5 Things Owning a Bakery Taught Me About Life

I’ll take a couple of life lessons with that muffin, please.

Andrea Essenpreis
Feb 14 · 9 min read
Our ever-changing message board. Photo credit Sarah Borth @ Q&A Sweet Treats

I tend to be able to carry on a conversation with just about anyone. As a general rule, I find humans fascinating. Though I dislike small talk, I do have a strange ability to find a spark of connection with someone within the first five minutes. This is a bit easier living in a town of 8,000 since Six Degrees of Separation becomes more like Two Degrees in any given encounter.

That said, whether it’s in my town or not, whenever people learn I own a bakery the conversation inevitably steers in that direction. Folks are just fascinated by it — it appears that the dream of owning a small artisan food business is a popular fantasy for many. I’m happy to talk about my experience over the last fifteen years, which has been life-changing in so many ways. Even if we have nothing else in common, there are some universal truths to be found within these five takeaways.

1. Do the things.

I’ve always been a dreamer, but I never dreamed I’d own a bakery. I went to school for psychology and did undergrad research on human emotions and child development. I planned to go to graduate school and be a therapist. So how did I end up here? The simple answer is: I did the things.

What things did I do? Well first, I discovered a hobby I loved, and I learned everything I could learn about it. Then I decided I could make a few dollars with that hobby, so I started selling treats at a farmers’ market. A woman I met at that market decided to sell her wholesale cookie business, so I got a loan, took over her lease, changed the name and started turning out wholesale treats. And after four years of that, we made the decision to purchase and renovate a building, opened a storefront, and after all that craziness and all those decisions I’m standing here in that shop today. But it all started with that first step, and with each subsequent step, I was led to this present moment.

I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t have help doing the things. My family was an integral part and I give my former spouse a lot of credit for helping me build the business before our divorce. But the middle-of-the-night cookie decorating sessions and the 18-hour workdays and then having to support a family as a single mom running a small business? That was all me, and I’m proud of where I ended up. I’m currently overseeing the shop as well as holding an elected position on the City Council, using what I’ve learned in running a business to bring those ideas to the community at large.

Everyone has dreams, and pursuing those dreams sometimes requires major life upheaval. At the end of their life, more people regret the things they didn’t do versus the things they did. Change is scary, but living a life of “what if?” is far scarier. I just knew if I didn’t do the things when I had the opportunity, I’d regret it years later.

Takeaway: great rewards require some risk. Take action towards your dreams — even if it doesn’t work out the way you planned, playing it safe only gets you so far in life.

So many chocolate chip cookies. Photo credit Sarah Borth @ Q&A Sweet Treats

2. Know who you are and go from there.

When it came to the concept of “building a brand” I never really gave it too much thought. That seemed like it was something for someone who knew what they were doing as an entrepreneur. My business grew from the fact that I liked to bake, I started doing it more and more, and people liked it so I kept doing it.

The one thing I did know was that I loved my community and I wanted to add value to it through a service-oriented approach. I tend to be a sunny, positive person and when I started, I thought — what kind of bakery would I want to visit? What would make me want to return? My shop should be warm and inviting. It should balance the 1950’s charm of our building with clean modern design. Recipes should draw inspiration from my East Coast upbringing as well as my new Kentucky home. I created a space, both physically and mentally, that I wanted to work in every single day. That approach translated to every decision I made — from the employees I hired to the projects I took on and everything in between.

Over time, this community-focused approach has grown my little shop into not only a small-town bakery but a mecca for people seeking kindness along with their whoopie pies. We partnered with Be Kind Oldham County, a grassroots campaign started by two young girls who wanted to make a difference in their community. The sweet stories that come through my shop daily bring me immense joy and satisfaction.

My ex used to tell customers the bakery was built on my smile, which I always thought was nice. A few years later a business appraiser told us just that — it was my personal brand that was leading the success of the shop, not the other way around. I simply had to show up as my best self and the business flourished.

If you know who you are and you build your brand around that, you will always be more successful. People gravitate to authenticity so we strive every day to show people exactly who we are. Our motto is “we bake love”. Just today we received a Facebook comment that made me beam with pride.

“Love Q&A. Great treats but even better people!!”

That’s why we do what we do. It’s more than a bakery — it’s a mission.

Takeaway: success is intrinsically linked to authenticity. When every decision relates to your “why” more than the “how”, “what”, “who” or “when”, you open the door to finding your mission.

Photo credit Sarah Borth @ Q&A Sweet Treats. And yes, I moonlight as a dinosaur. Don’t judge.

3. Flow through change.

My bakery gained a name for itself in 2013, in large part through showpiece cakes that were not only delicious but intricate. Elaborate fondant work was a specialty of one of my employees and I encouraged her to be creative with that. People oohed and aahed over the photos but it didn’t seem like it was making a huge difference in the bottom line — there’s only so much money people will pay for a cake, plus one of my goals has always been to keep prices low enough to be accessible for everyone in our community.

