When Sheila G’s Brownie Brittle hit the market in 2011, it redefined the cookie category forever. It’s like the brownie’s edges, crispy and full of rich, chocolate flavor—the best part of the brownie. As a bonus, Brownie Brittle is lower in calories than traditional brownies, and is highly snackable.
Once people try it, they’re hooked. Within a few short years of its launch, Brownie Brittle grew into a powerful brand.
Thanks to the brand’s success, thin, crispy cookies have emerged as a significant product segment. But there’s only one Brownie Brittle—and there’s only one Shelia G. Mains, the savvy, entrepreneurial baker who founded the company, based in West Palm Beach, FL.
Through the years, Mains has beat significant odds to find success. Her story spotlights key, defining challenges that threatened her livelihood, challenges that she overcame with keen business sense and an inspiring entrepreneurial spirit that continues to drive her business forward today.
It’s for these reasons and more that Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery has named Brownie Brittle our 2018 “Bakery of the Year.”
Magic in the kitchen
Mains, who grew up in Syracuse, NY, cites a passion for baking that runs in her family. “My mother and my grandmother were phenomenal bakers.”
An early baking memory was making spritz cookies at the holidays. “I couldn’t have been more than six years old,” recalls Mains. “I remember how hard it was to push the dough out of the cookie press, and how grown-up I felt being given the freedom to decorate the cookies any way I liked. But my strongest memory—and the one that has stayed with me all these years and inspired me to do what I love—is the joy I felt from creating something with my own two hands that put a smile on someone’s face.”
In 1984, Mains moved to Florida to be closer to her mother after her father suddenly passed away. And in the early 1990s, when the U.S. economy took a slide, Mains hit a turning point in her career. She was a vice president in an industrial advertising agency, but the business was losing clients. “Baking always brought me comfort, so on many of those difficult days at the office, I would bring in a batch of brownies to share, and they were always a hit.”
Eventually, like so many others, she lost her job. “Baking brownies and selling them became my survival for getting through those initial days and weeks. Filling up my home with the wonderful aroma of something chocolate baking in the oven always brought me back to those carefree early years when I would watch my mother and grandmother work their magic in the kitchen.”
Soon, Mains realized that she could bring that magic to the masses. “I launched my brownies business in 1992 using a family recipe for chocolate chip fudge brownies.”
The business grew, but not fast enough. “I had two children to support, and after two years, the business still hadn’t generated enough income to replace my salary,” says Mains. “That’s when I expanded into foodservice, selling to hotels, restaurants and caterers.”
By 1994, Mains had developed a formula for fat-free brownies. “I had just baked a batch when a neighbor in the industrial park where I had my little bakery stopped by, and I gave him some to try. He liked them and said he’d like to send some samples to a friend. That friend turned out to be one of the top executives at Walt Disney World.”
A few weeks later, Mains found herself in a conference room in front of 12 executive chefs waiting to sample her brownies. They were a big hit. “The first order was for 37,000 brownies, much more than my tiny 1,200 square-foot bakery could handle,” she says. “Thankfully, I had enough lead time to line up a contract manufacturer.”
Innovation in the face of adversity has defined Mains’s career—and she faced another career-defining challenge in the late 2000s.
“During the housing crisis in 2008 and 2009, people weren’t saving their money to go to Disney, and they weren’t eating out,” says Mains. “As a result, my sales were tanking. If I were to survive, I had to find those same customers in the grocery aisles. Brownies are a tough sell into grocery, and I would often hear, ‘We already have a brownie.’”
But Mains had another idea up that was unlike anything else on the market—a crispy, thin brownie—and started development work.
As Mains created early versions of her Brownie Brittle, she asked friends and family to sample them. “They gave Brownie Brittle a unanimous thumbs up. They loved it. I would hear comments like, ‘Your brownies are amazing, but if I were you, I’d focus on Brownie Brittle!’ or, ‘I don’t even like brownies—but those brownie edges are incredible.’ And when I began hearing similar comments from those within the industry, I knew it was something worth pursuing.”
At a Glance
Company: Brownie Brittle, LLC
Headquarters: West Palm Beach, FL
Website address: browniebrittle.com
Products: Cookies, chocolate bark
Brands: Brownie Brittle, Thindulgent Cookies, Thindulgent Chocolate Bark, Cookie Bites, Brownie Brittle Bites
Founder and CEO: Sheila G. Mains
President and COO: Jan Grywczynski
Vice President of Operations: Doug Scott
Senior Vice President of Sales: Al Raddatz
Brownie Brittle officially launched in 2011, but the products still needed some formulation tweaks. So, in 2012, Mains partnered with Jerry Bello and his team at Keen Marketing and Manufacturing (now KEEN Growth Capital). “Jerry, who is a snack food genius, reformulated the product. He managed to improve the flavor and ensure the product stayed crisp. And he helped us connect with a new production facility that could automate the process using tunnel ovens and had customized equipment. He helped us drop our costs dramatically and scale production quickly, enabling us to fill some massive orders.”
