There was a local bakery that I used to love. The owners were a really nice married couple in their 50s, and they seemed to be loving life and having great success. They always wore funny hats for Halloween, Easter, Christmas, and offered fun seasonal promotions. There was a spirit of humor and excitement in the air, every time you went to that bakery the place was buzzing.

The bread, cupcakes, and cookies were delicious. They gave you a free slice of bread with delicious soft butter every time you walked in the door. The business generously supported charities, fun runs, and community benefit sponsorships.

Not All Change is Good Change

Then one of the owners got sick. He had cancer and eventually died a few years later. As part of the process of dealing with his illness, the couple decided to sell the business to new owners. I was sorry to see the former owners go, but I hoped that the bakery would still be a great place to buy bread.

Unfortunately, over the next couple of years, the business went downhill. In small but perceptible ways it just wasn’t the same place anymore.

The new owners seemed to have more of a hands-off approach. Often the new owners weren’t there when I came into the bakery; instead, they were letting their hourly staff run the place. (The old owners were ALWAYS minding the store – at least one of them – right up until closing time.) The new owners didn’t remember my name when I came in the door. They were nice, it’s not like they were rude, but the former owners made everyone feel like family.

Under the new owners, the bakery’s quality standards started to slip. They changed the recipe in one of my favorite cookies, and the new version was nowhere near as tasty. There were a few occasions where they charged me full price for a small loaf of bread that wasn’t full-size and small stuff like that. Again, none of this seemed like a huge problem, but just enough that I noticed, and it compared unfavorably with the former owners.

Worst of all, they stopped giving away free slices of bread! I used to look forward to my daily slice of bread at the bakery, and now that they took away this little bit of customer goodwill, I found that I no longer had a compelling reason to stop by the bakery after work.

Eventually, the bakery closed, on short notice. I drove by one day and there were signs on the door saying “CLOSED,” and I later happened to read in the newspaper that the owners had declared bankruptcy.

This is a sad story because you always hate to hear about a business going under. Every failed business represents someone’s hopes and dreams and money, invested in something that didn’t work out.

Lessons Learned for Bakery Management

So I don’t mean to be critical of the owners of this business (and I’m not naming any names) or their bakery management skills. But there are a few lessons that business owners can learn from the story of the downfall of my former favorite bakery:

  • Be vigilant: Especially if you’re thinking of buying an existing business, keep in mind that even if the business you’re buying is healthy, you need to add value to it and keep it growing over time. I sometimes got the impression from the new owners of the bakery that they weren’t as 100% committed to being in the bakery business as the former owners had been. It’s true that ideally if you’re going to own a business you want it to be able to run without you being there. But especially in the first few years of running a business, you need to be prepared to put in long hours and “mind the store” every day.
  • Nurture your customer relationships: Don’t lose touch with your customers. They’re the ones who are either going to happily keep buying from you or who will gradually decide (for whatever reason) that doing business with you isn’t worth the effort. For me, I would have kept buying bread from that bakery for many more years, but there were a few things that started to go wrong, and so I decided it wasn’t worth making an extra stop on my way home from work.
  • Focus on your core value proposition: Remember what makes your business unique, and keep delivering that one-of-a-kind primal experience. Back in its heyday, people came to that bakery not just for the bread, but for the feeling of fun and belonging that the former owners created. Just the little things like the free slices of bread and the funny pumpkin hats for Halloween really created a special sense of place. Shopping at that bakery was a special experience that I sometimes still miss.

I’m sorry that things didn’t work out better for the new owners of my old favorite bakery. But I hope anyone who reads this story can find some new inspiration and new ideas for how to keep your business strong and growing.

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