Eleni Gianopulos is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her company, Eleni’s New York. What started as a classic cookie company run out of Eleni’s kitchen is now well-known in the Big Apple and across the country as the go-to place for adorable and intricately decorated sugar cookies, homemade classic drop cookies, and eye-catching and delicious cupcakes.
Why did you start your business?
I have a B.A. in psychology from Southern Methodist University. I moved to New York City, and was very excited to be working at Time, Inc. I worked at Life magazine for a couple years and in the Time picture sales in the photography department. It was a really wonderful experience. After about five years, I resigned, because I had the opportunity to travel extensively.
When I came back, I was newly married, freelancing for magazines, and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. In that time, I was having friends over for dinner every night and entertaining. One of them said, “Why are you not doing this on a business level, because this is what you seem to like to do?”
Through the process, I realized I really liked the dessert aspect best. I ended up taking several art courses at the School of Visual Arts, where I became very interested in color and shape. I think that lent itself well to the cookies, because we are able to make the sugar cookies into anything imaginable.
I started the cookie business out of my house. I really did not think it through. I would encourage entrepreneurs to not be burdened by business plan after business plan. It might sound irresponsible, but there is some value to just jumping in. I let the business kind of run its course. I found the opportunity to be in the Chelsea Market, which used to be the old Nabisco factory, and now is so fortunately located on the High Line. When we opened in the Chelsea Market, I sold mostly classic cookies and just a few sugar cookies. The sugar cookies really took off. In listening to the customers’ needs, we started to put together gift sets that told a story. So, not just a rabbit, for example, but a rabbit, a carrot, and an Easter egg. And that’s how I really started the conversation cookie business.
How did you get the funds to get going?
When I started the company initially, it was an oatmeal cookie company out of my house. My investment was so low, it didn’t require any type of formal investment.
When my husband and I committed to the Chelsea Market lease, it required a build-out and more substantial equipment. We took out a lease with the Bank of New York. I fit into the category of a woman in business in manufacturing, so they were very happy to loan money to us and were very supportive of the business.
Have you heard of business credit?
Yes. We started to build credit in the business name with the Chelsea Market lease. That became the groundwork. As each loan was paid back, we would take a new loan out for a new piece of equipment, for example. We worked with the same group for many years.
Managing the Business
What’s most challenging about running your business?
The most challenging thing, hands-down, has been our e-commerce business. We started years ago and were acknowledged in a Wall Street Journal article as one of the top 10 food providers among others like Harry & David and Dean & DeLuca. It was a huge honor and brought us a huge amount of revenue.
Today, it’s become very challenging. We are in the process this week of re-launching our website. I would caution young business owners or startups to thoroughly research how they want to run a site, because there can be so many glitches to it, and the market is so saturated.
How do you finance your business to manage cash flow or growth?
Very tightly! Cash flow is the most important thing in a business. It’s the hardest thing to manage. It has probably provided the strongest learning lessons for my company.
One thing we’ve worked on is having a very even business. We’ve tried to develop the business to be less seasonal. You would think all of our Chelsea Market revenue is made in November and December, but it’s really not. We have a very heavy summer business. Every month is almost the same, which has been a tremendous help for our cash flow.
Do you use trade credit from your vendors or suppliers?
No. We pay for everything upfront.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
We’ve made a lot of mistakes in the last 20 years! One thing I’ve learned is not to let perfection get in the way of good. It can apply to so many things. Also, I’ve learned to delegate things that someone else in the company can do so that I can continue to think big picture. You can get caught up in the weeds if you don’t.
What’s the smartest thing you did in your first year?
I took advantage of the press in New York. I have never advertised. I’ve been able to react quickly to any opportunity for press, which has helped build the business.
Also, I’ve understood that a business is built one customer at a time, and we’ve always tried to be a company that goes the extra yard for our customers. It’s all about the service and the hospitality. We might be selling cookies, but we’re trying to sell an experience, and make sure that it’s a great one at every turn.
What’s the most rewarding thing about owning a business?
I love that I’m the owner, I’m the decision-maker. If it doesn’t feel right, I can change something. I love my company, because we can design something and put it in the marketplace three days later. We can react to an idea or trend really quickly, and that’s fun! I like the fact that we do something different every day. I like the challenge of saying, “We want to be in all the Whole Foods stores in the Northeast,” and then watching the goal be met. I think it’s fun to be in charge of your own plan and then see how it unfolds.
What does the future look like for your business?
We are launching our new site, which will continue to evolve all summer. It’s an example of getting the site up and live, but it’s not perfect. It will be innovative, in that customers can put a picture of anything they want on a cookie. They will be able to see it, order it, and receive it within a couple days. We will be opening up new retail stores in Manhattan, and expanding on our line of Color Me! Cookies, which is my favorite thing we do and runs with the trend of coloring, which is so popular today.
What advice do you have for someone starting a business?
See if you can find a partner. I have a very supportive husband and family, but it’s helpful to have a partner, a colleague, or a sounding board. It can help grow a business, because it can be frustrating and challenging to be the only one running a company.
Don’t be afraid to jump in and try it! I think it’s really fun and really rewarding to start and run your own company.