A&J King Artisan Bakers – Small Biz Stories, Episode 1

Join us for episode 1, where we visit A&J King Artisan Bakers in Salem, Massachusetts. And if you’re in their area, get about one newsletter a month outlining their seasonal specials, upcoming events, and other fun happenings!

Small Biz Stories tells the story of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet — small business owners.

You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

You can also read the transcript below:

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

Jackie: Where do you go for advice? Sometimes you feel all alone, “No one will understand I don’t even know where to begin to explain it.”

Dave: You just heard the voice Jackie King, co-owner of A&J King Artisan Bakers in Salem, Massachusetts. If you own a small business it’s likely you’ve felt something similar. Off on your own, with limited time and resources, unsure of where to go for help and guidance. This is why we started SMALL BIZ STORIES.

More than fifty percent of small businesses fail within the first five years. These are the stories of those who beat the odds. My name is Dave Charest and I’ll be your host as we share the stories of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet, small business owners. You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

Stepping inside Andy and Jackie’s bakery, it doesn’t take long to realize you’re in for something good. The display cases are filled with freshly made earl grey scones, almond croissants, and coconut meringue tarts. The staff is friendly and focused, and the walls show off the many framed awards the bakery has received since opening its doors in 2006.

Maybe most impressive is the energy of the bakery. A quick survey of the room reveals that everyone — from the people behind the counter to those seated enjoying their meal — look satisfied and at home.

After speaking with Andy and Jackie, I’m not surprised their bakery has this effect on people. Growing up, both agreed to have inherited a powerful love of food from their families.

But it wasn’t until they tried to pursue other, seemingly more practical careers, that they began to feel like they were missing out on something.

Jackie: I went to college, and then two years into that I was doing fine but I was totally feeling like I had missed out on doing what I really wanted to do. So I left traditional college and went to New England Culinary and just said, “I feel like I’ll be upset if I don’t try this.”

Dave: Andy, who graduated with a music degree and started working at an educational center, described a similar realization.

Andy: I remember one day I was biking through Palo Alto through the Stanford campus, because this was on the West Coast, and I saw a cafe with a bunch of professors eating and talking. And then there was the back door to the cafe where there was a bunch of cooks sitting and laughing and smoking cigarettes on their break. And I just knew I’d rather be them.

Dave: It was at the New England Culinary Institute where the couple first met. After their graduation and getting married, they started wondering how they could continue to be together and practice their craft alongside each other.

Jackie: That kind of started our wheels turning, “Well, do we want to just stay baking for someone? What could we do? What should we be doing?”

Andy: Should you go back to school?

Jackie: “What should we be aiming for?” He thought about taking a food writing job, I thought about going back to school. And then we both, I guess I suggested, “Well, what if we open our own bakery? What if we move back down to where I grew up? And all my family is there and they can help us and there’s no bakery like this right in the area where I’m from.” And that’s where it started.

Andy: That was pretty much it, too, as soon as she said it.

Jackie: Yeah. And then I can’t even still believe that we even followed through on any of this. We had no money, we had the baby, and we worked weird hours.

Andy: It sounds so stupid. “Let’s see if I can make the worst decision.” It’s not the road less traveled, it’s like there’s a path and there’s the woods. “Let’s go into the woods.”

Jackie: We sold our house and put that money into helping start up the business.

Dave: It’s funny, I always find when it’s the right path, things just start to fall in line like that. And so it happens so fast that you almost don’t know what’s going on. It’s just kind of like boom, boom, boom, boom, “We’re done, here we are.”

Jackie: You’re on a train that you can’t get off of.

Dave: Yeah, yeah.

Jackie: And you feel like you are, you’re like, “Wow. Wow. I’m stressed, but we got to do it.”

Andy: We still feel like that.

Jackie: Okay. Anyone who’s looking to start a business, it was a stressful as you would imagine.

Dave: Yeah.

Andy: But ignore that. Plan it out; make sure you’re making good decisions that are based on real things, real numbers. And then just once you get it all set, just close your eyes and run into it.

