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You Could Call It An Adventure

Season 1: Episode 57

031022-podcast Paper Route

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Owning a small business can be an adventure, but according to Paper Route Bakery owner Aaron Seriff-Cullick, it can quickly turn into a crisis. When he made changes to the menu, many customers were disappointed to see favorites disappear, so Aaron showed them other wonderful treats he had cooked up. Aaron shares his experiences—both the good and the not so good—in taking his business from his tiny apartment in Austin to a full-fledged bakery, plus the lessons he learned along the way.

On the Yelp Blog: Read more from Aaron and reviewer Amber on her experience, including how going above and beyond—especially in the face of potential customer disappointment—can lead to customer loyalty.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur… and the reviewer… about the story and business lessons behind their interaction.

Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.

AMBER: It was last summer that my friend actually told me about Paper Route. She found their Instagram because of one of the Instagram pages that promote cool places to go in Austin, and we’re always looking for nice places to go and little holes in the wall that maybe the entire city doesn’t know about. Because everything’s crowded now. So we made a plan to meet there for lunch and we planned on getting a specific item that was popular on their Instagram page.

EMILY: Austin, Texas, is known for unique restaurants, serving everything from Tex Mex to some of the best bar-be-que in the country. So when Yelp reviewer Amber W. wanted to meet a friend for lunch, she wanted someplace that was uniquely Austin. In her search, she found Paper Route Bakery.

As an aside, if there is a small business owner out there who still thinks social media doesn’t drive sales, let’s present Amber’s search as Exhibit A. You must be on social media to market your small business. We’ll get back to that later.

Let’s take a listen to Amber’s review of Paper Route Bakery:

AMBER: I drove from Round Rock to meet a friend here for breakfast, and she’d been wanting to try this place.

They were out of the milkshake cookie I wanted to try because we got there so late in the afternoon. It’s a hot item, but we got lucky that fresh scones were coming out. The lemon blueberry is to die for. If you’re with other people and can’t decide what to order, the scones are big enough to share so order one of everything so you can try it all. The owner is super cool and he even brought me a huge chocolate chip cookie to make up for being out of the milkshake cookie. I will definitely be back here early enough to get one.

EMILY: This is one of my favorite reviews. I could picture everything, and could feel Amber’s whole experience, but it’s still short and not overly elaborate. Even though she didn’t get the milkshake cookie, she clearly appreciated the business owner going above and beyond to redirect her to a similar product.

That’s a powerful lesson for small business owners. When a customer’s needs aren’t met, it doesn’t have to mean the business loses that customer. How you help a customer pivot makes a huge difference. Everyone has been to your regular local restaurant or bakery and had a favorite menu item discontinued. That’s sometimes a crushing disappointment.

Paper Route Bakery owner Aaron Serriff-Cullick wants his customers’ experience to be about more than just his excellent sweet treats.

AARON: When people come to the bakery, I really want them to have the experience they were hoping for. Like coming to a bakery is exciting and it’s a treat and you’re supposed to have kind of this unfettered pleasure experience where you go in and you ask for that, then you want, and you get it, and it’s amazing. It blows your mind. I love providing that experience for people and it breaks my heart when people come to the bakery wanting something and they can’t provide it for them. Like Amber, who you talked to. She came all the way from Round Rock, which she was kind of downplaying it in her interview, but it’s a long schlep that she made all the way to the bakery.

It’s like an hour that she made through traffic and she came specifically for the milkshake cookie. It killed me that I didn’t have one for her that day. We happened to sell out that day. But over time I have gotten better at absorbing people’s disappointment, letting them know that we are also disappointed that we don’t have those goods in stock.

And we really hope to bring them back soon. But in the meantime, there’s this amazing cake that you have to try and we wouldn’t be making it if we didn’t think it was amazing. So the good news is, I’ve been able to transition some people who are avid cookie and scone fans to cake lovers, which is exciting.

I love broadening people’s horizons. The bad news is some people have been disappointed and that’s hard to face sometimes. You know, you can’t win them all.

