Business With a Pop

A Community Test Kitchen Helped Echols Gourmet Desserts Get Started

In the fast-paced era of frozen meals, Echols Gourmet Desserts offers a taste of the good old days, when most food was made from scratch.

Charlene Echols-Barnes founded the wholesale dessert company 15 years ago in Syracuse. She decided to pursue a family dream of opening up a bakery after getting caught up in corporate downsizing at Niagara Mohawk — now National Grid — where she worked for about 17 years.

Charlene Echols-Barnes founded Echols Gourmet Desserts more than a decade ago. --Photo by Jeremiah Howell

“We originally wanted it to be a family thing,” said Echols-Barnes, the owner, who grew up in Pioneer Homes and moved to the Valley area of the South Side when she was in high school. “I am the only one to step forward and get it in motion, and now I’m the only one in the business.”

The company’s main product, caramel corn, has a glaze made from scratch, not powder, and there are two varieties: one mixed with cashews and pecans, and one without. Both are sold in 4-ounce bags.

“Right now, gourmet caramel corn is the biggest thing,” said Echols-Barnes, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business.

The dessert company was developed through the Syracuse Community Test Kitchen — located in the South Side Innovation Center — which is a joint program of the Whitman School of Management and Nelson Farms. The Test Kitchen supports new and existing food entrepreneurs with training and guidance to commercialize home recipes, according to Whitman’s website. Participants are trained in business planning, market research, recipe development, sensory analysis and FDA requirements.

“They’re always offering classes,” Echols-Barnes said. “I’m always trying to take advantage of the classes they offer. They taught me to understand a lot about the business world, the legalities of that, how to establish myself as a businessperson, bookkeeping.”

Many of the company’s customers can be found cheering at sporting events in the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University. Echols Gourmet Desserts are also offered at Green Hills Farms supermarket, 5933 S. Salina St., and at the Special Events & Food Court at Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona. Since the company is a wholesale business, the price of the desserts depends on where they are sold, Echols-Barnes said.

Rachel LeQuire, who attended the Albany-Syracuse basketball game Nov. 15 and bought a bag of Echols popcorn, could not recall what she paid — but she did remember the taste. “It was delicious,” LeQuire said. “That’s what I remember.”

Echols Gourmet Popcorn. --Photo by Jeremiah Howell

Brian Zilles, manager of concessions operations at the Carrier Dome, said items from Echols Gourmet Desserts are currently sold at 25 locations in the building, at $4 a bag. With regard to Echols-Barnes as a business owner, Zilles said. “The service I receive from her is exceptional.”

Echols-Barnes said she wished she had the financial resources to establish her own manufacturing company, with “all the fancy equipment” already set up to produce and package her desserts. Right now, the company uses Nelson Farms, Morrisville State College’s small-scale food processing center. It serves small business owners and entrepreneurs in producing, packaging and marketing products.

Finances are limited nowadays, said Echols-Barnes. “My family members and friends help out from time to time when I’m in a pinch,” she said. “I’m using my own finances. I haven’t taken out a loan, trying to keep my costs down. I have to pace myself for expansion.”

Sales have been higher this year than last year, Echols-Barnes said. Most of the profit is made during football and basketball games at the Carrier Dome, and business booms during the holiday season. Suppliers such as Green Hills Farms have done very well with the caramel corn, she said.

Ryan Gertz, a Green Hills Farms shopper, is a fan. “I love a bowl of popcorn when I watch TV,” he said. “If you like sweet stuff, this is definitely a good choice.”