Meet the Entrepreneur
An in depth interview (with future follow up) to explore the lessons learned by others like you in the baking business
Owning a retail bakery
Interview with Marie Jackson by Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon
Name of business: The Flaky Tart, Atlantic Highlands, NJ
“Coming out of a dark place… Nobody knows what they’re in for, before they get a grip on balancing the financial viability of a business with creative freedom…” - Marie
Jeff: Let’s start at the beginning. What did you do before you opened the bakery? You took a huge risk because you’d never worked in a bakery before, right?
Marie: I have a degree in accounting, and worked for a year as a public accountant after college. I thought it would be a good entry point for a future business but I also knew accounting was not for me. I did some small jobs while going to culinary school at the New York Restaurant School.
I got married and my husband’s family ran a snack shop at a seasonal beach club. I asked if I could fix it up, make it profitable, and bake there for 2 years. That gig wound up being 16 years long! I was able to sell wedding cakes, make decorated cookies, do some catering, etc., out of that commercial space. I found that I loved the summer business the best. I had a staff to interact with, and customers to talk to. I decided not to have an isolated wedding cake type studio, but to go into an actual retail bakery and have a community around my baking.
Jeff: How did you take the leap to open up this business?
Marie: Six years into baking out of the snack shop I looked at renting a space, but it fell through. I was really relieved because I realized I wasn’t ready for my own establishment. I didn’t have enough experience and my marriage was new, so it was time to put opening a business on the back burner.
Ideally, I wanted to work in France, but by then I had three babies. Suddenly, the bakery in town where I lived went out of business. It was the perfect scenario with the kids’ school being right across the street. I could work at the bakery and be able to pick up the kids right after school. My husband and I looked at each other and decided this unique of an opportunity would never happen again so we decided to give it a try. We’ll be finishing up five years here at The Flaky Tart this fall and finally I will be able to work only when they’re in school. That took three years longer than planned.
Kathryn: How many employees do you have now?
Marie: In the back (kitchen) we have five, including an intern and excluding me! In the front there are two working at any given time, so it’s three full time employees and four part-timers. I have a nice mix of people with different ages, including high school kids.
Jeff: When you started this business, did you have any partners? Financial backers?
Marie: I was so alone… And it is so not the way to do it!
Jeff: So now that you’re five years into it, what were the biggest surprises? Obstacles? Regrets?
Marie: I was exhausted! I am a marathon runner and a workhorse animal but the problem was that the bakery required me doing that every single day, and it beat me down physically, mentally and emotionally. The lesson learned is that there are several equally mandatory jobs. There’s the baking job versus managing “the vision,” and for one person that magnitude is not sustainable -there must be a partner or delegation- or money to hire more employees.
Jeff: Was that the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Marie: Well, sales have not been a challenge because I received good free publicity. The back-of-the-house numbers crunching, even with an accounting degree, is the most difficult process to keep up with. Employees are challenging in that if you want to hire professionals who are loyal and stay with you, they must be paid a livable wage.
Kathryn: What kind of rates do you pay your employees, is it more salary or hourly?
Marie: I pay my “adult” (pastry chef) employees who have mortgage payments on a salary versus the younger ones who are paid on an hourly basis. I actually think I would rather pay everyone hourly, so that sales and payroll expenses would stay more in line (busy time = more sales and more hours).
Jeff: You’ve been in business several years now. How has your current menu changed and why do you think you needed to evolve it that way?
Marie: Initially I was guided by a book (Growing Your Business) which believes a successful business has to be an extension of you. I want to make products that taste fantastic, and I don’t want to copy any French or American style bakery so we pretty much have a blend here of what I think I bake well. Over time we’ve added some items but tried to keep it simple.
Editor’s Note: About 2 years ago, Marie talked with chefs Jeff Yoskowitz, Kathryn Gordon and Ciril Hitz about the direction her bakery was taking. At that point she was managing the business and continuing to do the majority of the baking, or at least attempting to do both…
Marie, continued: After talking with Jeff, Kathryn and Ciril I gave my staff some autonomy and mobility, and delegated the baking and they’ve introduced new product that is selling! They’re now the growth engine and that’s awesome! I didn’t expect that.
