Rebecca's Kitchen

Rebecca Samanci started Cobb's Corner on the site of her family's farm in Westford when she and her husband, Yavuz, whipped up 500 containers of a Middle Eastern nut spread to sell at Onion River Co-op to supplement income.

A world traveler came home to the farm and put her skills to work

by Tom Gresham

To reach Cobb's Corner from nearby Essex, one needs to follow the serpentine, pockmarked path of Vermont 128 through the sleepy village of Westford. When Route 128 meets Woods Hollow Road, an understated dirt road with a sharp incline, turn left. There, in the old farmhouse hidden amid the trees, a crew of 14 produces possibly the best burritos, salsa and hummus in the state.

Visitors to the farmhouse, the home of Cobb's Corner owners Rebecca Samanci and her husband, Yavuz, can expect two friendly dogs to greet them promptly at the front door. Inside, a cat slinks around the warm rooms, occasionally jumping on laps.

The unassuming digs belie the diligence with which Cobb's Corner has operated over its 15 years. The Samancis started the business in their basement kitchen as a way of supplementing Yavuz's income delivering The Burlington Free Press. When the business's success demanded expansion, the Samancis simply built a commercial kitchen onto the back of the house, which was "the hired man's house" on the former Cobb dairy farm and is reputed to be the oldest house in Westford.

While the pleasant atmosphere of the home-based business seems to suggest a relaxed approach to work, what it really signifies is a life where work is inescapable where work is tightly interwoven with everything else.

"Certainly, this business is mostly all I think about, breathe and do," says Rebecca Samanci, a Cobb descendant, "and it has been that way since we started it."

Samanci has long demonstrated the free-thinking, independent attitude of an entrepreneur, though her early adulthood might not have suggested she would one day stay still long enough to build a business from infancy into something larger.

Samanci's father was in the foreign service, and she consequently spent her childhood in a variety of far-flung corners of the world, including New Zealand, Iceland, Jamaica and Belgium. For high school, she was sent to the Virginia boarding school where her grandfather, a former missionary in China, served as the rector.

Samanci attended Middlebury College and spent her junior year abroad in Paris, perhaps intensifying an already strong case of wanderlust. Following graduation, she fed her love of exploration, venturing all over Europe and Asia. She says she traveled from western Europe to India by bus three times.

For the bulk of her time, however, she lived in Goa, a fishing village on the west coast of India. During part of her stay there, she ran a restaurant out of her beach-side bungalow. It was in Goa that she met Yavuz, a native of Turkey.

Samanci says her experience traveling and living in many foreign lands has done much to shape her views of the world.

"Living in a lot of different cultures gives you a better perspective of your own," she says. "Einstein said the fish can't understand the bowl it swims around in. It has to get out and look at it from the outside. I think I have a tolerance of people I don't understand because I did travel so much."

Samanci's 14 employees work in a commercial kitchen built onto the back of the house. From left, Mindy Pecor, Linda Burton, Tarita Sink, Betsy Lucash and Sharon Combs make burritos.

Eventually, Samanci began to feel that she would like to raise her three young children Rachel, Emily and Noah in the United States, so they moved. Soon after arriving in the States, they settled into the Cobb family farmhouse.

It was a sometimes bumpy transition. Rachel, who was 9 years old at the time, remembers she and her siblings spoke very little English when they arrived. Yavuz was still in India; it took two years for him to immigrate.

Even for Samanci, the native, apparently simple tasks could require significant labor.

"When I got to the U.S., I didn't know how to drive a car," she says. "My parents had to give me driving lessons. I didn't know how to keep a checkbook the service charges used to kill me. I had to learn how to do everything."

Initially, she worked in the maple research lab at the University of Vermont. After Yavuz had arrived, they opened an ill-fated store in Westford selling authentic handicrafts from India, Pakistan and Nepal.

Samanci also sold World Book Encyclopedias for three years "boot camp training in sales," she jokes and served a stint selling life insurance.

Cobb's Corner food manufacturing was just one in a pile of ideas Samanci had for launching her own business. She and Yavuz started by making 500 containers of a Middle Eastern nut spread and selling them at the Onion River Co-op. To make the food, they used a small Cuisinart Samanci had won as a prize for selling encyclopedias.

The spread sold and soon the Samancis were making other products, including hummus, salsa and baba ghanoush. Samanci says the Cobb's Corner products "really knocked the others off the shelves" because of the authenticity of the recipes and a dedication to fresh ingredients.

Robert Atherton, dairy supervisor at the Shelburne Supermarket, echoes many of Cobb's Corner customers. "They have great service, and we get really great reports from our customers about the products," he says. "The feedback is very good. It's always sold very well here. Customers go out of their way to buy their stuff."

The popularity of the products eventually led to hired employees, greater distribution and the commercial kitchen. Samanci remembers that once the business began to grow, it became much more complicated.

"It was actually really easy to succeed at first," she says. "The hard part was when we moved from the basement to the new building. Anyone can make money in their basement. It's when you start having overhead that's the real test."

The work was extensive and often confusing for a business neophyte like Samanci. However, she learned the lessons, figured the angles, and continued to grow the business. Now, Samanci feels like a seasoned veteran ready to navigate whatever obstacles appear.

"I feel confident I can handle what comes at me now," she says. "I really understand my business now. And we've always run this place lean because we started with nothing. We've had to be on a shoestring all along, be as spare as we could be. We didn't blow any money because there just wasn't any to blow. It was hard. We had to be really, really nimble."

Samanci spends much less time in the kitchen now and more time handling the business's books and finances. Yavuz handles a variety of jobs within the business. Samanci says his various talents serve Cobb's Corner's interests well. For instance, he has a knack for keeping costs low at the produce market in Chelsea.

The Cobb's Corner house was originally the "hired man's house" on the Cobb dairy farm and is reputed to be the oldest house in Westford.

"Haggling is part of his heritage," Samanci says. "He's very good at it and he enjoys it. He knows how to get the best price and that's very important for our business. He's good at the politics part of running a business and he works like a donkey. He's very strong and very disciplined."

The Samancis still spend the bulk of their time dealing with their business; however, in the free time they do find, they share their love of politics, watching C-Span and CNN religiously. Samanci also enjoys decorative sewing and daily meditation.

Rachel, who is now 26, has evidently inherited her parents' business acumen. She launched her own business, Armistead Caregiver Services, "essentially out of her bedroom" at the University of Vermont, her mother says. Armistead has proved a success and its founder has attracted notice. Rachel received the 2003 Young Vermont Entrepreneur of the Year award.

"It definitely helped me to have grown up watching my parents run a business," Rachel says. "[My siblings and I] learned to have a good work ethic. We had to. They'd get us out to help unload huge bags of peas whether it was midnight or right before we went to school in the morning. My parents really had to struggle to make this work and to see them do that and get through it all has really helped me in what I'm doing."

Samanci says once she and her husband decided to make Cobb's Corner work, there really wasn't any choice but to invest the bulk of their time and energies.

"It's like having a baby," she says. "You can't just say 'I don't like this. I'm going to stop. This hurts.' It takes stamina to get through it. You can't just stop. You've got to keep working to make it."

Originally published in April 2004 Business People-Vermont