THE BAKING BUSINESS FIASCO – BY ELLIN CURLEY

For several years I tried to start a baking business. I knew nothing about the food industry or marketing. I should have known I was doomed from the start. But I got sucked in gradually and ended up way over my head.

It all started on a trip through the English countryside. We ate at some marvelous pubs and local restaurants and I fell in love with the desserts. I discovered a whole world of lightly textured but densely flavored desserts that were nothing like anything I had eaten before. And I’m a dessert fanatic. These cake-like creations are called Traditional English Puddings. ‘Pudding’ is the English word for dessert. It does not refer to the custardy dessert we call ‘pudding’ in America.

Cover of my marketing brochure

So I came home with some English pudding cookbooks and started to experiment. I focused on dishes that were different from the conventional American fare. Many of these desserts were steamed, not baked. Many were served with delicious sauces instead of icing, usually what we call a crème anglais. The ones I chose were fantastic confections that didn’t taste or feel like a typical American cake.

I adapted many of the recipes to accommodate American tastes and preferences, like more sugar and less fruitcake fruit. I even invented some new cookies and bar recipes that used some of the English ingredients and techniques.

I checked with a friend who worked at the town hall and she told me that I could start a baking business from home without any permits from the town. So I made some basic marketing flyers and in 2006 I started doing dessert displays at friends’ parties or at events, like a home jewelry show. I called my business Sticky Pudding.

Inside page of my marketing brochure

People loved my desserts but I wasn’t getting many customers. I hired a marketing person and developed a more professional flyer as well as some additional marketing materials. I paid for a professional food photographer to take photos for my brochure. We placed an ad in the local paper.

My very first phone call was the town, shutting me down. Apparently my friend was misinformed. You cannot bake and sell from home in most towns today unless you have a fully professional kitchen that meets all the health code regulations of a restaurant kitchen. I was devastated and furious. My friend at the town hall hadn’t bothered to double-check with the proper authorities, even though they were just a few doors down from her office.

Back of my brochure

I had already put in over a year of time and plenty of money. For nothing.

Then a friend told me about a baker she knew who had a factory in Queens, NY. She thought he might be able to work with me. So I met with him. Lo and behold, he said that he would help me develop some of my desserts from home scale recipes to mass production recipes. I just agreed to give him a percentage of my profits from the sale of any goods baked at his bakery. We signed a written agreement.

So I developed a whole line of cookies, bars and cakes, sixteen different products in all. I thought it was smart to give buyers a wide range of choices. In the development process, I also had to design and pay for packaging for every individual product. I also had to learn all the arcane rules relating to labeling the packages. I had to hire someone to do the analysis of ingredient percentages and calorie count that are required on all commercial labeling.

This is the cookie I developed, based on some English recipes

It was a lot of work, a lot of money and a steep learning curve. But I managed to overcome every obstacle that was thrown at me in the one and a half-year process.

The only problem was that I had no idea how the industry worked. The baker I partnered with sold to name places like Dean & Deluca’s, Zabar’s and Fairway Market. I ASSUMED that he had hired me to create a line of baked goods that he planned to sell to his established customers. I had no clients of my own and no concept of marketing. Certainly not on this large a scale. For example, each run of each individual flavor of cookies produced 900 cookies. All had to be sold within a few days of baking in order to make money. Multiply this by twelve! That’s how much product I had to sell, quickly, if I didn’t want to lose money on each run.

I also planned to sell frozen cookie dough that you just put in the oven

When I was finally ready to start production, to my dismay, I discovered that the baker had ASSUMED that I had done my own marketing and had my own, large-scale customers lined up to buy my products! It turned out that he couldn’t even guarantee that his regular customers would buy anything from me.

He got me a few introductions, which allowed me to APPLY to his clients as a potential supplier. None of them was interested in anything in my line.

Some chocolate bars. I also invented the recipe for these.

Most people build a business from the bottom up. You develop a customer base and increase production as demand increases. I started out using that model but had to stop. I then jumped ten steps ahead and went right to mass production before I even had a small customer base. What was I thinking?

At this point, if I wanted to move forward, I would have to invest serious money into professional marketing on a large-scale. And even then there was no guarantee of success in the limited time frame I had boxed myself into. Then the financial market crash of 2008 happened. Any money I might have had to put into the business was now gone. I had to pull the plug on the whole enterprise.

And that was the end of my ignominious career in the food industry!

18 thoughts on “THE BAKING BUSINESS FIASCO – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. Back in Israel, I used to bake bread. I was a very good bread baker. Friends lined up to grab a piece of my fresh-baked bread. I baked rye, whole wheat, raisin-cinnamon, white and pumpernickel. The more I baked, the more it seemed I needed to bake. One day, a friend of mine suffered the passing of his father … and was shocked to discover he was … well … rich. He had no idea his father had that much money and he had no idea what to do with it. He was an ambition-free guy … so he asked me if maybe I’d like to open a bakery.

    Everyone thought it was a GREAT idea. Except I KNEW what it involved. Baking for a living is exhausting. You are up in the middle of the night to set your dough to rise and you have to have your bread ready to roll on trucks before the sun is up. EVEN with the most modern equipment, unless you are going to turn the whole thing over to someone else — in which case why are you doing it at all?

