growing without pain

January 28, 2009 |  Category:   the biz

maple_marsh.jpg

Is it possible? We’ve been having thoughts about how to grow sensibly without taking the big risk of moving into our own kitchen and storefront space. It’s not that we are opposed to this, but the current economic gloom isn’t giving us the confidence that it’s the best time to consider it. It’s always a gamble when you start a new business, but as we approach our first full year as a company in the next few months, we no longer need to question whether this is a viable business (it’s proven that it is), but rather, what is the next step that will allow us to grow, but not too big? People are always advising us to “just hire help”, but it isn’t that easy. Mark can’t really bring another person into the restaurant kitchen where he bakes because of space limitations and consideration for the kitchen staff. He is also so fast and efficient that he feels having another person doesn’t really help without time for proper training (I mean, do you know anybody that can single-handedly bake 2000 cookies in 7 hours?), which at this point he has had no time for. We don’t want to turn orders away on any more major holidays, so we’re starting to look into other options where space would allow another helper, even if it means renting a commercial kitchen again (which in NYC is surprisingly scarce) when production is crazy.

I never had aspirations of owning a restaurant or even a storefront (I am not that financially adventurous), but if we ever do decide on getting our own kitchen space we would most certainly have to do either or both just to help cover the monthly rent. It’s a daunting thought – especially when you consider that you’d have to hire employees – and one that I am not ready for. But I’m not sure how much longer Mark can do it all himself. He hasn’t had a day off or barely a minute of downtime since our Christmas break and I can see that he is growing weary. Our loose plan was to keep plugging away as we are and ride out the economy like everyone else until both girls are in school full time which would make current childcare issues much easier. But as word about the company continues to spread and we get more inquiries about press and wholesale orders, we seem to be facing these questions again and again. How much can we handle? It’s funny. Most people would be thrilled at the extraordinary luck we’ve had with publicity this past year. Whether or not it gets realized or manifests into something that actually happens, people are finding us. But whenever I inform him that “so and so” sent us an email, Mark just breathes a heavy sigh, pulls his hat down, and quietly continues to work.

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  • rifferaff January 28, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    i really love reading about your progress here, thanks for sharing and congrats on your success. would you guys ever consider moving to a different city/state in order to remain self employed and grow the biz? maybe upstate ny or philly?

  • Samantha Hirst January 28, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    This is such a difficult blessing for you! I’m sure you’ll know what the right move is at just the right time. Right now I homeschool my two kids, and I know I barely made it through a couple of rushes still in my first year. So while I work on my website/press kit, it is constantly on my mind that I must be crazy..I feel for you in making these tough decisions.

  • Joni January 28, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    you guys are going to have to make some tough decisions. i have some business experience and I know exactly what you’re thinking. You’re afraid to make a commitment – which is what a lease on commercial space will do – and at the same time face an economy that is turning tables on everybody.

    instead of your own commercial kitchen, find a community commercial kitchen, where people come in and work their own shifts. space in New York is so expensive so this is one baby step towards the right direction without being responsible for a long lease all on your own.

    also, a bad economy can work in your favor. There are some great deals that restauranteurs are offering including landlords who want any money for their commercial space. I bet you can find something cheap that will let you gently expand.

    also, consider moving production elsewhere. I realize you guys need to stay close to your family and mortgage, but this is a possibility. If it’s out the question, arrange something with the local cafe nearby. There are so many deals you can find if you’re aggressive enough because it is a tenant/buyer’s market out there.

  • Annie From Seattle (not someone you know, though) January 28, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    Uh huh. It’s a biggie, growth. One thing that is both a strike against you and a real gift is the lack of business partners. The fact that you are free agents in this makes it more make or break for your family and your schedule.

    I will say this: lack of growth, especially when the marketplace is calling for it, can be as big a mistake as moving too fast. You will only get one shot at making this work. Know that. If you don’t satisfy it, people’s attention will drift away to the next big thing, and it won’t ever come back. Worse is the prospect that someone like a certain big commercial bakery (rhymes with Prancing Steer) might lift some of Mark’s more inventive ideas, like the black pepper and rose or the earl grey.

    You have to own the marketplace you want to have. I think you have to play to win and that is going to mean some big risk. It’s just the way it is.

    Good luck.

  • Pam January 28, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    Perhaps another title of this post would be: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 🙂

    Looking forward to my 1st order from W&S!

  • selkie January 28, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Portland Maine. Move to Portland….

