Or, Longing to be Normal
I made a mistake. A couple of weeks ago, in a post in which I wrote about staying in control of our life’s direction. I said that the bakery in Tarboro had been a mistake. I called it a failure to be exact. It wasn’t. Far from it, in fact. And it certainly wasn’t a fucking mistake, but some of the best years of our working lives.
I realized my error within minutes of having emailed the newsletter—Franca did, too, and asked me about it—and so I corrected it on the website to read unsustainable. But then immediately thought, Fuck no, that’s not right either. And I needed to get this right. The words we use matter. If just any old word is the best I can do for you, you should probably leave now. That bullshit you can find elsewhere online, and you definitely shouldn't be paying for it.
The reality is that Alimentaire was almost everything our little sourdough bakery needed to be. For us, anyway. But for others—and eventually, I guess, for us, too—it fell short of its potential. But even then that’s too vague, goddammit, pliable to almost any circumstance, like silly putty. But fuck it. Let's go with it, as long as we can agree: Falling short does not mean failure. Think: Olympic silver medalists. Ok, maybe not this silver medalist, but hopefully you get my point.
What makes a successful small business
To reassure myself I checked in with the US Chamber of Commerce (as absurd of an organization as you will ever find and here’s why) just to see what these bullshitters (Don’t believe me? These bastards give a new meaning to horrific) has to say about the requirements for a successful business:
- Unique value
- Customer-centric approach
- Good marketing
- Strong vision
- Passionate leaders
- Empowered employees
Putting aside my opinion of this sneaky, underhanded, small-business slayer, they are pretty fucking good at appearing to everyone else as champions of Main Street. So, we won’t knock whichever one of their copy people came up with this list just because those greedy, bottom-feeders at the top are using all that membership money to perform some pretty shady work.
Anyway, I digress (but for good reason—small business owners stop funding these assholes). Let’s get to the list:
Unique value. Tenacity. Customer-centric approach—check, check, check, but let’s come back to that third one in a sec. Good marketing. Strong vision. Passionate leaders. Empowered employees. Check, check, check, check. Adaptability and Diversity (that this is listed on a US Chamber website almost makes me want to puke), but yes, check and check.
So what does all that mean? It means the bakery paid for itself, and at the same offered us enough of a tiny income to support our low-cost lifestyle. That it was what we had in mind in terms of a small business, one centered around a passion and lifestyle and community. That it was better for the world, of which I wrote often and probably way too enthusiastically about, and that it delivered more challenge and gave us more joy than we ever could have imagined.
And yet…something was lacking. At first, we tried to mask it—or at the very least weather the pain until it wasn’t a pain to weather any more—by putting in the long hours, as one does with any new business. By managing our expectations and those of others. And by adjusting where and when adjustments could be made, but always remaining within the contours of our vision, purpose, and value to ourselves, our employees, and our community.
We spelled it all out in our mission statement to be sure it wasn't forgotten: To nourish our community with fresh, great tasting bread made simply of locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, and in connecting people to the flavor, goodness and wholesomeness of real food made from scratch, inspire in them a stronger foundation for living a healthier, happier and more resilient future for themselves, one another, and our planet.
But, really—are these just words? What did that look like on the ground? To us, it looked like what you might find in many other bakeries. Great food. Made mostly from scratch. Available when you need it. But to our customer, how might they have addressed the question?
What does customer-centric mean to you?
How those dipshits at the US Chamber would describe customer-centric I haven’t a clue (here’s a hint though of what they link of normal, everyday, hardworking people). Here’s how we defined it: Our customer was someone who valued nutrition over price, local over global food systems, and quality breads over the tasteless, crappy, over-processed fare found in most every grocery store.
Those things we managed pretty well. What we didn’t manage well is that we couldn’t compete with the operating hours of those 24 hr, seven days a week, grocery stores, which, oddly enough, kind of stand at the top of customer-centric as they are pretty much open for business whenever people need them to be open. At the customer's convenience.
It wasn't from lack of our trying, though. In the beginning our little family bakery shop was open six days a week, and all day long. Eventually, the work became too much (six days of open-for-business meant seven days of kitchen work) and we scaled back to five. Then, with Covid, to four.
Who is a bakery for is the right question to ask
The result didn’t impact our sales (good for us) but it did impact our customer (bad for them). Of the two, which is the most impactful to a business’s success? Yeah, we think so, too (who gives a fuck what the Chamber thinks). We benefited in shorting our hours, but the customer paid the price. And here is the problem: That’s not the kind of bakery we would’ve wanted for ourselves.
Not saying we want our bakers to work their fingers to the bone, day in day out, long nights, early mornings, etcetera. We don’t. But we get it. People live challenging lives, there are schedules and a fifty-three other things that need to be considered in a day before wondering how in the hell you’re going to get by the bakery before they close at two pm to get the loaf you need for dinner .
So, the problem was never the work. It was who was doing it all. If the bakery had made just a little more money perhaps it would’ve provided us some relief in allowing us to hire more employees which would give us more time to enjoy the contented lifestyle our small town of Tarboro afforded us. But this does not constitute a failure. Nor were the sales just cause. As I mentioned, the business paid for itself and met our personal financial needs.
The problem was that our special, one-of-a-kind little bakery was a little too fucking special, if you ask us. It was too one-of-a-kind and not living up to our idea of what a bakery should be, the one we would want for ourselves (and find here, btw, all over Italy). It’s shitty to say so now, I know, but we had bread whenever we wanted it—after all, we spent most of our waking hours there. But as bread consumers we’re not really interested in special. What we want is great bread, made mostly from scratch, available when we need it, because bread, real bread, is not meant to be a treat. It’s not a thing you eat occasionally, on holidays or on weekends, when food comas are intentionally pursued.
Bread is a necessity and the place that serves it should be a place that you can go to on the day you need it and find it there. Something common, regular, ordinary. What we had at Alimentaire was something special—I’ve said it myself a hundred times—but at the same time we used to joke that it was a bakery-in-a-box, something ordinary that could be duplicated in any town of almost any size where bread was considered a staple.
So, no, the bakery didn’t fail. You might say that what failed was our concept of the bakery, or where we chose to build it, but that is unfair to us and unfair to Tarboro. The bakery closed because the thing we wanted most for it to become was just a normal place to get bread and other good food, and normal, as we all know, is never a one-of-a-kind.
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