There’s something to be said for knowing what you want out of life early on. You become an early veteran in your chosen craft and when you reach the culminating point, the rewards are that much sweeter. This is true of bakery owner Beth Setrakian.
After three storied decades as a pastry chef, Setrakian opened Beth’s Community Kitchen, not far from the home she shares with her husband and two children in Marin County, Calif. She hopes to expand to the East Coast, especially into New York’s lucrative market. “I opened the bakery in 2011, days before Christmas, and it’s a dream come true. I always wanted this. All of our produce is locally grown at organic farms. We support the community around us. I like the word ‘community.’ It’s what I like having around me,” she says.
This dream she speaks of began at Stanford University, through which she spent a year in Florence, Italy, discovering the art of food. “I’ve loved cooking since childhood. I thought I would be a lawyer or a news anchorwoman, but then I went to Italy. The Italians have such a reverence for food that I felt like it was a legitimate thing to want to do. Later, on a trip to Paris, I stepped into a patisserie. I felt the sky part and thought, ‘this is what I want for myself,’” she gushes. She wanted to drop out of school to start pursuing her dream right away. She considered [enrolling at] Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, but her father was not amused. She laughs at the memory. “He said, ‘It took two hundred years for us to get out of the kitchen and now this is what you want to do!’ He couldn’t believe I would want to be in the kitchen cooking rather than become a businesswoman,” she recalls.
First, her killer pecan tart gained the attention of some of San Francisco’s top chefs and earned the Prairie View, Texas, native a reputation as an up-and-coming food artisan in the city’s renowned culinary circle. Next, after a few gigs as a pastry chef, she became head pastry chef at the award-winning restaurant Il Fornaio, where she learned about the inner-workings of a bakery. “The owner took a chance on me right out of college. We were making things in quantities and there were specific production schedules. It was different from the life of a pastry chef, per se. I knew at that point that I wanted to have my own business and be an entrepreneur. There’s something specific about that kind of person. No matter how often you fail at getting the business going, you will have to do another kind of business. And that’s what I am: an entrepreneur,” she asserts.
Setrakian’s introduction to the baking business started with wedding cakes, which she made out of her home and sold to inns. When the catering business began to outgrow her tiny kitchen, her husband found a commercial kitchen nearby, which served as a quasi incubator for flourishing businesses. “There were lots of young folks who were starting out. We combined ordering and supported each other. We were officially appraised by the health department, got a license and continued growing,” she recalls.
After traveling again to both Italy and France, studying with chefs, networking and learning as much as she could, she returned to California and prepared to make her mark. “I was really good at selling. I sold my cookies to [upscale department stores] Neiman Marcus and I. Magnin and to a few trade shows. You just learn by the seat of your pants and, eventually, people point you in the right direction,” Setrakian says.
She continues, “When Trader Joe’s came knocking eighteen years ago, we answered and created Joe’s number-one-selling cookie: the Triple Ginger Snaps.” She was shipping out six truckloads of cookies per month. Since then, she has also sold to Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Whole Foods. Back then, around 2001, a lot of businesses were developing private labels. While those deals brought her success, Setrakian realized that private-label arrangements would put her own brand at risk to a certain degree. “People don’t know that Trader Joe’s ginger snap is Beth’s,” she says.
Now at her own bakery, she sells her own cookies and enjoys more interaction with the public. “I think it’s going to bolster my label because people will start to recognize my brand,” she explains.
As with any small business, there were economic challenges along the way. “When the recession hit around 2008, it was hard to get financing to open the bakery. Up until then, I had done pretty well. As long as you could show a good business plan and you were making some money, you could get financing,” Setrakian says. “But it became really impossible [to get financing], so we tried to finance the whole thing ourselves. The tax situation for small-business owners was not very good at the time. We had twenty employees, including a clean-up crew. We were hoping for some tax breaks,” she explains. She resolved to taking out a home equity loan.
And she’s glad she did. In 2013’s economy, her products are filling a niche. “In terms of the product itself, we’re finding that that’s where people can get a little treat. You can get croissants for four dollars instead of going out for breakfast. People are eating at home more and coming in to pick up a little dessert. Also, we have a few small entrees that people can have for dinner rather than going to an expensive restaurant. We’re providing a very fine product made with the best ingredients we can find, at a reasonable price. You don’t have to spend a ton of money,” she says.
When she isn’t creating delicious recipes for baked goods, she is actively involved with her community. Every year, she throws a Gingerbread House Building party connected with local schools. “I call it a ‘fun-raiser,’” she laughs. She invites the kids in the neighborhood to build and sell gingerbread houses. All the money raised goes to Habitat for Humanity and a local homeless project called Homeward Bound. She also supports local farmers by using ingredients grown within 30 miles of the store, mostly from nearby Sonoma Valley.
“Part of our mission statement is to, number one: support the community’s businesses, number two: give our community the best food we can possibly provide, and number three: employ the community. I love having people from the town work with me in the store. It’s a rainbow of people from different places. It’s my little community kitchen. It’s a model I’d like to plug into other cities,” she says.
She advises aspiring entrepreneurs to be fearless. “Once you have that entrepreneurial spirit, you can just keep on growing, following where it takes you and trying to use the best judgment whenever possible,” she says. She reflects for a moment, then adds: “I recently found my journal from my days at Stanford where I describe the bakery I wanted to have one day — the bakery I have now. It hasn’t always been easy, but I have no regrets.”