Ingredients in cracker venture: one recipe and lots of advice

The taste treat of baking cheese in a cracker has not been lost on Kellogg's with its dozen or so variations of Cheez-Its or, say, Kraft's Macaroni & Cheese Crackers.

Nancy's Fancy Cheddar Snaps, made in Lexington, aren't muscling up against these big guys. These small, rich wafers with a cayenne kick at the end are made in small batches from a 30-year-old family recipe using Kentucky butter and sharp cheddar cheese, mixed with Weisenberger flour milled in the Bluegrass.

The snaps are ridged, orange rectangles with the distinctive look of an artisan product. No two are exactly alike.

Unique, too, is the story of how this mother-daughter business grew out of a kitchen and expanded with the help of the area's business-assistance organizations.

The cheddar snaps are available at local retailers, and distribution is expanding. They will be available locally at Liquor Barn in time for the Kentucky Derby, spokeswoman Sheila Ferrell said. "We love that they're a Kentucky Proud product. We're thrilled to have them," she said.

The cheese tidbits were longtime favorites at family picnics and cocktail parties, said Nancy Talbott, who with daughter Linda Barnes is behind the entrepreneurial effort. For many years, she made a batch every Monday morning during the holidays to sell in the gift shop at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.

"A long time ago, I suggested to the children to do this as a business," said Talbott, 78. "But they were busy, and we never got around to it."

The time seemed right, though, after Barnes and her husband, Nelson, sold their Entrée Vous franchise in Louisville about three years ago.

Going from a small-batch recipe to mass marketing turned out to be an enormous amount of work, said Barnes, 52, who attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school in London for several months and has restaurant experience.

Laying the groundwork before they ever sold their first box of cheddar snaps "took every bit of a year to 18 months," she said.

This included perfecting a recipe and figuring out whether it was best to sell the snaps in a bag or a box. They decided on a box.

Next was designing the box, finding a manufacturer and locating a small company to make the plastic tray that holds the snaps.

They sought advice from the Lexington chapter of SCORE, whose volunteers counsel start-up entrepreneurs on finances, business plan preparation, marketing and management.

As they confronted manufacturing difficulties, they turned to the University of Kentucky.

That came because with only three ingredients — flour, cheese and butter — the dough is very stiff. Talbott and Barnes quickly discovered that they could not mass-produce the snaps using a traditional cookie press, as Talbott had done in her kitchen.

"It took two hands to use the cookie press, and it was hard to push the dough out quickly enough. We couldn't make enough wafers that way. It wasn't efficient," said Barnes, 52, adding with a chuckle, "And I was developing big biceps."

A major purchase was a commercial sausage press with an attachment that was designed to extrude the dough in long ribbons of uniform thickness.

Barnes also contacted the UK's Center for Manufacturing for a consultation. "We needed to speed up making the wafers to cover our costs," she said. The UK consultants made several suggestions: Change the thickness of the pans to ensure even baking; grate more cheese at one time and make bigger batches of dough.

"They said make the batches larger, then bake half, refrigerate half. It would save time," Barnes said.

The UK College of Engineering also designed a device that cuts multiple wafers at a time.

Then the manufacturing consultants "segmented our work area to make it more efficient," Barnes said. Consultants advised how to arrange ingredients in relation to the mixer, and how to place the commercial-size baking pans near the special attachment and cutting board. "It was really very helpful," she said.

With UK's help, production went from four cases a day (12 boxes in a case, 35 snaps in a box) to eight cases. The women work in one of the commercial kitchens at the Red Mile.

Their current push is increasing production to 10 to 12 cases a day "to become more profitable, and so we can handle big orders," Barnes said.

The women estimate their start-up costs at $50,000. They are now at the break-even point, "with a little bit left over," she said.

The cheddar snaps, in their cheerful black-and-white gingham-checked box, are available locally at The Mousetrap, Joseph-Beth Booksellers and Good Foods Co-op at a price of $10. Every Saturday, Talbott and Barnes also have a booth at the Lexington Farmers Market in Cheapside. The pair sold their gourmet snaps last week at the Cincinnati Flower Show, and they hope to break into the Cincinnati market.