For the past six years, Andrea Lekberg has run The Artist Baker, a boutique bakery & cafe in Morristown, New Jersey. She graduated from The Art Institute of Chicago and The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, and has worked at a long list of notable bakeries and restaurants. She is also – of course – an artist, who is currently working on a project about her Native American heritage.
I got to know Andrea when she offered to host a series of meetups I helped run with my friend Scott McDowell. I was always impressed by her wisdom, and how she balanced running a business, with growing as an artist and building not just a body of meaningful work, but a community of collaborators.
This podcast is part of the research for a book I am writing called Dabblers vs. Doers, which is about working through RISK as you develop your craft and build a meaningful body of work.Here are some key insights that Andrea shared with me…
On Taking the Next Step
“It’s not that I was tired of working for people, but I was not looking forward to working for another chef or another owner. I felt that I kept finding myself in similar circumstances, so I wasn’t growing. I talked to a friend who told me, ‘if you are managing businesses, you are already doing all the work, caring about the business, caring about the people, worrying about numbers; but the benefit is you own it. It is easier to problem solve because you don’t have an owner. As a middle manager, you always have to answer to the boss. Even though you are problem solving, it is not really your final word, so you are caught.’ What he said was,’you are already there, just take the next step.'”
“There are different ways to grow professionally. I could have gone and worked for a hotel, and ran hundreds of people. Like go work in Las Vegas, and do pastries at a hotel where they are open around the clock, and you have a hundred people working — that would have been a big challenge. But it wasn’t a challenge I was looking for. I was looking for something more personal and more about my growth.”
The Value of Taking the Time to Plan
She spent a year working on her business plan and working out her finances. “It was very helpful writing the business plan, because I was able to see how I could go from selling two cups of coffee a day, to grow from there.”
“One thing I know about making a plan is that you can always change it.”
“I spent a year writing the business plan and looking around at property, and I learned so much. I almost got two pieces of property, and felt like I met every asshole Charleston. I learned so much about leases. I signed a lease on one property, and the person was just using it to get another person to sign the lease. I was used, but I didn’t know. Another time, I almost signed on a property, and the lease was a triple net, which means you are responsible for everything below the roof. Before I signed the lease, I had an inspection done, which I was paying for. I found all these problems, so I didn’t sign the lease. It was interesting learning about what could happen — what you are responsible for.”
“I was looking around, and even though everybody was telling me how great the area was, how business was growing, I was not seeing any other businesses come into that area, and I was actually seeing businesses close. If you go by just walking around the street, and see what business are there, that really tells you everything about the town. That is the best thing to do. Ask yourself: what is not here, and why isn’t it here. You start asking all of these questions.”
I asked her why people skip such a foundational concept such as observation and asking questions, and she mentioned that sometimes people are just so driven by their concept, that they are essentially blinded to any other context or factors that can affect it.
When personal circumstances opened an opportunity to open her bakery in an unexpected place: Morristown, New Jersey, she put boundaries to help reduce the risk:
- “I’ll give myself through the summer to find a space.”
- “I wanted to find a landlord who would work with me and was excited about the project.”
These limits helped her focus, and find a place to open The Artist Baker.
Preparing for Success
Her theory of how you sign a lease always astounded me: “People would sign a year lease, and I thought they weren’t preparing themselves for success. They were first looking for a way out. Sign the longest lease they will give you. You can always get out of it, if you are smart about it. When you setup a business with lawyers, everybody is protected. It is key to have lawyers and contracts.”
“When I was first looking for financing for the business, I had a lot of people who would say ‘Oh, I’ll give you $1,000 or $5,000′ – these small numbers for a business – and they would want a small percentage of the business. I had a lawyer who said, “DON’T TAKE THEIR MONEY. If it is that small, they shouldn’t ask you for a piece of the business.’ She was an eye opener about the value of getting a bigger amount from one or two people, than having all these people who are involved in your business.”
Andrea listed all the people she hired and staff she brought on board to open the shop. When I asked her why she didn’t just open up the shop with zero staff, taking on the role of baking herself, and serving herself, she said this, “If you have a business so small that you are doing everything, then you don’t have time to think about growing it. You can’t grow. You are always behind and overwhelmed. We started out so that we could hopefully succeed.”
Compartmentalizing What You Can Control
“I opened this business just after my stepfather died; I was in such a different place. I wasn’t trying to control things as much. Had I opened it earlier, I would have been so frustrated. But I was ready now, everything was just problem solving. I slept great the whole time we were opening up the business, and the reason was because it was so awful. I knew the next day would be a whole new set of problems, but I couldn’t do anything about it now. Besides, the problems are never what you thought they would be, they come out of the blue, so you couldn’t even prepare yourself mentally for dealing with the problems of the next day.”
“I had no idea it was going to be like this.”
She said that the best marketing for her business has always ben word of mouth. People coming, then coming back and bringing others. It took a year for the bakery to be financially viable on its own. “I originally thought it would mostly be a pastry shop, but now mostly what we do is lunch. Our business has shifted. There was a point where we had a lot of staff, people were working, the restaurant was full, everything was moving like this nice machine, and I remember thinking: ‘I had no idea it was going to be like this.’ I had no idea it would be more of a restaurant.”
Dealing With Other People’s Expecations
“Every day, people have [their own] expectations. You get new customers coming into the shop, and let’s just say they heard from somebody that it was good. So they have their ideas of a good bakery, maybe one they went to in Vermont, and they come in, and they want it to be like that experience. It’s always funny with new people, to try to help them understand what we are doing. It’s definitely a business, but it’s also a creative place. We do a lot of stuff that I know most shops don’t ever get a chance to do. This is to push the staff to do things they aren’t used to doing. When you talk about expectations, you are trying to fulfill customer expectations, but also your own expectations, and I don’t feel like we are just food service.”
“I just want to be good at being me. That is what good artists are, they are good at being themselves. That is the role of the bakery is to be good at what it is. Not be what other people want it to be.”
Thank you to Andrea for making the time to meet with me. You can find her in at http://theartistbaker.com.
For more interviews and behind-the-scenes stuff on my book Dabblers vs. Doers, click here.