Jeff: How have food costs been working out for the new items?
Marie: Well, it’s happening too quickly and we don’t have a handle on it. This is the same issue that got us into trouble in the beginning. There’s a system out there on how to train you staff on costs, which we are actively looking into.
Jeff: What direction is your menu currently going?
Marie: We’re looking to balance the “cool things” with the low labor cost/low food costs and right now it’s the opposite. We need to figure out what our staples are and what sells whatever the weather, whatever the traffic.
One of my staff updates our Facebook page daily with our lunch menu and specials, posting all new items -- I have nothing to do with it and it works really well to help generate new customers.
Jeff: When you opened you replaced an existing bakery. What were your customer’s reactions?
Marie: Initially some customers had some expectations about heavily-decorated themed cakes (from the former bakery) and a few people were discombobulated, but I had changed the look of the bakery so much that they were excited about the new place and our new products.
Jeff: Do you know who your customer base is?
Marie: They’re everyone! We get people from all different types of socio economic and geographic areas. The local press awards I’ve received bring people in, as well. I have done every charity that’s ever walked in the door. I am co-participating in my first set of advertisements now, but that’s actually for our town, not specific to my own business.
Kathryn: You wanted to quit. What turned your feelings about the bakery around for you? You’ve said it was around the time when I introduced you to Ciril Hitz.
Marie: One really important turning point was when I was at my rock bottom (when we met), and I even went to NYC for a holistic doctor to try to get vitamins. I was so exasperated I believed that could help me – but he told me about a book called The E Myth. The line that I live by now is “if you want to be a baker, get a job in a bakery. If you own a bakery, you have a new job, you are a business owner and if you don’t do your job, you will fail.” It changed everything when I read that.
What really helped was a friend, Mike, who told me, you are a success! I had already achieved my goal which was to bake a great product. Mike told me I needed a new goal, and that was to be a financial success – that I didn’t have to sacrifice the integrity of my product to make money. I just had to adjust my thinking.
Ciril Hitz and I were talking about making money, and that it doesn’t just come if you make great stuff. Ciril told me that I was doing this as a hobby if the bakery was not making money. Wouldn’t I rather hang out with my kids instead?
I think a lot of people fail because they just want to do their art, and the trick is you have to do both; the art and the business. My heart and soul is in this bakery, but I have to find the balance to let my employees do their jobs and for me to manage better.
Jeff: You have to learn how to let go, and that’s a big step
Marie: I think I had to hit rock bottom. It was a process to realize I could not go on any more, but that I was unable to let go until I could acknowledge that I’m a control freak and my never-give-up-mentality had lead me into a hole. I had to let go completely then I could decide to take back what I wanted to…
Jeff: So you’ve told me you back the project completely alone. Any words of advice?
Marie: I think it’s kind of good that I don’t have the pressure of a loan, either from a bank or an investor.
Jeff: Although an investor would have forced you to have more control over a business plan and the numbers…
Marie: I never put it all together with my vision for beautiful, delicious, accessible, high quality food. It’s hard to forecast reality and write that business plan. I achieved the goals I had had, and now I’m ready for a different goal and to succeed financially in that.
Jeff: What investment are you happiest about having made over the years?
Marie: I hired a graphics designer for my packaging early on, and that was an important investment to have an iconic logo. I paid a couple of thousand dollars and it was worth every penny to have a focus, a by-line and an identifiable image.
Kathryn: Do you think your space here is adequate for your production?
Marie: I’ve learned that “if you have more room, you just spread out more.” I like the bakery to look busy.
Jeff: How’s the rent?
Marie: My rent’s low. About $1700 per month (with a 3, 5 and 5 year lease renewal).
Jeff: What were the rent increases for each of those periods?
Marie: Generally there are small increases per year, up to 5%. We haven’t received any in the last two years because I did a lot of renovations and the economy has been bad, so the landlord gets a lot of croissants from me!!!
Jeff: Marie, thank you so much for your time. Next time we visit we’ll check up on how you are doing and hopefully you will have some more success stories for us!