Longtime Duluth caterer cooks up something new with scone businessAfter retiring from her catering business, Arlene Coco Buscombe gets back in the kitchen, selling frozen scones
By: Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune
Arlene Coco Buscombe couldn’t stay out of the kitchen for long.
Buscombe, known in Duluth for her years as a chef, caterer and owner of Coco’s to Geaux, left professional cooking behind in 2008.
After 25 years of working 16-hour days and weekends, she was weary. She needed a change.
She found a new niche, teaching the food safety classes required of managers of restaurants, cafeterias and other food operations. She continued to write food articles and share her cooking knowledge twice a month on “Good Morning Northland” on WDIO-TV Channel 10.
But something was missing.
“I was missing a direct hand in food,” said Buscombe, 51. “I had to bring it back some way.”
The long hours demanded in the catering business no longer appealed to her. Forever the entrepreneur, Buscombe found a new opportunity.
Today, her handmade Prairie Kitchen Scones are appearing on more local restaurant menus and the raw product, ready for baking, can be found in a couple of retail outlets’ frozen food cases.
“I had always loved afternoon tea and scones,” Buscombe explained. “When I had my catering business, afternoon tea was one of the menus I offered. So I’ve been baking them quite a few years.”
Moreover, the timing was right. Gourmet and local artisan foods are in vogue.
“There is a demand for products made with local hands in this area since most bakery items are machine-made these days,” she said.
So two or three days a week, Buscombe can be found at the Superior Business Center’s USDA-certified kitchen, making the dough and packaging 500 to 700 unbaked scones for sale.
With a growing clientele that includes restaurants, hospitals and caterers, soon this one-woman operation will need hired help. But that’s fine with Buscombe, who wants to expand her product line to include more flavors and dried mixes and grow to reach the Twin Cities and other Midwest markets. She already has a manufacturer lined up for when that time comes.
Among the first to sell her scones retail was Northern Waters Smokehaus in Canal Park, which carries her packages of six frozen scones, ready for baking, for $7.50
“I tried them and they’re awesome,” said owner Eric Goerdt. “I think they’re better than the ones in the store. They have that really lovely biscuit texture. You bake them fresh. When you get them fresh, they’re so much better.”
So far, sales are good, he says.
“We have dedicated people who try them and really like them,” Goerdt said. “A lot of our customers come in to buy foods for entertaining. They grab them because they can bake them in the morning.”
Buscombe wanted to put a product on the market that she knew was good and had been tested. When she saw there was a market for artisan scones, Buscombe went to work creating them. She started with a recipe for a basic scone she had gotten years ago from a baker in England.
“It’s a unique scone formula,” she said. “It has eggs, and normal scones don’t have eggs. The dough is moister, so it comes out creamier. And the dough is scooped so it’s round instead of wedge-shaped.”
She spent several months test-baking and developing several flavors, using natural ingredients. Besides eggs, they include unsalted butter, heavy cream, unbleached flour, dried cranberries and frozen blueberries and lingonberries. She settled on five flavors: mandarin chocolate chunk, lingonberry cardamom, cinnamon, wild blueberry and cranberry lemon drop.
Buscombe knew how to create and perfect recipes. She knew how to run a business. But manufacturing was new to her.
“It’s a new challenge,” she said. “It’s a world that I’m not familiar with but have been very connected with all of my career.”
She spent months more researching the industry, learning about packaging and state regulations. She turned to knowledgeable friends for advice before she launched her business with less than $10,000.
“I always try to keep it under $10,000,” said Buscombe, who has had several businesses.
In September, she was ready. She started calling people she knew who ran restaurants and other food operations in town, asking if they wanted to buy her scones.
“Being my friends, they said, ‘yes,’ ” Buscombe said. “They tested them, they liked them and incorporated them into their menus.”
Her client list has grown to about two dozen customers.
The Duluth Grill offers her scones on their menu, freshly baked, for $2.50 each and also sells the frozen six-packs for $8.99.
“They’re building in popularity. We’re seeing people re-buying them,” said co-owner Tom Hanson, noting that the restaurant sells about 200 of Buscombe’s scones a week, most from the menu.
The handmade scones fit into the restaurant’s approach of offering unique, sustainable, quality foods so diners have an interesting experience that’s different from chain restaurants.
“Locally, Arlene has a great name in the food business,” Hanson said. “She’s cooking from her heart. One of the biggest things missing in this business is people cooking with passion. There’s less and less of the cooking with passion and cooking with what you know.”