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Q&A: Sweet Expansion into a Global Market

Ellia Kassoff was working as a headhunter for the high-tech industry when he decided to go into business making his favorite childhood candy, a cone-shaped, three-colored lollipop called Astro Pop. "I wanted to start making the longest lasting lollipop in the world again," he says.

He purchased the formulas and trademark rights in 2010 and started the new candy company, Leaf Brands, in Newport Coast, Calif., in 2011.

Kassoff now has four employees, including one in China. The company, which ships globally to places like the U.K., Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Taiwan, is poised to do more than $3 million in sales this year.

I wanted to start making the longest lasting lollipop in the world again.

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Here's what Kassoff has learned about running his own international business.

How did you find a manufacturer to make your lollipops?

Kassoff: I learned quickly that the U.S. companies weren't willing to re-engineer the product. I talked to every U.S. company that made deposited (poured) hard candy. They kept telling me, "If you give us the machines we'll make the candy for you." I would tell them, "If I had the machines I would have made it myself." So I went to China and found three companies who instead of saying, "No I can't do it," said, "We'll figure it out." They sent sample products, and I picked the best of the three. I ship our flavors and colors from the U.S. to China, then they add in sugar and corn syrup, and they ship it back as a finished product. It's also a certified kosher product now thanks to an extra level of inspection.

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What type of inspections do you have?

We have a Rabbi in China who represents Star K, the kosher certification agency. He travels to the factory for each production run and makes sure all the correct ingredients are used in production. This includes the kosher flavors and colors we make in the U.S. and ship to the factory. We're also in the process of signing with an outside testing lab, which will spot check all products from the factory. You would be surprised how strict the Chinese government has been with food inspections as well. They had our plant make a special run of Astro Pops®, just so they could inspect the products on their own.

How do you handle international shipping?

Kassoff: Shipping has been my biggest headache. My problem is the shippers screw up all the time and never tell you where the product is until it arrives at the dock. Then they call you and say if you don't pick it up in three days there is a $500 fee per day. Once it cost an extra $3,000 because they didn't tell me where it was and only gave me two days to pick it up.

What advice do you have for other business owners to help avoid international shipping problems?

Kassoff: If you have separate companies doing your shipping, such as a separate freight forwarder and separate shipper, they all have different specialties and internal systems. Many times they don't have an integrated solution so they just blame each other if there is a problem. I've found you really need just one company that does everything for you so it's seamless and integrated. 

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