    I said no. I’m sure the bread WOULD have sold because Israelis are nuts about bread. Any kind of bread. I might have made a good deal of money had I survived long enough, but I’m pretty sure they would have had to take me away on a gurney.

    Food services are hard, hard, hard work. All day. Every day. Holidays. It is possible in the end, you may have saved yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bread baking in a bakery is different than what I was going to do, which was cater parties mostly. I wouldn’t have been up at dawn or working all day, if I had been able to bake from home. The factory would have done all the baking for me if I had been able to get enough customers. I would have had to spend my time marketing and pursuing new customers. I definitely didn’t understand what I was getting into, so it’s better that it ended when it did.

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      • Lots of coulda-shoulda in there. IF you had a lot of customers, then you could have the factory do the basic stuff. But unless you planned to be the next Keebler elf, you WILL be there to make sure it is the way you want it. Baking — yours or mine — is done during the night so it is ready for use and/or distribution before breakfast — or whenever the delivery trucks go out.

        Who did you think was going to run the factory? You don’t just put a recipe in place and some “guy in charge” takes care of the rest. Not if you want your food to taste like YOU made it — and not like the stuff they sell in the grocery.

        You would be dealing with food that is NOT heavily preserved and must be sold by a specific date. You need it to taste exactly right. Otherwise, your customers will send it back. Don’t believe they won’t. I know enough people who really ARE in this business who assure me even a minuscule change in the type of flour you use or the precise amount of sugar — or even the TYPE of sugar — or the grind of the sugar — will get customers upset.

        Who else would you have keeping track of your quality? If not you, who?

        I could have set up a professional bakery with machines that would beat the dough, set it to rise, bake it perfectly. I could have had enough workman to bag it and load it on the trucks. But who would have been running the joint? Yessuh. Me. My bakery. I work there.

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        • I’ll second that. You really do need to be there watching. Unless you’re best buds with your employees, they may well try to cut corners and maybe sneak product and/or supplies home for all their kin.

          I worked at a doughnut shop and as long as my boss was there working beside her staff, things went okay. But she opened a second, then a third store, and there was no way she could police all three. She might not have minded disappearing baked goods as much, but pop and supplies like a big bag of cheese disappeared in the night.

          Then there were staff relations and woes. Staff came in drunk or hung over to start their shift — or just plain didn’t show up at all and later made feeble excuses. My boss had to fill in and work many days and/or nights when an employee couldn’t. And she had a husband and three children!

          Really, all three stores needed a 24/7 on-site manager! Much as I really enjoyed the work and customer relations, food production and service is a full-time job.

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        • The bakery I was working with already had an owner, a manager, a head baker, etc. I would not have been alloowed in to supervise THEIR bakers. The deal I made was that they produced the product for me, wrapped it and shipped it. The bakery was doing well with very high end customers, so I think it was run adequately. But you’re right, I didn’t really understand what would be entailed if things had worked out. It probably would have failed pretty quickly anyway.

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  2. Sounds like a money pit Ellin.
    When our younger son lost his job in the printing industry, I went into the catering business with him. He is a superb chef. After five years we were finally becoming profitable. We started out doing all sorts of events from weddings, funerals to commercial events. We built a professional kitchen, which was big bucks and had all the licences and incorporated. I found I was spending more time collecting and remitting taxes. We must have been paying 5 or 6 different taxes. Then there was the input taxes.
    Our product was all homemade and we had some pretty fine clients Omron, Schneider Electric, Canadian Standards Association etc. One day when I buying ingredients I slipped and fell carrying a cart of eggs. I broke my leg. I call it my lucky break because we decided to get out of this business. My son became an electrician and has being making a good living from that. I never worked so hard and found that the industry and government was skewed to the multinationals. There was no way anyone was going to make it big and unfortunately that goes for almost any small business today.
    One conclusion I came away with – I will never undertake anything where I have to collect and remit taxes.
    Leslie

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    • Congratulations, Leslie on having a successful catering business for so long. I’m impressed now that I know how hard the industry is. I think you’re right that the laws are skewed to the big business and do nothing but squeeze the little guys. But you did well for five years and that’s amazing! I’d love to know what some of your signature dishes were. Did you do desserts as well? It sounds like you did big scale events too. That’s way above the level I was working on. I was only looking at small parties. I don’t think I could have handled all the desserts for a large wedding by myself when I was baking from home.

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  3. Oh, that is heartbreaking! You have my sympathies — I’ve had dreams, too, that folded before they ever flew. Actually your story reminds me of becoming a self published author, but we won’t go into that. 🙂

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    • It was heartbreaking. But now I realize that if I had put in the time to learn about the industry and how things worked, instead of pretty pictures and brochures, I would have realized how ill equipped I was for the business world. At least the food industry world.

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          • First, I think you have to copyright them. You can copyright them for free … or for a couple of dollars. It cost me less than $10 to copyright the book. Once they are copyrighted, we’d need to do research. But I KNOW it’s done because that’s how cooking companies get new recipes. You’ve already done the research on how to make them commercially, and the copyright is a piece of cake. Might need to do a little research, but selling recipes beats the hell out of actually running a baking company.

            Start here: https://www.copyrighted.com/

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