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Finding the Courage to Start Over

Jun 21, 2008
We glared at the sign as we parked beneath it: "National Bank of New Hampshire - serving you since 1878." The thermometer in its center read minus 24 degrees. "Serving who since 1878?" I mumbled.

"They didn't do anything wrong," Mel said. "We were the ones who borrowed all that money at two points over prime. It's the Federal government that made interest rates soar to twenty-one and a half percent. I think Federal Reserve put us out of business."

Ushered into the bank president's office, we were received with a greeting that felt as chilly as the January air outside. "I'm afraid we won't be able to release the lien on your house until you pay off the balance on your two hundred thousand dollar loan," said Michael White, president. Looking down, he paused and re-examined that day's printout detailing our account while busily punching in numbers on his adding machine. "You have an outstanding balance of three thousand, six hundred, fifty-seven dollars and twenty-two cents including interest as of today. How do you plan to take care of that?"

"Well, we sold every last fixture we owned as well as our delivery van and I think we have enough here to settle our debt," Mel answered. "Would you mind telling me again exactly how much we owe?" Mr. White tore off the adding machine's tape and slid it across the desk as Mel pulled out our worn green vinyl bank bag and began carefully counting out money. After counting out the bills, she reached back into the green bag and dug the bottom for the twenty-two cents in change, finally coming up with a quarter which she carefully placed on the last stack of bills.

"Thank you," said Mr. White. "What are you going to do now?"

"I don't know," I said. "We'll figure something out." I looked at Mel, trying to be reassuring knowing we were both scared to death.

"Thank you." Mel's voice started to tremble as she choked back tears. We both shook hands with Michael White and left.

Outside the snow squeaked under our boots and the wind sliced through our coats. I put my arm around Mel who could no longer hold back her tears. "We'll get through this," I whispered, trying to sound convincing. We stood in the bank parking lot, arms around each other, for a long, frozen moment before finally climbing into the car.

We drove along in silence for a while, each lost in our own despair. And of course it was Mel, always the first to return to practicalities, who broke our reverie. She suddenly stopped crying and, reaching into the green bank bag, pulled out all the remaining money and started counting it. "We've only got about four thousand dollars left and I'm not going to let anyone take it away from us. We've closed our three children's furniture stores, we've broken three retail leases, we have yet to hear back from any of the landlords, and we still owe money to several suppliers. I'm worried that someone will come after the house. We're hiding this money no matter what happens. This four thousand dollars isn't going to make a bit of difference to anyone and as long as it's hidden, we'll have something to get by on until we figure out our next step."

It's not easy digging a hole in frozen Vermont ground, but with the help of a pickaxe, we managed to get down about a foot. We put the money into several plastic bags to keep it dry and placed them into a gray metal box thinking it would keep out the mice. We carefully set our nest egg into the hole and covered it with the same frozen dirt we'd worked so hard to unearth. Stepping back, we turned to each other and smiled: We'd chosen to bury our treasure under the slide on Jesse's swing set so we'd remember the exact spot once it was covered with snow.

Once back inside, we played the messages on the answering machine, and all but one were from landlords trying to collect rent on spaces we no longer occupied. "We need a plan," Mel said. "We're going to get through this, but only if we don't sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. If it had been a different time, we'd probably still be in business. Things just didn't work out that way. I'll always remember the line of customers that ran the length of the shopping center during our going-out-of-business sale. Each of them stood for hours waiting to buy anything they could find. And don't forget, we had to end the sale a day early because we didn't have a single item left to sell. I love living in Vermont but it's clear that the local market is too small and too conservative to support any business except those dealing in necessities. And I don't think we have any interest in selling gasoline or toothpaste, do you?"

"You're right. We need to figure out how we can live here and create products that will sell in Boston and New York," I said. "Maybe we could start another Ben & Jerry's. We could call it Bob and Mel's."

"We can't do that," Mel said. "Nobody needs another Vermont ice cream. But maybe some other food product might work. Something besides maple syrup."

"Why don't we bottle some of your great salad dressing?" I asked. "We could still use the name Bob and Mel's."

"I think the name should be more sophisticated, a Vermont version of Crabtree & Evelyn. We could make all kinds of food products like salad dressings, mustards, dessert sauces, marinades and whatever else fits," Mel quickly shot back.

I could tell that Mel was getting excited and her enthusiasm set my mind racing. She was correct, the name "Bob and Mel's" simply wasn't right. That's when I had a brilliant idea. "Let's call it, Blanchard & Blanchard!"

"What about Blanchard & Blanchard & Son?" Mel asked. "You know Jesse will want to help so why not put his name on the label? It'll be much more fun if it's all three of us."

And so, our specialty food company was born. Jumping into high gear was the only way we knew how to go, and with few financial options, it was probably our only choice. So we proceeded, carefully spending our $4,000 treasure on glass bottles and cooking supplies. Mel spent the next several months developing recipes while I designed labels and managed to keep the wolves from our door by working as a carpenter. I'd found a job with a construction crew that was rebuilding a burned-out house. The day I started work, they'd just begun putting on a new roof. It was impossible to hold a roofing nail with my gloves on, yet the nails froze to my fingers if I took the gloves off. It was colder work than you could ever imagine. Every morning I'd gather up my tools, pack my lunch pail with four peanut butter sandwiches, and set off to the job site wearing long underwear, wool pants, and coveralls. Every night I returned home cold, tired, and smelling like ashes. Mel sent me to shower the minute I walked into the house.

But the time passed quickly. In just over four months, we'd tested hundreds of recipes, built a trade show booth, and worked our way through dozens of labels and brochure designs. And finally we were ready to launch our new business. We'd shipped cartons of samples, along with our new booth, to the Gourmet Products Show in San Francisco. The show opened with Mel, Jesse and me standing in our booth, full of excitement, pride, and determination; we'd worked hard, we'd worked together, and we'd loved every minute of it. We weren't about to fail now.

For four days we handed out thousands of samples of our dressings and dessert sauces and talked to hundreds of food buyers, all of whom had come to San Francisco searching for new products. In those four days, we learned more about the specialty food business than we could have ever been taught.

By the end of the show, we had confirmed orders from Bloomingdale's, Macy's and dozens of specialty stores all over the country, and we returned to Vermont with sales reps in fourteen states, and purchase orders totaling over thirty-five thousand dollars in sales. Only then did it dawn on us that we had nothing but a blender and a large stockpot and a lot of cooking to do.

Once again we drove to the National Bank of New Hampshire, but this time the sign outside registered a sunny sixty-three degrees. It was a good omen. We presented Michael White our stack of purchases orders and talked him through our hand-written business plan. Mr. White listened carefully and spent several minutes pouring over our paperwork. To our delight, he agreed to lend us enough money to buy several commercial blenders, drums of olive oil, and barrels of vinegar.

Spring was returning to New England. We weren't out of the woods yet but we were headed down a new, hopeful road.
About the Author
Bob and Melinda Blanchard are motivational, life change experts who teach people how to successfully navigate life transitions such as graduation, divorce, career change, starting a business or simply pursuing your dreams. To learn more about their books and how to live what you love, visit Live What You Love .
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