Dave: Just do it.

Andy: Because it’s like having a baby, it’s like you think you’re prepared. You’ve read all the books, you have the nursery set up, you have the diaper service or whatever all set. No way, man. It’s a whole different thing. For better or worse, I think we came out okay. Especially even in the beginning, it was exhausting, but, yeah, you just got to do it.

Dave: It’s obvious when you’re talking to Andy and Jackie that they take a great deal of pride in their work. Their commitment to tradition, as well as their local community, allows them to create a product that people come back for because they can’t get it anywhere else.

Andy: So I think what makes it different is that we were willing and we have a staff that’s willing to put in insanely hard hours and being on your feet for long periods of time to produce an item that you sell for fairly small amounts of money. Like it takes 36 hours to make a baguette, and we sell it for $3. Normally when you have a product that four people are working on and it takes 36 hours to assemble, you’re selling it for more than $3. So it’s cool to see lines out the door, but we need lines out the door or else we close the door.

Jackie: Just to add to any of that. Everything is from scratch; we don’t use pre-made mixes or anything like that. We use a lot of locally sourced ingredients, fruits mostly, some dairy, just to bring more of the surrounding area to the products that we’re making and try to support that community, try to support that economy. But it’s also just more fun to work that way, to have firsthand knowledge of where something comes from and going to actually pick it up, bring it there. It’s also a lot of extra work and stress sometimes, but it’s a neat experience.

Jackie: I think you feel like you’re really putting your stamp on it when you take it from its most elemental point and bring it all the way to a finished product. You’re not using someone else’s flour mix to make your muffin; it’s the one you came up with. And you like the way it tastes and that’s why you do it, so it does reflect you. And when someone comes into the bakery and says they don’t like something, you really feel hurt.

Andy: Taking water and sourdough culture, which you grew yourself, and flour and mixing it together and watch it grow. Like, “I made this from scratch and someone is buying and giving me money and I have to make them change.” It’s like, “Holy smokes. It worked, I actually sold something.” It was such a neat feeling. But it’s really just what we like to do and, like I said, it’s a sense of pride in what you’re doing.

You can get a pumpkin latte at the coffee shop down the street, but our pumpkin latte is made with real pumpkin that was picked from a local farm that we ground up and we put in it.

Dave: In a time when many businesses are focused on offering faster, more efficient solutions — a business like A and J King really stands out. But even with their recipe for success, Andy and Jackie have always been learning as they go. Here’s Andy reflecting on the grand opening:

Andy: Yeah, we opened the door and the guy came in, his name was, was it Bob? He was the brother of a woman that owned a restaurant. I know about 20 people who claim to have bought the first thing at our bakery, but he was and he bought a ciabatta. And I would have loved to have kept the $20 that he gave me, but we needed it. So that went right into the bank account.

And so we had a great day, it was mostly family that came in, some curious locals came in. I think we sold $400 worth of stuff. And when we closed, we pulled the cash drawers out and we had not done a cash-out before. So we sat there with our one retail employee, Hannah, and we were just staring and we were trying to figure out what to do with these drawers of money. And eventually we told her to go home because we were like, “Okay, so how much started the day? I can’t remember.” So we said, “Go home and we’ll be better about this tomorrow.” So then we had to figure out how to do a cash-out. And then we figured that out and it was really like I didn’t even know that was like, “Oh, okay. So we have to put back what was in, and then what’s left is profit, right?” So we did that.

Jackie: And then for the next nine years we’ve continued that pattern of, “We don’t know how to do this. Well, I guess we’re learning”. Sometimes we learn the wrong way for a while and we have to reset our standards for whatever it is.

Andy: All I know is that we’ve been able to pay our bills every week since the week we opened and we have never bounced any payroll checks, and I’m very proud of that. That every single week I pay every single vendor what I owe them. Because I do wholesale and I know people that don’t do that. So that’s really a point of pride with me, is that we’ve always paid every one of our bills.

