The Bread Winner

Francine Caccavo has turned her love of all-natural croutons into a thriving Hinesburg business, Olivia's Croutons, named after her daughter.

by Tom Gresham

Eleven years ago, Francine Caccavo started baking croutons at night in her home kitchen until midnight, then going to her job at Copytek each morning. In 1999, Olivia's Croutons, the company she named after her daughter, moved to a 2,000-square-foot facility in Hinesburg, three minutes from her house, but better suited to the business.

Francie Caccavo has always loved croutons, although she's never thought much of the ones offered in boxes on supermarket shelves. She prefers homemade croutons like the kind her brother, Larry Williams, occasionally makes. Years ago, at a dinner Williams hosted, Caccavo was particularly struck by the quality of the croutons on her plate.

"I remember telling him, 'You should make these. You should sell these, Larry,'" Caccavo says. "And he said, 'Oh, you can't make any money at that.'"

Caccavo laughs giddily when she recounts the story, because, for the past 11 years, she has made money making croutons. The founder of Olivia's Croutons in Hinesburg, Caccavo has turned her love of all-natural croutons into a thriving business.

Olivia's Croutons supplies "old bread" to markets, restaurants, airlines and other purveyors of food across the United States. Growth has been a constant for the business since its modest beginnings in Caccavo's family kitchen. As Caccavo explained, she spotted an evident hole in the market years ago and she has exploited it ever since.

"There was no such thing as an all-natural crouton on the market when we started," Caccavo says, holding up a bag of her croutons. "There's no competition for this product because it is so unlike any other commercial crouton on the market with the exception of one company in California that makes a similar crouton. Before Olivia's Croutons, if you wanted a crouton like this you either had to go to a bakery or you had to make it yourself. So I thought, 'Wow! We could make really good croutons available very easily!' I thought it was a really good idea because I knew I wouldn't have any competition. And I still don't, really."

Shelburne Supermarket has stocked Olivia's Croutons since Caccavo started the business. Steve Clayton, a co-owner of Shelburne Supermarket, has known her since first grade. He says she succeeds because of the quality of her product.

"It's a locally owned business, and it's a premium, high-quality product," says Clayton, who points out that the supermarket not only sells Olivia's Croutons, it also uses them in its salads. "If you're making a really nice salad, you don't want to put those old, dry, crusty croutons on top. You want to put something of a higher quality like Olivia's. If you want to make a good, rich salad, you need to use premium croutons."

When she founded Olivia's Croutons in 1991, Caccavo was the mother of a 3-year-old girl, Olivia, and a 1 1/2-year-old boy, David. She was employed full-time at the family business, Copytek, an office supply company founded by her father, Larry Williams not an apparently logical stepping-off point for launching a food business.

However, Caccavo has business ownership in her blood. Besides her father, who has since sold Copytek, Caccavo's brother Larry Jr. is co-owner of Redstone Commercial Group, and her brother Tim owns Vermont Document Co. and Mesa Contract Inc. One day, Caccavo says, she just decided she was ready to be her own boss.

"I decided one day I was going to just do it," Caccavo says. "I started making the croutons and I went to Shelburne Supermarket and they were fabulous to me, of course. They said, 'Sure, bring them in and we'll sell them.' And that's just how it started. Between April and June of that year, I made croutons at night in my kitchen at home after everyone else went to bed. In June, I stopped working at Copytek. Not that I could afford to stop working, but I just had to stop working. I was making croutons until midnight and then going to work in the morning."

By August, Hannaford's was purchasing Olivia's Croutons and several other interested stores began to submit orders. With business increasing rapidly, Olivia's Croutons needed to expand, so Caccavo and her husband, David, shifted their refrigerator and china cabinet to accommodate the addition of a large Blodgett convection oven in the kitchen.

David Caccavo jokes that his title is "her little helper," referring to his wife, Francine, the president of Olivia's. He worked part-time behind the scenes for nine years before going full-time with the successful crouton company. He bakes the bread for the croutons.

David, an office furniture salesman at the time, often helped Caccavo during her nighttime shifts, but she handled the brunt of the often tedious labor. From the beginning, she and David were tinkering, exploring and experimenting to try to improve the process, to speed things along. Caccavo says she and David invented several torturous-looking contraptions to try to automate certain steps.

In those early days, Caccavo bought bread from Lilydale Bakery. She recalls acquiring an acute case of carpal tunnel syndrome from cutting the bread by hand. Even the baking, which required close attention because of the nature of the oven, could prove arduous and even dangerous. David recalls that a garden hose was always kept coiled in the front yard "just in case."

"The whole process was super high-maintenance," Caccavo says. "Very, very labor-intensive. We hand-cut everything and hand-packed everything. It was a lot of work and the whole time we kept growing and growing."

In 1993, with the help of Caccavo's father, the couple renovated a section of their basement into a 400-square-foot commercial kitchen. It was a decided commitment to the business and a sign of the robust growth it had enjoyed. The basement space quickly proved insufficient for the rising demand for Olivia's Croutons. The business crept into the rest of the basement and eventually into the living room upstairs, which, Caccavo says, "became like a little warehouse." When Olivia's Croutons landed a large order with Sutton Place, a gourmet food store in Washington, D.C., a new problem regarding space emerged.

"We'd never had an order that big," Caccavo explained. "It filled the entire room. Where we lived, we couldn't get a tractor-trailer in, so we had to take the stuff to the tractor-trailer company and their loading dock. That was like a day project for us at the time.

"So we cleaned the horse trailer all out and we cleaned out our Suburban. Then we could pack all of the croutons that we needed to ship. We showed up at the trailer company with a horse trailer full of croutons. I did clean it out, but still," she says with a grimace. "For a while, that's how we transported everything that needed to go in a truck."

