Local entrepreneurs find success with family recipe

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Joan MacIsaac has a very clear image from her childhood of her father, John. “My dad had oatcakes after dinner with cheese or butter and dried fruit, like raisins or dates,” she said. “And a glass of milk.”

Joan MacIsaac (left) and Irene Costello with oatcakes and a cup of tea

Joan MacIsaac (left) and Irene Costello with oatcakes and a cup of tea

MacIsaac’s mother, Effie MacLellan MacIsaac, who grew up on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, learned how to make the treats from her mother. These days, new generations are enjoying Mrs. MacIsaac’s oatcakes thanks to Joan MacIsaac of Canton and her friend Irene Costello of Brookline, the co-owners of Effie’s Homemade.

MacIsaac and Costello knew each other through mutual friends when they were students at Milton High School. As adults, their career paths went in different directions. MacIsaac started Ruby Chard, a catering business that offered team-building cooking opportunities for corporations. Costello rose to vice president of sales at Mellon Financial. Costello, however, was interested in making a change.

“I was approaching 40,” she said, “and didn’t want to be there at 50.”

Costello went on to earn a Master of Liberal Arts degree in gastronomy at Boston University. It was through that program that the two friends reconnected. Costello and MacIsaac started to explore the idea of starting their own business. Costello was interested in a wholesale business and suggested that they sell MacIsaac’s mother’s oatcakes.

“It’s a very simple thing to throw together for a busy mom,” MacIsaac said. “I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’”

They drew up a business plan in 2007. The following year they launched Effie’s Homemade and immediately became involved in every aspect of their new business.

“Joan and I were on the phone,” Costello said with a laugh as she described how they sought stores to sell the oatcakes.

One partner was in charge of the north shore, New Hampshire, and Maine, while the other one handled stores on the south shore and in Connecticut and Rhode Island. They quickly figured out their biggest obstacle to success.

“People did not know what this was,” MacIsaac said of the oatcakes. They came up with two solutions. The first was to add a tagline — “a biscuit for tea … a cracker with cheese … a cookie as a light and tasty snack” — beneath the flavor label on the packaging. The second was their decision to sell the oatcakes only to stores that agreed to put out samples for their customers to taste. “That sells it,” MacIsaac said.

Through their telephone marketing approach, Costello and MacIsaac found 13 stores willing to sell Effie’s Homemade, a number small enough that they delivered the product themselves. But by the end of 2008, their customers numbered 200. They stopped the personal deliveries and learned the ins and outs of shipping. When Whole Foods began to carry Effie’s Homemade, they were set up with a distributor and their simple product had more new customers around the country. It is also available in Canada.

Today, Costello and MacIsaac work in a large two-room office suite with high ceilings in Hyde Park. They have two employees in the office and work with a co-packer who makes Effie’s Homemade to their specifications. Their business is international, but they can be found at the plant regularly checking on the quality control of the oatcakes, which are still hand packed.

“It’s all pretty organic,” MacIsaac said. “We’ll grow more next year. It’s the most sensible thing.”

Effie’s Homemade is made in five flavors. Oatcakes are the primary cookies, made from a fourth generation family recipe. Corncakes have a toasted corn flavor and a hint of anise. Nutcakes are made with pecans and local honey. The newest flavors are Cocoacakes and Ryecakes. MacIsaac and Costello also plan to offer gift packages of oatcakes and cheese and are hoping that customers will realize that it’s a delicious flavor combination.

MacIsaac said that many of their customers send them emails saying that they enjoy the oatcakes with a cup of tea at four o’clock in the afternoon. She’s hoping that they will try them with cheese, combining cheddar cheese with the ryecakes. “It tastes just like a grilled-cheese sandwich,” she said.

Costello added that another popular trend is cheese with chocolate.

People who haven’t tried oatcakes admit to being confused by the treats. “They ask, ‘Is this a cracker or a cookie?’” Costello said. “I tell them, ‘You tell me.’ It doesn’t matter. They just love it. They’re wonderful by themselves or with jam or cheese. It’s honest food.”

MacIsaac agrees. “It’s honest,” she said. “It’s honest food with simple flavors. It’s very nostalgic.”

Today, Effie is 91 years old. MacIsaac said that she thinks the business is wonderful but is happy to be out of the limelight. In 2010, when her daughter told her that Effie’s Homemade won an industry award for best cookie, she was thrilled. “But she said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t give out my number,’” MacIsaac said.

Effie’s Homemade products can be purchased at the Main Course in Canton and at other local businesses, including Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, the Fruit Center in Milton, Whole Foods in Dedham, and City Feed in Jamaica Plain. For more information and to order the oatcakes online, go to www.effieshomemade.com.

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