But running a small business, from expanding into new markets to developing new products, can create challenges, as well as joys, says Keller, who lives in Peconic with her husband and son. And for women business owners, there are other demands, including managing waves of surging emotions in an all-female kitchen, to finding the right balance between work and family needs.
The Baltimore native launched Peconic Baking Company in 2003 and now operates two facilities: a small bakery in Peconic and a new more expansive shop and café in Riverhead that also boasts a large production kitchen.
Edible East End reporter, Laura B. Weiss, spoke to Keller about her venture.
LW: So how’s business?
JK: Here in Riverhead we’re doing well. We do a lot of business in the Hamptons, and my Peconic Lane store always does well in the summer, which is a sad reality because the second-home people really support my business up there. They order their birthday cakes from me. It is a little disappointing at times because we have a following of local people, but they don’t really buy their birthday cakes from me.
I thought that I would do more business on a weekly basis. Maybe it’s our prices. I’m not a BJs or a King Kullen; everything is made from scratch.
I have to thank those second-home people. I was cursing the traffic the other weekend but then I was thinking these are the people who are spending money in my store.
LW: How did you get started?
JK: My only employee was me. Initially it was restaurants only, supplying them with desserts. The Harborfront Inn [in Greenport] was my first account. That was seven days a week doing their breakfast buffet.
When I opened my retail shop, I slowed down my business with the restaurants.
LW: There you were, little old lonesome you. What was that like? It must have been scary as all get out.
JK: Sure it was because you’re making something and you’re hoping people will like the way it tastes and the way it looks, but it was well received.
LW: How did you get into the bakery business? Why not open a restaurant or some other food business?
JK: I had a catering business when I was about 27 through my early 30s, and I loved food. When my son was old enough to be in kindergarten, the year before that, I started thinking about what to do to get back in the workforce that was creative. I wanted to find something that was in food that I could balance with being a mom. If you’re doing a bakery, you’re home to make dinner; I wouldn’t be out late at night and on weekends.
LW: That’s kind of surprising because the conventional wisdom is that baking is a really tough life, that you have to get up in the middle of the night to bake the bread.
JK: Well, I’m not a bread baker. Anything I do is proofed overnight in the refrigerator. My business is really doable. I get up at 5 o’clock. I don’t think that’s so bad. If you work for me you start at 6. We have two shifts so it’s 6 to 2 and some staggered to stay a little later like 4 or 5. Everyone who works for me has kids. We’re all working moms, it works out well, you know?
LW: Speaking of which, why all women in your bakery? Why not a guy?
JK: The front of the house is managed is by a young guy. It’s just how things happened. I’m not actively seeking out women, although I really do feel camaraderie with them because we all are in the same boat with school-age children.
There is a relationship that is there that would not be the same with a man. I’m not opposed to having a man. We have the 100-pound bags of sugar and flour, and everyone has their bad hip, bad knee. Every once in awhile, it would be nice to have a strapping young man to lift things.
LW: Let’s get back to the business. How did you decide what pastries to make?
JK: We’re not the classic Italian or French. I’m an American baker. I visualize beautiful pedestals with layer cakes and cupcakes and carrot cakes. What I wanted was more of a homespun feeling and a little bit whimsical, not everything looking the same.
LW: As an entrepreneur, you started out with the bakery in Peconic. Then, you made the leap to opening this much bigger facility in Riverhead. What was some of the thinking behind that?
JK: The business in Peconic is pretty slow several months a year. I was at a transition point in terms of whether I was either going to get bigger or stay where I was with one employee. It’s a passion, but I do want to make money.
I felt that with [another pastry chef] and a few other key people, I could get to my full plan. But I couldn’t do it [in Cutchogue], because to transport food from Cutchogue to other neighborhoods, it’s too far. To get to Riverhead, if you get behind a truck, it’s an hour. I had been looking at Riverhead for about a year. It’s a great location. There’s a courthouse, a lot of working people here; on a day-to-day basis, I could keep things going through the winter months.
I really moved here to get a larger production facility. My plan is to get a truck and start getting to other places.
LW: Get a truck?
JK: We want to be able to access weddings on the South Fork and to have a larger facility. A lot of my plans are to do gift boxes, corporate gifts with beautiful cookies.
LW: Breaking into the North Fork business community can be tough, I hear.
JK: Coming to Riverhead was definitely challenging. People were a lit- tle hostile. Everyone wanted to know, “What are you doing?” It definitely helps to know the right people, that’s all I can say. Some of the policies and the way things get done—I still don’t have a sign on my building—have been torturous. It’s been since last October.
One of my head pastry chefs is a Riverhead native. She paved the way. Once we got it known that we were really trying to do something great and a bakery, people were really warm and receptive and have been really behind us.
LW: You’re getting some Hamptons business. How did that happen? You wouldn’t think people from the South Fork would come to a North Fork bakery.
JK: I went out to a bunch of different caterers. I brought them 20 and 30 cakes to sample. It worked with one very nice gentleman, Brent Newsom. He’s a big caterer in Manhattan and the Hamptons and he came one day to our place and I must have put out 30 different cakes for him. He plowed through most of them and he gave us business and he referred us to a wedding,
LW: Back to the women working in your bakery. Women can get kind of…
JK: Oh, definitely.
LW: Well, what happens?
JK: It can get a little tense. We don’t have catfights or anything. With one person who’s in a really grumpy kind of mood, the whole feeling of the kitchen can be this complete silence for the day because it’s just so down and it’s so tense and you don’t want to hurt that person’s feelings. That’s when it gets really hard for me. I have feelings, and I am a woman, and I am a business owner.
LW: Sounds tough. How do you handle it?
JK: When you go home and vent to your husband, he says, “you need to start being the boss.” I’m like, “Forget it, you just don’t understand.” I get from men, “you need to be more like a man, when you handle a situation, this is the way it is, and this is what I say.”
I haven’t built my relationships with people that way. It’s been good because there’s been a closeness to me, I think…and the respect level…and they work harder because of the “we’re-all-in-it-together kind of feeling,” as opposed to the man who walks in and everyone shuts up.
LW: Women all want to be friends with the other women because that’s how we were all raised. To be in a position of authority, I think it’s tough. Sometimes you have to be a bitch.
JK: I’m not good at that. Maybe they think I am, but I’m not.
Editor’s note: Peconic Baking Company has closed.