Dave: While Jackie and Andy have always been able to pay their bills, it took a lot of hard work to make that happen. In the beginning, Andy remembers working 100 days straight, working double shifts and sleeping an hour in between on an air mattress in the back office. They both knew that that was not the life they wanted to lead forever.

Andy: Everyone knows small business owners who get burnt out. Not to say that we don’t get burnt out. Part of our compensation package, basically what we get out of the business, was that we wanted to live somewhat normal lives after a certain amount of time. So hiring, having good people on and our staff is probably bigger than normal. We could technically take away a baker and a pastry baker and do those shifts and just work 80 hours a week and save money, that’d be great but never see our kids. Ever. But that’s not the goal.

Yeah, where if I was to kill myself after five years every day, like going in super early and not saying to the kids “goodnight” and not being able to go on Easter egg hunts with the children, then I was going to say, “It’s just not working.” So in my brain I had five years to get a staff together and be able to take some time off and be able to kind of enjoy things.

Jackie: Right, but we didn’t have a thing that every week or day or month we were like, “Where are we at?” No. It’s just like running beside the business hoping to keep up. And yay, we are. And then maybe we’re like a footstep ahead of it and that feel good, but we didn’t have a business school degree.

Dave: Part of expanding their business, and finding a work/life balance has been bringing on team members they can trust. While many members of their team have been on staff for years, both Andy and Jackie admit that hiring and managing employees has been their greatest challenge to date.

Jackie: You make a lot of friendships and you’re working beside your employees and that line of boss thing does not really exist very well. And it’s not even because those people don’t respect something about you, but you’ve had way too many personal conversations with them, you know too much about what’s going on with them, and it makes it really hard to make business decisions based on it, or to correct them. Not because they’re horrible employees, but even if it’s like you want to just give some critique either on how they performed or how that product came out or how you would like to move people around.

You start thinking so intensely about each individual’s needs on a level that is actually not helpful. And it prevents you from also speaking up for the rest of your employees when one employee is being a huge pain in the ass, to put it bluntly. And it gets very complicated in your brain. And you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but you don’t want these people to resent you. That, I’m sorry, has been the hardest part. And we’ve made some really good friends who I’m very grateful for it, but in the long run it’s very hard to manage those people.

Jackie: Also, you expect that people have all the same reactions that you do about how hard to work and how to approach something and what’s appropriate and what’s not. And whoa, that’s not true at all. You should not take that for granted. And you can’t teach people to be good people and you can’t teach them to be responsible, so don’t try.

So if you think they stink in the interview or you have a bad feeling and it’s related to either one of those things, do not hire them because you cannot teach it out of them.

Andy: I think one of the things that we had to learn how to do is to set up systems on which the bakery runs, and then defend the system. Systems of rules and regulations that you can point to so it doesn’t seem like you’re just making decisions every time one question comes up.

Dave: When you talk to Andy and Jackie, you can hear how much they value every member of their team. The same can be said for how their employees feel about them. We spoke with Jess, who started as a retail employee, and has now been working as a baker for over five years.

Jess: I never had any culinary training or anything but it was always something that I was interested in. I think the major thing that I was worried about was like wasting all of Andy and Jackie’s money. Like, I’m not cut out for this.

Dave: You can really hear how Jess feels invested in the bakery’s success. That’s a huge testament to the environment Andy and Jackie have created. Their biggest challenge now is to refine systems so the team is empowered to make decisions on their own without relying on Andy and Jackie for all the day-to-day happenings.

Andy: You don’t want to build a place that is completely dependent on you. Then all the sudden you’re life has gone crazy again…

So yeah, build a business that can run without you, and that’s going to mean a little bit more, like I said, handbooks and systems. But that’s what we’ve tried to do. And we’ve gone away for week stretches, we just went to Costa Rica for a week, and so that was nice. But the bakery is running, that’s always a good sign. People are like, “Well, how is the bakery doing?” I’m like, “I don’t know, I have no idea. My managers are running it.”

