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It Ain't Over: Laid Off In Midlife, She Found A Sweet Plan B That Made Millions

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One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This story is about a woman who lost her high-powered position in midlife and reinvented herself using a hobby that she never expected to profit from. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

Sheila Mains' love of chocolate goes back a long way. She’d sit by her grandmother’s side as the tiny four-foot woman rolled out the dough for her favorite European pastries and help her mother bake brownies so there would always be something homemade in the house. And long after all the sweet ingredients were back on the shelves, Sheila would find her way to the secret stash.

“My mother would always say, ‘Sheila, there’s M&M’s, there’s Hershey’s Kisses, why are you eating the chocolate chips?’ I was just addicted.”

That sweet addiction would serve her well. Sheila’s passion made her very popular as she grew up. On the party scene, when she would ask what she could bring, the answer was always brownies and at work -- where she was an Executive Vice President with a corner office -- there was often a container filled with the dense chocolaty squares on her desk.

But while she loved to surprise her co-workers with her home-baked treats, Sheila never saw it as a business -- that is, until the age of 42, when she found herself in need of a Plan B.

“I worked for an industrial advertising agency,” Sheila explained, “and we would put together manuals and user guides for computers. It was a thriving business until desktop publishing came into play and clients began building their own in-house departments. Our company was downsizing and we’d all talk about what we’d do if the day came that we were next. I’d kid about going into the brownie business. But I never thought I’d actually lose my job -- until I did, and I was devastated.

“There I was in the unemployment office, watching all the Friday afternoon casualties coming in and I realized I couldn’t work for someone else, give them 150 percent and let this happen again. But I couldn’t give less than 150 percent. So I had to work for myself. And it had to be the brownies. My Plan B really was a Plan B: brownies.”

So Sheila went home that day and started baking. But now instead of bringing her brownies to the office, she was bringing them to local cafes and stores. Within a couple months, she had so much business that she moved into a commercial kitchen and began selling her brownies in tins. She even landed the phone number 1-800-Brownies and it wasn’t long before she got the call of a lifetime. The local theme park in her area wanted her to come in for a tasting -- but this wasn’t just any theme park -- the executive chef at the most popular travel destination in Florida was on the phone.

“Before I knew it, I had my first order for 37,000 brownies,” Sheila said with a smile. “I think that was the point where my mother stopped asking when I was going to get a real job.”

Soon Sheila became the primary brownie vendor for all of the company’s parks and resorts in Florida and she was baking more than 1.6 million brownies a year. It was all rolling right along until 2008, when during the recession, Sheila’s sweet deal began to crumble. And she found herself in need of a Plan C. Or at least a B Plus.

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“People were trying to save their homes. They weren’t going on vacation. And while we had other contracts, many of those were for restaurants -- and people weren’t eating out as much -- they were just trying to keep food on their tables.”

So at 60, Sheila took lemons, or in her case brownies, and turned them into lemonade. She reinvented herself once again -- along with her brownies, and created Sheila G’s Brownie Brittle.

“I always loved the drippings on the side of the pan,” Sheila explained. “While the brownies were moist and dense, the batter that landed on the side of the pan was thin like a cookie, and had this great burst of chocolate flavor. I’d go out onto the manufacturing floor in the middle of the day when I needed a chocolate fix, and collect the crispy parts that were left on the pans, but it got to a point where I’d have to go out when everyone was on break, because the bakers had discovered the same thing!”

Everyone was nibbling on the crunchy brownie brittle and that’s when Sheila realized that her solution was right in the palm of their hands. So she went back to where it all began -- her kitchen -- and began experimenting.

It wasn’t long before she perfected the process of creating just the crunchy part and brought in a partner with expertise in packaging, marketing and distribution. And in July 2011, Sheila brought her new product to the Fancy Food Show in Washington D.C., where she quickly got the attention of specialty stores across the country. But it wasn’t just the grocers who were taking note -- Sheila had gotten the attention of the big boys -- big-name manufacturers who thought she had a great idea. But they weren’t looking for a partnership. They wanted to recreate Sheila’s product and knock her off supermarket shelves.

“One company came by our booth at the Sweets and Snacks Expo,” Sheila remembered, “and asked for samples. It’s not like they were even trying to hide who they were -- they were wearing name tags! I told them I’d give them samples after they signed a non-compete!”

And it wasn’t just one manufacturer or even one try. Another well-known snack company placed several online orders -- and asked to have their purchase shipped to their corporate headquarters. The third time they ordered, they requested a dozen packages, and asked to have them sent overnight to a manufacturing plant in another part of the country. The woman, who never tried to conceal her identity, claimed she had an “event” that weekend.

“We called them the first two times,” Sheila said, “and asked how we could help or if there was a way we could work together, but the third time, it was clear that they had some sort of meeting scheduled for that Monday, where they were going to discuss how to copy my recipe. So I went to Costco and bought twelve packages of little round brownies and shipped them overnight -- not our Brownie Brittle, but just some generic brownies. Imagine their surprise when the company executives, who had probably flown in from all around the country, opened up that box. Oops, must have been a problem with fulfillment!

“We haven’t heard from them since.”

But since then, Sheila has continued to stock supermarket shelves. Brownie Brittle was nominated as one of the most innovative new products at the 2012 Sweets And Snacks Expo and by October of this year, she’ll have more than two million bags of Brownie Brittle on supermarket and warehouse club shelves, including stores like Costco, BJ’s and Sams. All of that adds up to $6 million in sales this year, and next year the company is projecting another $20 million in revenue.

“The good news is we’ve created a product no one has ever heard of before. And the bad news is, we’ve created a product no one has heard of before -- so now the big manufacturers want to copy it. But we’ve created this out of passion. They’re trying to copy it out of greed. By the time they get through all their focus groups and meetings, we’ll have blanketed the market and put the best possible product out there.

"I’ve always believed that if you do what you love, the money will follow,” Sheila continued. “No one could have ever talked me out of creating Brownie Brittle. And no one is going to take it away.”

For information on where to purchase Sheila G’s Brownie Brittle, you can visit http://www.browniebrittle.com/.

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