By Susan Elise Campbell
Katie Camarro says she has “the sweetest job in the world.”
She and husband Jeff Shinaman founded and co-own Sundaes Best, a brand of hot fudge sauces and other natural ingredient chocolate products that came right out of the family kitchen.
Camarro is a third generation Saratogian who spent most of her career with Toy Works in Washington County’s Middle Falls. As national sales manager she “loved the job” but knew she was “grossly underpaid,” she said.
This was 25 years ago, a challenging time because her father was ill and in the hospital. He sensed something was wrong when she visited him, and in one of their last conversations together he advised her, “think about doing something on your own.”
“My husband and I had just cleared land and gotten our first mortgage and I thought, ‘How can I do that?’” she said. The idea was planted. A short while later her boss decided to give her a raise. She responded with a letter of resignation.
Starting her own consulting firm, Timber Springs Marketing, was the beginning of her journey as an entrepreneur.
“Small businesses are so involved in product development that they neglect marketing,” she said. “But without sales, nothing else is important.”
Homemade hot fudge soon entered the stage. Camarro wanted to make gifts for her consulting clients, something hand crafted and personal.
“My mom said, ‘Why not hot fudge in quilted jelly jars like grandma used to have?’” said Camarro.
The recipe came from her mother-in-law, whose secrets everybody wanted but weren’t given to anyone but Katie. The more hot fudge Camarro shared with clients and friends, the more she was encouraged to market it.
“I had reached a point in my consulting career where I had a good balance in my life,” she said. But she took the step, went to her first show November 2001 and sold every jar.
The flagship Sundaes Best Hot Fudge Sauce was named by her husband because “it makes every sundae best.’
Encouraged by success at the show, she said “the next step was to figure out how to get it made. I went to a co-packing company who wanted to change it, add stabilizers, substitute the butter with margarine to save money, but I said no. Our family motto is, if you’re going to do something, do it well.”
She looked around for commercial space and a steam kettle, which she learned would be a six-figure expenditure.
For four years Camarro went back and forth to a small food incubator in Fairfax, Vt., twice a week to make product. Meanwhile she continued as a marketing consultant, even while getting her product on the shelves at Stewart’s Shops.
“As I continued to use my sales and marketing skills and the brand progressed, I had to make the decision to jump all in. That was nearly 20 years ago,” she said.
The line of hot fudge sauces grew from the original recipe to raspberry, mint, caramel, peanut butter, hazelnut and many other flavors. By 2015, Camarro had started another brand for grocery stores called The Chocolate Farmer, a line of spreadable dips for pretzels and fruit.
She spent 14 years in one location and has been at 23 Northern Pines Road in Wilton for the last four with the help of her husband, who she calls “the idea guy,” and only three part-time employees dedicated to production, retailing and technology.
Over the past few months the couple has reached out to all the shows they have done and offered them the opportunity to do fundraisers, sharing a percentage of profits from the products sold during the event.
A recent feature on the TV program “Good Morning America” and sales of 12,000 jars of hot fudge sauce the next day prompted Camarro to focus on social media and online presence.
She had just asked Web Instinct to redesign a web site when Sundae’s Best got the free national advertising, orders poured in. The design firm brought in Marketing Kangaroo to prepare the way for greater online sales through the site and on Instagram, she said.
“Specialty foods are not protected from a poor economy, but my business plan really didn’t change much,” she said. “COVID has taught me to swim a different stroke.”
That means less face-to-face connection and more pop-up shops, more emails and an online marketing focus.
“I am grateful to be able to jump in with both feet,” said Camarro. “No matter how tough the world becomes, you must never run out of sweetness.”
By Susan Elise Campbell