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ISSUE 120 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/9/2007

Entrepreneur bakes

By Andrea Horbinski
Opinion Editor

Friday, March 9, 2007

Students gathered in the Black Ballroom on Feb. 28 to hear Amy Scherber ‘82, the owner and founder of the New York City business Amy’s Bread, speak on entrepreneurship, how she came to run her own company and her philosophy of tasty bread.

Scherber began by commenting that, aside from Stav Hall itself, the biggest difference she saw between St. Olaf now and during her years here was that “the word ‘entrepreneurship’ was never uttered.” She urged students who attended to consider running their own business at some point, saying that it is “fun, hard, challenging and eventually really gratifying.”

After working as a waitress in high school, Scherber got a job in the dishroom of Stav Hall and was eventually promoted to checking people’s ID cards as they came in, a position from which she was shortly fired for letting several students remove a table and chairs from Stav Hall to their residence hall. Since she needed the job, she wheedled her way back into the dish room and eventually became a waiter in the King’s Room her senior year.

Scherber’s first job in New York was in marketing, but she quit after three years and attended culinary school. After graduating she worked as an assistant chef in a restaurant and eventually discovered that she liked baking. After six months as a pastry chef she quit and moved to France, where she worked as an unpaid intern in three bakeries for a month each.

When she returned to New York, Scherber used her position as a bread baker for another restaurant to test and refine successful bread recipes while working on her business plan on her day off. She acknowledged that her first business plan was too big and too risky, saying that “it is good advice to start small.” After revamping her business plan she was able to secure financial backing to open a store in Hell’s Kitchen on 9th Avenue in June 1992. The rent cost $2,000 a month at the time and now costs $10,000.

Scherber started with seven people on staff and did not take a salary for the first year, after which she paid herself $400 a month before taxes. After three years she decided that her current 1,300 square feet of space were too small and that her staff “would get bored” if she didn’t expand. She accepted an offer from an investor for a space in a market in the neighborhood of Chelsea and converted her original location into a sweets kitchen and café. “It was stressful,” Scherber recalled, “but I got to make sandwiches too.”

Shortly after she acceded to her customers’ demands to sell cakes, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 left her business and businesses everywhere in New York struggling. Scherber’s wholesale operations went down, but her retail business expanded as people bought “comfort foods” such as chocolate cake and brownies, and rather than let any of her staff go, she did not hire anyone new for more than two years.

Amy’s Bread now has 140 employees, of whom 80 are bakers, while the rest work in retail, cleaning, driving and office work, in three locations, but, Scherber said, the business is still “a small neighborhood bakery, all made by hand, from scratch, sold to you with care.” While she tries to keep a rustic feel and emphasized that “we still have a Midwestern soul; we’re not like Starbucks stamped out of a machine,” she recently introduced touch-screen computers and gift cards at her stores, again in response to customers’ requests.

Currently the business’ income is divided evenly between wholesale and retail. Her drivers make 300 deliveries a day, while her bakers produce some 1,800 baguettes and 6,000 pounds of bread dough daily.

Scherber was overwhelmingly positive about her life as a small-business owner, but she did note that “one thing [that] is a challenge is to have a personal life.” In the early years of her business, she spent almost all of her time at the store, and eventually married a former employee, with whom she now has a two-year-old son. Scherber said that she believed that it was especially difficult to balance work and a personal life in food service, and for women in particular as well. She also stressed the importance of getting good press and reviews, especially in New York, “where people follow the magazines,” citing it as one of the factors which enabled her to expand her business.

Aside from that, Scherber noted that one challenge she didn’t foresee in owning a business was that “you can’t leave, and you’re the only one with a vision.” To have the energy to lead one’s staff with that vision, she said, she emphasized the need to keep fit and healthy by getting rest and exercise. She also acknowledged that for her business to really make money for her she will have to, probably in the next three years or so, “come up with an exit plan” and probably sell Amy’s Bread to someone else. “But,” she said, “I’m not quite at that point yet.”

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