The first thing a visitor notices when entering the new 21,000-square-foot Bisousweet Confections headquarters in Leominster is the intoxicating fragrance of fresh-baked goods just emerging from the oven. Karen Collins, founder and CEO of the fast-growing baked goods wholesaler, can’t help but sport a wide smile while moving through her legion of bakers who are handcrafting and packaging the delicious, all-natural doughnut muffins, Linzer heart cookies, biscotti, whoopie pies, and more.
The company moved into its new space in October. Sparkling new industrial ovens, coolers, freezers, and storerooms provide for the ever-increasing production of goods that are now on sale at supermarkets in 16 states. Though Bisousweet has been selling in local Whole Foods Markets since 2014, the chain recently decided to expand the brand to all of its 512 stores nationwide starting in January.
Bisousweet (bisou, pronounced bee-zoo, is the French word for kiss) has grown into a multimillion-dollar business with nearly 70 employees in the renovated former tool warehouse. Fueled by word of mouth, a widespread craving for sweets during the pandemic, and generous economic incentives from the state, Bisousweet has experienced explosive growth in the past three years and outgrew its 5,000-square-foot facility in Shirley. The confections are available around New England at Market Basket, Star Market, Wegman’s, Roche Brothers, Donelan’s, Wilson’s Farm, and dozens of gourmet food and coffee shops. The national embrace by Whole Foods marks a major milestone for Collins.
“Karen is an incredibly skilled pastry chef, a great businesswoman, and she truly cares about how her brand and products show up not only in our stores, but everywhere they are featured,” said Holly Long, a principal local forager for Whole Foods. It was Long, impressed by Collins’s enthusiasm and the quality of her food, who first introduced Bisousweet to Whole Foods.
Collins, 52, is thrilled that her brand has gone national, given its very humble origins. “There’s something really exciting about a new account,” Collins said. “Getting into Whole Foods, it feels like, wow, we’re legitimate!” It is a far cry from the small kitchen in Boxborough where Collins started out in 2005, baking pastries with a single mixer and a rolling rack.
A self-taught pastry chef who loved baking since childhood, Collins got her first job at Klinger’s Bread Company in Burlington, Vt., during college. She became Klinger’s pastry chef by default, when her predecessor didn’t show up for work one night. In 1998, Collins and her then-husband moved to Cambridge and started the Nashoba Brook Bakery in Concord, along with a third partner. Collins made the pastries and created strong bonds with customers, but she struggled to find her identity.
“I never felt like an owner,” she recalled. “I remember feeling like I didn’t have a voice.”
When the couple split up in 2004, Collins gave up her shares of the business and faced the daunting prospect of finding a career. With three young children and a dog, she had to reinvent herself. She tried selling insurance but it was clearly not her path. Nashoba Brook Bakery customers, meanwhile, sought her out, getting her phone number from employees. They wanted her cakes and decorated cookies. “They didn’t want just anyone doing it, they wanted me,” she said.
She complied, happily baking in her small Boxborough kitchen, and giving away her creations for free. “I had kids. I had a dog. I was just grateful to have something to do,” she said.
When a customer called with a request but insisted on paying for Collins’s pastries, she decided it was time to start her company. She called it Babycakes & Confections. She built a website and printed business cards. She began to charge people.
Eventually, a buyer from Idylwilde Farms, a farm stand in Acton, called asking if Collins could bake Passover desserts to sell. Collins said, “Of course I can.”
The idea of selling her pastries wholesale instead of direct to her customers, however, required an altered strategy. She didn’t have packaging and had no idea how much to charge. She drove to Idylwilde and spoke to the owner, explaining her concerns about leaping into the wholesale market. He assured her that everyone starts small, in a garage or basement. He asked her if she planned to find a kitchen and she nodded yes, even though she had yet to think about the idea.
“That’s good enough for me,” he said. Collins was now in the wholesale business. Her first batch of Passover confections sold out and Idylwilde asked for more of her baked goods.
In 2009, Collins found her first commercial kitchen, a 600-square-foot facility at the Stow Minuteman Airport. A year later, she hired her first part-time employee. She received a cease-and-desist letter from Babycakes bakery in Quincy, and even though she had been in business a year before the bakery, she had no interest in a legal battle.
She decided to rebrand and needed a new name quickly, something she could trademark. A French professor friend mentioned the word bisou and the idea of a sweet kiss clicked. She and her second husband, Eddie Collins, designed new packaging and he began delivering to a growing list of outlets.
Early on, Collins baked a laundry list of pastries and soon realized that she had to pare the offerings down to a manageable line. Her doughnut muffins, baked not fried, became her biggest seller. Her biscotti is soft, unlike conventional dry and crunchy biscotti, and her hand-crafted specialty cookies are available in unusual but mouthwatering flavors. The Linzer heart cookies, a variation on the famed Linzer torte, are made from a butter dough base, with an almond meringue piping around the edge and filled with raspberry jam.
Collins acknowledges that none of her recipes are uniquely her own. She has tweaked and fiddled with many ideas over the years to create the Bisousweet line. What grabs people, she believes, is that the packaging is all transparent so customers can see the distinctive offerings. The all-natural, artisanal ingredients are a major selling point.
“My goal is that whatever people see on the shelf, it looks like someone made it just for them,” she said. “When they pick it up, it feels special, like they are going to treat themselves or someone else.”
In 2014, Collins hired a sales manager and the pair began visiting markets and demonstrating the company’s wares. Doors opened, business grew, but profits were elusive. By 2018, she considered closing down but her brother, a business adviser, urged her to keep going.
Bisousweet stayed open and within a year, turned a profit. She attributes her success to her idiosyncratic attitude about the business.
“I never thought of it as selling,” she said. “Honestly, I still don’t. For me, it’s about the relationships. I like meeting people and the selling is the side part of it. I know I sound crazy, not like a typical business owner who is focused on making this much profit. I just try to stay in my lane and focus on what makes me happy. I fully believe that there is space on the shelves for every product that was meant to be there.”