square feet production facility and employ about 15 people. He makes it a point to hire local high school teenagers who are eager to work and give them the same opportunity to experience a job as he got. As a food manufacturer, they continued working through the pandemic and actually grew online sales by over 400% in the last 4 months. On the day his mother died, I promised that he would make her proud. Every day he works to keep that promise.
StarCentral Magazine recently caught up with Ryan to discuss his journey to success and here’s what went down:
Could you please tell our readers a brief background about yourself and how you started your business?
I grew up in a quiet, one-stop-light town in the rolling hills of Central New York. It is a throwback to simpler times when you knew your neighbors, cheered the varsity football team on Friday nights, and walked a Main Street dotted with little shops. When I was 9 years old, tragedy struck. My mom was killed as she drove home from work by a man high on drugs who ran a stop sign. She was 7 months pregnant. Her loss was devastating but I made a promise the day she died that I would make her proud. It is a promise that still inspires me 22 years later.
At 15, I walked into a tiny chocolate shop in town, called Chocolate Pizza Company. The owner hired me as a dishwasher. I worked hard and loved being around chocolate. I told her that when she wanted to retire, I wanted to own the business. Six years later, that opportunity came. It was 2010 and I was a 21-year-old senior at Syracuse University studying entrepreneurship. Banks told me I was too young to run a company and wouldn’t finance the deal, but I negotiated a buy-out over time with the owner. I juggled finishing my degree and being a business owner, ending up many nights asleep in the shop. I graduated on-time and have grown the business into Central New York’s largest chocolate maker. In 2016, Chocolate Pizza Company was selected as Business of the Year. I own a 12,000 square foot production facility, employ about 15 people, and have sales in the seven figures.
We make gourmet chocolate specialties for business gifts and families. Our signature Chocolate Pizza® and Peanut Butter Wings® have been enjoyed by A-list celebrities, hall of fame athletes, music legends, top political and business leaders. Our website (ChocolatePizza.com) has received orders from chocolate lovers on 6 continents.
Our Chocolate Pizza is a blend of the highest quality Swiss-style chocolate with homemade English toffee that we make from a local, century-old recipe. We top it with a variety of candies or nuts and serve it in a custom pizza box. Peanut Butter Wings are crisp, rippled potato chips covered in creamy peanut butter and drenched in rich milk or dark chocolate. They are insanely delicious and our best-selling item. Both are trademarked. We use about 200,000 lbs. of chocolate annually and ship nationwide, year-round.
I met my wife, Christie, at Syracuse University. I was a placekicker on the football team, and she was on the dance team. We love traveling (when there’s not a pandemic) – Italy and Hawaii are our favorite destinations.
Fun facts about our business:
If you laid all the Chocolate Pizzas we make in a year end-to-end, they would span the Grand Canyon.
Our largest order from a single customer was 31,000 Chocolate Pizzas.
What are you currently doing to maintain/grow your business?
From March through August this year, sales are up an average of 400% YOY. To handle this growth, and in anticipation of a likely record holiday season, we have expanded our production facility. We also invested the past couple of years in website upgrades and SEO, working with two talented companies, Exclusive Concepts, and Famcom. The increase in organic website traffic has been significant. One of the best resources for getting the word out about Chocolate Pizza Company has been the work we’ve done with an amazing PR firm, ChicExecs. And, not to be overlooked, we are constantly building our social media reach.
What social media platforms do you usually use to increase your brand’s awareness?
We have the best results with Facebook and to a lesser extent Instagram. Those two platforms are performing very well for us in terms of driving new visits to our website and keeping our products in front of consumers. Our Facebook page has over 60,000 followers and Instagram has about 20,000 which are respectable numbers for a small business.
What is your experience with paid advertising, like PPC or sponsored content campaigns? Does it work?
The problem with PPC advertising is that the big guys always have deeper pockets and bigger budgets so we’re never going to out-spend them in this arena. Plus, research shows that less than 10% of people click on paid search ads, so the ROI for us in that channel just isn’t there. We opt to play the long game and drive organic web traffic which takes more time but levels the playing field somewhat and is more cost-effective.