EMILY: It helps when all of the bakery items in your case are equally delicious, and that comes down to the quality of the ingredients, and the way the recipes come together.

AARON: My product, the baked goods themselves all come from recipes that I’ve developed since I was a kid. My goal with each product is to create something that is familiar enough that people won’t be afraid of it and are willing to take a bite, but then I want it to be wholly new to them after they take that first bite. I want something that transcends your experience and takes you away to a magical world that you didn’t know existed. I want something that connects you with a flavor that you didn’t even know you loved. I want something that you can’t stop eating until it’s gone, and then you need another one. Not because of how sugary it is or fatty it is, but because of how well it’s made and the poem that’s written into it.

At the beginning, when I started the bakery, that first year I had 20 different products. It was cookies and scones and homemade pop tarts and little bundt cakes and cake by the slice and pao de qeuijo, which is this Brazilian cheese bread that’s really delicious. Over time, the menu has changed a lot. These days, we are just focusing on cakes. So all we do is birthday cakes and layer cakes, and cake by the slice. There’s a lot of decision-making that went into that, but it has helped us to survive COVID and the goal is to grow enough that we can bring back some of the other pastries that I know people love and miss.

EMILY: I love a good origin story, and most businesses have them in one form or another. But some of those stories are just a little blip on the radar—a small business starts when an entrepreneur sees a gap in a market, and works to fill it because they know they can do better.

Paper Route Bakery’s story is much more personal than that. It comes from a passion and a skill set that Aaron felt he needed to share with a broader audience.

AARON: I grew up making challah with my mom, which is the traditional Jewish braided bread. We started baking those every Friday when I was like maybe five or six. Both my parents are really good cooks. It was really nice to just be around them in the kitchen as they cooked. I remember standing on the kitchen chair so I could reach the counter and knead the bread each Friday.

I think that just left such an impression. It was just such a pure unadulterated creative process in the kitchen. There’s room for mess and experimentation and creativity, all the things I love to do. Pretty early in life, I was sort of like, the kitchen is my space. I started teaching myself to bake in high school. My challenge was I was going to try to bake a new dessert every night for a year.

I did that and got a lot of experience that way. You know, somewhere along the way, I think I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory probably when I was eight or nine. And I was like, “Yep, that’s the life for me.” Willy Wonka kind of has it made. And so that’s sort of been my destiny ever since, I think.

Paper Route started in 2016 as a delivery service out of my apartment. I was living in this little tree house of an apartment over by UT campus.

And it had an oven in it from the 1950s. I had always wanted to start a bakery. Those are the materials that I had at hand, and that’s how I started. I began by delivering cookies and pastries, then custom cakes all over town, tried to develop a little bit of a customer base that way, and built that up over a couple years and then was eventually able to do a Kickstarter with which I raised some money and opened the brick and mortar in 2018.

EMILY: His destiny might have been calling, but before he could answer, Aaron had a lot to learn. That didn’t stop him from jumping right into the world of entrepreneurship though.

AARON: I have said from the beginning that I’m happy to call myself a baker, but I’m not a businessman. I didn’t go to school for that. I thought at some point that it might be intuitive, but it’s really not intuitive.

At least for me. It’s its own skillset. I have just been faking it from the beginning, just going about it with the “fake it till you make it” mindset and for better or worse, I think that’s allowed me to enter into the industry with a lot of confidence where maybe I shouldn’t have. And I’ve just been figuring out as I go along ever since then

EMILY: Aaron discovered pretty quickly that owning and running a small business isn’t for the faint of heart. Most of the time, no one wants to talk about just how hard it can be.

I’m really honored that Aaron opened up about the difficulties of running a business, because while we primarily cover the success stories, it’s just as important—if not more, maybe—to talk about the challenges of running a business.

AARON: Opening a brick and mortar is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life. I can’t even describe what that period of my life was like. I spent about a year looking for a space, and Austin is really up and coming. It’s getting fuller and busier every day. And what that means is there’s not a lot of available space for people opening a business of any kind, but specifically a food business.