  • Fog and Thistle January 28, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    This sheds light on some of my curiousities about how you guys were running your business (and I was going to ask all about it if we met up today) I firmly believe if you keep plunging ahead and keep your eyes open, the right path will open itself up.

  • Kitty January 28, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Hmm hired help: definitely need the right person with combination of relevant qualities + a sound understanding of your business.
    Any old colleagues of Mark’s? Or people old colleagues can recommend? Definitely don’t want hired help to become a ‘burden’.
    It can work with the right person: I’m a designer + work for a mum + dad company (hehe so I am their hired help) so workwise it’s just the 3 of us and sure we all have to wear diff hats at diff times and work needs + personal needs get merged and we want to stay small but also seize big opportunities.
    Can you road test someone? Would a pastry chef student on cusp of graduating/have had decent experience/of high calibre be a possibility? At least they may be more amenable to being told what to do/get it done well + hopefully not get in Mark’s way…
    It can be scary. Can’t not grow but don’t want to expand too quickly. More controlled/monitored growth.

  • cindy January 28, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    could you maybe look into what kumquat cupcakery does? i read about their special commercial kitchen deal on crains: “Vendors at the Fort Greene flea market who Ms. Landreth befriended while selling cupcakes knew she was looking for commercial kitchen space. They told her about Green Spaces in Brooklyn, a commercial co-op of several eco-friendly businesses. Its space included a well-stocked kitchen that was going unused after the girlfriend of one of the co-op members opted out of the relationship.

    “This was a real coup because other commercial kitchens could only rent me space for a few hours here and there and I needed a commercial kitchen four days a week, eight hours a day,” says Ms. Landreth.”

  • Jenna January 28, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    Cindy, funny you should mention Green Spaces, Mark has an appointment there tomorrow. And Joni, yes a community commercial kitchen would be great, but these things are rare in NY, if they exist at all (and believe me, we have researched). We’ve touched upon the subject, vaguely, of sharing a space with other local small producers, but nothing concrete. Renting commercial kitchens are really expensive in NY, but Mark has the great fortune of using the kitchen of a local restaurant any time he needs at no cost to us except trading some consulting time since they don’t have a pastry chef. This is why we have managed to turn a profit, so we are, in fact, doing what you have suggested. It’s extremely lucky, but with this economy, it still feels tentative so we are looking at other alternatives as a back up.

  • Stella January 28, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    What you’re facing is a good problem to have. If we’re going to have problems anyway, might as well like the ones you’ve got!
    As someone who’s running a small business with the owner, I totally understand the conversation you’re in. While I don’t know the food industry and have no quick solutions, I can say you’re not alone in these questions and crossroads. I’ve found that even in the past 3 months, budgets, plans, projections, goals, and the like have flown out the window and changed so quickly it feels we’re back to square one at times. But at least we have that much more experience, and we’re facing the problem of being in business, not how to shut down. Questions are there every day and I swear it’s always something, but I guess that’s the way it goes.

  • Tumus January 29, 2009 at 8:14 am

    You are both smart cookies 🙂 Just breath and hug your girls and know that someone is watching over you and will give you what you need exactly when you need it 🙂

    At least you didn’t have a foot of snow and an inch of ice yesterday lol!

  • Alicia January 29, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Ok.. But you know a ton of people would kill for a w&s shop in Brooklyn!! Hehehe and then you can serve that watermelon drink Mark brought to the flea the day I was there. 😉

  • christy January 30, 2009 at 9:03 am

    I’m right there with you! We did hire some employees when we did a kiosk at a local mall a few years ago. That was almost a disaster. Looking back, I could totally have made everything on my own ten times faster than what it took the new people. But, all you ever hear is “hire someone”, so you do. One thing that I’m curious about too, Jenna, is what you said about Mark’s reaction to new orders/inquiries. I, too, cringe when I get a big order and have often wondered if that means something other than just me being lazy and/or a control freak who doesn’t like surprises? 🙂

    Sometimes I fear it means I’m not meant to be doing this business, and other times I think if I can just get through this tough part i’ll eventually have hired help who can do it as fast as I can, and then not be so burdened by the “labor” aspect of the business.

    I hope you guys work through this and don’t lose any more sanity than you have to! I’ll be watching closely… 🙂

  • Brenda January 30, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    I don’t think anyone gets it until they try it – working for yourself is HARD! Sheer hard physical labor, long hours, no days off, and struggling with very real and somewhat frightening questions just like this. 🙂 But then … you get to create, do what you love, and say, “I made that.” 🙂 I think I just heard the mailman on my step, meaning I might have some whimsy and spice to go nibble on! xo

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