Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Learning from Others

Simon and I just took a weekend trip out to LA for a friend's wedding. We carried over 300 macarons with us on the plane to do the wedding favors and we got "ooohs" and "aaahhhs" wherever we went. It was really nice seeing our macarons on the west coast and giving gift boxes to some of our old friends that we met up with. So many of our friends out there had only seen the pictures of our macarons so it was great to finally let them have a taste.

We really cannot leave NY without looking up bakeries. For me, it's fascinating to see what works in other demographics. We love visiting tiny places where you could find the owner working at the shop and we like looking at large businesses and chains. There's a lot to explore at every different level of business, from the smallest to the largest and we wonder what we can learn from each one. Every business starts differently and it's all just so interesting to me.

The way that Macaron Parlour came to be is a very NY story. In 2009, we were in the midst of a recession. Simon lost his job and I got a pay cut at my job. The recession gave us an opportunity to rethink our careers. Do we want to do more of the same or do we want to make a change? I wasn't making a lot of money and I was in a low position, so why not finally make that leap into a career that I would like more? Simon and I didn't meet until the end of 2009, but we had things in common. We were itching for something new. We were young and we had no responsibilities. We did not have any excuses to not do what we want.

Meanwhile, the food scene was starting to explode. The Brooklyn Flea was born and tastes were moving towards more artisan foods. I know that I suddenly became interested in having better food. It was really a great time to start a new food business.

We were lucky to start when we did. We took a leap when it was very risky and it panned out. We had a tiny budget and it worked for us. Now that we have 2 stores, we have a bigger budget and the money seems to disappear just as quickly. We used to work 12 hours to produce 200 macarons, which would last us a week, and now we can do that in only a fraction of the time, but we cannot keep up with our sales. We have a lot of good problems, but sometimes I feel very alone in them.

One of the nice things about visiting other places is seeing if they share similar problems and seeing how they may be coping with them. I've seen places sell out of flavors, but in bigger businesses, it feels like the flavors reappear miraculously within hours. I wonder how big their staff must be, how many hours a day they are producing, how big their facility is, and how they figure out what to produce next. I like trying to peek at the systems in place in large chains, watching the flow of customers or how the menu is laid out. I figure the people who're in charge of operating large chains also pay to get the right research done. I notice environments where the staff is friendly and when they're standoffish. There's a lot of things to notice and learn from other places. I get ideas for not just menu items, but things like where to place an air vent if I were to get a new piece of equipment.

I look at fixtures and think about things I would get if I had the money to buy it. It's odd that when I fantasize about an unlimited budget, I imagine that I would still be glued to Macaron Parlour and I would still be working 6 days a week. Our kitchen would have Central Air and we would have a walk-in freezer. I think about a display fridge with marble in it and shiny new fixtures. I fantasize when I walk into really fancy cafes about being able to afford to do the same. But I appreciate the creativity of businesses in situations more like ours. Fantasizing will get me no where, but adjusting to reality will improve our business. For example, in the beginning we weren't able to afford custom boxes, but after visiting other places, we realized that we could make do with custom stickers until we could afford the boxes (we have the boxes now!).

I liked visiting LA because their issues are very different from ours. A lot of our business is from foot traffic - it's usually not a "destination," but Los Angeles is not a walking city. I can't imagine starting a small business there without the goal of becoming a destination. Parking there is nowhere near as difficult as it is in NY, but since more of your customer base would be driving in LA, you need to be sure that parking is available nearby. I also wonder about the sense of competition in a place where all the good places seem to be so near and so far from each other - as in 10 minutes away seems far for me, but it doesn't seem that far when you're in a car with the radio blasting. There's a lot of different challenges and it's something I think about with each new city I visit.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of adjustments that can be made. It's easy to become comfortable, but we have to change if we're going to improve. Our biggest problem right now is the best kind of problem - we're selling a lot and we don't have the best storage situation. I suspect that what I really need to do is to move into a larger kitchen, but the idea of becoming separated from our East Village store is heartbreaking to me. If we did that, our staff would be out of touch with the production of the product and our kitchen staff would not see the end result of our hard work. I can see it already with the UWS location. Some of the staff who work there have never seen our kitchen in action and they wonder why cookies don't magically appear all the time. Those who work in the East Village know how many hours we spend working and how futile it seems to be in the fight to keep ahead. For now, the best I can do is more shifts and keep trying to improve the flow. Until we can afford to make the big changes, I still have to figure out what we can do with what little we have. It's important for me to remember that the problems I face as a business owner are not unique to me. Many other businesses have been through this before and come through victorious on the other side. Remembering this is comforting to me.