Around that time, Mains made Brownie Brittle truly a family business. “My son and daughter were two of my first hires in 2012,” she says. “They had always helped me out over the years, but for the first time I was actually able to pay them a salary.”
In those early days, finding opportunities to sample the product was instrumental to growth. “I used to say, ‘The good news is, we’ve created a product that no one has ever heard of before. And the bad news is, we’ve created a product no has ever heard of before.’ But to see the reactions when people tried it for the first time was so motivating. They tried it, they loved it and they bought it. And even better—they loved to share it with their friends.”
Bello also brought relationships he had built over the years as CEO of Sensible Portions and Mama Says Biscotti, notes Mains. He was able to catapult Brownie Brittle into the marketplace via the connections he had maintained with retailers, brokers and distributors.
Growth came quickly, and Brownie Brittle was soon a multimillion dollar brand. Distribution now spans from coast to coast—and overseas to over three dozen countries—covering all retail channels.
“Our business has nearly doubled over the last three years as we’ve expanded our distribution beyond just club and grocery stores,” says Jan Grywczynski, president and CEO. The product line has also expanded to include new flavors of Brownie Brittle, including organic and gluten-free products, as well as sandwich cookie and confection lines. “This expansion has required new contract manufacturing and distribution network, which has brought an added complexity and shift toward a more customer-focused organization.”
The Brownie Brittle brand now includes 12 varieties. Flavors include Chocolate Chip, Mint Chocolate Chip, Toffee Crunch, Salted Caramel, Peanut Butter Chip, Dark Chocolate Sea Salt and—most recently—Chocolate Almond. “Our Chocolate Chip Brownie Brittle is the original flavor and continues to be our best-seller,” says Mains, “but Salted Caramel is a close second—and Chocolate Almond, our newest flavor, has absolutely taken off.” Gluten-free versions come in Chocolate Chip and Dark Chocolate Sea Salt.
Organic flavors include Chocolate Chip, Chocolate & Toasted Coconut and Pretzel & Dark Chocolate. “We’ve recently started shipping our Organic Brownie Brittle to all Whole Foods locations,” says Mains.
All Brownie Brittle products come in resealable stand-up pouches.
In January 2017, the company introduced its handcrafted Thindulgent sandwich cookies in two flavors: Salted Caramel and Toasted Coconut. “Our sandwich cookie is unlike any other on the market,” says Mains, featuring light, thin, crispy cookies sandwiching a smooth chocolate center.
The company also offers a confectionery line, which consists of four flavors of Thindulgent chocolate bark, and a line of chocolate-enrobed Brownie Brittle Bites and Cookie Bites.
In 2019, the company will expand its Brownie Brittle line to include several flavors of Blondie products.
Al Raddatz, senior vice president of sales, notes that LTO holiday Brownie Brittle offerings include Chocolate Chip with White Drizzle and Salted Caramel with Dark Drizzle. The holiday lineup has also featured Thindulgent chocolate bark in Peppermint and Caramel Pretzel, and Brownie Brittle Bites in Milk Chocolate Caramel and Peppermint Dark Chocolate. All holiday products come in seasonally themed packaging.
Most products retail in 5-oz. pouches, but some 14-oz. family-sized options are available. “Our newest initiative, primarily being executed in club, is a 1-oz. snack pack of Organic Chocolate Chip,” says Mains. The product configuration includes 16 single-serving snack packs.
Mains now exclusively focuses on her Brownie Brittle and Thindulgent business and no longer bakes traditional brownies. “We had a nice 22-year run with Disney, which ended two years ago when they decided to bring their brownie production in-house,” says Mains.
“We contract manufacture our Brownie Brittle in two facilities,” says Mains, “one on the East Coast and one in Southern California. Our Thindulgent sandwich cookies are produced in a separate facility, also under a contract manufacturing arrangement. And the same goes for our Bites and Thindulgent chocolate bark. When you’re a young brand as we are, contract manufacturing is a significant asset.”
Brownie Brittle production had a strong level of automation from the start. “Most of our automated systems were implemented in 2012,” says Doug Scott, vice president of operations. “Since Brownie Brittle was like no other product to hit the market, it meant designing customized equipment that would ensure the quality of the end product was consistent with our high standards. We are constantly evaluating our production methods and looking for new ways to improve operating efficiencies so that we can stay competitive.”
Mains started this journey via her love of baking, but it has grown into a source of inspiration. “The unexpected moments of pride and joy come when I’m told that my passion for doing what I love inspired someone else to make a change in his or her life,” she says.
As a close friend of Mains once said, “You don’t teach people how to bake, Sheila, you teach them how to dream.”
Want more? Check out previous Bakery of the Year winners.