biz ladiesLife & Business

Life and Business: BreadHive

by Sabrina Smelko

Life and Business: BreadHive

One of the greatest things about running your own business is the freedom and ownership it offers. So many tales of successful entrepreneurs start with the desire to do what they love, even if it means working longer hours and on weekends — or having to completely start from scratch and invent and build your own job from the ground floor up. Out of Buffalo, NY, the ladies behind BreadHive did just that. Founded by Victoria Kuper, Emily Stewart and Allison Ewing, BreadHive was birthed from a passion to create good jobs in Buffalo for themselves and others. They offer artisan breads, bagels and granola through their worker cooperative to local shops and grocery stores, but have an adorable “drive-through” window for people who want to pop by to grab a loaf. Today they’re sharing their tales of success, hardship and what it means to be a breadwinner (pun slightly intended.) – Sabrina

Photos by BreadHive Bakery, KC Kratt, and Anna Miller.

Read the full interview after the jump…

Why did you decide to start your own business?

Our pre-BreadHive job history looks like most other millennial college grads’: a search for meaningful work and living wages. By the time we met each other and started baking bread together on the weekends as a hobby, we’d all become fed up with the lack of ownership in the jobs we’d found, and the lack of opportunities for meaningful, creative and personal growth in these jobs. Not to mention that not one of them was a viable, longterm career for any of us! So as we kept working together and realized that we shared a vision for what an ideal workplace would be, and that together we had the skills and drive necessary to take a good shot at it, there was really no turning back.

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

We knew we wanted to start a worker cooperative: A business model where the workers own the business. Almost any business can be set up as a worker co-op with enough work, so there were a lot of possibilities, but a bakery was the most obvious. The three of us met through an underground bakery collective founded by a few other people who gradually moved on, so we inherited and operated the project, making bread every weekend and selling it on a subscription model – like a CSA. We knew that if we were baking full-time with the right setup, we could take advantage of a niche: the lack of wholesale artisan-style bread made within the Buffalo city limits.

Biz Ladies Profile: BreadHive

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

One of the best ones was, “If you want money, ask for advice. If you want advice, ask for money.” As a co-op, we were able to fund our business by selling nonvoting ownership shares. We’re pretty sure that all we talked about for a year and a half of start-up was BreadHive, not only at conferences and meetings but with our friends, acquaintances, family, and mentors. That resulted in a huge network of support, both in terms of financial investment and otherwise.

The best advice about running a bakery specifically came from a panel called The Business of Baking at the Maine Grain Alliance’s Kneading Conference, where a group of successful bakery owners shared the nitty-gritty details of their start-up and growth. The common threads: pay down debt quick, keep overhead low, start with a walk-in cooler, keep the oven full the whole time it’s on, don’t waste time or space in the bakery, and make a really good product.

The best advice about our publicity strategy was that we should all be on Twitter and follow every person in local news we could find.

We also learned to disregard advice: We were told so many times that you can’t make any money wholesaling bread, that incorporating as a co-op wasn’t worth it, that you should never start a business with friends or as a set of three people, or that starting a business in Buffalo was a waste of time.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Patience! It was hard to endure the wait during buildout, as our opening date kept getting pushed back. We’d made such a commitment to this project and were having trouble dealing with the uncertainty. That’s also when local media discovered our existence and having no answer to the most common question, “So, when do you open?” was incredibly frustrating. Not to mention the people who wanted to try our bread during start-up, when we didn’t have a bakery space at all. It helped that we had partners.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Starting a business that’s an extension of your identity feels very risky, but our instincts and vision were good enough to launch successfully and build connections with investors, customers, press and public that feel authentic because they are authentic. There is no corporate identity: It’s three people operating a bakery in the way they’ve collectively agreed makes the most sense. Letting the public see the people involved in the business means that your passion can shine through.

