Meet the Maker: Willa's Shortbread
Eric Rion on Being a Maker Dad (and Granddad!)
Though you might want to call him the CEO, Eric Rion is the self-proclaimed COO of Willa’s Shortbread. That’s Chief Oven Operator. “There should be an extra O in there, though,” he wryly told me. “For ‘Only.’ I do it all. I’m a salesman who makes his own products.”
We at Batch developed a partnership with this COO early on. Batch Co-Founder Rob introduced Eric as “one of our hardest-working, longest-serving, best-selling makers.” And you can easily see why. As Eric tells it, “Batch had just finished their first year, and a mutual business acquaintance told me to check them out. I was at the Atlanta Market, when the guys came by the booth and we got to talking. We put together our first order after that and never looked back.”
Working with this dad, granddad, and purveyor is always a treat. With Father’s Day coming up, read on to learn how Eric balances all of his roles and why our customers continue to love Willa’s after all these years!
What did you do before becoming a maker?
My background is in sales. I was a sales manager for an electrical distribution company. I consider myself an ex-patriot of corporate America. It was a great job until the company went public. By then, I was stressed—working long hours and driving and flying all over the country.
Being an entrepreneur is stressful, too, but it’s a different type of stress. You’re looking at the boss in the mirror every morning. I love that.
What are your biggest joys and challenges in being a father and an entrepreneur?
My whole family is involved with a lot of the stuff we do. When we took over the company, around 15 years ago (the original Willa is my sister-in-law’s mother-in-law) one of my children had just gotten married, one was in college, and one was in high school. We actually bought cookies from Willa to use at the wedding—just before we bought the company.
For the last 4-5 years, it’s mostly my wife, since she retired from being a teacher, and me in the day-to-day business. Now, my son is an IT guy, so he runs the website and does all the tech stuff. My oldest daughter has always helped, and my youngest has worked for us full-time off and on. Now that all are older, they help with shows and festivals. We love wine and food festivals—we’re having a good time together. We love having them around. And, they love the selling! They are competitive with themselves. They want to see how much they can sell above last year.
My grandkids have been with us at the bakery since they were born (we have a playroom at the shop) and now that they're getting older, they help out with packaging and labeling. Now they're even helping out at retail shows. Are they the next generation of Willa's? Could be.
Christmas Village and Made South markets were going on at the same time last year. We had to take every single shelf out of our store to make both booths happen. We called in every family member to help.
Recently, I was watching a Garth Brooks documentary, and he held up both hands and said everything that’s a blessing is also a curse and vice versa. Being a father and entrepreneur with a family business is like that!
What do running a business and being a dad and granddad have in common?
With both, you get better with practice. When we first bought the business, we got to spend three days with Willa learning to make the shortbread, and that was it. We called it “Cookie Camp.” Like being a parent, you learn all the stuff fast.
You look back at the first kids and say, “there’s no instruction manual.” So, you rely on people who’ve been there and rely on their experience. You talk to people who have kids. Running your own business is like that, too.
So, I found mentors—Mackenzie Colt, the founder of Colt’s Chocolate, who just hung up her apron, was one of mine. Now, I’m the mentor. I help coach new people. They ask questions like where do I get bags? who does this or that? what’s this market like? It does my heart good to see new people just starting their businesses at markets. They have enthusiasm and a level of excitement that is fun.
Like being a dad, with Willa’s Shortbread, at this point, we know what to do and what to expect.
What gifts are you giving or hoping to receive for Father's Day? What does your ideal Father's Day look like?
We’ll be at the beach. Maybe they’ll take me fishing. We don’t do a lot of gifting on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day because we’re busy being mothers and fathers! Being around family is a Father’s Day gift to me.
What is a typical day like for you?
We have two separate facilities—one for baking and one for packaging and the retail store. I start with going by the bakery. I’ll go set out butter and ingredients to get them to the right temperature to start baking later. Then, I’ll go to the other building to do paperwork and enter orders. I head back to the bakery around noon and bake until I’m done.
I do most of the cooking once we get home, too. I didn’t know how to cook water until my mother died. But, now, I picked it up, and I love it. My wife doesn’t cook much anymore. Baking is my job, but cooking is fun. Commercial baking is a different animal from what you get to do at home.
What would you do if you weren’t running a business?
I did a podcast for Gift Biz Unwrapped, and the host says a thing at the end—I’m handing you an envelope. What’s in it? A check for the company. I’d sell it. I like what I do, but I’m not married to it. I enjoy doing it, but I’d like to retire someday.
If I didn’t have anything to do and didn’t need to worry about working, I’d be outdoors. I like working in the yard. I’d like to do more fishing and shooting sports. I’d spend more time with the family and build our retirement house. I’d also love to travel. My son lives just up the road, my oldest daughter is in Knoxville, and my youngest daughter is in Greenville, South Carolina. There are lots of places in America I haven’t been but would love to see.
Anything else you want Nashville to know?
We have roots in the Carolinas, but we’re a Tennessee company now. Customers have recognized our value, our quality, our responsiveness, and we do business all over the South. Our shortbread is at Blackberry Farm, using their jam as an ingredient. We’re also at Gaylord Opryland Hotel and the Renaissance Hotel downtown, with shortbread made from honey each hotel gets from their own hives. We have partnerships like this all over.
When we started the business 15 years ago, this was a completely different landscape with just a few other locally produced high-end products. We’re still here because we’ve stuck to our core values. We established a level of quality in our ingredients, and we will not compromise. We’ve been approached by large grocery store chains, for example, and walked away because we don’t want to let them control our product. We made a conscious decision that specialty and gourmet are our business. That’s who we are. I want to remain something that is special.
You can buy Willa’s Shortbread from Batch online any day of the week! Check out our Gift Batches with Willa’s included—they make great Father’s Day gifts. Be sure to order by June 15 to ensure on-time delivery by dad’s big day.