Baker and small business-owner Jennifer Carson opens a local bakery dedicated to quality products--even when that means a sacrifice in business efficiency.
Steve Mariotti: What led you to opening a bakery?
Jennifer Carson: I’ve read, collected, and studied loads of cookbooks and baking books, and baked for family and friends for years. After our third child entered preschool, I found a commercial kitchen and started a small baking business, selling baked goods to a few caterers as well as to cafes and at farmers’ markets. I also went back to school at the French Culinary Institute in New York to study Restaurant Management and International Bread. I continued to write and tweak the LiLLiPiES business plan during that time and finally opened LiLLiPiES in Princeton, NJ on July 11, 2016.
SM: How is LiLLiPiES Bakery different from other bakeries?
JC: We knew from the start that we wanted to serve a product very different from the mass-produced items you can find in supermarkets and chains, and in a different way.
First of all, we source local, organic, and seasonal ingredients. We use pastured organic eggs from a family farm located a few miles away. Our apples are grown on an orchard in the next town over. We use only organic flours. Our coffee is roasted just a couple of miles down the road. Our sourdough bread is fermented for 24 hours, or longer. It would be quicker and easier to use commercial yeast but Sourdough bread tastes so much better, has a wonderful texture, and is healthier to eat. Sourdough is the bread that humans had been eating for over 2,000 years ago until 50 years ago when bread became an industrialized product.
We also strive to serve the absolute freshest product as well. Our goal is to serve pies, cakes, and breads that evoke a memory. When you were a kid, I’ll bet your grandma served you a slice of pie that was baked that morning. This is why we bake everything fresh, and continue baking in small batches throughout the day. It may be less efficient this way, but it yields an amazing tasting product.
Our next goal is to provide excellent hospitality. We try to make every guest feel welcome and at home. We love to be our regulars’ “other home,” a place to meet with friends over coffee and something delicious.
SM: Was opening a bakery scary?
JC: It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. It involved letting go and trusting other people. There are just way too many things to do every day to do everything yourself. Day to day, everyone has to contribute fully for the bakery to run smoothly and succeed.
Danny Meyer, founder of Union Square Hospitality is quoted as saying, “The only way a company can grow, stay true to its soul, and remain consistently successful is to attract, hire, and keep great people. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.” When we started out hiring, we knew we could train our staff to prepare a good cup of coffee, bake a great loaf of bread, cook a delicious egg sandwich. But empathy, passion, work ethic, kindness are not teachable.
SM: What part of your day brings you the most joy?
JC: When we first arrive and enter the kitchen at 4:30AM, there is a beautiful calm. But then we turn on the ovens, brew the first pot of coffee, crank up the music and the energy changes completely. It’s our own special world of coaxing yeast and flour, butter and eggs to become delicious creations.
Each day, we start anew with empty bread shelves. It’s pretty awesome to watch the shelves filling up with gorgeous loaves of crackling, hearth-baked breads. Then at 7AM, we open. Some days we’ll greet an especially happy guest; other days we’ll cheer up an especially unhappy guest. We never know who or what will enter the door at any given moment.
Jen’s Tips For Starting Your Own Retail Bakery!
1. Learn from every experience. Work for as many restaurants and shops as you can--and pay attention while you are there. Take note of what you like and don’t like, the leadership, training, company culture and operations.
2. Ask for help. So many restaurant owners, bakers, farmers, writers, and friends helped me in the very beginning of my business--and they continue to help. They are my cheerleaders, my trusted advisors, my sources for ingredients, you name it!
3. Never forget to play! One of the many joys of being a baker is being creative. Go to farms and farmers markets, talk to farmers about their crops, pick out some interesting produce or new grain to work with, and invent something new. Be sure to give your staff that same opportunity.