Jackie: I think, too, now if we’re talking about financial goals, we’re trying to figure out the best way to become more profitable. To increase our net at this point without either going into big debt over it and taking that leap and trying to . . .

Andy: Expand out.

Jackie: Versus maybe just tightening up what already exists.

Dave: This is increasingly important as Andy and Jackie start to think more about their future plans. I asked them where they’d like to see themselves in 5 years, and what they view as the biggest obstacle.

Andy: Yeah. Well, I would like to have two successful businesses that have established themselves and our self-propelling. Like no one depends on us for day-to-day stuff, people are confident that they have people to turn to to fix broken things and to answer questions about money. So it frees us up to be spokespeople for our craft, be industry leaders in our craft even if it’s just in the region, be able to attend conferences.

Jackie: Yeah. And just dealing with the idea of risking it all again. Because in the beginning it’s like yes, you’re risking your money and that is scary, but I don’t think you really understand it at that point. Because you’re like, “Obviously I have to risk money to try this.” And you’re just caught up in the, “We’re starting this thing and we’re doing it.” But now we created something that succeeds and that feeds our life, pays our bills, pays for food. All the basics of a person who works, why they work.

Yeah, and so now we worry about, “If we make another investment, what if it doesn’t work?” Actually I think it’s more scary now because what if we screw this whole thing up that’s been working just fine, basically?

And I don’t know, not being strong business people, I don’t know how much that hurts us, or trying to seek out people to get advice. It makes you feel very alone and you’re like, “No one will understand, I can’t even begin to explain it.” And probably fighting through that and trying to talk to people and finding resources for that.

Dave:
That brings us to the quote we played at the beginning of this episode. As Jackie and Andy continue to chase their dreams, they’re looking for resources so they don’t feel like they’re going it alone.

Jackie: We’ve felt a lot of relief and we have finally began to talk with other business owners who own bakeries, we’ve finally gotten the chance to go to conferences and things like that. And sometimes it’s just sharing horror stories, and that feels good. But then it’s like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense, we should do that.” And that is actually helpful. So if you can talk to people in your industry, it actually is useful.

Dave: That’s been the inspiration for us in starting this podcast. Sharing the stories of small business owners so those of you with similar goals, challenges, and dreams can learn from each other — whether you’re just getting started or thinking about taking your next big leap.

One thing I’ve learned from Andy and Jackie is that there’s never going to be a time when you have all the answers. And that’s ok. As long as you love what you’re doing, you understand your audience and craft, you’re willing to put in the hard work, and you can be honest about needing help, it’s possible to create something you can be proud of. Something that becomes bigger than yourself.

That doesn’t mean it’s ever going to be easy, but hopefully you can get to a place where you can look back and know you’d do it all over again.

I’ll leave you with a couple last pieces of advice from Andy and Jackie.

Jackie: This isn’t really surprise, but you constantly feel like you just started and then you realize you’re not new anymore. And that’s a weird feeling, if nothing else. Because you’re always saying, “Well, when I’m a little more experienced,” or, “When this and that, it will be better,” or, “Can’t wait to get to that point.” Well, there is not point, there is no end point. It’s like constantly ongoing, chasing.

Andy: Yeah, I would say similarly love what you’re concentrating in, have a real love of what you’re creating. Because if at the very least you have to fall back on just doing that every day, you should be satisfied with that, at least for the first five years or so. You should be happy just making the product. Because if you don’t like making the product and you’re expecting to get rich from it or get notoriety or whatever you view as success, then you’re just going to resent the product and then no one is going to want to work for you.

Dave: We hope you enjoyed our first episode of Small Biz Stories.

Be sure to subscribe so you can join us for the next episode, where we’ll be visiting The Cheese Shop in Concord, Massachusetts.

We appreciate you listening and would love to hear what you think of the show. Your feedback is important to us please go to iTunes right now and leave us a review.

Small Biz Stories is produced by myself, Dave Charest, Shaun Cronin, and Miranda Paquet. You can contact us at podcast@constantcontact.com

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

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