Starting an “Artisan” Food Business:

Reflections from the First Five Years of Treat Bake Shop

 

November 2011 - Shipping out the very first orders!

November 2011 - Shipping out the very first orders!

Without a doubt, I’m proud of what I’ve created.

I took an idea and turned it into a profitable, six-figure business. I pay myself, pay my employees a living wage, and am having fun.

But this is also REALLY hard. And what makes it even harder is how glamorous food magazines and Instagram make this industry seem.

The truth of the matter is that Treat Bake Shop is a manufacturing business masquerading as a cute bakery. There is nothing sexy about it.

And while I logically know that comparison is the thief of joy, when I read about a hip new product, or see a perfectly stylized photo of some business owner lovin’ life, I feel really shitty. Like what I’m doing – what I’ve lost sleep over, what I’ve cried over – isn’t good enough. But what I really want to ask all these cool kids is: ARE YOU MAKING ANY MONEY???

I’ve noticed, in business, that no one seems to talk openly about financials. Owning my own business already feels lonely. Add to that the fact that I’m learning every single thing as I go, and the feeling compounds exponentially.

To shed light on this industry for anyone eager to jump in – or anyone already in and mentally struggling like I am – I thought I’d share my reality of owning an artisan food business.

Quick facts:
•    Started Treat in November 2011 with $5,000 (from savings)
•    Started with one product: 7oz glass jar of Spiced Pecans
•    Took out one loan to pay for the kitchen build-out
•    Have been profitable since day one

What I did right:
•    Had a product that is shelf stable with a long shelf life
•    Kept my day job while testing the concept of Treat
•    Started in a rental kitchen
•    Found someone to help me understand the numbers and create a financial plan
•    Did everything myself for the first 3+ years, which forced me to be frugal in my decision making and provided a cushion of cash in the bank

Milestones:
•    November 6, 2011 – Sold first jar of Spiced Pecans (surprisingly, it wasn’t even to my mom)
•    June 29, 2012 – Quit my day job
•    June 2013 – Started paying myself $1,000/month
•    January 2014 – Started paying myself $2,000/month
•    December 5, 2014 – Surpassed $100k in revenue!
•    July 10, 2015 – Signed lease on my own space
•    October 12, 2015 – Build-out complete. Made first batch in new kitchen!
•    October 19, 2015 – First employee (Production Assistant) started
•    January 2016 – Started paying myself $2,500/month
•    December 8, 2016 – Surpassed $200k in revenue!!

Whew! That’s a whole lot of emotions and hard work tidied up into a handful of bullet points.

Reflecting on that time, I’ve made a few key observations:

1) Work backwards
You can work around the clock forcing a business to prove successful. And this may result in some level of financial success.

Instead of thinking, “I want to do X so I’m going to make a business out of it,” the smart way to start a business is to actually work backwards. You should first analyze the industry, market share, consumer demand, costs, etc. before diving in. Make sure said business will provide the ROI you are looking for.

Hard work, stubbornness, and determination will get you far, but a business with a captive audience that supports your goals makes it a lot easier.


2) There is no magic fix
There is no co-packer that will seamlessly solve all your production issues. No machine that will miraculously label all your jars for you. No sales solution that will double your revenue overnight.

Before you hire any Band-Aid, you need to fully understand the specific problem you are trying to solve and make sure you are ready to accept the inevitable new challenges that solution will create.


3) It’s really hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you’re exhausted and broke
Before starting Treat, I was inspired by success stories I’d read, stories about how it was really rough starting out, but how they persevered and all their hard work ended up paying off in spades.
 
The tricky thing about that type of inspirational story is that, when you yourself are in the trenches of your business, you have no idea if you’re going to make it, if you’re going to have the opportunity to tell your inspirational story, or if all the stress and long hours will have been for naught.

And it’s that not knowing that is the evil mindfuck of business.


4) Don’t judge a book by its cover
It’s great to have business leaders/companies to look up to, to keep you driven and inspired. But before you model your decisions on outside observations (e.g. Company X that I admire did it this way, so we’re going to do it this way, too), you need to first understand what underlying factors motivate the decisions they make, e.g. single mom trying to make ends meet; board of directors/investors to answer to; bootstrapped; trust-funded, etc.

In-and-of-itself, none of these situations is a better or worse foundation for a business, but it does make a strong impact on how a business is run and what decisions are made. So while Company X may have made a decision you want to emulate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that decision is the right one for your company.

When it comes to decision-making time, be sure to think for yourself.


5) Whac-A-Mole
Running Treat often feels like an endless, exhausting game of Whac-A-Mole. Me, naively and repeatedly popping back up saying “We can do this.” And problem after problem continuously beating me back down saying “You can’t!” You can’t!” “You can’t!”

Bam! Bam! Bam!

They say “love what you do” and, in my experience, that absolutely has to be the case. I have no idea how you’d muster the motivation to keep going otherwise.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Owning Treat Bake Shop is incredibly rewarding. I am living my dream right now, and that in and of itself should be considered a success. While there is no perfect job, I honestly can’t think of anything different I’d rather be doing. But, damn, it’s hard.

--Sarah Marx Feldner
March 2017

 

Want to read more? Here is my perspective from September 2014
Tips for Starting an Artisan Food Business >