Monday, May 5, 2014

A New Career in Five Years

This past weekend, I celebrated my 10 year high school reunion. I've kept in touch with only a handful of friends, many of whom did not make it to the reunion. For some of the people I saw over the weekend, I haven't seen them in ten years. For others, I last saw them at the 5 year reunion.

Five years ago, I was still working in the world of PR. I had just graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology and finished my first year at the Maison Sapho School of Dressmaking & Design. After finishing undergrad, I was convinced that I would spend the rest of my career in a fashion related field so I jumped in full-force with the job, a second degree, and of course, dress-making skills. I have no regrets about any of them, but it's interesting to see that I did not end up in fashion.

At the 5th year reunion, I spoke to former classmates about my job and how I had just taken the Introduction to Baking course at ICE. I told them how much I loved it and that I liked baking more than my real job. Even some of my classmates commented on how I was in a transition period during 2009 with a lot on my plate and no idea where it would take me.

By the time I met Simon, late in 2009, I was planning my next steps. I considered moving to California to go to the Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. Meeting him kept me from moving and I chose to go to school locally. We knew quickly that we were a serious couple. It took longer to figure out that we were ok working together as business owners (um, we still fight about it to this day).

In five short years, I made a complete life change. I'm not wondering about a different career, I'm wondering about whether I can do my job better. I used to hire a trainer to help me lift 10 lb weights and now I carry around 50 lbs of sugar on a daily basis. We own two bakeries!

In the weeks after my last post, Simon and I have trained our staff for the UWS location and phased ourselves out. I'm no longer there every morning and Simon is there 3-4 times a week. I go in unannounced to check things out and see how everything looks. Nicole helped us put a lot of great systems in place in the new location and they're so great that we're working on implementing them downtown.

Our kitchen team is getting faster and more efficient. We're testing out a new schedule. I'm coming in with another member at 6 am to try to get a set of macarons made by the time everyone else arrives a few hours later. In return, I get to leave early. It makes me feel really uncomfortable to leave while people are still working, but I felt like pulling away is something I need to do. I fight myself every day to stop micromanaging so I can focus on the bigger picture. For me, the bigger picture is to make sure we have enough macarons for what we need, take the opportunity to test things, and to actually have a work/life balance. Some people believe it's impossible to have that balance while owning a business, but four years in, I'm still optimistic that one day, I will have 2 days off!

I hear a lot of other stories about how difficult it is to be in food. It's fascinating how it's different for everyone. Some people commit to a life of working 80+ hour weeks. Some people work really hard for a little bit to get their business off the ground and others involved - a great sous chef, a co-packer, etc. -  to keep things going, which frees up their time to pursue other things. I've never wanted to hand off all of the work to someone else, but I feel like if I'm still working this much 5 years from now (aka 9 years into being a business owner), then I have not done things right. I love working, but I'd like to actually have the time to do things like actually use the gym membership I paid for, eat more Shake Shack, learn how to fry eggs over-easy, and buy a new couch. It's hard to figure out what is the right balance where we're not micromanaging, but we're not so hands-off that we're losing quality.

But we'll see what the future holds. I can't believe we have a second store and it's all been so seamless. Being in business is so much easier when you have great people to help you and it wouldn't have been this easy without Nicole. The classes wouldn't have been as smooth without Simon to help ease up the mood with jokes to fill in potential awkward silences. Our customers have been incredibly sweet and receptive to our new store. We only have "good problems" and that is not something to complain about!

In five years, I went from being an employee who wasn't sure about my future to a business owner. I wonder what I'll be able to chat about during my 15 year reunion.