Well known and beloved by many consumers now, the path to success was not always easy for frozen pierogi brand Mrs. T’s – named after founder Ted Twardzik’s mother Mary, whose pierogi recipe inspired long-lines at fundraisers where she sold them.
Many modern entrepreneurs likely can relate to Tom Twardzik’s memories of his father’s early struggles going up against naysayers to create a new product category and his effort to overcoming early setbacks, such as broken machinery and striking a delicate balance between supply and demand on a limited budget.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Tom Twardzik shares some of hard lessons learned first by his father and then himself as the family-operated brand earned a spot in the hearts – and freezers – of multiple American generations. These include the importance of finding, and listening to consumers, building and empowering a strong team, knowing when to let go, how to separate fads from trends and marrying well.
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Find your niche and then ‘plug away’
Lovingly recalling how his father proved wrong those who ridiculed him in 1952 for leaving a “good job in accounting” to sell his mother’s pierogies in a community where everybody made their own pierogies, Tom Twardzik described his father as a “lone wolf” who created the frozen pierogi category “out of thin air.”
He explained that when his father launched Mrs. T’s pierogies there were no other frozen pierogies and many people doubted they would sell – noting that most people in the community made their own.
But Ted Twardzik knew otherwise, based on the long lines of people at church picnics, bazaars and fundraisers who wanted to buy his mother’s pierogies. And so he dismissed the naysayers and seized the first-mover advantage in a niche market that steadily grew over the next six decades to become an iconic brand and staple in many Americans’ freezers.
But this growth stemmed not just from the seed of an idea that Twardzik recognized in the lines for his mother’s pierogies, but in cultivating a relationship with consumers in which he listened to their needs and worked with them to bring to market products they wanted.
Tom Twardzik explains that his father was hesitant to commit to a recipe at first – wanting to keeping perfecting it – but a grocer on main street urged him to stop testing and “just give me something to sell!”
Once product was in the market, Twardzik was able to continue to tweak it based on additional feedback – an iteration loop on which many entrepreneurs today also rely.
Build a loyal, empowered team
Despite Twardzik’s assessment of his father as a ‘lone wolf,’ he acknowledged that another key to his dad’s success was his “dedication to quality, consistency and the people who he could employ to help him that would be responsible for the quality and consistency for our fans.”
He explained: “My dad knew he couldn’t get there alone,” and he was always grateful and very loyal to the people who helped him.
This gratitude likely was reinforced by memories of trying to go it alone in the beginning, which meant doing not just what he loved, but what he didn’t love.
Twardzik explained in the beginning his dad, who loved making pierogies but didn’t love selling them, felt a sense of “freedom” when he hired his first salesman who introduced the young brand to a new account and knew how and when to promote the product without disrupting the balance between supply and demand.
Twardzik says he inherited his father’s deep appreciation for his employees’ effort and dedication, which he said allows him to consistently deliver a consistent product even during period of upheaval, such as those experienced by most food and beverage players in the past three years, including strained supply chains, labor challenges and a constricting economy.
“You’re not going to be able to deliver the quality or consistency in a product or service to anybody beyond yourself if you don’t have good people,” Twardzik said.
He added that by having a strong, united team, the company can embrace change with minimal disruption because everyone has the same goal, they feel confident and they are not threatened by change.
Know when to let go
As Mrs. T’s team has grown over the past six decades, Twardzik made what can be a difficult decision for some founders and leaders – he opted to let go of making every decision like his father, and instead empower other company leaders to think creatively and advance the business in ways he never would have imagined.
“My dad used to be the single point decision-maker and that has changed. We have a lot more autonomy amongst the management of this business. There are definitely different ways of doing things, and we are absolutely experiencing that with people across the organization, but as long as they’re guided by the same bedrock principles” then we can move the company forward more quickly, he explained.
Keeping up with evolving consumer demand
By letting go and empowering more people to support the business, Twardzik says Mrs. T’s more easily can keep up with quickly evolving consumer demands – be it new flavors or new ways of cooking.
“One of the big challenges that we can is trying to have a business model that allows for us to do something to respond to something we learn about what the consumers want,” he said.
He explained companies first need to distinguish between fads and trends and know when to invest limited resources so that they can stay relevant without stretching too thin.
Over the years, Mrs. T’s has expanded the flavor profile of its offerings, but it also keeps a relatively tight portfolio – leaning on recipes and innovative uses for its pierogies to more quickly connect with the consumer fads and saving product launches to meet meaning trends.
Just as important as flavor and taste is keeping up with how consumers cook and the latest technology in their kitchens. Twardzik remembers when microwaves first gained prevalence that company struggled with the edges of its pierogies drying out and curling. Now, he says, the company also needs to think about air-fryers, boiling bags and other advancements that consumers expect when buying products.
Another important aspect of the innovate and iterate cycle that is not talked about as often is knowing when to walk away. Twardzik recalls how is father thought Mrs. T’s would be a conglomerate of brands across categories, not just pierogies. But after several attempts to stretch into adjacent spaces, such as frozen pizza, which didn’t pan out, he realized doing one thing really can be considered a success.
From managing cash flow to marriages
Innovating new products and expanding a business can be expensive, and because there are no guarantees a launch or increased distribution will succeed, Twardzik stressed successfully managing cash flow and carefully considering when to take on debt is essential to long-term success.
This is especially true in today’s constricting environment.
Hand-in-hand with managing cash flow is Twardzik’s recommendation to “negotiate everything,” because altering terms later can be difficult or even impossible.
His final piece of advice for entrepreneurs entering the space as well as those hoping to hold on for as long as Mrs. T’s is to marry well – not just in business, but in their personal lives. He explains that entrepreneurship can be all encompassing and the line between business and personal can blur, and so having a life partner who understands that and will be supportive is essential to long-term success.