This week, Alan and I celebrated the ninth anniversary of opening our bakery. It’s the longest-running business we’ve ever owned. It’s the longest we’ve stuck to anything except each other. And that’s pretty cool.
In this world, you can be made to feel like a failure if you move around a bit and try new things instead of sticking to one thing until it’s made you millions. But here we are, nearly sixty and just now finding the business that will last (I say at the risk of dooming the entire enterprise).
It didn’t start off auspiciously. It was a dark rental space in a defunct hotel on the wrong side of the tracks.
We still give directions to it by saying, “Head out Downie Street. It’s the abandoned building just over the tracks.” And everybody knows which one we’re talking about.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. By now, the building was supposed to be fully developed, brimming with happy bread customers. We were going to look like geniuses for locating there.
But our first landlord dropped dead of a heart attack before he could develop it. Rest in peace, Mark. And our second set of landlords, used to slapping up new builds, got in over their heads, panicked and sold.
Our current landlord doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. So we’re the only tenants in a big old haunted hotel. At least there’s almost always a parking spot out front.
A couple of years after we opened, a biker gang rented the building next door as their clubhouse.
“Are you scared?” people would ask me.
I was. And tried not to be because I was still working there at the time and being afraid of your neighbours all day every day is no way to live.
They never gave us any trouble. But the day they had a barbecue, and everyone parked their bikes out front, probably lost us some business.
What was even worse for business was the faceless bureaucrat who decided that the ovens we had at the beginning were not up to code and would have to be replaced.
They wouldn’t have even been inspected except we had put in a new gas line and they checked it and the first thing to be hooked up to it, which were the ovens. If we had known then what we know now, we would have hooked up the furnace first. It was brand new and would have totally passed.
The ovens weren’t unsafe. Everyone who looked at them agreed that they were safe. They just didn’t have their original safety sticker. The things are so flimsy, you can scrub them right off the first time you clean them.
I learned a lot about fund-raising for small business on that one. And then again, a couple of years later when we expanded the bakery and bought yet another set of new ovens. And a walk-in fridge!
As part of that fund-raising campaign, we made a list of prizes. Give so much and get a t-shirt. Give even more and get a t-shirt and a bunch of Bakehouse Bucks. We were advised to offer a range of price points, knowing that some would never be used. I offered up a hug to anyone who donated five bucks.
One day, while I was selling bread at the Farmers Market, a man came up to the table and said, “I understand you’re giving away hugs for five dollars.” Blushing a little, I affirmed that this was true. He handed over the five bucks, and I gave him his hug.
I’ve never felt so dirty in my life!
Which was silly. He was a nice man, a customer from the previous bakery we’d owned. He’d helped us out with some publicity. I totally would have given him a hug at any time. But hugs for money? Ew.
When we first opened, we drove a Ford Focus. It was big enough to carry all our bread to the markets. We knew we’d arrived the Sunday we couldn’t get everything into it for the trip back to the bakery. I don’t remember how we got there, but I do remember standing on the sidewalk having a tired, sweaty argument with Alan about the danger involved in driving home with the market table sticking out of the trunk. I made him load the car, and I walked back to the bakery. Thank goodness Stratford is small!
The Focus was replaced by a van. We named her Clothilde, and she served us well. Until early one Sunday morning, when Alan was driving home from baking for the market and her steering system seized up with an almighty squealing. He managed to get her into a parking spot at the railroad station and walked home.
The current vehicle is a utility van with our logo in bold print on the side. Everyone in town knows where we live. It’s literally a pain for me to climb into. I usually need help. Alan grabs my bum and gives me a push.
“You’re going to miss this when I’m better,” I tell him.
“Who says I’m going to stop?”
We’ve been really fortunate through the pandemic. We’re considered an essential business and so were able to stay open. The market we go to in London fought for their vendors and stayed open, too. Business is down, but not as much as I would have expected.
The last couple of weeks have seen both walk-in fridges fail and need their compressors replaced and repaired and repaired again.
At one point, Alan rented a portable walk-in that he set up in the back parking lot. It worked well. Until the breaker tripped in the middle of the night and for the second week in a row, he had a fridge full of over-proofed dough.
We think everything is fixed now. Though we know that that is only ever temporary. It’s the nature of a small business to need something all the time.
But it’s better than having a boss. I once had one who would email me at three in the morning. I never answered before nine. But sometimes I would wake in the night and wonder what the hell would be waiting for me in the morning.
Broken fridges, biker gangs, and illegal ovens. We’re leading our dream life. And I hope the adventure continues for many years to come!
I’m watching my boys live that life right now. When I talked to Colin the other day, we discussed how it seems like, for so many years he was standing at a starting line and hearing “ready, set, ….” but nobody ever said go. Lots of ideas that worked and lots of ideas that didn’t, lots of time spent for little gain for so long and tiny, oh so tiny, incremental steps. But just in the past couple of weeks, Colin got, within days of each other, 2 break through clients. Real money for what he first became interested in at the age of 12, and what he’s been pushing for in his career since he was 18. Life finally said, “go”. What a sweet moment!
I have so much respect for the fortitude, and the downright dogged persistence I have witnessed his whole life. And then I remember thinking, as I watched him play hockey at age 10, chasing down the puck with everything he had. I don’t think he knew what to do with it once he got it and it didn’t matter to him if he crashed headlong into the boards to get it, but come hell or high water he was going to get that puck! At that moment I thought that, despite obstacles, that boy’s stubborn persistence was going to get him through his life, his way, in his own good time.
So here’s to you unconventional life people who have the creativity to envision and the strength and persistence to keep pushing! Here’s to those marker moments that are solid handholds on the way to the next marker moment. I am truly grateful that you have shared your journey with us so we can celebrate (and sometimes cry) with you, but mostly so we can live vicariously through you as we plod along in our ‘safer’ life choices.
Wow! That’s was beautiful, Val! And Barb, as always, your words make my heart smile!
And thanks for the coffee. Totally made my day!
Aw, thanks so much, Val.
You do realize you’ve modeled dogged determination in your own life, right?
9 years! Time flies. Congratulations to you both!
Congrats on your business anniversary! I love breads.
I started following. ‘Alan the bread guy’ some years ago and subsequently subscribed to your inspirational emails, blogs and posts. I must’ve needed your inspirational positivity.
I still look for that.
I too suffer from chronic deteriorating condition. If I could stay positive and always keep going and never give up…well, let’s just say that’s a challenge to do on your own.
So every now and again I do have to start again and pick myself up and move on, move forward and simply just move!
Thanks for your inspiration.
That’s so lovely, Bette. Thank you!