Flagstaff Business News caught up with a unique Northern Arizona business owner: Bret Sarnquist of Big Ring Bakery. He is a gluten-free baker, who uses high quality ingredients in his baked goods. While Sarnquist has a large and loyal customer base in communities throughout the region, he recognizes he might have more business success today had he followed certain guidelines. He shares those guidelines with FBN readers.
How did you come up with the idea for the bakery?
Before I started Big Ring Bakery, I’d been a baker and pastry chef for a number of years, and had noticed a growing number of customers requesting gluten-free (GF) baked goods, entrees, and desserts. I introduced a few products into the bakery where I worked at the time, but never really got into it, since we had a shared kitchen, and cross-contamination with wheat flour was inevitable. I never felt comfortable selling something labelled GF that had been prepared in a shared space, and still think that it is misleading to advertise those foods as GF.
Then, when my sister became pregnant, she starting have trouble with gluten, and so I started to prepare GF food and baked goods for her, and discovered how much demand there was in the community for good, freshly baked GF food. Once I realized that there was no 100% dedicated GF bakery north of Phoenix, I saw a business opportunity and dove in full-time.
What has been the community response?
The community has been very supportive, and I’m always encouraged when people come up to me and say “Thank you for what you’re doing.” It makes the long hours and early mornings worth it, and I like the idea of doing something I love while supporting people in need and building a small business in a beautiful area.
Advice for others starting a small business?
To be honest, I’m the last person you should ask for business advice, since I have no previous experience, no MBA, and haven’t managed to turn Big Ring Bakery into a profitable enterprise (yet). I’m a bit flakey at times, terrible about answering the phone and returning calls promptly, and spend far more on premium ingredients than I probably should, especially since I don’t try to capitalize on the number of organic, fresh, and local ingredients in our products as a marketing tool.
That said, my biggest pieces of advice involve planning. Write your business plan with a focus on the best possible scenario two to three years out, and try and anticipate what changes you’ll have to make to accommodate the envisioned growth, so you’re not caught flat-footed or in an inadequate space in a year or two.
Second, get a year or two worth of capital behind the business before you start. I started the bakery on my own savings, and have tried to run it on a shoestring, which has left me vulnerable and uncertain at times. I’m debt-free, which is great, but would have been able build the business much more efficiently if I had not been so severely undercapitalized. I did not, for the record, follow either bit of my own advice, and the business is struggling a bit as a result.
Biggest challenges in my business?
The biggest challenges in my business are the minutiae of actually running a micro-business. As a one-man show, I’m the baker, PR guy, delivery driver, webmaster, accountant, janitor, supply chain manager, IT person, and salesman, and I don’t do half of those jobs efficiently, or even particularly well. I live in daily fear of tax audits, bad online reviews, and legal questions, despite my best efforts to tackle those tasks quickly and honestly.
The web of regulations facing any small business is daunting, but they are especially crippling for a micro-business of my scale. At the moment I’m trying to hire an employee, which you would think everybody would support in this economy, but have been stymied by the huge number and esoteric nature of the rules, regulations, and laws that suddenly come into play once you have employees. It’s frustrating.
Where do I see the business in five years?
The dream is, and has always been, to have a little GF bakery/cafe/store in Flagstaff. It would be one-third wholesale GF bakery, one-third retail store for our breads, desserts, and pastries, and one-third sit-down cafe. The cafe would also be 100% GF, an eatery where you could order anything off the menu without questions or worries, and also get custom cakes, catering, and our products to go.
What else would you like FBN readers to know about Big Ring Bakery?
I’d like to emphasize that our bakery is 100% GF, and that we do not do any other cooking or baking that may involve gluten or gluten-containing ingredients. We also buy local ingredients as much as we can, including honey, fruits/veggies/nuts, eggs, and dairy, and harvest all that we can ourselves, including a twenty-pound haul of Oak Creek blackberries that we’ve frozen and are using in our coffeecakes, muffins, and pastries. I’m a huge supporter of the Flagstaff CSA and the Flagstaff Community Market; both organizations are great local small business that share my values.
For special orders, reach Sarnquist by email at email@example.com. He delivers to the Flagstaff Community Supported Agriculture store (116 West Cottage) Tuesdays and Thursdays and to Rinzai’s Market (2081 W. State Route 89A # 5) in Sedona. GF items are now being carried at Kickstand Cafe on N. Humphreys Street in Flagstaff. You can also enjoy Big Ring Bakery products at the Flagstaff Farmer’s Market (late May – early October.)