Whenever I travel (for work or pleasure) I take the time to try new bakeries, patisseries and pretty much any food establishment that is even vaguely related to the baking industry. This past week I found myself in New York… which is like mecca for foodies like me. I didn’t intend to do a foodie tour of New York but it kinda worked out that way. I ended up eating at Bantam Bagels, Magnolia Bakery, Molly’s Cupcakes, Dominique Ansel Bakery, The Bagel Store, The Halal Guys and a bunch of other places (including not being willing to stand in the 2 hour line to get into DO, the cookie dough place).
The whole way, I was taking pictures and sharing my thoughts about these places with my Build Your Profitable Cake Business students. When I mentioned that I was really disappointed in the cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery, one of my students commented that her pet peeve is when small businesses become big and the quality goes down. This started me thinking, because I’ve often experienced the same thing. A small, boutique company gets bigger..and suddenly, their amazing product isn’t what it used to be. The reason for the drop in quality could be many – too difficult to control when the production increases, an inability to source specialty ingredients on a bigger scale, a need to cut costs to keep the business viable and so on. It made me wonder if these businesses started out with quality as one of their main focusses or not, because surely if they did, wouldn’t that tenant have carried through regardless of business size?
I also wondered if exposure or “going viral” had anything to do with our disappointment in quality. Companies like Magnolia Bakery got on the map (and are credited with starting the cupcake craze) because they appeared on Sex & The City – not necessarily because of their quality. Bantam Bagels (which are little bagel balls filled with cream cheese) were on Shark Tank and now have their product in Starbucks. So are we expecting more from these companies simply because of their size, not because they were ever known for their quality? I’ve never eaten at Carlo’s Bakery, but I’m told from many who have been there that it’s either amazing and delicious…or terrible and disappointing. So maybe it’s not a case of quality going down but of the quality just never being there in the first place, it’s that as a consumer we assume that if it’s big, it MUST be good, when really, it became big for reasons that have nothing to do with quality in the first place.
Quality or not, all these places prove what I’ve said here all along – product is important, press/marketing is even more important, but above all those is the ability to effectively run a business and pivot when you need to. At Magnolia Bakery, WAY more people in line had tubs of banana pudding in their hands and not cupcakes. Clearly it’s a business that has had to evolve and is doing so beautifully. At Bantam, the bagel balls I ate at the original store were terrible … but the smaller ones I had at Starbucks in Los Angeles were delicious. Their focus is changing too – they’re aiming for volume now. At Dominique Ansel (famous for, among other things, inventing the cronut) – there were LOADS of customers (me included) eating lunch and ordering everything other than cronuts. There, the quality was amazing…enough that I went there twice in 2 days. At Molly’s Cupcakes (hands down, the best I’ve ever eaten in MY LIFE) the service was personal, the cupcakes looked and tasted home-made – and they’ve got 7 locations across 3 states. So varying qualities, varying locations and sizes…but ALL are running very savvy businesses.
As cake makers – especially those of us who are small, one-person operations – it’s very easy to focus on one thing, usually the product. I’ve always maintained that your product should be good (if not great) but that long-term, product alone is not the key to success – especially when you consider how copyable most product is these days. I’ve also been vocal about how the more successful your business becomes, the less product you personally get to make. The lesson here for all of us is this: bigger isn’t necessarily better. Better is working out what you want for your business (in both quality AND size) and going after it.