The sky's the limit for Austin's queen of sticky toffee pudding
After 13 years building her sticky toffee pudding empire from the basement of her home, Tracy Claros is still getting used to her first-ever company office. After deciding business was good enough to treat both herself and her company, Claros recently set up a new headquarters in downtown Austin.
Having begun in 2004 with a folding table at an Austin farmers market, The Sticky Toffee Pudding Company now supplies the dinner trays of first class and business class passengers flying the transatlantic route with British Airways and Alaska (formerly Virgin) Airlines.
On the ground, meanwhile, big-named food retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Costco, and Walmart stock her lemon pudding; sticky ginger pudding; molten chocolate fudge cake; and other venerable British treats such as millionaire shortbread, flapjacks, and tiffin.
“I am proud we made it into the airlines’ first class, that’s certainly our claim to fame,” says Claros, who heralds from England’s Lake District. “And of course I like the link to the motherland.”
Despite her company’s growth, the motivations behind Claros’ relentless one-woman drive — she has never accepted investor offers nor had an office staff of more than three — to bring this particularly British classic to America’s masses are more complicated then profit.
“It became almost a personal challenge: how much could I grow sales with the minimal number of people,” she says, adding how keeping stress to a minimum and being able to enjoy her lifestyle remain guiding factors as well.
When sticky toffee puddings surged in popularity in Britain in the early 2000s, Claros judged the U.K. market as overcrowded while the U.S. had little exposure to British desserts. So in 2003, Claros left her seven-year job as a speech therapist and moved to Austin, where she had previously lived and studied.
Although she originally sold British staples such as quiche, scones, and Chelsea buns, Claros decided to leave those behind and gamble everything on sticky toffee puddings.
“It’s so delicious, there’s something very special, almost magical about them,” Claros says. “We get emails all the time from Americans who, having tried it for the first time, say it is the best thing they have ever eaten.”
Despite such favorable reviews, getting the business off the ground proved the typical entrepreneurial baptism of fire for Claros.
“I came into this not understanding business, and after the 2008 financial crisis, it made me think of needing to be careful and frugal,” Claros says. “I realized there are two ways to make money: sales and saving money.”
As a result, she took on bookkeeping duties — leaving just one other permanent staff member and a part-time worker during the busy holiday season — while an external office was deemed too costly a burden.
With Claros’ Austin home remaining the company’s nerve center, her expanding range of puddings were made by production partner Jean Kroll and 18 bakers in Chicago — not far from O’Hare International Airport.
Serendipitously, Kroll knew a British Airways food buyer, who came to visit an exhibition booth run by Claros at a Chicago food trade show in 2015 and left suitably impressed. Another trade show resulted in the contract with Virgin Airlines, and, together, the two airlines provided a real boost for the cachet of the brand.
“Airlines are looking for specialty products, especially in first class, and Tracy has an excellent product that is distinct enough to attract buyers’ attention,” says Ron Tanner with New York-based Specialty Food Association, a not-for-profit trade organization that represents artisan food producers.
“In this industry, the stories behind products resonate, and Tracy has a great one behind hers: a British woman who came to Texas to make sticky toffee puddings.”
Claros admits her business model isn’t traditional — a tiny team grappling with product design, marketing, and sales. “I want to keep it simple without lots of departments and meetings, so I can plan and execute quickly,” she says. “My priorities are a high-quality product, that our production bakers are paid a living wage and have healthcare, and that I am happy.”
Meeting the mild-mannered Claros, it’s all too easy to not appreciate the strength of mind and hard work that it must take to sell more than 1 million desserts a year. But flashes of her tenacity come through.
“Because it’s grown organically on cash flow, the company has no debt,” Claros says, before adding with emphasis, “and it’s 100 percent owned by a woman.”
This year, Claros is working on new projects such as a sticky toffee pudding specially made for Whole Foods Market’s buffet service, and is launching a new line of cold desserts similar to the stylish Gü brand.
She even turned down offers to supply puddings to 7-Eleven stores and Virgin Airlines economy class because of time pressures and not wanting to mass produce a cheaper product.
And while she hasn’t yet heard from Elon Musk’s SpaceX looking for interplanetary spaceflight puddings, who knows what the future may hold.
“When I started the company, it was like a game of checkers or chess, working out when to move or retreat, and then it became a battle for survival and not much fun,” Claros says. “Now I can sit in the office and [let] opportunities come to me rather than me having to fight for them.”