HACKETTSTOWN — When most students hand in a final project, they heave a sigh of relief that it has been completed and hope for a decent grade to make all of their efforts worthwhile.
For Centenary University sophomore Justin Dalcourt, however, a school assignment from last year is still playing a major role in his life.
Academic Foundations (AF), a freshman orientation class designed to give students an overview of their chosen majors, is a requirement for graduation from Centenary University. For Dalcourt, a business major from Sparta, the course centered around a semester-long project in which students were asked to come up with a business idea, create an implementation plan, and try to make a profit.
Thus came the inspiration for Dalcourt’s Desserts, a gourmet pudding venture that has since grown into a full-scale business operation.
“I started making homemade pudding back in high school,” said Dalcourt. “It was just for my friends and family, something I did for fun. I probably never would have thought of turning it into a business if it hadn’t been for this project.”
Last year, Dalcourt debuted his sweet creations at the Hope Christmas Market to a group of holiday shoppers and vendors. The results, he said, far exceeded his expectations.
“We sold out,” he said. “At that point, I just had one flavor, pumpkin pie. I knew I had a good product, but I had no idea that it would be so well received.”
Today, Dalcourt’s Desserts has become a fixture at community events, fundraisers, and even catered parties. In just over a year, he has added dozens of flavors to his repertoire, including Double Chocolate Oreo, Sweet Apple Cinnamon, Java Chocolate Chip, Root Beer Float, Candy Cane Crunch and Sun Butter Cup, a peanut-free alternative for those, like Dalcourt himself, who suffer from allergies but love the taste of peanut butter. Since most pudding varieties start with the same base of milk, sugar, and eggs, Dalcourt said that experimenting with new flavors is only limited by his own creativity and by that of his clients.
“I came up with my base recipe back in high school,” he said. “Once I had a good foundation, I started to think about flavors and textures that would go well together. It’s been a lot of fun to be able to incorporate some good seasonal items into to the mix as well.”
Dalcourt is positive and energetic, the type of person who clearly enjoys what he does and makes it all seem fairly effortless. Getting the business off the ground, however, has not been easy.
“Justin knew that he would have some challenges when he started this project,” said Dr. Linda Poisseroux, AF professor and academic advisor at Centenary.
“Most students stay away from food-related projects when they find out how much work they require, but he really rose to the occasion and met every obstacle head-on.”
As a full-time college student, Dalcourt faces time constraints that other small business owners don’t. Still, he said that on average, he spends at least five hours per day working on his business.
If it wasn’t for his mother, Diane, Dalcourt said it would be impossible for him to get everything done.
“She helps with packaging ideas, day-to-day operations, a million little things that add up to a lot. I definitely couldn’t do this without her,” he said.
Even with the help from his mother, Dalcourt said that it can be a little hectic to try to balance everything that goes into running the business.
From shopping for ingredients and packaging supplies, to baking and creating new recipes, to delivering orders, to managing social media marketing and manning tables at vendor fairs and events, a week in the life of Justin Dalcourt reads like the list of tasks that would be expected of an entire management team.
“Restaurant supply stores that sell in bulk come in handy for base items and things that we use all the time. I try to buy as much in bulk as possible, to keep the cost down,” he said, “We try to be as accommodating to our customers as possible, and sometimes that means running out to another store to get ingredients.”
Dalcourt said even packaging materials can be customized to fit the nature of an order.
“Usually, we use these sturdy, half-gallon and gallon-sized plastic containers, like the ones that restaurants use to package soup,” he said. Sometimes, though, for things like Sweet Sixteen parties, we use little individual mason jars for a nicer presentation.”
As though he weren’t busy enough, even baking the pudding itself comes with its own set of challenges.
Home baker regulations in New Jersey make it challenging for small businesses like Dalcourt’s Desserts to get off the ground, said Poisseroux.
Current health and safety laws dictate that all food items sold for public consumption must be prepared in a commercial kitchen, which can pose an obstacle for those who want to sell their products.
For now, Dalcourt rents time in commercial-grade kitchens around the area to make and package his creations. Restaurants, like the Panther Valley Pub, and churches, like Trinity Church in Hackettstown, often rent time to home bakers during off hours, he said.
“Safety regulations are extremely important to us,” he said, noting that he has recently begun to partner with local businesses to sell his products.
In September, Eric’s Deli and Catering in Sparta started selling some of Dalcourt’s most popular pudding flavors, Pumpkin Pie, Chocolate Chip Mint and Double Chocolate Oreo.
“We’ve had so many requests for parties and catering events since we started working with Eric’s,” said Dalcourt. “I can’t thank them enough for taking a chance on me.”
Dalcourt has used his experiences to share his entrepreneurial spirit with the next class of Centenary University students.
“He spoke to a group of incoming freshmen over the summer, and then he did it again for the same class that inspired his business,” said Poisseroux.
For Dalcourt, standing in front of a group of his peers as an example of success and a motivational speaker would once have seemed pretty far-fetched.
“I didn’t do well in high school,” he said. “I have dyslexia, and I always struggled to keep up. Now, I’m going to college and running my own business. I honestly believe that challenges bring out the best in us, and I want to encourage other students to take advantage of their time here and learn everything that they can from this incredible program.”
However, he added, it’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight.
“I didn’t want to take out any loans to start this business,” he said, “which means I have to account for every dollar. I buy everything that I can in bulk. I pay attention to packaging costs, and I put in a lot of long days. It’s all worth it, though, and I spend every day trying to figure out how to make it better.”
To date after expenses, he said Dalcourt’s Desserts is netting about $2,000 in profits per month.
Looking to the future, Dalcourt said that he would be starting to look for his own business space in Hackettstown in the spring.
“Renting kitchen space has been a good way to start, but we’re expanding pretty quickly, and I’m getting ready to find my own place. I want to open something like an ice cream parlor, where people can come in and sit down,” he said.
“We’ll have topping bars, one with peanuts and one without, so the customers can make their own creations and get what they really want. Some of my favorite inspirations have already come from customer requests, so I’m really looking forward to see what everyone can come up with.”
Dalcourt’s Desserts can be found at Eric’s Deli and Catering and at various vendor fairs throughout the area, including the Hope Christmas Market, which will take place on Dec. 3-4.
For more information about Dalcourt’s Desserts, including how to place an order, visit www.facebook.com/DalcourtsDesserts.
By Katie Moen New Jersey Herald
Posted: Nov. 14, 2016 12:01 am