Like many youngsters, Elise Macmillan loves playing around in the kitchen. In her case, though, these culinary experiments haven't led to just messy pots and pans, but to profits.
Elise, 12, is co-founder with her brother, Evan, 15, of the Chocolate Farm, a successful gourmet business in Denver that sells her chocolate creations to a growing clientele.
The business has outgrown the family kitchen and now operates out of the Denver Enterprise Center, a small-business incubator, where the siblings share a commercial kitchen with other companies. The R&D work, however, is still handled by Elise in the Macmillan home, about a 20-minute drive away.
"At the Enterprise Center, where you pay by the hour to use the kitchen, we concentrate on making our products," says Elise during an early-morning phone conversation, conducted before leaving for middle school. "At home, when I have as much time as I want, I can experiment with things. I get ideas from friends and family, and then I change them a little bit."
Elise's kitchen adventures began at age 3, when her Canadian grandmother showed her how to make Rice Krispie Treats. Thereafter, says her mother, Kathleen Macmillan, Elise was forever creating confections from chocolate chips.
"I'd open the refrigerator and find chocolate melted on celery with peanut butter and all kinds of funny things," Mrs. Macmillan says.
These sessions, including an occasional microwave explosion, didn't go unnoticed by Evan, who several years ago was selected to serve on the advisory board of the Young Americans Bank, which is for those 21 and under.
The bank promotes financial education and entrepreneurship and holds an annual Holiday Marketplace, so Evan encouraged Elise to participate. She concocted something called a Pig in Mud, which is a marshmallow dipped in melted caramel and pecans, then dipped in chocolate. She also sold molded chocolate cows on a stick and "Farm Eggs," jelly beans dipped in chocolate.
The themed-base candies, inspired by the farming backgrounds of Evan and Elise's grandmothers, were a hit and sold out quickly.
After that the Macmillans' Chocolate Farm began filling orders from family and friends, but its reputation for fun, well-made products was soon to reach a wider audience, helped by a presence on the Internet and selection for the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award winner in 1999.
Elise has a knack for product development and packaging, and Evan is the "business guy" and computer master.
He knew the Internet's potential from designing a website about author John Steinbeck for a school project. E-mails poured in, making it one of the most visited Steinbeck sites on the web. "It was amazing," says Evan. "I've taken down the site because it was taking a lot of time to answer all the questions people sent it."
For the Chocolate Farm, he's developed an inviting website (www.chocolatefarm.com) that reflects a grasp of e-commerce.
Mrs. Macmillan and her husband stay in the background. They support the business while making sure Evan and Elise run it as much as possible. "It's their business, and we want them to learn," she says. "But like any parents, we want to prevent huge mistakes, the pain of which will be more than the lesson."
David Gonzales, director of the Denver Enterprise Center, says young people have more entrepreneurial potential than many realize, but the key to its proper development is parents.
Speaking of the role Elise and Evan's mother plays, Dr. Gonzales says, "She's kept everything in perspective for them. "These kids don't have a big head about the business, which could tend to happen. They've had a lot of publicity, but the kids are really grounded."
Gonzales says he was impressed with their demeanor and the way they carried themselves from the moment they applied for space in the Enterprise Center. The Chocolate Farm is viewed as a pilot project that could lead to a youth-business incubator.
The center provides a sense of community to budding entrepreneurs, and the Macmillan children have fit right in. "The other people in the kitchen really like them," says Gonzales, who adds they have a good relationship with low-income people from the neighborhood hired by the Chocolate Farm and other companies. The Chocolate Farm generates more orders than the Macmillans can handle alone, so about a dozen part-time workers help, in addition to friends, who also get paid.
Gonzales says that having the Chocolate Farm in the center, where tenants generally stay three years, has been an inspiration to other entrepreneurs. He notes: "People are watching and saying, 'My gosh, look at how they're doing all this stuff. We better get with it.' "
Elise is the one who usually has her friends come and work in the kitchen. Evan concentrates on office tasks. He orders chocolate by the ton, writes checks for rent and work performed, and keeps tabs on what's selling, among other duties.
Their most popular item is a sampler called the Chocolate Farm Classic, which sells for $20 (including shipping). It comes with two chocolate cows on a stick, two Pigs in Mud, eight Chocolate Paws (with pecans and caramel), six Chocolate Clouds (dipped marshmallows), and Lemon Sheep Munch (a white chocolate and lemon chips mixture shaped like a sheep).
Business picks up around Christmas and Valentine's Day, and filling orders could be overwhelming, with thousands visiting the company website daily, except the family works together to keep the business from burdening the children.
"There's a lot of teamwork," says Elise. "We get together in little meetings and discuss everything."
The children know schoolwork takes priority over business. And while they think of the business often, they stay busy with other pursuits, too. Evan, a freshman at Cherry Creek High School, is on the school tennis team and plays year round, and Elise, a seventh-grader, plays the violin, takes jazz dance classes, and is on her school's track team.
Elise doesn't keep tabs on how much time she devotes to the business, but mostly goes in on weekends, sometimes spending five or six hours.
The family insists on quality in every aspect of the business, says Gonzales, who points to the work they've done to attractively decorate a 2,500 square-foot office space in the Enterprise Center and to the Chocolate Farm's newly published cookbook, a visual delight.
When the new office opens, the plan is to invite school classes in for field trips so that they can learn about starting a business, and maybe try their hand at making a chocolate cow or two.
A business can be a wonderful family activity, Gonzales says, because "it gives you an opportunity to focus on something that involves the whole family, which is great. There are very few activities that do that."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society