Hard Work, Ear Toward Customers, Have Bakery Owners Bringing in Dough

Published in UT San Diego, February 23, 2015

— Matthew 4:4.Village Mill Bread

On the other hand, a really good challah is worth looking for, and when I moved to Carmel Valley in 1995, one of the first places that I shopped was the new Village Mill Bakery. It made some of the best challah I’ve ever eaten, and even though I don’t live in Carmel Valley anymore, I’m still a regular customer.

Defying the odds and statistics that are more tilted toward failure, they have survived in a family business for over 20 years, so I decided to talk with the owners — the founder Sandra Pike and her husband, Parker, — about their experiences and how they managed to thrive.

In 1994, Sandra moved to San Diego from Wisconsin to join one of the early online mortgage companies. After the company failed, Sandra wanted to stay here, so she decided to open a bakery even though her only experience was in her own kitchen. “It was one of those decisions that was so clear even though it made no sense,” she recalled. At the time, she was dating Parker, whom she had met on a blind date. They got married in 1998.

(Neil’s note: Clearly, this supports the theory that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.)

To learn about the bakery business, she visited a lot of them (“I saw the tired faces, but I didn’t think that it would last forever”), considered joining a franchise and decided that the business wouldn’t support paying a 7 percent franchise fee. A rigorous student of business (look before you leap), Sandra also attended a monthlong cooking school in Paris where she learned about making products that contained a lot of butter. Ultimately, she decided that Village Mill should make healthier products, and she worked with a business consultant who helped her with the original formulas and the equipment purchases.

(Neil’s note: She was ahead of her time. Healthy vs. butter — no contest.)

The initial capital was $90,000 — the entire amount of her IRA — and a $160,000 Small Business Administration loan that was guaranteed by the equity she had in two condominiums. She was all in. For the first few years, this was her life seven days a week:

• Come in at 1 a.m. to start baking and work until 8 a.m.

• Go to Parker’s condo three blocks away and sleep when he was at work.

• Return to Village Mill in the early afternoon, work until closing time at 6 p.m. and then finish paperwork.

• Return to Parker’s condominium and sleep until 1 a.m.

“I realized that it’s hard to have a personal life. I used to go shopping and go to the movies. I didn’t do those things anymore,” she said.

Sleep deprivation was a price that she paid in order to grow the business. Parker proposed to her at a Padres game on the Jumbotron during the sixth inning. Sandra was so tired that she had fallen asleep in the second inning and wanted to leave, and Parker had to convince her to stay. After being hospitalized twice for exhaustion, she decided to close Village Mill on Sundays.

Today, she works more-reasonable hours, although the couple has not taken a full week of vacation in 20 years. As the business has grown, Village Mill has been able to hire good staff including customer service manager JoAnn Wornham and lead baker Antonio Godines, who have been there 16 years.

Listening to your customer is one of our favorite mantras, and Sandra has always done that.

When a local rabbi suggested that she make challah, she said, “What is challah?” She quickly learned and now makes several flavors including chocolate, which was suggested by another rabbi’s wife. All together, challah is the best-selling product. She launched a wholesale operation that Parker runs in his off hours from his regular job teaching marketing at UC San Diego Extension.

In addition to working long hours and selling a quality product, she attributes part of her success to effectively using QuickBooks and Excel to monitor the business operations. “You have to have your hand on the money, the people and the technology on a daily basis,” she said.

Village Mill recently moved into a new location on the upper level of the Del Mar Highlands Town Center. On her first day in September 1995, she said the business took in $220 — and it earned about $125,000 in revenue for the first year. Currently, annual revenues are about $800,000.

In talking with the Pikes, it is evident that they are devoted both to each other and to Village Mill. They clearly know which side their bread is buttered on.

Rule No. 389

If you want to be the chef of your own life, spend time in the kitchen.

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