As I write this post, I have just concluded the fourth week of the bakery’s existence. It’s been a tiring, exhilarating and delicious start. Like any retail business, it’s had its ebbs and flows. There are periods where no one comes in for an hour or two, and then we get a rush of people all at once. No way to predict it, no way to plan for it. You just have to be ready to drop whatever side project you’re doing and tend to the customers.
Between being open five days a week and using a sixth day to prep, there hasn’t been much time (or energy) for much else. I try to get outside when I can, but I’m often much more inclined to retire upstairs to the couch at the end of a long day on my feet.
Here’s a look at what weeks two, three and four brought:
On Monday, with no baking or prep needing to be done, I did almost nothing. Ran a few errands, had breakfast with Ann before she left town, and otherwise relaxed. My new assistant, Stefani, came on Tuesday morning and we got some prep done for the week, and then I headed to the nursery on the south side of town to get some potted herbs to help spruce up the outside. While there won’t be seating in the outdoor area yet, I still wanted it to look nice when looking through the glass doors of the bakery.
Of course, as I tried to haul the six plants, a sack of dirt and two plastic potters back with me, it started to rain. After lugging the stuff part of the way, I managed to grab a tuk-tuk and spared my sore shoulders and sagging backpack all the weight.
I’ve found that once the week begins, I have little energy for anything but the bakery. I’m up around five to get the oven going. I start by getting the day’s bread baked, and follow up by mixing the dough for the next day. After that, it’s getting everything ready for display, including grinding coffee, laying out the platters for the cookies and pastries, and more. Once the bread comes out, the cinnamon rolls, scones and cookies go in.
I like to have everything out of the oven by 7:15 or so, get the dishes as cleaned as can be, and start the final set-up for opening by 7:30. I open at 8 am Wednesday through Saturday, and after the first Sunday’s very slow start, decided to try a 9 am start for week two.
I wasn’t sure what to expect for week two. My first two weekdays had been strong, but one was opening day and I figured the day after was some carryover. But the first Friday was really, really slow and wasn’t sure if this would be the trend for weekdays (initially). As it turned out, Wednesday and Thursday were both pretty good days, on par with Saturday and Sunday from opening weekend. And while the second Friday handily beat the first one, it was still behind Wednesday and Thursday.
The weekend started with a bang, however, with Saturday posting the best sales since opening day. And Sunday came within Q15 (about $2) of matching opening day. So you can imagine what kind of mood that put me in when I finally shut the doors on Sunday afternoon! I was tired, I was relieved, and I was excited.
Via Facebook, the manager of two nearby hotels had asked if I could make her samples of dinner rolls and two types of cookies: chocolate chip and chocolate. On Sunday, I worked on the rolls for her, trying a few different varieties. As well, I came up with a chocolate cookie, using dark cocoa powder to add some deep chocolate flavor. Stefani and I tasted it on Sunday afternoon and thought it was a winner.
On Monday morning, on what should truly have been a complete day off, I had to get to work. Not only did I need to deliver the roll samples and cookies to the potential client, but I also had to make bread for Tuesday. I had been invited to Impact Hub, a co-working space down the street, to share samples of my products and bring items to sell. I know a few people who have US-based jobs, but live down here, and are able to easily telecommute with the high-speed internet at Impact Hub. They’ve told me that reaching out the Hub crowd would be good for business, and it turned out the Hub reached out to me first.
I was able to get out and about in the afternoon, and walked around town a little bit. Monday is usually the day I go to the market and get fruits and veggies for the week. I also had an appointment with my accountant, to get everything in order now that my business’ paperwork was back from the capital.
On Tuesday, I had a helper with me. B, the thirteen-year-old son of some friends here, has been enamored with my babka. There is an entrepreneurship program at his school and he decided he’d like to spend some time with me and learn about the bakery business. So, on this morning, he was my right-hand (young) man. It was a lot more of me doing and him watching, but he got the hang of a few things as the morning went on. Babka is quite delicious, but a pain to roll out. We were both sweating heavily in no time. Plus, I had the oven on to bake the bread for Impact Hub. It was a sauna in the kitchen.