There are very few second-generation restaurant spaces in Austin, which means a building that was once used by a restaurant and then they left, and there’s still the infrastructure there to build another restaurant. So it’s very few of those left. I was looking for a space that I could turn into a restaurant, which was naive of me, but I didn’t realize it at the age of 25. I found a space that’s connected to a restaurant in Austin called Cenote, and it’s a really awesome local restaurant that has a lot of bustle and good vibes. And so I found this little kind of annex connected to their building and it had a handwritten sign on the front that said, closed for business, inquire inside if interested in the space, something really basic and simple.

And I was there at Cenote, eating lunch with my friends, and I was like, ‘okay, this looks like it could work. I’m going to ask them about it.’ It had formerly been a juice bar, which is kind of like an in-between, it’s almost like a food space. And so I decided to rent it. I started renting in January and I thought this is great. I’ll be able to open by the end of February. I did not realize how much work needed to be done to bring it up to code as a food space. It ended up taking about nine months to bring it up to code. The building needed new electrical, it needed a new air conditioning. I had to put in a vent hood and a grease trap.

And of course, ovens and refrigerators. I mean, all the basic appliances I knew, I did not expect the degree to which I was going to have to kind of rehaul the building itself. So by the time I opened in September of 2018, to be honest, I was already in crisis mode because I had already spent all of my Kickstarter money.

I had been paying rent on the space starting early that year because I had expected to be able to open. So I had used up all my money and then some. By the time I finally passed my health inspection in September, which was like the biggest relief, I was in the weeds and needed to start making money immediately. Even from the first second I got going, it’s been high stakes. We could call it an adventure, but crisis is more appropriate.

EMILY: And though the bakery was popular, and products sold out, it wasn’t necessarily profitable. Adding insult to injury, the whole country experienced a pandemic, which shut down more than a few small businesses, including Paper Route Bakery. Aaron closed the bakery at the end of 2020, and reopened in March of 2021, but it wasn’t smooth sailing.

AARON: I reopened and went in strong. I hired a bunch of staff members. We were producing all of the Paper Route pastries that people know and love.

Our cookies, our scones, and our pop-tarts plus cakes, and we opened up officially at the end of April and things were going okay. We were selling pastries like we normally do. I had seven employees, which we had never had that many before, and things were chugging along. I was working probably 80, 85 hours a week.

At that point I wasn’t able to pay myself for any of that labor. Which unfortunately has been the case for most of the time that I’ve had the bakery. It has been a real struggle. So those were all kind of par for the course. And I knew what I was getting into. But I realized in the middle of the summer that the bakery was losing money, and I was going to have to either close… Essentially the bakery was going to have to close.

This was in August that I realized that. That even though we were selling baked goods regularly and frequently selling out, not only were we not making a profit, we weren’t breaking even, we were losing money. I had only been able to reopen the bakery in 2021 because of the loans that the government issued as part of the disaster relief.

As those SBA loans started to run out, I started to panic and realize I had to make some big moves quickly. And the main thing that I thought that we had to do was focus our menu. We were producing so many different types of goods within the week that we couldn’t grow our production in any direction.

Because when you’re making cookies and scones and pop tarts and cakes, if you want more cookies, that means less cakes or less pop tarts. It’s a constant balancing act. And we weren’t getting it right. And I wasn’t gonna be able to hire somebody to cover the slack. So we decided to cut the menu down and just do cakes.

And it was a big decision. I knew people were going to be really disappointed cause we’re kind of known for our scones and cookies, honestly, even more than our cakes.  But the good news is this bakery, it’s been around for a few years and I’ve cut things off the menu before. So I’ve had a little bit of practice with handling public disappointment. It’s not something I’m naturally good at. I really like to make people happy.

EMILY: But how do you make people happy when you discontinue one of their favorite menu items? By turning on the customer service and redirecting them to something equally as delicious, which is exactly how Aaron handled Amber’s disappointment at missing out on her dream cookie.

