“I like to say that it takes a family to build a bakery,” reveals Meredith Tomason, the entrepreneur behind the RareSweets specialty bakeshop in Washington, D.C. Years after leaving behind the bright lights of Broadway for hot ovens as a pastry chef, Meredith recently launched her own location with an open kitchen that makes the performance inherent in baking visible to guests. “I wanted our customers to be able to approach our baking team and ask what they are making, and engage in the process of what’s being created in front of them on that day,” she adds. “I am someone who thrives on self expression, and I see baking as a form of that.” Meredith also feels strongly about honoring those who came before her by adapting recipes from the family archives, vintage cookbooks, and classic techniques for a seasonally-driven, contemporary American audience. She holds fast to this formula, always putting the lasting good of the company before any instant opportunities. “I came into this entrepreneurial world with this misty vision of owning my own business and being able to create a schedule and a world that has the most perfect balance of life and work,” Meredith admits. “It has certainly not been that way.” While on the road to success, Meredith encourages asking “what the differences are between your hobby and the business version of it.” Get more food for thought, like some pastries and a chat, from the RareSweets brick-and-mortar shop at CityCenterDC. —Annie
Photography courtesy of RareSweets
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I have had this itch in me since I was a young kid to always do things a little differently than everyone else. Sometimes it led me to wearing my left shoe on my right foot. That didn’t pan out so well, but many of the other slightly off-kilter ideas, or the ideas that have truly come from the heart, have panned out quite well. Speaking of listening to my heart; my journey originally lead me to get an MFA in theater long before I ever thought of becoming a pastry chef or opening my own bakery. Again, it’s been a long journey getting here but well worth the wait. I think that off-kilter itch naturally led me to gain an entrepreneurial spirit. I am happy to say that baking is something that I have done for a long time as well, and melding these two things together has happily lead me to opening RareSweets.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what it would be?
Being open and truthful in all aspects of my life has always been of great importance to me. Our bakeshop focuses around seasonal desserts and layer cakes. Many of the flavors change every few weeks and it’s fun to teach our new recipes and methods to our staff. But it’s also fun to share our new seasonal offerings with our customers. We designed the bakeshop with an open kitchen and this was done completely on purpose. Yes, we wanted our customers to be able to see the fun and work that goes into our sweet treats. But I also wanted our customers to be able to approach our baking team and ask what they are making, and engage in the process of what’s being created in front of them on that day. This open book theory holds true for our business concept in the design of the space and the ethos of the company. We are true to our food and flavors and enjoy being true to the seasons that change throughout the year. It certainly keeps us busy and excited for what’s to come.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
The best piece of advice I was given was that one does not always have to say yes to things. At the beginning, many people wanted to entice us with offers we “could not refuse” in terms of publicity, events we “had” to be a part of, or partnerships we “could not refuse.” So many shiny objects were put in front of us, and I think that’s true for many small businesses starting out. The only rule that we need to follow when starting out is to think about opportunities in front of us. Nowhere does it say that we need to do everything for everyone. We need to do everything for ourselves and our business. That is what matters at the end of the day. I think I suffered a bit from feeling pressured to give answers quickly, and now I have learned to take my time with opportunities that present themselves. I try my best to look at them from every angle and then make the best judgement according to what’s best for the company and where we are headed.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
The most difficult part was also the most fun part for me. How do I take this idea that is in my head, an idea that is actually quite personal and meaningful to me, and make it into a successful business? I have always been a right-brained and creative person. I am someone who thrives on self expression, and I see baking as a form of that. Many of our recipes at RareSweets are my own creations, but many are also based off family recipes that have weight and history to them. Our business is about honoring those that have come before us with the memories that they have created through food. We hope to create more memories for our own customers in a similar manner. We also tried to create an environment that holds a place for the past, while also looking to the future. It’s a fun space, and one that holds true to our brand.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
My biggest lesson is that I can’t do everything by myself. I have an excellent team, and the most supportive and strong sous chef who is truly blazing a trail with our business. Learning to delegate tasks has been a lesson for me, for sure. I like to say that it takes a family to build a bakery. My real family is integral to our success and are my true support team through all of the ups and downs. However, our family certainly extends to the team that we have gathered at RareSweets.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experience?
I think in general, I try and take on more than I should. I think I can handle more than I really can. As I mentioned before, learning to say “no,” has taken some getting used to for me. But I know it’s necessary sometimes for the benefit of the brand.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
I would say that in my journey through the past few years, with changing careers, working my way up the pastry food chain, developing a business plan, moving to DC, creating a brand, and then opening a bakeshop, there have been a ton of sacrifices that I have made. Many of them are personal and hard decisions that I have had to make. I came into this entrepreneurial world with this misty vision of owning my own business and being able to create a schedule and a world that has the most perfect balance of life and work. It has certainly not been that way. I’m not wearing rose colored glasses in this adventure, but I certainly have had to change my current expectations for my personal life in order to get the business to a place that I feel comfortable and strong.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experience?
As I mentioned earlier, I think of our team at RareSweets like my family. They are integral to our growth, our success, and to the fun and delight that we bring to our customers through our food and their experience at our bakeshop. Many of our employees have been totally with me on this journey, some from day one, and feel incredibly invested in where we have been and where we are going. I have come to learn what I value in my team members and employees, and I try my best to be a supportive boss who encourages growth and learning one’s own potentials. I hope that our employees feel empowered, invested, and like they are gaining the tools and assets that they need for success in many aspects of their lives, and supported in their own journey along the path of our business.
What business books and resources would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
While still living in NYC, I took advantage of some courses offered by the Small Business Services department. I think being surrounded by like-minded people who are just beginning similar journeys is a great place to start. We bounced ideas off of each other, and learned so much about pitching and what it was going to take to create a solid business plan. Those classes were informative, and also empowering, and got me really jazzed about where our business could potentially go.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
- Many people would like to take a hobby or a passion to the next level as a business. Are you aware of what the differences are between your hobby and the business version of it, and are you alright with these differences?
- Are you willing to change certain aspects of your life, or make certain sacrifices for the benefit of your business? There may be long nights, vacations missed, and school concerts that you can’t attend.
- How well do you multi-task? Being a business owner can mean wearing multiple hats at once all while smiling and being the best representative of your business, sometimes on two hours of sleep. Does this frighten you or excite you? Organization is key to entrepreneurship, and so is the ability to remain calm in the hectic, frenetic moments where you have too many things going on at once. The ability to pivot and maneuver in these moments is imperative, but also super empowering and exciting!