Turning Pie in the Sky into Reality

For a lawyer turned baker, the recipe for success means more than good cookies

For 15 years, Lisa Daley spent between 60 to 70 hours a week as managing attorney of a large litigation and business law firm. In the back of her mind, though, wedged between myriad details about the partner review process and the training of associates, were visions of sour cream coffee cakes. Oatmeal-raisin and chocolate-chip cookies. Brownies.

Daley didn't necessarily want to consume her flour-fueled fantasies. She just wanted to bake them. "I'd be gone all day and all night at the office, and all I wanted to do was make cookies," she says. The 43-year-old Daley made her first chocolate-chip cookies at age 12, and later baked in the toaster oven in her college dorm. ("It was quite comical," she says.) She'd long dreamed of owning a small-town bakery. Like her father, who owned car dealerships, and her sister, who owns a horse-training farm, "I wanted a shot at ownership," she says.

Over the years Daley peered into many empty storefronts. But neither the timing nor the space ever seemed right. And then, in the spring of 2006, the local bakery in her leafy, upscale bedroom community of Pelham Manor, 25 minutes outside of New York City, came up for sale. "I didn't have the capital or the confidence to build out a new space, but I did feel like I could take over a successful bakery that was well-established," says Daley, a single mom of a 12-year-old boy.

Daley had researched how much bakery businesses sold for, so knew she could buy one for between $150,000 and $250,000. The shop for sale, The Bakery at Four Corners, fell within that range. She put down 50% of her savings, and closed in August of 2006. She financed the remainder of the price with a two-year note from the previous owner and a loan from her family. Daley could have taken out a home equity line of credit or second mortgage, but didn't want to take on the debt.

DON'T JUST DO IT

For many people, turning a hobby such as winemaking or gardening into a career sounds ideal. Making the leap is tough, though. "It was one thing to talk about giving up my professional life, but it was another thing to actually do it," says Daley. She and her son have medical insurance through her ex-husband, but she knew she'd take a 60% pay cut. What she didn't think about were "things like what it would be like to be the new kid on the block, marketing, or the huge $300-a-week expense of paper goods," she says.

It was humbling to be a beginner again and learn everything new, from how to manage a kitchen staff of eight Spanish-speaking employees (her last Spanish class was nearly 30 years ago) to the quickest way to tie twine on the bakery boxes to how to make her cookie recipe taste just as good when increased sixfold. It helped to have kept the assistant baker from the former owner; he's now head baker.

Early on, some of the bakery's existing vendors took advantage of Daley and charged her more for some items. It wasn't long before she "drew the line in the sand," she says, and confronted them. Over time, other bakers and food service people became mentors. One baker gave her the name of a vendor when she had problems with her paper supplier, and said to use his name; she credits that with getting better pricing. He also let her watch him in the bakery, helping her learn how to prepare cakes in bulk and prep things like frosting in advance so that she wasn't always starting from scratch on rush orders.

The first year also taught Daley a lot about what and how much to bake, as well as how to price. The day after Thanksgiving in 2006, Daley had 280 pies left over. This past November, preorder forms went out at the beginning of the month. The number of pies left over this year: three. She found that customers told her if she charged too much. She originally priced her cheesecakes at $20 but has since reduced the price to $16. "It's a great study in commodity pricing," she says, noting that milk has increased from $11 for four gallons to $13.65 in six months.

A big change for Daley has been the immediacy of the business and her role as the go-to person. "It either works or it doesn't, and it's up to me to fix it," she says. "There are dozens of other places my customers can go. I want to make sure they enjoy coming here, and want to come back here."

To that end, Daley wants The Bakery at Four Corners to be a homey community gathering spot. She hosts a local musician, a rock star of sorts among the toddler set, for a free music hour and recently seated about 40 children and their mothers and nannies. Older women from the nearby church and day laborers stop by for their morning coffee and Danish. Daley, who loves to write, puts out a monthly newsletter featuring recipes and listing special bakery events.

While baking is Daley's passion, her bakery is a business. She constantly reminds herself of her father's words when she told him she wanted to own a bakery: "You're going to have to sell a lot of cookies to make a million dollars." With that in mind, Daley is hoping to increase corporate sales from 5% to 30% over the next few years. She's started marketing to schools, churches, and other nearby institutions. "I peddle my stuff everywhere," she says. "I take it to anyone who will accept it." Her business plan has her turning a profit in the middle of her third year.

Eighteen months into Daley's new life she walks her son to school and then drives five minutes to her bakery. "I now get to pick which 80 hours a week I work," she says with a laugh. At the end of year one, she plowed in a bit more of her own money but met her debt obligations. She considers herself lucky. "You can work very hard and still not have something turn out," she says. "Now people ask me a million questions because I represent the person who can do it if you want to."

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