Laine’s Bake Shop is almost undetectable from the street in the Far South Side neighborhood of Morgan Park. The windows of the brick storefront, a former post office, are covered with dark curtains. The smells of vanilla, ginger and peanut butter don’t quite reach the sidewalk.
Inside the tiny bakery, though, business is booming.
Laine’s churns out hundreds of pounds of cookies each week destined for 55 Whole Foods Market stores throughout the Midwest, along with red velvet cheesecake brownies sold in 10 Starbucks cafes in Chicago. Laine’s is, in many ways, a model for small food businesses with big dreams of broader distribution and social impact. It also serves as an example of how hard that journey can be.
In the past two years, founders Rachel and Jaryd Bernier-Green have endured financial struggles, personal setbacks and sleepless nights.
Even now, despite its success with Whole Foods and Starbucks, Laine’s lacks the capital to move out of its 1,200-square-foot bakery into roomier facilities that would allow the business to keep growing.
“We’re at an interesting point where we have these great opportunities in front of us but we’re turning down business because we can’t adequately support it,” said Rachel Bernier-Green, 30, as workers nearby scooped globs of cookie dough onto a tray.
As the oldest of six children who grew up in Roseland and suburban Homewood, Bernier-Green showed her entrepreneurial spirit early. While other girls dressed up as princesses, Bernier-Green said, she liked to pretend to be Oprah and Madam C.J. Walker, the renowned African-American entrepreneur and philanthropist of the early 1900s.
“I was an odd kid,” she said, laughing.
Just a couple of years ago, Bernier-Green worked for the prestigious accounting firm KPMG after earning a master’s degree in taxation accounting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But during a personal health crisis, she re-evaluated her priorities, deciding to spend more time with family and make more of an impact in the community.
“I had a literal come-to-Jesus moment: What am I doing with my life?” she said.
Bernier-Green hopes to grow Laine’s into a national brand known for uplifting struggling communities on Chicago’s South Side.
She aims to hire employees who were previously homeless or in jail; partner with nonprofits that effect positive change in underserved neighborhoods; and source ingredients, locally when possible, from companies with similar values.
Just 5 feet 2 inches tall, Bernier-Green can nonetheless command a room when pitching her plan to investors and corporate types. Displaying a confidence she credits to her mother’s homeschooling, she weaves her own family story and do-gooder goals in with detailed financial projections.
She’s parlayed some of those moments into big opportunities with Whole Foods and Starbucks, even though it’s meant she and her husband have burned through their personal savings, and, at times, fallen behind on bills, and eaten popcorn and cereal for dinner.
“I often tell people that I come across looking like a duck swimming across a lake,” Bernier-Green said. “It might appear smooth and confident on top but I’m paddling like mad underneath.”
Making it into Whole Foods is not a finish line for small food businesses.
“That’s what people think. They think once you get in the gates, it’s a cakewalk. If anything, it gets harder,” said Bobby Turner, former regional vice president for Whole Foods’ Midwest region who was recently promoted to be South regional president in Atlanta.
In Illinois, Whole Foods partners with more than 300 local vendors. The upscale retailer, now owned by Amazon, works with those small businesses to meet quality standards, improve packaging and fine-tune the supply chain. Turner, a former baker himself, was a mentor to the Bernier-Greens early on, helping them reduce their costs.
Businesses like Laine’s face some inherent challenges, Turner said. It’s more difficult to get long-term commitment from investors for products with short shelf life, he said, particularly when using higher-cost ingredients, as Laine’s does, that eat into profit margins.
Eventually, Laine’s likely will need to consider partnering with a co-packer, a contract manufacturer, to help it grow the business at less cost, Turner said.
“She’s a good entrepreneur, very creative, always searching. … (Laine’s) has a lot of potential,” Turner said.
By the time Whole Foods opened its highly publicized store in Englewood last year and established partnerships with more than 40 local vendors from the South Side, Laine’s was already in 22 Whole Foods stores.
Englewood made 23.
“(Bernier-Green) was obviously a very driven young woman,” said Julie Blubaugh, local coordinator for Whole Foods Market’s Midwest region.
Blubaugh recalled their first meeting some two years ago. She remembered the intricately designed cookies, the charts and numbers detailing the Laine’s business plan, the poise and organization of the presentation. Soon thereafter, Laine’s began selling cookies like its mocha raspberry thumbprint and honey nut peanut butter in Whole Foods’ cookie bars.
Laine’s also hopes to triple its number of Starbucks locations in the year ahead after first selling brownies in the Englewood location, part of a national Starbucks initiative to provide jobs and partner with local vendors in low-income communities.
“What comes through with her business is her values. It’s almost like a passing forward,” said Rodney Hines, director of U.S. social impact for Starbucks.
Access to capital presents great challenges
Despite those opportunities, Bernier-Green said accessing capital has been the greatest challenge. And though Laine’s now has a proven track record, Bernier-Green and her husband’s personal finances and credit score are relatively depleted, which presents another challenge when trying to secure financing, she said.
In her former role as chief small business officer for the city of Chicago, Roxanne Nava had a front row seat to some of the bakery’s early challenges when she connected Bernier-Green to a $10,000 microloan from the nonprofit Accion Chicago and advocated on her behalf with Whole Foods.
Increasingly, nonprofit lenders can provide quick infusions of capital for startups, where banks may be less willing, said Nava, who’s now executive director for Metropolitan Family Services’ North and Evanston/Skokie Valley centers.
“She had a harder time because of the rapid growth,” Nava said. “It’s a success story with a lot of bruises.”
A family affair
Bernier-Green believes her business is on the cusp of its next growth spurt.
The plan is to move Laine’s to a 1,600-square-foot retail cafe in Pullman and a 3,600-square-foot production facility in Woodlawn as soon as funding allows, Bernier-Green said.
To help facilitate the move, the bakery’s hoping to land about $350,000 in grant money for the two locations combined through the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, a program established by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that redirects funds from downtown development into seed money for businesses on the South and West sides. The next round of grants will be announced in the first quarter of next year, according to the mayor’s office.
Laine’s also is hoping to raise another $150,000 or so through a campaign on WeFunder, a crowdfunding site for startups, that likely will begin early next year.
In the meanwhile, the Bernier-Greens will continue to lean on their strong network of family and friends.
Laine’s has five employees, including Bernier-Green, her husband, Jaryd; her mother, Elaine Rodgers; her sister, Rebecca Cortes; and one employee who’s not a family member. Her father, other siblings and aunts and uncles all swing by to help or bring food at times.
Tall with a laid-back demeanor, Jaryd Bernier-Green, 32, provides a natural contrast to his wife. She’s the engine pushing the business forward; he’s the body of the car holding it together, he said.
“This is our child,” the husband said of the business.
At the end of a grueling week that involved 16-hour days, the couple worked together in relative silence save for the loud hum of the air compressor and the occasional beeping of a timer. Rachel Bernier-Green wrapped vanilla bean poundcakes while her husband worked on butter pecan bites. Gingerbread and eggnog cookies cooled on a rack.
Nearby, Elaine Rodgers took a break from scooping cookie dough to marvel at Rachel Bernier-Green’s creativity with recipes. She chuckled when asked about her daughter’s perseverance.
“I wouldn’t say she has nerves of steel,” Rodgers said, “but she’s learned to be prepared and go forward, whether she’s afraid or not.”
(Article written by Greg Trotter) (SOURCE: TNS)