AMBER: When we got there, they were out of the milkshake cookies, and he had a chalkboard that had what was available and what was out.

You could tell, he was really disappointed for us that they were gone because we told him that we had driven from up north to just get that cookie.  But you could just tell he was so happy to be there and so happy that people were coming all that way, because it’s not that far, but like people were going out of their way to come there.

I did chat with him a little bit. I immediately went to his Instagram pretty much after that and made sure I followed them on Instagram to keep up with what’s going on and all of his stories.  He doesn’t post that many actual posts, but all his stories are great and shows how much he cares about the importance of being unique from all the other bakeries in Austin, where you can go get a cookie.

You have to convince people somehow. And the way he does it is a great way to do it. Showing how he makes it, how it’s homemade. I don’t know his story on where he learned to do all of this. I’m gonna listen to the podcast and hopefully figure that out. But the flavor profiles he comes up with can only be one of someone who is not just trying to crank out a bunch of stuff to make money. Like he really cares about what people are putting in their mouth for their desserts.

EMILY: Once again, Aaron has shown his ability to pivot his business strategy, even for a short time, and simultaneously create more buzz through social media. When there’s something you can’t have, you want it more, and by bringing his cookies back for one day only, Aaron created an event that resonated with customers.

AARON: One thing I want to reiterate is how much I really appreciate when my customers are willing to pivot with me to a new product. So folks like Amber who came to the bakery specifically for something, and then Amber didn’t even get that cookie. It blows my mind, but Amber came to the bakery specifically for a cookie, but was so moved by the scone that she had and the experience that she had, that she was willing to try Paper Route cake for her birthday this year. And that means the world, because what that means to me is that it wasn’t a one-time success that we had.

It’s not this one product that’s good. It’s something about the business that people like. So honestly, that’s the reason we stay in business. When I am able to hear something like that from a customer, it shows me that the bakery is having the effect on the community that I wanted to have.

I’m really grateful when people are willing to follow Paper Route in whatever direction it ends up going.

EMILY: In 2021, Paper Route Bakery was named the Best Cookie in Texas by Yelp, a distinction that Aaron is proud to hold. Except for one small hiccup…

AARON: We were named the best cookie in Texas by Yelp in November, which was so exciting.

Unfortunately at that moment, we had already made the decision to stop selling cookies. So it was also a little bit heartbreaking that we didn’t have that product to offer people. But as a result, we decided to do a one day cookie pop-up for the holidays. So on December 23rd, we offered all of our traditional cookie recipes, plus a few other ones from the vault that I really like.

We posted those online and made orders available ahead of time. I ended up way over selling. We sold 1100 cookies that day, which was amazing. And also traumatically stressful. I mean, so stressful. Long story short, we are going to do another cookie pop-up in the future. And the goal consistently is to grow the business to the point where we can bring cookies back full time.

EMILY: Amber mentioned Paper Route Bakery’s Instagram page, and the stories posted there. Instagram is image-forward marketing, and showing off delicious treats is a great way to bring customers in. But photo sharing isn’t limited to social media. Yelp reviews with photos are extremely helpful to other potential customers. And Amber makes it a regular habit to post photos of her food with her reviews.

On the flipside, as a business owner, adding photos to your business page can convert more users into customers. People love seeing what to visually expect before they spend money with your business.

AMBER: I always take pictures of what I eat and what anyone with me eats. I don’t normally save them for myself. I usually get rid of them on my phone, but I know they’re there in Yelp land for me to look at later. Because sometimes you forget what you ate, honestly. And you’re like, oh, I really liked that place. But what did I eat? How would I describe it to someone? And I can tell you there’s lots of times where I told someone about something I ate and I had to go show them a picture, with Paper Route specifically, their scones.

There’s no way you can describe their scones to someone. When I traditionally think of a scone, you think of a small little triangle or something? No, not there. That scone was big enough I could’ve shared it probably with three people. I brought it home and let my husband try it and he loved it and it came out super warm and gooey and delicious.

