For the past two and a half years I have been running pedal to the metal trying to build my small artisan bakery into a business of value and purpose. Walking away from one career and inventing a new has given me a unique perspective of how the world works, or sometimes doesn't work, and how a person can make their way in this world.
I have always held the belief that hard work and focus is a direct line to security and comfort. That has always been my goal, and still is: peace of mind and enough wealth to explore and enjoy life and not become a burden on anyone else. Not a lot to ask for.
An obsession with European-style artisan bread turned into a successful home-based farmer's market business. With an in-demand product and potential for growth, I expanded the operation, left my day job, and moved into a retail space on Main Street. Finally, I had become the captain of my own ship!
Starting a new business is an incredibly steep learning curve, and when you open a retail storefront, there is no where to hide. You think you know what you are doing, then one confused customer comes in the door and makes you question everything. The challenge right from the beginning has been a simple one: there are not enough people and restaurants in this small college town for me to survive on bread alone, so what else do I need to do to make this sustainable.
I knew from the start that I did not want to open a restaurant. I mean, I dreamed of owning a restaurant, but I researched enough and heard enough good advice to clear my head of such nonsense. The hours are long, the overhead is high, and the margins are razor thin. In this town, the summer is dead, and the fall brings unbelievable crushes of people, but only for a few home football games! I have seen many restaurants come and go in less than one full season. This is not the life I want to be chained to for the next ten years.
This is why it became so difficult when I would tell people that I was opening a bread bakery and they would ask, "Oh, what will be on your menu? Soups? Salads? I will be there every day for lunch!" "No," I would tell them. "I am going to make bread." A look of confusion would come over them. "Well, just at first. I'll add other items later... like sandwiches, and soup."
And so it began. I have stuck my big toe into just about every aspect of the retail bakery/café business: pastries, coffee, sandwiches, pizza, deli counter, cheese, wholesale, long hours, short hours, week days, weekends. Everything has been a bit of a success, but not enough signs of life to say this is the way forward. At the end of each week, I look at what I have learned and rework the numbers to see where this can go. I can make it work on paper, but what I see is years of toiling to just break even. I have seen it happen to bakeries and restaurant that came before me. You can increase volume and revenue, keep chasing bigger and bigger wholesale accounts, open early, stay open late, seven days a week. The margins get even smaller with growth and the stakes get higher. One bad week and you might not catch up all year. I am breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it. Why on Earth would I run in that direction when I can see exactly where it leads? I created this business to give me control and potential for growth, not to make a worse job than the one I just left!
So, I resist change, and grow very cautiously. Products at an artisan bakery are very labor intensive and have a shelf life of several hours. If I could find a fix for that problem, them many more opportunities would open up. That is where the sourdough crackers came to life. I finally had a package item that could be produces and stocked up, shipped, and sold online anywhere in the country!
Now the playing field is much larger, however, I still have a front door on Main Street, and until I am discovered by the rest of the world, I have to pay my bills and keep the locals happy, so it is a balancing act between retail artisan bakery and online specialty food manufacturer.
In some ways, I feel like I have multiple personalities and always trying to decide if a good decision in one area is self-defeating in the other. I have my sights set on the horizon, though. I have a ten-mile stare. At that point on the horizon everything is focused. The career I walked away from was as a UX designer: user experience designer for online products and services. This is exactly the solution I need to find my customers and get my crackers to them wherever they are. This is where my worlds come together and why I am uniquely qualified to do what I am doing.
I hope it works. If it does, I will tell you all about it here!