We didn’t take the easy road, but the hard road was one we’re personally invested in and that makes the difference. And we’ve learned that none of us can see the whole picture, but that we can trust each others’ strength in our particular areas of expertise.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

There have been plenty of less-than-ideal moments that we could learn from, with the lesson usually being: Take time for self-care or you’ll hurt yourself, the equipment, someone’s feelings, or the bread. But we’re six months into operation! If we’d had a serious failure, we probably wouldn’t be here. The flip side of the community investment and support we have is that if we failed, we know the people we’d disappoint by name. So we’re very motivated to avoid failure. Producing bread out of backyard clay ovens and people’s kitchens for years means that we’re very equipped to deal with potential baking catastrophes in creative ways that people never have to hear about.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

We traded most of our time, energy, and social lives for meaningful work. So far, it’s a tradeoff we’re comfortable with, especially since we now each get a day off per week! It’s apparently like raising a kid: They take all of your time in the first few years, then you can hang out and do stuff again.

Biz Ladies Profile: BreadHive

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

We have three! The first is that we built BreadHive on equity without debt. We each put in some capital, and the rest was raised by selling 65 shares valued at $1,000 apiece to friends, family and community members. That meant we had a passionate group of people who supported us before we even opened our doors, many of whom had never tasted our bread.

The second is that since our business has met or exceeded our projections, we’re now confident that our thoughts are worth acting on and listening to – which as women entrepreneurs is a great feeling and sometimes harder to achieve than we’d like. We’ve been a lot less likely to compromise since BreadHive opened, and much more vocal in our opinions and strong in our positions.

The third is that we’ve built a powerful brand without paying for advertising. We’ve been able to work our networks for publicity, and the rest has come through social media. We kept our start-up process very quiet, which means that when local outlets started covering the story close to our launch, the community wasn’t already tired of hearing about us. We’ve been able to cultivate a unique and effective voice via social media both because our generation grew up navigating the online world and because it’s the only way Allison can pretend to be using her English degree.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

For the business side: The Accounting Game: Basic Accounting Fresh from the Lemonade Stand. Knowing and understanding your financial spreadsheet will be crucial. You need to predict, anticipate and manage your day-to-day cash flow and balance sheet. Without someone keeping a close eye on your money, your business will not survive.

For the baking side: Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman covers everything from beginning home baking to production-scale sourdough, with crucial technical reference packed in alongside poetic and profound reflections on baking bread. And Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson inspired our schedule: If he could structure his hours around peak surfing times, we could certainly time our production to avoid the classic baker’s hours and stick to a normal person’s sleep schedule.

And always: Your community. It’s full of experts in your field who are passionate about your product; the people you talk to about your passion are connected to others who could help you find the capital and resources that can launch your business. Reach out and have coffee with as many people as you can. Identify what they can bring to the table: It’s often something different than you were expecting. Respect the advice of those who have achieved success that you admire.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Are you ready to work ceaselessly to be the best at what you do?

2. Do you believe in what you’re doing enough to take the risks and make the tradeoffs: personally, professionally, financially, interpersonally, creatively?

3. Are you going to be able to make money?

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  • This is really inspiring. I have just left a master’s program I felt stuck in to pursue baking and am trying to figure out how to find work without a vocational degree in the field. Reading about women creating work and building up their own community support, and getting to bake for a living… this is just too good. :)

  • I looked for a different way to contact DS, but all I found in my quick search was a submission form. Since you redesigned your website (and I love it!), my email with current articles is clipped on the right margin. On this article, if you look at “BreadHive” burned over the top photo, my photo only got up to “BreadHi.” Then all the text below is clipped the same amount at the end of each line. This is one of the few articles I liked enough to click through so I could make sense of it. I’m busy. I get several other emailed blogs, and they are coming in just fine, so I think it might be from your end. Maybe I’m not alone? I still love DS, even clipped! I thought you might want to know about it, though. (Please feel free to delete this after you read it. We can play like we’re in Mission Impossible.)

    • aidel

      oh no! i’m so sorry. could you tell me what browser and version you’re using? and which rss/email service (or is it our in-house newsletter)?


  • i just had one of their sourdough bagels this morning! Great article about a great place!

  • It is my goal to open my own bakery. I read all your wise advice and one things stood out to me, “normal Sleep schedule”. How do you do it? Thanks.

  • Like Aidel K. above, I also receive emails with a clipped right margin and would love to be able to read the whole thing without clicking and/or guessing. I’m using Google Chrome (version 39.0.2171.99) and get DS via Gmail and Feedblitz. Does that help? Thanks.