He worked well for about five hours, with his mom, Marina, coming by mid-morning to take some photos and video for the school. By the time we had wrapped up for the day, he seemed happy but exhausted (which was later confirmed by his mom). We got plenty done – made blondies, baked bread, rolled and baked babka, and baked off some cookie dough. He’ll be back in a few weeks on a day the bakery is open to see what that is like.
I then headed off to Impact Hub with loaves of bread, sampler packages of cookies, and samples of everything. I set up a table in the courtyard of the Hub, gave a short spiel to the assembled group of a dozen or so people, and then let the sales begin. People seemed to enjoy everything they tasted, and I sold most of the bread and the cookies. We will work out an arrangement for Hub members to have a discount at the shop, and the Hub will in turn promote me to their members. Sounds like a win-win to me!
With my “Sunday” drawing to a close, I enjoyed a fun night of pub quiz (we tied for first after I got one of our incorrect answers reversed) and then I headed to bed, ready for a third week at the bakery.
At the end of some days in the bakery, I have leftover coffee, which I hate to throw out. First use of it was to make a batch of sourdough, replacing the water with the coffee. It turned out great! The bread had a subtle flavor of coffee, but not overpowering. Also using the coffee in the brownie batter, as well as in a coffee simple syrup for the new Nutella babka.
The week started off very poorly. Wednesday was a dreadfully slow day, and had a customer not swung by at the very end to buy a babka, it would have been the worst day ever. I was hoping to build off the success of the previous weekend, but it didn’t seem to carry over.
Stefani and I were super excited for the Nutella babka to make its debut, but it actually turned out to be a little bit polarizing. Some people don’t like Nutella very much (and were direct in saying so), while others have an issue with the palm oil that’s an ingredient. Then, of course, were the people who were super excited. While sales were slow at first, by the end of the weekend, it was selling well. The cinnamon will likely always outsell it, but it’s a delicious “other” babka.
I was so excited when Joelle, from Mama Jojo’s, came by to place an order for a birthday party. Seems a friend of hers didn’t want a cake, and preferred a selection of treats from me! So I put together two platters: one filled with cinnamon rolls, blondies and babka, and another with a mix of cookies. I was told later that it was a big hit!
Now, Saturday night has arrived and usually I’m ready to hit the sack early. However, my new friend Enrique, who I met because of the bakery, convinced me to attend a dinner that Alex – from Sobremesa – had put together. It was Alex’s first attempt (I believe) at a tasting menu featuring molecular gastronomy. We had talked about this a few weeks back and he was picking my brain a bit on some of the stuff, and I was excited to see how it all turned out.
The dinner was held in the gorgeous home of a longtime expat, Annette, who has been in Antigua for over fifty years. It was a beautiful setting for a fun, delicious and well-executed meal.
The evening started at 7, with dinner supposed to start at 8. However, things got going late, then it started raining, and by the time I had the main course, it was 10:15 and I was fading in a hurry. I excused myself at that point, said goodbye to the new friends I’d made that night and the ones I already knew, and hurried home to get into bed. One more day…and then another week would be in the books.
I had been waiting on introducing the savory scone, for no reason other than the fact that we hadn’t had time to do it. But with a good supply of bacon, I was looking forward to introducing it for the fourth week. The smell of bacon wafting through the bakery was almost too much to handle. I couldn’t wait for the scones to materialize!
And with that, week three ended. It was a so-so week, with things rebounding nicely after the poor start on Wednesday. Total sales were down from week two, but still up a bit from week one. So that was a positive. I was hoping that word-of-mouth would continue to spread and week four would be a great one.
One key thing was that I needed to increase the bread production. We were sold out of bread at 11:15 on Sunday morning, and that just won’t fly. I could have sold another half-dozen loaves, at least. I was planning to ramp up a bit for the coming week. In addition, while I hadn’t heard back from the client who wanted the roll samples (and still, as of this writing, have heard nothing), I did pick up an additional wholesale client. The owner of two hotels in town (and the father of one of the kids in the play I helped direct) has requested four country and four 50% whole grain loaves, twice a week. That’s a great order and while it’ll test the bounds of my bread production, I’m happy to have such a great client.
