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Apple picking

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Foot traffic is the lifeblood of business for Mary Ardapple, owner of Apple's Bakery in Peoria, Ill. As the local economy began slowing in recent months and four big retailers closed nearby, she noticed that her walk-in trade was dwindling. Even regulars she had once seen five days a week were cutting back their spending and stopping in less frequently.

Looking to expand her customer base, she spent seven months studying natural foods and talking to her customers about their needs. As a result of that research, she invested $30,000 to develop gluten-free cookies. The product line, introduced in October, has been a hit: The nine new cookies accounted for 2% of the bakery's fourth-quarter sales, and Ardapple plans to release a line of gluten-free bread and muffins.

She also revamped her website, touting her breakfast catering and daily lunch menu, and letting customers order baked goods online. Web sales in 2007 were up 110% from 2006. These new sales have helped Ardapple manage rising costs, especially for flour. The price of a 50-pound bag jumped from $10.70 in June to $17 in February. Overall, sales remained flat at $850,000 from 2006 to 2007, but she expects them to top $1 million in 2008.

"I'm more optimistic today than I was five years ago," says Ardapple. "And it's because the tests and trials of a troubled economy encourage me to seek greater opportunities than I did the year before." - By Brandi Stewart

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