And then the cookie that I will miss so much, that cookie tasted even better cause it was free, right? It was just so thick. I can’t describe it, but the picture can, right? I can’t do it justice. You have to look at the picture and then you have to be like, I’m going to go eat that.

EMILY: Reviews are generally so personal to small business owners, and Aaron is no different. As a bakery owner, they are sometimes his only real feedback—people tend to take bakery items home and don’t eat them in store—so they are crucial to his business success.

AARON: I take reviews really seriously. They are my primary source of feedback about the job that I’m doing. As I said before, I am not a business person. I’m not a pastry chef. I’m a baker. I didn’t go to school for culinary and I didn’t go to school for business. So I’m in over my head and frequently feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.

And so my only measure of success is the feedback I get from individuals. And that’s honestly the most important to me anyway. If I’m reading reviews and I can see that people like the baked goods I’m producing, that is how I know that I’m doing a good job. I remember one of my friends helped me open a Yelp page for the bakery a couple months after I had opened the brick and mortar.

And it was something that I didn’t have mental space for at the time. I was working so hard, there was just no room to do something like that. And so I’m really grateful to my friends for making me make that happen. Honestly, I look to those reviews as a source of professional reassurance, but also a personal reassurance.

They mean so much to me. I’m just a kid baking, you know, I’m just a kid baking in my apartment and trying to share what I make with the people around me. So it blows my mind that people love the baked goods so much. And it makes me so happy when people come from far away to try them. Those reviews are my professional fulfillment in a nutshell.

That said there are sometimes bad reviews and those really hurt. I mean, the thing is when you’re taking reviews that seriously, a bad review really stings. I don’t know if people realize when you leave a negative review of a small business, it’s an individual reading that and taking those words into account.

But I’ve also been able to learn and grow from each of those. And so for me, the review process is essential. I don’t know if I’d be saying that if I hadn’t received so many positive ones, but I do feel that way.

EMILY: Part of learning to run a business is learning when to take a step back. Most small businesses start with just the owner, and maybe an employee or two. That kind of workload leads to burnout if you don’t grow your staff with the business. Sometimes, that means making some compromises with yourself and setting up boundaries.

AARON: The brick and mortar has been open for four years. For most of that time, it was just me—the Paper Route bakery was just me. So I was doing the baking as well as the customer service, which means that every single person who got a baked good from me, talked to me, and also ate something that I made.

It was really natural and easy to develop that kind of personal relationship. I also like people and I like hearing about them and finding out what brought them to the bakery in the first place. So I liked talking with people and developing a little relationships. I think the hard part for me has been in finding space to make boundaries because I think most entrepreneurs know that when you open a business, it’s your whole life. So it was 80, 90 hours a week from the beginning. And really no distinction between my professional life and my personal life. So over the past few years, I’ve been really working to push those two things apart so that I have room to have my own personal life and maintain a successful business.

I still want the business to have me in it. I still want you to be able to see my passion and creativity in it, but I also want it to function without me. So this year I have employees, which is so exciting. I have people helping me bake and I have people helping me sell baked goods at the window, which means that it’s not guaranteed that I’m going to get to interact with every customer, which brings on a whole new set of challenges.

How can I instill my identity and personality so much into the bakery that they still are conveyed, even when I’m not there? I think it all comes back to that keep Austin weird vibe, which I’ve tried so hard to instill throughout the business.

EMILY: I’m thankful Aaron shared as many lows as he did highs. I don’t feel like we talk about them enough. But all is not lost. Aaron has some final thoughts for other small business owners.

AARON: It’s so hard to be a business owner. You’re in it all alone. And even if you hear from other people, ‘oh, I worked this hard,’ you really have no way of knowing if you’re doing the right thing. So if there’s anything I can do to let people know—to lower the pressure on themselves and treat themselves with a little bit more compassion, that’s a message that everyone needs to hear.

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