With a true Monday off, I started the day with breakfast at Mama Jojo’s. It had been a while since I had my favorite breakfast burrito and I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Beyond that, I spent the rest of the day doing my regular shopping and then relaxing.
On Tuesday, Stefani came mid-morning and we got to work. The biggest batch of bread ever – sixteen loaves – was already in process. Together, we rolled out and baked twelve babka, which we thought would get us through the week. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.) We also knocked out some cookie doughs and another round of blondies. It was a productive day, albeit a hot one, and when we finally wrapped up around 2:30, I was exhausted.
I celebrated Americas’s Independence with my regular Tuesday night trivia. It wasn’t the typical 4th of July for me, but I had no complaints. Plus, with our largest team in weeks, we won handily. The only downside to trivia on Tuesday nights is that it’s a late night for someone with baker’s hours. And with the new hotel bread order, I had to get up a bit earlier to allow for two rounds of bread in the oven. Such is the life of a bakery owner!
The savory scone made a triumphant debut on Wednesday, and everything I put out all week sold out. Stefani and I ended up needing to make another batch just to get us through the week.
Back in my old career, for three summers in a row, I spent a few weeks with some of my Chicago teaching colleagues, working with a school outside of Guatemala City. I got to know the staff pretty well, as you might imagine, and many of them ended up making reciprocal trips up to Chicago, as well. Some of the women I got to know best over the years, Ana and Leslie, happened to be in Antigua for a meeting and came by the bakery afterward to say hello. It was such a treat to see them, as well as Anibal, another member of the school’s staff.
That afternoon, I went into town to get some additional supplies and walked by Sobremesa on my way home. Enrique, and his visiting guest Skyler, were sitting at a table with Alex, and they invited me to join them. It was early evening at this point, and it began as just drinks. But we kept talking about all manner of things, and before you knew it, we were ordering some of Alex’s tasty pizzas, and then finishing off the meal with not one, not two, but three desserts!
The nice thing about this evening at Sobremesa is that it was pretty stress-free. Stefani and I have gotten into a good rhythm during the day, and for the most part, there’s very little I have to do once the shop closes. And so on this particular night, it was no problem that I ended up at Sobremesa for about three hours. All I had to do was walk home, feed the sourdough starter for the next day’s bread production, and go to bed.
Oh…and how was that Wednesday, after having a horrible one the week before? It was great! Nearly triple the business of the previous one. And my fourth week continued in that fashion, with good business every day. . There would be periods of 60-90 minutes, where no one would show up, and then all of a sudden we’d get a rush of customers. So it’s hard to get too deep into any work, because you never know when you might get interrupted.
I now have a standing date on Thursday afternoons at Impact Hub, after the shop closes, where I bring a selection for goodies so that the people working there can get an afternoon pick-me-up. On this first Thursday, I sold nearly all of the three-dozen cookies and blondies I brought with me. It’ll be a nice way to find a happy home for products left at the end of the day.
Meanwhile, those twelve babka from Tuesday didn’t make it very far. We rolled out eight more loaves on Saturday…and those nearly all sold. So we did it again on Sunday. People here may not know much about babka, but they know they like it! Sunday also brought with it a special treat. One of my good high school friends, Joanna (who I visited in Santa Barbara in December on my road trip to SF), happened to have some close friends visiting Antigua. And she sent them to the bakery! It was fun to meet these people, Megan and Brad, and their friends from Guatemala City. And I received a second-hand hug from Joanna, though Megan. So I sent one back!
When my best week ever finally ended, I was completely spent. It was now my “weekend,” although that really meant just Monday. I was all set to shower and relax on the couch, but Dan texted me and said, “Let’s get some Chinese!” And so we did.
While I could barely stand by the end of the evening, it was a good way to end the week. Good conversation with yet another new friend, with good food abounding. As I looked ahead to my Monday off, I was excited to do absolutely nothing. Four weeks of the bakery under my belt, and I was looking forward to see what was coming next!