Interview with Agatha Kulaga
Co Owner Ovenly (with Erin Patinkin)
With Kathryn Gordon, Food Startup Help
Editor’s Note: Food Startup Help worked with Ovenly in 2013 over a multi month period to strategize regarding expansion plans and optimize operational efficiency.
Kathryn: Hi Agatha! I haven’t seen you in months -- how’s everything going? And how's it going with the Ovenly cookbook project?
Agatha: Great! Very well actually. The book is due out in October. There will be an ebook issued before that, as a teaser. Erin and I are very happy the way its come out, although this week we’re still deciding on the cover with the publisher (Harlequin).
Kathryn: Can you remind me how you and Erin met and started the bakery? Did you know you wanted your own retail (brick and mortar) type of bakery?
Agatha: No! We actually met at a food focused book club that was started by my childhood friend. We both were career changers with some background in the restaurant business, and we both individually knew we wanted to do something in food but were looking for the right opportunity. We started talking after the book club, mulled it over for about a year, and 3 1/2 years ago incorporated.
Kathryn: Was your original concept the way Ovenly is now, with a retail bakery and a large wholesale operation?
Agatha: Not at all. At first we produced bar snacks for some friends here in Greenpoint (Brooklyn) with a bar, and then that evolved with orders for pastries, and more bar snack orders for Brooklyn Brewery. It all took off from there.
Kathryn: For anyone who hasn’t visited Ovenly yet, how would you describe your business?
Agatha: Ovenly represents “craft,” timeless and classic creativity. This is a very trendy area, and we don’t want to be just part of trend. We are an artisanal, homey bakery offering our customers consistent product, and we want to appeal to a variety of people. We have wonderful customers.
Kathryn: How many square feet is your facility here (31 Greenpoint Avenue)?
Agatha: It’s about 2,100 square feet with 350 for the retail, 900 on this floor for bakery production, and our basement prep and storage areas. We also rent office space nearby.
Kathryn: I remember visiting you for the first time and a film company had rented out your retail space to film that day, and they were making a movie with Ann Hathaway sitting right here.
Agatha: They are always filming in Greenpoint! Several times we’ve been featured in films and TV, and we appeared as Ovenly on the Cooking Channel.
Kathryn: How many employees do you have?
Agatha: 23. 16 are full time and 7 part time. It’s a mix of the front of the house, office staff and bakers but it is primarily baking staff. They bake in 3 shifts a day, with deliveries going out from midnight onwards.
Kathryn: When you started talking to Food Startup Help, you were undergoing substantial growing pains.
Agatha: I would say that going through growth phases is always challenging. Right now we are planning the opening of our second retail location (which will be in Manhattan). We have a constantly expanding wholesale operation driving our sales (including Whole Foods for our scones), and we have started doing more wedding cakes.
We’ve accomplished a big operational improvement. We have now managed to cross train our baking staff, rather than have them each focus on specialized tasks.
Kathryn: And from the time Jeff (Yoskowitz) and I first visited the bakery, you’ve rearranged completely?
Agatha: After talking to you, the first thing we had to do was buy more muffin and loaf pans, scales, etc. to allow our bakers to stage their daily production most efficiently. We bought more 80Q Hobart bowls and attachments for example, to be able to more effectively manage the production. We reorganized the entire kitchen in terms of lighting, tables, metro racks, etc. The space opened up and is now much better utilized. We’re now considering adding another bank of ovens. General storage space continues to be a challenge, with limited walk in freezer and fridge space to manage all of the speed racks required for this production level.
Kathryn: How do you and Erin divide up your projects as business partners?
Agatha: At first, Erin and I pretty much did everything together every day, including baking and running the entire operation. Now it’s too big and too complicated, so we subdivide and delegate or we would just be doubling our efforts and get exhausted. We have nightly recap sessions, and we regularly schedule brainstorming sessions to set our next direction and priorities.
Kathryn: What have been your biggest surprises, running a bakery with Erin?
Agatha: We’ve learned how valuable employees are. You cannot underestimate good employees -- they support your business as it is always evolving. You need to support your employees because they support you. Running a business is much more than you baking “your cookie” recipe. There’s workman’s comp, and employee HR, and financing and budgeting and everything else you need to know to be successful.
Kathryn: Speaking of employees, how has President Obama’s health care reform affected you?
Agatha: When we first started, none of us had health insurance. For a few years, we offered it only to salaried employees. In the past few years, we were able to offer insurance to all our employees. Now we can offer a better plan, although it is more expensive, and only some employees who are still covered under their parent’s plan are not covered by us.
The Wall Street Journal is running an installment piece covering small businesses under health care reform and have interviewed us on health insurance under Obama care - the first installment including Ovenly should appear in the next few weeks.
Kathryn: Thanks for your time Agatha, and we’ll catch up with you later after you open your second retail location!