Imagine signing on the dotted line to acquire a well-established local business just as a pandemic starts.
In March 2020, Erin Wright and her husband Adam had just completed negotiations to buy With the Grain Bakery in Guelph, Ontario. By the time they took possession of the business in early April, the world was in the grip of the coronavirus.
“Two weeks before we took the keys to the business, everything just kind of exploded,” recalls Erin.
But another hurdle confronted the couple. Adam, an airline pilot with a good job, was suddenly grounded as worldwide airline travel stood still.
Undaunted by these events, Erin thought, “Hey, we have this bakery now, so let’s make some bread.”
A local landmark
With the Grain makes everything from tasty sandwich loaves, bagels and sourdoughs to custom-made, intricate wedding cakes. It also makes muffins, scones, doughnuts, cupcakes, and other treats. Everything is baked fresh on the premises and dessert catering is available for special events. Originally launched in 1999 by the previous owner, the business now employs 12 people.
The business serves customers online, in-person at the bakery, and through wholesalers. You can learn more on the website!
Plenty of foodservice industry experience
An accomplished restauranteur, Erin is originally from Calgary where she managed an upscale steakhouse with 100 employees. “I loved it – the training, the development, the food, the quality, the whole spectrum of everything that goes on with the restaurant business,” she comments.
Erin has always had a passion for good food. “I believe in the fine details, and in paying attention to the nuances of flavour,” she states. “Throughout my career, customer care and quality service has always been top priority for me.”
In 2013, Erin took time off from her career to stay at home with her two children, and during that time she re-discovered her passion for baking and making custom cakes.
Since buying the bakery in 2020, Erin says she has experienced a little bit of “mom guilt” because she was previously a stay-at-home mother for seven years. So, she and Adam traded roles a bit. “I was working in the bakery 16 hours a day, seven days a week for a few months, so he was with the girls,” recalls Erin.
Schools closing due to high COVID numbers certainly didn’t help things because the couple suddenly had to manage at-home student learning in addition to their many business responsibilities.
Online innovations help drive sales growth
When she bought the business, Erin couldn’t wait to implement her marketing ideas to help grow the bakery.
“I've rebranded the business, hired a local photographer to take tantalizing pictures of our products to put them online, built up our Instagram presence, and upgraded our website,” explains Erin. “People shop with their eyes and they eat with their eyes first – that’s the first thing people do. The visuals come before someone can smell and taste our baking.”
Other online activities include posting regularly on Facebook and Pinterest, and adding a new cake ordering platform for special occasion orders. With these innovations, Erin has introduced With the Grain to a whole new demographic of customers who shop online and built up sales.
Tradition and innovation play a big part in the brand
Erin has a strong belief in honouring traditions and recognizing what’s already working well.
“We have these recipes – I call them heritage recipes – that were developed and have been part of with the company for years and years because they are just fantastic. We don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken, so we continue to use those recipes. But we're also always innovating by looking at what's going on in the marketplace and the industry and bringing new ideas to our product showcase.”
Another innovation came from her husband Adam, the airline pilot. He and a friend, who is also a pilot, started up The Lost Aviator Coffee Company within the bakery. Today, customers can enjoy a gourmet cappuccino, latte, or espresso along with their favourite pastry, muffin, bagel, or scone.
Tripling revenue in just 18 months
Thanks to these innovations, With the Grain Bakery has actually tripled its sales during a time when most businesses are suffering pandemic sales losses. It’s an impressive accomplishment.
According to Erin, though, operating a foodservice business in the age of COVID-19 isn’t easy and continues to present numerous challenges.
Striving to keep customers and employees safe
“When I took over the bakery, back at the beginning of the pandemic, one of my main bakers called in sick with a sore throat and he was out for two weeks. So, it was the bread baker, our counterperson, and me for the first little bit while I learned the business,” recalls Erin.
“It really was trial by fire,” she adds.
Erin takes COVID safety protocols very seriously. “We're in food production and we know that we have to be hyper-vigilant about safety,” she explains. “I'm in very close contact with my public health representative at all times to stay up-to-date on all workplace and public health safety standards. For example, we have many levels of disinfecting and cleaning protocols for the machines in the bakery. And, of course, we're all masked all the time,” she says.
Erin also goes to great lengths to make sure her employees have all the information they need about paid sick leave, government wage subsidy options, and what the bakery will do to support them and keep them safe in case someone gets sick.
“It’s been a struggle, but we're feeling a lot more comfortable in the bakery these days because we've got our protocols in place,” comments Erin.
Fair wages for employees and good deals for suppliers
Erin knows the strength and future of her business relies on her team of employees: “Since we took over With the Grain, I’ve started paying many of my employees more than minimum wage. It's on a scale based on experience and performance.” In the end, Erin just wants to pay forward the hard work that goes on inside the building.
Her support also extends to suppliers. During the pandemic, Erin encountered some supply chain issues with key vendors, including the company that provides flour to the bakery (it buys 40 bags a week). Instead of shopping around for another supplier, Erin made a commitment to the vendor for a year’s worth of orders, allowing that vendor to count on her business as a customer and negotiate a better price from its own suppliers.
Looking forward to a bright future
Erin is looking ahead to a time when pandemic restrictions are fully lifted and people can get together again – and, of course, enjoy some delicious baked goods. She plans to expand her cake offering and do more catering.
“I love the idea of being in the centre of people's gatherings once we're allowed to gather again or being able to send a friendly treat box to a loved one,” she says. “It's why I do what I do – it’s just so nice to see people satisfied and getting to live their lives.”
Supported by Meridian Business Banking
With the Grain Bakery became a Meridian Business Member in March 2020. “Meridian got us up and running,” says Erin. “They got us a business banking account, business credit card, savings account, and business financing.”
Interested in hearing from leading women in business? Join us for a virtual panel on October 27, 2021 from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Three very impressive women will discuss their experience in business, particularly the lessons in resilience brought about by the pandemic.