Santa Clarita entrepreneur Diane Knight started Lady Di’s Cookies in 1994, and now has 28 employees at two locations, on The Old Road across from Westridge Village and on the lower level of Westfield Valencia Town Center. SCVBJ recently interviewed Knight via email.
SCVBJ: What motivated you to go into business in the first place?
Knight: Many of my original cookie recipes came to me through dreams when I was twelve years old. I was able to create the recipes from visions and smells as I awoke. My company motto is “Love Never Fails” as I believe they were divinely inspired. At an early age, I knew I was destined to open a cookie store. Following the success of Mrs. Fields, I founded Lady Di’s in 1994 as a gift packaging company. I opened my first retail store in 2003 and my second retail store in 2014.
SCVBJ: Who were your mentors and what did they teach you?
Knight: Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Field’s in the late 1970’s. She established the retail soft cookie market and created a forum for competition. Gift packaging was lacking, so Lady Di’s specializes in delicious/beautiful gifts filled with cookies, cupcakes, brownies and caramel apples that we hand deliver locally and ship nationwide.
SCVBJ: What are your toughest current business challenges?
Knight: Mall culture is changing. People are ordering online and it has affected traffic. Employees are also different than five years ago. In today’s society, social media has changed younger people’s interpersonal skills. We are finding it more difficult to cultivate staff with great customer service abilities. Many employees find it difficult to greet people and engage them. They are accustomed to using their cell phone to text instead of using it to make a phone call! This is our biggest challenge, and it is a widespread phenomenon.
SCVBJ: Do you have difficulty finding good employees, and how do you find them?
Knight: Yes this is our biggest challenge. We prefer to hire by referral from staff and friends. College of the Canyons is also a great resource when we hire culinary staff.
SCVBJ: With the benefit of hindsight, what would you do differently if you were going into business today?
Knight: I am a firm believer that life is a journey. We must fail numerous times in order to succeed. But knowing what I know today would discourage me from opening retail gift bakeries. California is not a friendly small business state, and it is very difficult to be profitable.
SCVBJ: How would you characterize the regulatory climate you operate in?
Knight: Difficult! The demands to meet constantly changing regulations including business tax increases and personnel human resources regulations make it difficult to keep up, especially without having an onsite HR department, or onsite CPA. Costs associated with the need to stay educated about changing regulations truly affect our bottom line.
SCVBJ: To what degree to make use of social media?
Knight: Social media is helpful to some extent. It allows us to advertise with email blasts and Facebook posts. However, I am not a huge fan of Yelp. In today’s society, we are finding that we are subject to harsh reviews by short-tempered people. More people want to lash out when they are in a bad mood, so the scales are unbalanced.
We are fortunate to have a 4.5 star Yelp rating, but it is difficult to please everyone, and the negative reviews hurt business. Some people post reviews about us that don’t like sweets! So I always wonder why they choose to patronize our sweet shops if they know the end result.
We are grateful to our community of faithful supporters. Many absolutely love Lady Di’s, and we thank them for posting positive reviews! They are responsible for helping us grow, and I believe they appreciate us for being a small business working hard to enhance their lifestyle options.
SCVBJ: Who are your competitors?
Knight: That’s a good question. Lady Di’s stands above the pack. Daily we bake from scratch, without preservatives. We use excellent quality ingredients and maintain great quality control. Our competitors have all seemed to disappear. We have been in the retail market for 14 years, and continue to do well even with mall traffic subsiding and lacking an anchor tenant at our Old Road BevMo Center location, since Albertsons closed three years ago. There is no other gourmet, soft cookie company that I’ve heard of, and many cupcake companies that could have been competitors are closed.
SCVBJ: What is your favorite part of the work?
Knight: It used to be the baking, way back when. Now, it is interfacing with management and staff. The thrill of growing and opening other locations is what motivates me.
SCVBJ: What part of your job would like to delegate if you could?
Knight: All problems. If someone could appear to handle day-to-day equipment failures, staff scheduling issues or negative reviews, I would do a happy dance!
SCVBJ: What advice do you have for someone with an entrepreneurial bent, particularly if it’s in a specialty food segment?
Knight: Over capitalize by 50 percent!