By Jim Sullivan
---- — Newburyport resident and Dianne’s Fine Desserts featuring Alden Merrell CEO, Mike Knowles knows what it means to be a good neighbor.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Knowles whose company just increased their holiday donations to the Newburyport Salvation Army chapter by 50 percent. “I wish I could claim that it was my idea, but it was probably a request from the Salvation Army and we’re more than happy to oblige.”
Knowles, who along with business partner Dan Scales and backing from Superior Capital Partners, bought Dianne’s from the Hines Corporation in May of 2012, is now donating 200 dessert trays to the Salvation Army for Thanksgiving and 200 more for Christmas.
“Dan and I have been in the desserts business forever, and we brought some renewed focus to the desserts business (here),” said Knowles whose company has also been making weekly donations of 120 dessert servings to the soup kitchen at the Immaculate Conception Church, and another 250 servings to Meals on Wheels, averaging about 20,000 servings a year.
Not a fan of a long commute, Knowles moved to Newburyport himself over the summer, taking up residence less than a mile from the Graf Road facility which employs roughly 250 people, houses a retail store, and smells like cookies.
“It’s great fun,” Knowles said. “Any time the dessert salesperson shows up at a customer’s, they are happy to see him. If you’re out there peddling mustard or Wasabi or whatever, it’s a different reaction. People love to talk to you about desserts. It’s fun work with fun products.”
Although it has been Dianne’s since the turn of the 21st century, the facility started out as the Alden Merrell headquarters after the brand was created in a shack on Plum Island by Preston Alden Reed and Skip Merrell Sterns in the 1980s. But when Knowles arrived, the name on the sign out front was changed from Alden Merrell to Dianne’s, and has created some confusion ever since.
“If we were selling signs, we would have left the name the same but we are selling the same great tasting desserts we always have,” Knowles said.”The Alden Merrell brand is alive and well. We have very much kept the recipes the same. We have not made any significant changes to any of the recipes. We use nothing but the best quality ingredients, and we are very much a premium brand. There is nothing to be gained by trying to cheapen those things because people will stop buying it.”
Prior to Knowles and Scales’ tenure, the facility’s plant would be shut down for 18 weeks during the year, requiring the employees to either go on unemployment or find other work. Since the pair arrived, the facility only shuts down for two weeks at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“The people who are producing the Alden Merrell brand are the same people who have been doing it for the past 20 years,” said Knowles. “The only thing we have done is augmented the production staff with an administrative staff, because all the administrative functions were being done in Pittsburgh. But in terms of who is putting the batter in the pans, who is baking it, it’s all the same people who were producing it prior to the acquisition.”
Dianne’s currently runs two shifts, four days a week.
“We want to treat people well, we want to support the community, we want to do all of that,” said Knowles. “But we also want to provide a good place to work.”
Once the cakes, pies and other assorted goodies are made, they head out to Chicago then out to the rest of the continental U.S. and parts of Canada.
“Alden Merrell is a very strong regional brand in New England,” said Knowles. “Dianne’s is extremely strong in the Midwest.”
Knowles said the fourth quarter with the winter holidays is his company’s biggest time of the year, followed closely by the spring with Easter, Mother’s Day and graduation parties.
“This is all we do. Desserts,” said Knowles. “It’s all we want to do.”