After that employee moved on, I realized that while I was technically able to do the work, I wasn’t sparked by it. Fussy fondant work was a time drain and kept me from focusing on the baking projects I loved, plus I was losing time with my family. I decided that even though there was demand, we weren’t going to make those kinds of cakes anymore. If customers weren’t happy with a simpler buttercream design, we referred them to other bakers who specialized in fondant.

A few years later, Kentucky legislature passed HB263, a law that permits home bakers to legally produce baked goods out of their kitchens without any additional regulation. So now the market was flooded with lower-cost options for specialty cakes — but I had already set my intention on where we wanted to grow, and my business flowed through that change with relative ease. Other high-end cake businesses crumbled with the influx of competition, but the decision I’d made to save myself personal stress ultimately ended up serving both me and my shop.

Takeaway: Go with the flow and be adaptable, and always follow your instincts. Success rarely comes after the first try so keep looking for ways to tweak your recipe.

Photo credit Sarah Borth @ Q&A Sweet Treats

4. You really can’t please everyone all the time, no matter how hard you try.

We’ve made many, many cakes throughout the years. When I started back in 2004, I painstakingly rested recipe after recipe to get just the right balance of sweetness to denseness in our cake layers. I developed a buttercream that was silky and buttery, not that sugary white stuff. Most people love that we offer something different. Some people despise it. It took me years to be okay with that; I used to think that I needed to change my product to suit universal tastes. But is this even possible?

I believe in adapting as you go, but some things are going to be non-negotiable. There’s nothing wrong with individuals who prefer cakes from a mix and shortening-based icing. It’s just not what my shop produces. We simply tell people about the many other bakery options available if that’s their preference.

You aren’t going to be everyone’s favorite flavor. So don’t allow others’ opinions to get in the way of who you truly are (refer back to that part about authenticity).

Oh and one more little thing? Every baker I know hates the word “moist”. That’s not a life lesson so much as a personal plea to stop saying that word. I promise we will do our very best to make your cake layers delightfully … tender.

Takeaway: you can’t be chocolate and vanilla at the same time. Even a marble cake will make someone unhappy. Whatever flavor you are is perfect — your people will find you and love you just the way you are.

The Dream Team. Photo credit Sarah Borth @ Q&A Sweet Treats

5. Patience, patience, patience.

Owning a retail business is not for the faint of heart. In our early years, I worked myself into an unhealthy lifestyle. By the time I realized that I needed to slow down and enjoy the journey, a one-two punch of divorce and cancer stepped in to add a whole other brand of complication. It wasn’t an easy road but we kept the doors open despite the challenges.

Faith lives at the corner of Impossible Street and Never Gonna Happen Avenue. Sometimes the difference between success and failure simply lies in tenacity. I’ve outlasted at least ten other shops in my fifteen years, and even when I wanted to give up — I didn’t. My friends had to talk me off a couple of ledges; I think I mentally rebranded my store at least five times when it all seemed like too much. I appreciate the loved one who talked me out of turning my bakery into a New Age crystal shop right before we had a significant upsurge in business.

Whenever I was down, the universe always sent me the thing that kept me going for just One.More.Day. And inevitably, that next day brought a huge boon — 6,500 cookies, anyone? Yep, we did that. Increased patience has served me in multiple situations — not just as a business owner, but you certainly need a fair dose of it in my role as a government official. And my relationships are so much richer now that I have learned that success doesn’t always come overnight. Sometimes you just need to hang on through the breakdown to get to the breakthrough.

Takeaway: if you believe in something, don’t give up on it. Success often comes at the doorstep of desperation. True faith is developed in the fire, so develop your patience and your tenacity.

We did it! 6500 iced sugar cookies, our bakery’s largest order to date. We repeated the task the following year, and have the same order for this year too. Photo credit Andrea Essenpreis @ Q&A Sweet Treats

Not everyone can claim that they bake love for a living, but I am one of the lucky people that gets to do just that. Every day is a new adventure and brings new stories to share with the world. I’m glad I took the risk all those years ago and I’ll continue to encourage dreamers to become doers. Show up, be authentic, keep growing, maintain standards and have faith. It’s the perfect recipe for success.

About The Author: Andrea Essenpreis is the owner of Q&A Sweet Treats in La Grange, Kentucky, as well as chair of the Downtown Economic Development Committee of the La Grange City Council. She’s passionate about sharing what she’s learned with the world through writing (find her on Medium) and speaking.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Andrea Essenpreis

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Insatiably curious about life. Reluctant entrepreneur, accidental politician, irrepressible optimist. Writing about how learning to own all those roles & more.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment — in mind, body, and soul.

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