Inside the INCubator With Tennessee Moonshine Cakes

By Holly Ashley

About the Business: Tennessee Moonshine Cakes is the world’s first moonshine cake bakery, according to the business’ website. They make cakes flavored with Ole’ Smokey Tennessee White Lightnin’ Moonshine in both a standard 17 oz., and a 7 oz. lil’ shot, and they come in five flavors: lemon, chocolate chip, pumpkin caramel, chocolate thunder road and a special edition blueberry in the summer.

Startup Name: Tennessee Moonshine Cakes

Year Founded: 2012                                              

Founder: Ann Dickerson                       

Number of employees: 2 Full-time, 1 Part-time + the founders

Twitter + Instagram: @tnmoonshinecake

 

Q&A with Ann Dickerson

Title: Owner

Hometown: Chattanooga, TN
Family: Husband, Bill Zack; son, Chris (19)
Favorite thing about Chattanooga: The stunning beauty. I never tire of seeing the mountains and the river.
Describe your startup’s purpose in five words: Create something unique – and profitable!

What motivated you to start your own business?
My husband and I both lost our jobs within a year of each other during the Recession. I was a journalist at the Atlanta Journal Constitution for years and then worked as managing editor of a small North Georgia newspaper before it went to an online-only format and I was laid off. My husband was in media too, covering the Braves in a syndicated column for years before being hired by an international real estate company to do marketing in India.  The recession took longer to reach India, but eventually it did and the company went under.  Bill and I both bounced around for a while and had trouble getting even an interview, let alone a job, so we decided to strike out together and do our own thing. Bill had been a sous chef years ago, so we decided to try opening a cookie company called Legends of the Game. We were thinking of selling cookies with sports logos on them to teams and at games. Bill was friends with Braves pitcher John Smoltz, and he leant his name to our company to help market it. It seemed great at first, but as we got more and more into the business we began running into issues with licensing the logos. So, like many startups do - we pivoted. We changed our business model and renamed it Tennessee Moonshine Cakes and we haven’t looked back since. 

Are you a Chattanooga native?
Yeah, I’m a Chattanooga native. I graduated from GPS in 1982. At the time, most of my friends and I just wanted out of here though because there was nothing here. Back then, the only thing to do on the NorthShore was go to Krystal at lunch. So I moved away after graduation. Bill and I married in 1990 and we lived outside of Atlanta for a long while, coming back to Chattanooga to visit my family occasionally. Then something started to happen to the city. I remember this one time, while visiting, a friend told me about a great little restaurant on Main Street called Niedlovs. I was like, Main Street…really? I remembered, as a teenager, my dad had told me to never get off the highway at the Main Street exit because the neighborhood was so bad. Then I noticed every time Bill and I would come back to Chattanooga it would get better and better. So we finally moved back around the time my son was entering sixth grade; he’s a freshman in college now.  Today, the NorthShore neighborhood is great and I love that I have been able to start our business here. All the coffee shops alone kind of freak me out compared to what used to be here. I also love that there are so many new people moving to Chattanooga, and that the city has changed so much. 

What’s the biggest benefit of the INCubator?
Besides all the free training workshops, it’s the networking and sharing of ideas. You meet a lot of great people here and have the opportunity to share ideas with each other on what works and what doesn’t work. We’re all very supportive of each other, too. For example, there’s a guy downstairs who developed our website, and an INCubator graduate, Brian Murphy of That Murphy Boy, does all our graphics. The TSBDC here has been a big help too; especially Ivette Rios in their shop. One time Ivette had wanted me to go to a TSBDC workshop about exporting, but I couldn’t go because we were so busy with production. Instead, she went the extra mile and brought the speaker to our suite so we would have the opportunity to talk to her about our business. It was an incredible display of support.

Did you have any preconceived notion of being a startup founder?
Yes. I imagined life as a founder was about staying up late at night and worrying about money. Really though, that’s pretty accurate. I mean, in the beginning you’re always wondering where your next order will come from. I remember in our first year the only time the phone would ring is when someone was asking for donations of our product.  It was tough. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then, having doubled our revenues in 2014 over those in 2013. 

In your opinion, what’s best thing about running a startup?
I think it’s just so stimulating. You sort of live and breathe it and your mind is always working on new ideas. Like, I’m always thinking about what would be a great new flavor, or how to improve our setup at shows, or what else I can do with social media. I didn’t know how stimulating it would be. I thought it would be more drudgery, but it’s not.

What’s been the most difficult part of running a startup?
I think just cash flow issues. Cash flow is so important and it’s easy to want to make a major purchase to achieve economies of scale, but you can’t. For example, we’d like to buy 50,000 cake boxes at once because they’re so much cheaper and we know we’ll use them. But when you’re a startup you don’t have any money, so it’s frustrating to not be able to take advantage of those opportunities. You have to be very lean. That’s probably the biggest day-to-day problem.

Any recommended reading for other startups? For other humans?
Freakonomics and anything Malcom Gladwell writes is good. I don’t know if that directly applies to all business, but it really gets you thinking. Bill and I listen to audio books since we’re always travelling and baking. Personally, I read a lot of biographies.

Any advice for other startups?
Just the normal stuff. If it doesn’t work at first, don’t get discouraged. And also be adaptable.

What’s next for Tennessee Moonshine?
Well, being able to hire more employees would be great. For a long time, it was just Bill and I doing everything, but then we hired our first full-time employee a little over a year ago and our second this spring. The added support has helped out tremendously, but we could still use a bit more capacity. We basically work seven days a week now, including doing a fair or some other event every weekend between September and December. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like we’re too terribly overworked because we’re having so much fun, but hiring on more staff will help us expand our retail footprint to stores like Fresh Market, Earthfare and Sprouts.

Where can people buy your cakes?
Our product is available in Chattanooga at Harvest Grocery in Hixson, Pruett’s Signal Mountain Market and Whole Foods Market. We also distribute to dozens of retailers across Tennessee in Blountville, Crossville, Franklin, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville, as well as in Alabama, California, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. We also take orders online at tnmoonshinecakes.com and by phone at 423.598.1777.