Feeding a market for gourmet food

Business: Hard work and Scottish salmon help boost a Baltimore-based catalog company.

March 03, 2002|By Kathy Hudson | Kathy Hudson,Special to the Sun

In a nondescript business park in southwest Baltimore sits one of the city's best-kept secrets: Mackenzie Ltd.

For 18 years, the gourmet food catalog has provided discriminating palates worldwide with everything from Scottish smoked salmon to Russian caviar. And that's just the beginning. These days, it reads like a food lover's dream. There's brie in puff pastry, foie gras with truffles, Belgian chocolate sauce.

The person behind this mail-order empire is Laura McManus. She came to Baltimore to attend Loyola College and wound up years later deciding to stay and become a business owner. Her hands-on approach is a big reason for the company's success. "I do everything," says the blond, blue-eyed president.

Her mission, she says, is to find "great food, no exceptions." That quest takes her all over the world. She tastes every product before adding it to her catalog and even recruits family members as food critics. She edits and proofreads the catalogs, helps answers the phone and even pitches in to pack orders.

Family loves food

She grew up in Marlboro, Mass., in a family of unpretentious gourmets.

"We ate good food of any ethnicity," says McManus, 33, who now lives in Ruxton. "As a small child, I ate everything from matzo ball soup to herring with sour cream to lobster thermidor."

Later, as a Loyola Spanish major living in Spain, McManus developed a taste for European foods. After graduation, she worked in the printing business. In 1996, with a partner, she bought Mackenzie Ltd. from James Mackenzie, grandson of its British founder, A. Rufus Bette-Bennett. (Mackenzie had begun the operation from his Cross Keys home.) Eighteen months later, she and her father, Walter Cederholm, became sole proprietors.

She also married into the food business. Her husband, George McManus, owns J. J. McDonnell wholesale seafood business in Jessup. They look out for each other professionally. He buys caviar, smoked salmon and finnan haddie from her, and stores products when she runs out of freezer space; she buys shrimp, fresh crab meat and fish from him.

Their 22-month-old daughter, Madeline, already is a Mackenzie devotee, wanting dulce de leche caramel sauce on her waffles and Walkers chocolate chip shortbreads as treats. The rest of the family is involved too. McManus' brother, a Boston financial analyst, writes the catalog. Her mother helps with computer programs and customer relations. The entire clan, including a grandmother in Florida, gets to taste products in development.

Around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, McManus' father comes to Baltimore from Massachusetts to work nearly round the clock when the company expands from a four-person operation to 20 and receives not 50 telephone orders a day but 500. (The catalog is mailed to 40,000 households, 800 in Maryland.)

170 offerings

Last year, the catalog offered 170 products from 15 countries and grossed $800,000, up 8 per cent from the year before.

The glossy, elegantly designed pages of the new spring catalog look almost good enough to eat. On the first page, a quote by Oscar Wilde sums up the company philosophy: "I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best." That's followed by two pages of Mackenzie trademarked, smoked Scottish salmon. "Our most popular products by a landslide, they account for half of our business," says McManus.

The second most popular staple is caviar -- Russian and Iranian.

"Iranian has only been available again since the embargo was lifted in March 2000," McManus explains. "It is very rare and extremely expensive." A 7-ounce tin sells for $899.95, making it the single, by weight, most expensive item sold.

While the average catalog order is $125, McManus offers an assortment of products under $10 from a line of nonperishables she has developed.

And some of her best finds -- like Kirchmayr chocolates -- are discovered close to home.

"Albert's chocolates are unparalleled in taste and quality," McManus says of the Timonium business.

Albert Kirchmayr's business was not set up for shipping, and he'd had trouble with some companies not taking enough care when storing his chocolate. At Mackenzie, he says, "it is always kept fresh, with top-notch quality of handling."

Maryland products

McManus has chosen other regional products: Lisa Anne's Toffee Apples from Baltimore; chocolate pate from Food, Glorious Food in Rockville; All Occasion Cakes from a division of Ms. Desserts in Catonsville; and exotic coffees from Baltimore Coffee and Tea in Timonium.

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