Laco Gourmet Foods: Entrepreneur Training in Talladega County

LaCo Gourmet FoodsA 44–year resident of Talladega County, County Extension Coordinator Wanda Jurriaans has watched her county weather a serious economic downturn over the past decade, as tried-and-true textile jobs vanished with alarming speed. “Literally thousands of people lost their jobs,” states Jurriaans, and those lucky enough to find work were often underemployed. “I thought about how I could get these people some type of employment, or how I could supplement the income they did have,” Jurriaans recalls. “I tried to find anything I could to help bridge the gap.

”Jurriaans started doing “all kinds of workshops” to help people learn new skills and start new businesses in a changed economy. Her e-commerce workshop explored online business opportunities and included training in sales, payments, shipping, websites, recordkeeping, business licenses, taxes, time management, and marketing. Jurriaans was surprised by the large response, and thrilled that her training sessions inspired a mother-daughter team from Sylacauga to start a new business.

Laura Panneton and her daughter, Courtney, had both just finished degrees in interior design when the recession hit, and longtime contractors and architects were facing layoffs. Searching for a new plan, the two attended Jurriaans’ e-commerce workshop, and after gaining skills and confidence, decided to build from their love of cooking and Laura’s longtime baking experience to found a gourmet food company. In April 2010, they launched Laco Gourmet Foods, featuring locally made biscotti and shortbread cookies.

Laco launched with two products and now features eleven, one of which (the lavender shortbread cookie) was named one of Alabama’s “top eight food products to tickle your taste buds” in 2012. Their products are now in stores from Huntsville to Orange Beach, and they continue to expand their line. Recently, the Pannetons found themselves at an ALFA conference sitting with peanut farmers from Houston County, who encouraged them to put peanuts into one of their products. So the roasted peanut and chocolate chip shortbread cookie was born.

But this success didn’t come overnight. The Pannetons wrote a business plan and took a year to get all of the pieces in place. They are careful to expand slowly, since they do all of the baking, sales, distribution, and marketing themselves. Panneton credits Jurriaan’s workshop with giving her the confidence to create a website, blog, and facebook page. “It was a little intimidating to do that, but we did it and now we have all our deliveries and products on our sites.”

Laura emphasizes the hard work required to run a small company, and mentions a few serious setbacks, “But we’re Southern women,” she says, laughing. “We persevere. And we’re just tickled by the way it’s turned out. We’re proud of our little company.” Jurriaans is proud, too. “They found their niche," she says, "and the business just took off!”

Last Updated: May 20, 2014