Caccavo knew Olivia's needed a loading dock in order to continue its growth. In 1999, Olivia's Croutons moved into its current 2,000-square-foot facility in Hinesburg. For the first time, Olivia's had a home suited to its purposes. The move allowed the Caccavos to establish a clear separation between their home and the workplace, while still keeping them within an easy reach of each other.

"It's perfect," Caccavo says. "It's three minutes from our house. It's awesome. We were able to get that big oven in here. We were able to start doing things like ordering oil in drums. We could never do that before, because we could never have taken that downstairs. Everything we wanted to bring in we had to carry. We had no storage space, so we'd have to store stuff over at the old Copytek building and go over there like once a week to pick stuff up. It's much more efficient to be here, and it's continued to become more efficient since we've been here."

The best part of the facility, according to the Caccavos, is its proximity to their home on Carpenter Road near the Charlotte-Hinesburg line. David, who joined Olivia's Croutons full-time about two years ago, estimates that he works 75 to 85 hours a week, but he says it feels like much less time. Some Sunday mornings, he might go in to bake bread at 4:30, and still return home in time to eat breakfast with the family. If he is working late, he can take a break to visit the children and have a bite to eat.

"I don't miss out on things at all," David says. "I can do things in the middle of the night and nobody ever knows the difference. It makes for a really nice lifestyle."

David's willingness to work long hours and take on more of the responsibilities has allowed Caccavo to work less and play more a sort of reward for the endless days she put in building Olivia's Croutons from scratch. She says her scaled-back workdays have been a gift.

Diana Mooney-VandeVelde bakes the croutons. Olivia's also makes, on a smaller scale, tostini, cheese spread for Shelburne Farms and quiche for the Cheese Outlet.

"Since David has come, I have definitely been able to do less. And that was sort of the plan. I could work 80 hours a week here I mean, look at my desk but I don't want to. For me, it's great. I love it. I have a lot of other interests I can spend time on. It's still new for David, although he was always involved even when he didn't work here. This is all still exciting to him."

Caccavo has taken advantage of her increased free time to indulge her interest in horses. She estimates she spends about three hours a day working with

"It's my passion," she says. "I'm really involved with the Charlotte Pony Club, which is a children's riding organization. I do a lot of stuff with them, and then I have two horses myself. My daughter has a horse. My son just quit riding, but he's got a horse."

Running their own business, which has four employees, has offered many freedoms for the Caccavos. For example, one parent is always available to shuttle the children to extracurricular activities. Francie and David, who grew up in Shelburne and Burlington, respectively, say they have never missed one of their children's athletic events. The couple, both University of Vermont graduates, have been married for 17 years.

It's not easy to keep up with Olivia and David Jr. Olivia, a 10th-grader at Champlain Valley Union High School, plays soccer and lacrosse and skis competitively. She attends the Mount Mansfield Ski Academy in the winter. David Jr. is an eighth-grader at Charlotte Central School. He enjoys soccer, baseball, free-style skiing and cracking up his family, usually on the subject of his sister's celebrity.

David has been known to milk his status as the child with no product named for him. "We used to go to trade shows and he'd always introduce himself by saying, 'I'm not on the box,'" Caccavo says. "He's not really jealous, but "

"He's not really jealous, but he knows how to work it," his father cuts in. "Like he'll say, 'How about David's Dressing? When is that going to come out?'"

Caccavo laughs and shakes her head, adding "David's Dynamite was another one."

Boxes of Olivia's Croutons do include the names of all the members of the Caccavo family. Olivia appears shining brightly front and center, a letter signed by Caccavo covers the back, and, on the bottom of the box, in small dark type, reads "David and David, too!"

Although Olivia's Croutons does not have plans to start making salad dressings, the Hinesburg building continues to open up new frontiers for the business.

The improved facilities have meant better machines and more options for different types of products. It has allowed David to bake the bread for the croutons, saving the business large amounts of money that it had previously spent buying bread. Olivia's is also investigating partnering with other companies to make products for them. A packaging machine has allowed Olivia's to begin to send supplies of its croutons to airlines and has facilitated the upcoming release of its first batch of organic croutons.

A packaging machine has allowed Olivia's to start sending supplies of its croutons to airlines and has facilitated the upcoming release of its first batch of organic croutons. Kathy Giroux sees that the products are properly packed and shipped.

The organic croutons feed into a core group of customers for Olivia's: natural food stores and co-ops, a natural constituency considering Caccavo's goals for the business 11 years ago. David sits on the board of directors for the Vermont Specialty Food Group, an organization that has proved invaluable to the growth of Olivia's, which also makes on a much smaller scale tostini, cheese spread for Shelburne Farms and quiche for the Cheese Outlet.

"When I developed Olivia's Croutons, I wanted something that was wholesome, something that I would feed my own family," Caccavo says. "I'm not interested in an extra-long shelf life, so there are no preservatives. What I wanted was a really good-tasting product that you wouldn't be afraid to eat."

Consumers haven't been the only ones noticing Olivia's high-quality product. Although David acknowledges Olivia's has a small effect on major commercial brands, he noted that Pepperidge Farm started to make a line of large croutons after Olivia's hefty versions hit the market. Pepperidge Farm also introduced a Parmesan Pepper flavor after Olivia's did the same.

The innovations will continue, the Caccavos promise, and the growth of Olivia's probably will, too.

"We now have the equipment and ability to really crank out some products," David says. "We're at a really good point. This is going to be a very exciting year."

Originally published in October 2002 Business People-Vermont