The founder of Mouth Party Caramels, B.G. Purcell, is remarkably calm and collected but full of energy. Purcell tries not to dwell on the fact that around this time last year, she watched her commercial kitchen in Meadow Mill fill with water from a flood on the Jones Falls River.
Her business was all but completely destroyed by flooding, not once but twice, in the span of two years. In all that time, Purcell says she had exactly two moments when she considered shutting down. One was when she was overwhelmed with anger, assessing the aftermath of the second flood. The other was in the tenth hour of trying to fix hundred-year-old equipment after it had been soaked by water. Instead of cowering, Purcell rallied her staff, found a mechanic, and moved to higher ground. She reopened in September, just a couple months later, in time for the 2016 holiday rush. Now, her Baltimore candy company is forging ahead, building out an 8,000 square foot facility in Timonium, four times the size of its current, temporary location in Roland Park. Mouth Party has plans for new products and flavors, expansion of the wholesale and corporate gift department, and even a caramel scented candle. Their addicting take on caramels has brought back a new love for the traditional treat. Purcell, a former landscape architect, radiates with positivity when she talks about the start of her now decade-old company, finding a dedicated staff, and the sweet world of running a small business in Baltimore.
She reopened in September, just a couple months later, in time for the 2016 holiday rush. Now, her Baltimore candy company is forging ahead, building out an 8,000 square foot facility in Timonium, four times the size of its current, temporary location in Roland Park. Mouth Party has plans for new products and flavors, expansion of the wholesale and corporate gift department, and even a caramel scented candle. Their addicting take on caramels has brought back a new love for the traditional treat. Purcell, a former landscape architect, radiates with positivity when she talks about the start of her now decade-old company, finding a dedicated staff, and the sweet world of running a small business in Baltimore.
Tell me the history of Mouth Party. Is it true that the secret behind your original candies lies with an old family recipe?
Yes, the caramels are built upon a four-generation recipe that originated from my stepmom’s grandmother. My stepmom first shared the recipe with me when I was 12 years old. I began the business out of my own kitchen with a four-year-old, a one-year-old and dog under foot. In 2008, I began renting a shared commercial kitchen in Mt. Washington. After that, we had our own commercial kitchen in Parkville. It was in that space that we acquired our first wrapping machine, cooling table, and cookie kettle, in 2011, and we moved to Meadow Mill in 2013. We survived and rebuilt after the first flood in 2014, then just as we’d begun talking about moving to a larger space, the second flood hit in 2016, forcing us to leave earlier than expected and find a temporary home to get us through the holidays.
Were you in the shop when the floods happened? That must have felt surreal.
The first flood happened on April 30, 2014. The water began rising in the afternoon and didn’t stop until well into the night. It was the third day in a row of hard, consistent rain. By 5:45 p.m. I stood in the front retail area of our space and watched the water rise to the window, and by about a half hour later, our glass delivery doors were bowing inward from the pressure of the water. I had only gone in to get our insurance policy, in case something happened. I was climbing though the file cabinet in my waders.
Then, I slogged out the back of the building and up the driveway and stood on the bridge over the Jones Falls and watched in disbelief as the water covered our windows and doors and the current carried a garage and recycling dumpster down the river.
We lost almost everything.
And then it happened again the following year?
The first time, we pulled everything back together quickly, because we just replaced everything in the studio and had help from management to get everything back together. The second flood was more difficult than the first because we didn’t go back in the same space. The reason we didn’t go back was pure fear. I couldn’t do it a third time.
How soon after the damage did you pick yourselves up, and start to rebuild?
Both times it took us about two months to get back running. The second time, we moved locations [to a temporary space in Roland Park]. For my own sanity, I could not rebuild in that space a second time, and I couldn’t do that to my staff. The second flood happened in July, and we were operating part-time as early as August, and full-time by September.
We lost about $70k in revenue in the second flood. I did have state flood insurance, but insurance only covers property lost, not predicted revenue, so we had to get back running for the holidays.
So on top of rebuilding, and buying new equipment with each new space, you also have to reconfigure the recipes, based on the temperature in the building?
Yep. That’s something I never thought about going into it. Turns out caramels are very susceptible to small changes in climate. In this space, we can’t run the wrapping machine at the same time as we’re cooking the next batch of caramels because too much heat would ruin the batch. In the new space, we’ll have separate rooms for each part of the process.
As a boss, how did you deal with employees suddenly finding themselves out of work after the flood?
We have ten employees. The full-time staff never stopped working. They helped move the business, built makeshift setups in my house and here in Roland Park. Some local businesses, like The Charmery, were really good to us and offered temporary work to the rest of the staff, which was generous. We didn’t know what to expect, but every single person came back. I think of us as a family, but I wasn’t sure they all did, too, until that happened. That felt really special.
Everything about your business feels personal. You name all of your equipment, Mouth Party is based on the family recipe… Going forward, is the goal to remain a small, thriving cottage business? How large do you hope to grow?
We do name all the equipment. It helps us form working relationships with them. We can talk trash to them in a more specific way if things aren’t going right. Growing is a big thing on my mind. I flew to Chicago a month ago for the Sweets and Treats expo, which is where Mars, Hershey… all the big companies go because I wanted to see if I’d fit in one of their “boutique” sections, but that main floor was really eye opening. At that size, my role would no longer be about producing caramels, it would be about sales, and controlling the audit. Things like that. So I know I don’t want to be that big. I would like to grow about ten times our best year so far. So the goal is to be known nationally but known as a boutique item, with a limit to production.
And how do you stop growth, once you’re at the right size? Do you put a cap on production and make yourself more exclusive?
Yeah. If we’re ever that lucky, and in that position, then yes that’s what I would do. This really is a family business. My dad was an early investor, along with a cousin. I also consider all of my staff a family. I want to feel like everyone working here feels like they are part of a family, and feels invested. I want us to always hold on to that.
Who is your main customer right now?
Our business is 70% wholesale (to stores) and we do a lot of corporate gifting too. That’s an interesting business. We do work for nicer hotel chains, who offer Mouth Party treats for their turndown service. Often their customers end up ordering from us later, which is fun.
As a small business, you have to have the type of employees who are flexible, and ready to wear multiple hats. How do you find people to hire?
I advertised at Towson University for my first employee and Kate (who still works at Mouth Party, as manager) knocked on my door. She was 19 at the time. Her mother, Sheila was completely weirded out that she was coming to an interview at someone’s house, but years later, Sheila works here, too! After I hired Kate, I hired her sister, and then her cousin. We’ve been incredibly lucky to find hard working people who also like to play hard.
And yes, in a small business, you might be the wholesale manager, but you end up also doing shipping one day, and candy wrapping the next. You have to be ready for things to not go according to plan, and that’s why I think we have such a great group. They are all invested, and willing to do what needs to be done.