Local Women Making History: Shari Fitzpatrick
By Michelle Kennedy
I’ve known Shari Fitzpatrick for close to fifteen years. Back in my reporting days in Sacramento, you better believe I clamored to cover any story related to Shari. This is because, of course, I wanted to get some of her delectable, chocolate-dipped strawberries.
Over the years of getting to know her, I learned that Shari started her business on a card table in a tiny Sacramento apartment. I admired her so much and watched her grow Shari’s Berries to a multi-million dollar company.
When Girls on the Grid decided to focus on women making history this month, Shari popped into my head. Even though I hadn’t connected with her in years, I emailed Shari to set up an interview. Completely unaware that anything had changed in her business, her opening line when I arrived at her house rendered me speechless:
“Michelle, you know I lost the business right?”
I didn’t know. In fact, I had Shari’s Berries delivered to some family members just two months ago. The company still exists. Shari just isn’t a part of it, even though Shari’s Berries is still the company name.
Over the course of the next two hours, Shari shared her incredible story. It is a sad story that morphed into a triumphant one. Through losing one of the biggest parts of her identity, Shari found a way back to her authentic self and reconnected with why she started the business in the first place.
Michelle: Take me back. How did you start the business?
Shari: “I grew up picking strawberries in Southern Oregon. Strawberries are part of my upbringing and who I am. In 1989, I got a $1500 cash advance on a credit card and started my operation on a little table in my apartment. That paved the way to opening a couple of stores in the Sacramento area in the early nineties. We took off delivering chocolate-covered strawberries from there. Over the next several years, we grew and grew. I was the first person to create a successful chocolate-dipped strawberries delivery business.”
Michelle: What happened that changed everything?
Shari: “I met a lawyer from Sacramento. I worked with him to raise money and grow the business. It took me one year to realize I trusted the wrong person and another year to convince the Board to agree he had to leave. He convinced me to agree to a really bad deal and took a big piece of the company right off the top. After he left, we brought in an account-level qualified numbers person as CEO. I was in a fragile position. He saw a great opportunity to slip in and take over. He basically bankrupted the company. He sold it off for pennies on the dollar to Pro Flowers. Part of the contract was that he stay on as president of Shari’s Berries.”
Michelle: So you lost the company but your name is still on it?
Shari: “Yes, unfortunately. There are shysters out there. I was naïve. I’m just this little hillbilly from Southern Oregon in the strawberry patch. I made a mistake. I take all responsibility. I agreed to and made a bad deal.”
Michelle: How did you get through it?
Shari: “I felt like I’d lost one of my children. I gave birth to that company. I raised it for twenty-two years. I had to grieve for a while. My faith helped. Letting pride go and working on forgiveness helped me tremendously. We have to forgive to set ourselves free. I also had to realize that while chocolate-covered strawberries are my passion, dipping is not who I am, it is what I do. There are so many more layers to me.”
Michelle: What is the silver lining here?
Shari: “This experience changed my life for the better, believe it or not. I was able to spend more time with my family. I wrote and published a book telling my story called Berried in Chocolate. I also launched a new company by the same name. I am dipping strawberries again, my way. They are not mass-produced. It is back to the basics, small and personable. I’ve also launched a public speaking career. I speak to new entrepreneurs, large corporations and small groups. I tell people the whole story and let them know that the best versions of many of us are born out of the worst experiences. There is not a time when I’m done speaking that there isn’t a line of people wanting to talk to me. Many are crying saying the same thing happened to them. We are in this together. My book deal and public speaking have opened up a beautiful chapter in my life.”
Michelle: What is your advice to other entrepreneurs?
Shari: “My best advice is to start small. Big is not always better. Get some business cards made and start testing out your product on people. Just do something and don’t let fear drive you. When you get going, don’t quit. It is one day at a time and one foot in front of the other. When you fall, get right back up. Also know what is important. My goal is not to get “big” again. When it got too big, it stopped being fun. I need to remember that I lost sight of what was important. Keep your priorities straight, whatever they are.”
If you do an Internet search for Shari’s Berries, unfortunately you will find complaints about poor quality, berries that are fermented, and many that arrived at people’s houses broken. Shari says it’s heartbreaking, but she has accepted that there is nothing she can do about a business that isn’t hers anymore. Her goal is to just let people know Shari’s Berries is not her product and people can order her original, premium berries through BerriedinChocolate.com.
Shari dipped some berries for me while I was there, and I have to admit I broke my “no sugar” pledge for the occasion. Her berries continue to be meticulous, beautiful, fresh, and almost too pretty to eat. I said “almost.” If you’d like to check out any of her speaking engagements or read her book, you can also find that information on her website.