There’s a lot about this post that feels a little self-indulgent largely because I’m writing it and it’s all about my new baking business, Marge. I’ve been waiting for the right time to announce it here on Bay Area Bites, and now seems as good a time as any. Although really this post is more about launching a small business without a storefront in the confusing (and expensive!) world of health permits, legal documents, licenses and occasional slammed doors. So without further ado, meet Marge.
The idea for Marge began last spring. I decided I’d open a bakery. I’ve always loved baking, had signed up to study at San Francisco Baking Institute and mentor at Comforts in Marin. I was already baking for private clients at the time and knew that what I really wanted out of a career was to work for myself. It wasn’t important to me to have enough expendable income to fly to Hawaii every Christmas, but being able to support myself selling pie sounded pretty darn good. So begins the fun part. Real estate! Vintage wallpaper! Pretty display cases with distressed wood! And that lasted all of three weeks. Three glorious weeks, but three weeks nonetheless. And then reality hit. Those of you who have built-out a kitchen from scratch (or know someone who has) know how expensive it is. And for those of you who have ever looked for a charming, affordable retail space with a lovely pre-existing kitchen all ready and waiting for you– you know they’re a rare (read: almost never) find. So I regrouped.
I decided I needed a business license. It seemed like a good logical step and you basically just fill out a form, write a check, and ‘Bam’ you’ve got yourself a business. Perfect. Or so I thought.
My visit to City Hall went something like this:
Clerk: Ma’am we’re confused about the category of your business.
Me: It’s a baking business. We’ll have a storefront someday, but right now we’re going to do pop-ups, deliveries, catering–you know, keep it casual.
Clerk: Ma’am, there’s really no category for “casual.”
Me: Look, I don’t know. Call it whatever you want.
Clerk: Ma’am you need to choose a category.
Me (flustered, confused, wishing I could coerce him with pie): I understand. I just need a business license in order to get a health permit in order to get my commercial kitchen in order to get my business bank account. Can you just help me out a little here?
Clerk: Well we need a physical address.
Clerk: Why don’t you put down the location where your accountant and bookkeeper do the books.
I stood there smiling and thinking to myself, “If you only knew that you’re staring right at the accountant and bookkeeper, the owner and the baker.”
And so began all the legal/totally unfun stuff. It’s all very cart before the horse: you need one document before you can get another but the timing doesn’t work and none of the agencies talk to each other and you lose a little sleep. And some nights, a lot of sleep. This was nothing like picking out vintage wallpaper. Instead, it involved health inspections and a lot of bureaucracy. Even for a small business like Marge, inspectors often come to check out your kitchen, where you store your ingredients, and your processes for packaging. It’s daunting when you’re not quite sure what all your processes are yet. And it all seemed a little odd because I still wasn’t quite sure how I was defining the business. I now had all of these forms in place but nowhere to actually sell my product.
Then I decided that I may not have a storefront, but people have got to try what I’m baking at Marge or the word will never get out. I brought around samples to businesses, farmer’s markets, and folks in my neighborhood. I got a business cell phone. When it rang two days later, I literally dropped it in the sink and missed the call. Orders started coming in around the holidays despite my temporary website. I did the SF Underground Farmer’s Market in December — our first public event– and it was awesome. The pop-tarts and apple pies sold out, lots of friends came out to support Marge, and I met some great food folks starting their business in a similar fashion. And then I got a call from the new Marin Country Mart farmer’s market (a quick ferry ride from the city, by the way) that they’d love to have Marge as a permanent staple on Saturday mornings. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am: my weekends are now one big ol’ bake sale and I can’t imagine anything better.
So my strategy for now: get out there in other farmer’s markets throughout the spring and summer and do local events that I’m excited about. Start getting Marge products out in local coffee shops and cafes and spreading the word about old-fashioned pies and nostalgic desserts. Make new friends. Meet new people. Forget all about vintage wallpaper (for now). And see where that takes us. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be back here in the fall chatting all about our cute storefront. But for now, it’s all good.
To get the latest on Marge, sign up for the newsletter and check out the website for the seasonal menu, contact information, and the full scoop on Marge. You can follow Marge on twitter @MargeBakery and on Facebook to learn about new events and markets we’re doing. Come and visit us at the Marin Country Mart Farmer’s Market, and of course, we deliver and cater as well. Pie is good. Having someone make it for you is even better.