Sweet dreams: Gourmet food manufacturer on the move

Karel Rucker in her packed up facility

Back during her corporate career, Karel Rucker shared her passion for baking sweets among co-workers and colleagues, providing them a steady bounty of her decadent-tasting cookies, handmade chocolates and confections.

“They didn’t get what I was doing. They thought I was crazy always coming in with a new recipe,” said Rucker, a former business development director for 10 years at Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.

Those sweets, along with 25 years of marketing experience and an entrepreneurial dream, were the foundation for her own business. In 2005, Rucker left Accenture with business partner Greg Raynes. They drafted a business plan, hired a trademark attorney and other business professionals and started Mother Rucker’s Sweets the following year. The Fort Worth-based food manufacturing and gift company specializes in premium freshly baked sweets and handmade chocolates and confections. Each of Mother Rucker’s offerings is made from scratch using signature recipes, many handed down from Rucker’s family. There are some 30 products baked at any given time.

“I really wanted to do something else and this is what I was meant to do,” she said. “My life was summed up at the end of the day in a spreadsheet. I was so frustrated with that. It just wasn’t for me. I had a great ride at Accenture and learned so much about big business, but I couldn’t wait to go home and bake a new brownie recipe. I had this dream and it’s turned into a viable business.”

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Launching a startup almost at the beginning of the Great Recession could have been daunting, but Rucker says her company was unaffected by the economic downturn. Mother Rucker’s Sweets has enjoyed double-digit growth year over year, with sales the last two years being “fabulous,” she says. Her products are now on the shelves in some 1,800 outlets nationwide. About 85 percent of sales are through distribution to grocery stores, while the rest are sold online as gourmet gifts to individuals and corporations. No product so far has failed.

In addition to running the day-to-day operations, Rucker, who is one of the few female executives in the food manufacturing industry, bakes and tests new products regularly in her home kitchen to satisfy customer requests and to outpace the marketplace.

“The recession really impacted how we do business and it’s actually been very good for us,” she said. “We stay on top of the trends. We didn’t get locked into a particular sales channel. We sell to them all – big box like Costco and Sam’s, specialty stores like Central Market, traditional grocery chains, and direct sales with our corporate gifts. We’re starting to sell more through big online grocers that come to us.”

Mother Rucker’s Cookie Brittles are, by far, the company’s top seller. The thin, crispy and buttery cookies come in a variety of flavors and have crystallized sugar glistening on top. Rucker says the lemon cookie is the favorite in the South, while in the East it is the almond and in the West it’s a tie between lemon and cinnamon.

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“It all depends on where you are, but the Cookie Brittles remain our biggest seller,” Rucker said. “You can almost tell what part of the country someone is from when they name their favorite flavor.”

For the past six years, Mother Rucker’s has produced its sweets from a small plant in East Fort Worth. The company, which also has several warehouses across town, has outgrown its space. After a year-long search, Mother Rucker’s is relocating to a 32,000-square-foot facility in Arlington’s Westway Business Center. The new building includes multiple docks and room for a much-needed expanded kitchen and new equipment as well as space for growth. The move will allow the company to combine manufacturing and distribution in one location, increasing efficiency and making the firm more of a profitable player.

Rucker says the company has earned the loyalty and respect of its customers by providing excellent customer service along with freshly baked products that can be trusted for quality.

“We believe in being under one roof to control quality. That’s been one of the big parts of our success,” Rucker said. “We’re hands on. We see it every day. We taste it every day. We manage it every day. There are a lot of good products out there but there’s no differentiator, no one great cookie. There are hundreds of great cookies, hundreds of great anythings in any given category. But that’s not enough. It’s creating relationships and having a different strategy and being able to maintain quality.”

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According to Rucker, there are only a handful of food manufacturers like Mother Rucker’s that bake, pack and distribute products with their own employees in their own facilities. The company has a current staff of 10.

“We’re turnkey. I don’t know if there are even five of us who do what we do. Most of it’s outsourced,” she said.

Mother Rucker’s products are now available outside the United States. The company started selling a few months ago across Canada, establishing a new customer base and a new network of brokers and distributors.

“Canadians love us. Who knew? We have a whole market we never dreamed about,” said Rucker.

What’s cooking next?

“We’re looking at distributing in Japan. Japan is pursuing us hot and heavy,” Rucker said.

The vision has always been to grow the company into a larger brand, she added, but quality is the driving force.

“I’ve never run this as a small business. I never thought of it as a small business. I always wanted it to be a big business and I’ve run it like a big business from the beginning,” she said. “Spreadsheets used to define me. Now they’re a tool, as they should be, to help me run my business.

“It’s been a great ride and we’re having fun.”

Mother Rucker’s Sweets

301 E. Stephens St.

Arlington 76018