PROFILE TRINA BANNISTER: Tasty treat, traditions lead to new business

September 10, 2007

PROFILE

TRINA BANNISTER Tasty treat, traditions lead to new business It all started with the sweet-potato pies.

Each Thanksgiving, Trina Bannister's grandmother Ruby would bake dozens of the sweet treats for her large extended family. Bannister and her sisters grew up learning her baking secrets.

To honor her grandmother, who died about six years ago, Bannister named her new business in the Indianapolis City Market "Ruby's Sweet Treasures." She sells a wide variety of baked goods, from her signature pies to cheesecakes, cookbooks and, for diversification's sake, a full line of beauty products.

An accountant by trade, Bannister, 39, grew up in "the projects," she said, referring to her 30th Street and Arlington Avenue neighborhood. After graduating from Arlington High School, she attended Indiana State University for two years.

"I don't talk a lot about [living in the projects] but it helps people know that, no matter where you come from, you can do something in life," Bannister said.

A single mother of two sons, Bannister left ISU after two years to begin work in accounting. She married three years ago.

After 14 years working as an accountant, Bannister wanted to do something else. That's when she had the idea for Ruby's Sweet Treasures.

"I love to be challenged and I like creative things," Bannister said. "Sometimes people get in a rut and stay there."

For inspiration, Bannister could look to food entrepreneurs Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, who created "The Silver Palate Cookbook" 25 years ago that was later spun off into a line of food and kitchen products. In a recent Chicago Tribune interview, Rosso was quoted as saying, "I've given talks on The Silver Palate at Wharton and the Stanford School of Business, and I remember these smart kids saying, 'How do I start this business?' I'd tell them, 'Don't ask your lawyer, don't ask your mother. If it's the right idea, it will go straight from your heart to your gut.'"

Bannister's heart and gut were joined together by her grandmother's legendary sweet-potato pies. Her first challenge was reducing her grandmother's recipe that yielded 40 pies to one that would make a single pie. After a year of tinkering, she settled on a recipe that yields four pies. Bannister added apple pies and cheesecake to the mix after colleagues of her husband, who works at Eli Lilly and Co., devoured the desserts he brought to the office.

But desserts alone won't bring in a lot of income, said the practical accountant, so she went in search of additional revenue streams. That's when she decided to branch out into gift baskets, wedding accessories and spa items.

"You look at all of the bakeries around the city, and I knew I needed a stream of income in other areas," Bannister said. "I try to think about who my customers are. You have wedding gifts, new babies, people buying houses"-that's why I added the gift baskets."

In addition, Bannister sells bridal veils, invitations and other items that she can't bring into the small shop space. Instead appointments and orders can be made at her City Market shop.

"I wanted to be in a business where I enjoy going to work," Bannister said. "That's important to me, but I also want to be prosperous."

Bannister worked for the Indianapolis office of Robert Half International as a temporary staff accountant for about 18 months before opening her business.

"Trina has a great personality," said Melissa Vaughn, staffing manager for Robert Half. "Our clients were very sad to see her go. She was offered a full-time position with WellPoint, but she already had her business planned. That's why she had worked with us on a contract, because she knew ultimately what she wanted to do."

When she decided to start Ruby's Sweet Treasures, Bannister visited the library to research how to start a business and came away with an informal business plan.

She financed the startup with money she had set aside from her temp jobs together with funds from her husband and credit cards.

"I didn't want to get a lot of loans," Bannister said. "It's bad to prepare yourself for failure, because I want to be a success, but I'm one of those people that, if it's not working, let's do something else. I don't want to get in debt and have to pay off a lot of loans."

Construction delays present

additional challenges

Moving into the City Market in late July, Bannister has faced opening a business at a time of transition for the downtown landmark. Construction delays have cut down on foot traffic, but Bannister said the market is assisting tenants with marketing and publicity. Even with the delays, she hopes to generate $40,000 in sales this year-mostly from sales during the holidays.

Bannister does all of her baking at a commercial kitchen in Madison, Ind., and handles the retail sales in her shop as well. Her mother and sisters pitch in as needed.

Like Bannister, entrepreneur Teresa Downham and her husband, Joe, run a food-based gift basket company called Everything Indiana. The Web-based business, started in 2004, features all Indianamade products, including Crazy Charlie's Salsa and chocolates from Mundt's Candies in Madison. One of the biggest challenges Downham faced in the beginning was managing inventory.

"When you're working with food, everything is perishable," she said. "You have to know the shelf life ... and how much to order without having to throw away huge quantities."

Bannister has diversified her offerings from pies and cheesecakes to include a line of spa products produced by a small, women-owned business in Washington. The Body Custard cream has been so popular that Bannister has had to restock the shelves twice since opening.

She anticipates increased sales with the completion of the market in November and the upcoming holiday season, but admits that starting a business isn't for the faint of heart.

"It's scary stepping away from your job and opening your own business," Bannister said. "I'm used to a regular income, but I think I'm going to do very well.

"I thought [with the construction] I wasn't going to get any sales, but I've been getting sales since opening my store ... and I'm making money. I'm really excited for the future."

A key to success is doing your homework when it comes to marketing and advertising, Downham said.

"It's true what they say in your introductory marketing classes: You have to have repetitive exposure before people will remember who you are and remember your company," she said. "It doesn't matter what the great idea or great product is, you have to constantly be in front of people with your name."
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