Effie MacLellan grew up in Nova Scotia eating something called oatcakes, which are biscuit- or cracker-like oatmeal flatbreads that have been a part of the Scottish diet since the 14th century. Effie’s family recipe for oatcakes was already generations old when she moved to the suburbs of Boston after she got married, and she put them out for friends, family, and guests when they visited.
Her daughter, Joan MacIsaac, remembers how everyone loved her mother’s oatcakes. Whenever Effie was baking, the aroma — and, soon after, the word — spread throughout the neighborhood. Children came running to Effie’s kitchen, lured by the irresistible smell of her oatcakes. As Joan grew up, the oatcakes influenced her decision to make food a career.
After receiving her culinary certification, Joan moved to Seattle and became a chef at several high-profile restaurants. Eventually, she returned to Boston and started her own catering company. It was there that Joan met up with an old acquaintance, Irene Costello, who eventually became her business partner.
“Joan and I had known each other from high school,” Costello says. “We were in different grades; however, a mutual friend introduced us, and I ended up helping her when she catered events, in my spare time, and that’s how it all began.”
Leaving the corporate world
But Costello had a decision to make before she joined Joan’s business full-time. “I worked in the corporate world doing finance for many years, and it’s true what they say: I saw the glass ceiling. I was coming up on a milestone birthday, and I didn’t want to be in the same place I was for the next milestone birthday. I wanted something different.”
Costello ended up taking a leave of absence from her job to become more involved in Joan’s business. She took a culinary class at Boston University and received her Culinary Arts certification — and never looked back.
The two women realized that there was something about Effie’s oatcakes. “We started thinking about launching a line of cookies or crackers or biscuits, with the oatcake as the base. We just knew that they resonated because when people would take a bite of the oatcake, the expression on their faces was like, ‘Oh wow!’ They just made people happy,” Costello explains. “We kicked around other ideas, but they just didn’t pan out.”
A star is born
Determined, the two women decided in 2007 to develop a business plan. “This was around the time when the financial crisis started, and banks were going under, so it was not the most conducive time to start a business. Nevertheless, we launched in 2008, named the company after Joan’s mom — Effie’s Homemade — and we’re coming up on our 15th year in business this month,” Costello says.
The oatcakes are still at the heart of Effie’s Homemade, but the company has since expanded its selection. It now offers seven types of biscuits, ranging from almond and cocoa to rye and walnut.
One of their proudest moments, Irene says, was winning a sofi award, “the Oscars of the food industry,” as Costello calls them. “We won the gold award in the cracker category as part of the Specialty Food Association’s 2021 honors, and that’s a big deal in the $100 billion-plus specialty food industry.”
Be prepared for a bumpy ride
For Costello, getting a company off the ground and making it successful was the hardest thing she’s ever done despite her strong business background. “This was the first company I helped start, and it was super challenging. Lots of risks and unknowns, particularly in the consumer-packaged goods industry. It’s not for the faint of heart, and we’ll admit to shedding some tears a few times along the way, particularly during the first few years when we weren’t making any money.”
In the end, though, the hard work paid off, even if things didn’t get any easier. Every day still signals a new adventure “To be sure, we had lots of help along the way from people who were always available to provide advice,” Costello admits.
“The specialty food industry is terrific. We’ve made so many friends and connections, and everyone is so willing to help in this space. I can’t emphasize it enough,” she says. Her advice to other women starting their own businesses? “Ask for help, and you’ll find out that most people are willing to give you 15 to 20 minutes of their time and share their knowledge, which is a great gift because there is just so much to know and learn.
“As your business grows and becomes bigger, you will be faced with more challenges. Your budgets get bigger, your distribution channels expand, and you hire more people. What started out as something small begins to grow, and while that is great, it can be a race to keep up.”
For that reason, women-owned businesses should look to take advantage of all the opportunities that are out there for them, Costello says. “You have so many more resources than you did 20 years ago. There are women entrepreneur business networks, certification programs, and start-up, women-only incubators and labs. It’s important that you utilize all the help you can get and know that you can’t do it alone.”
In addition to having her cookies featured in Harry & David gift baskets, Irene also takes great pride in Effie’s being on grocery store shelves. “It’s so great to see it at Kroger or Whole Foods, and to have friends say, ‘Oh, I saw Effie’s in my grocery store. It really makes you appreciate the journey.”
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Photos by Kathryn Costello