What is your main tactic when it comes to making more people aware of your brand and engaging your customers? How did your business stand out?
Our day-to-day preference for communicating with our customers has been Facebook (@chocolatepizzas). We post daily, usually around noon, so our followers know to check for contests, new product rollouts, updates on seasonal treats and more. We blend product features with personal vignettes that keep the page fresh. This year, we created a small studio in-house that has improved the quality of our product photographs. People notice the pictures, share them, and comment more frequently than in the past and we see an almost immediate reaction in sales from most items we feature.
What form of marketing has worked well for your business throughout the years?
PR opportunities have been the most successful marketing tool for us. We have landed some major national TV segments on Food Network, Hallmark Channel, CNBC, and CMT. The CNBC appearance actually crashed our website with so much immediate traffic. I’ve been interviewed for Forbes and People magazines and been published in Entrepreneur magazine. The best marketing is storytelling so that’s what we do, we share our story. It seems a lot of people identify with my journey and tell me they are inspired by it. But it’s not just about me. It’s about a company that stayed in its hometown, grew, and gives back. During the pandemic, my younger brother, Connor, organized some high school friends to make and donate hundreds of Easter chocolates for our local food bank. Fox News did a story on it that was picked up by over 1,200 news outlets across the country. The best marketing usually isn’t a sales pitch.
What is the toughest decision you had to make in the last few months?
The toughest decision in the past few months has been whether or not to believe that this year’s explosive growth will continue. There are so many variables in this calculation that as a small business we are truly in uncharted waters. May through August is typically our slow season and yet we have posted sales increases of 400% YOY. Projecting even half that rate into the 4th quarter (our busiest) poses major challenges in our current space. And, given the unpredictability of supply chains, any disruption this fall could cripple our operation. The smart move is to inventory key ingredients and packaging materials but to do that, we needed a bigger building. So, in August, we added on, but it is a risk and a tough decision.
What money mistakes have you made along the way that others can learn from (or something you’d do differently)?
Succeed first, grow later. Early in my career, I thought adding brick-and-mortar locations was the path to growth. It’s not. It’s a rabbit hole that you fall into and have a hard time getting back out. A few years into being an owner, I opened a store about 800 miles away in Cincinnati, Ohio because I was convinced the location and opportunity were prime. They were not and the logistics and expense of maintaining that operation was a millstone around my neck. Eventually, we cut our losses and negotiated out of the lease, but it was a financially painful experience. We’ve had much better success selling wholesale to established retailers, using their shelf space to expand our marketplace presence. We’ve done business with major big boxes and smaller specialty stores across the country.
What new business would you love to start?
I have the sweetest business in the world, so I am not looking for any new ventures. My next goal is to make Chocolate Pizza Company a national brand.
If you could go back in a time machine to the time when you were just getting started, what would you do differently?
I would not have added brick-and-mortar locations as a business growth strategy. Instead, I would have invested more in automating the production process so I could have raised capacity faster. When I became the owner, the staff was melting chocolate in pans and hand-dipping every item. We needed ways to run a manufacturing process, not a kitchen. The equipment I eventually purchased made an immediate impact. For example, in the 6 years, before I bought the company, they dipped 9,000 chocolate covered Oreos®. Today, we can do that many in a day. I would tell my younger self that capacity is the key to growth.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
That’s easy because it’s in a book my dad wrote about things that made a difference for us moving forward with purpose and passion after mom died. In his book, Conquering Adversity: Six Strategies to Move You and Your Team Through Tough Times, he teaches us to count blessings, not tears. Keep the focus positive. Life is not fair so don’t expect it to be, and don’t use it as an excuse to quit. I didn’t let anyone or anything define my dreams – not coaches, not bankers, not pandemics. I count my blessings every day.
What advice would you give to a newbie Entrepreneur setting up their first business?
Sell the story; they’ll buy the product. Consumers don’t want to buy something; they want to feel something. If you move them, they take notice. Spend as much time sharing your business as building it. And, don’t go it alone. Surround yourself with people you can trust, people who believe in you, people who will move mountains with you. All business is people – find good ones. I did. I have an amazing team.