Biz 101: Taking the Leap with Ryan Butler
Photo by Heidi Geldhauser
Ryan Butler, chef and co-owner of Butler Bakeshop sits with Tilit Founder Alex McCrery to chat about taking the leap from chef to business owner. Butler Bakeshop is "a modern bakery concept with a worldview on pastries". Butler Bakeshop opened its doors October 8th, 2016.
Tilit: Where were you working before Butler Bakeshop?
Ryan: I was the Executive Pastry Chef for Piora (Michellin starred) Restaurant in the West Village.
Tilit: How long were you there?
Ryan: Almost 3 years.
Tilit: This is basically about making the launch from being an employee of a restaurant to becoming an owner, and now being an employee of all of your customers! When did you get the idea/itch to start this place?
Ryan: I had had the vision for this place for a few years. It was something that I had wanted to do for a long time and then the concept kinda morphed from a night time dessert bar thing to a daytime pastry focused counter. And I had been working on this with one of my partners. So when I was at Piora in the morning I was doing 2 or 3 hours on this project and then going to work and working at night.
Tilit: Did they (Piora) know you were doing that?
Tilit: I ask cause a lot of people have the idea that they need to quit what they're doing and then start the process, but I feel like for the risk averse people it's good to have a little bit of an idea and start to formulate it before leaving. So you were thinking about Butler for about a year, were you working on menus? numbers? the whole thing?
Ryan: Conceptually we put a concept together with a mock menu for the business plan and for us the space and locale was very important, so that was really a beginning step for us. Like where are we gonna put this that makes sense? You couldn't put it in a tucked around neighborhood like in the middle of Bushwick because it wouldn't make any sense.. So we took the space and the original concept and actually morphed it a little bit because where we are now is perfect (South Williamsburg). It's an up and coming neighborhood with a lot of people moving in with quite a bit of money, so we made into more of a breakfast, coffee and pastry centric menu. I'm a real big believer, especially in concepts with food, in morphing into themselves like a child kinda growing up. You have to go with it, you can't really fight it, cause that's when you wind up losing a lot of money and losing the vision on what you're doing. You have to see what people are looking for, you have to go with trends but keep yourself true to who you are, but be able to flex with the business a little bit.
Tilit: That basically makes sense for any business. What we've done with Tilit is to be true to ourselves but flexible to what the people actually want. I know you have partners, were your partners who they are from the beginning? Did you know these guys previously or...?
Ryan: My one partner Rod and I were originally, you know, conceptually working on this together. I was the corporate pastry chef for a restaurant group in the West Village before Piora and he ran our catering division. We became close friends and talked about this over drinks and then about a year later I called him out of the blue, and was like "what are you up to?". He had taken a year off to raise his daughter and was thinking about his own idea. So I was like "Why don't we come together?". His concept he wanted to do a coffee shop and I wanted to do the bakery, so we brought it together with another partner that we originally had. About 6 months into that, our partner decided he wasn't into the project anymore. He felt it was getting a little too big for him and so he left us. We were at a point where we said to ourselves, "Can we move on with this project or should we just scrap it?" I basically said to him, "Let's just find someone else". Someone that brings some more skills to the table. Then we just sat down at our office and were writing names down of people that we knew that had different skill sets and that's when we found Hugo. Hugo had been an ad guy for a long time and he was a friend of a friend of Rod's. We sat down and talked about concept and what we wanted to do. He decided he was into it and came aboard. He brings a lot with marketing and PR and he designed our space as well. We have 3 facets with Rod working as the GM and the coffee program, while I'm in charge of the food program and the overall concept and Hugo does marketing and PR. All of course while wearing many other hats.
Tilit: How did you and your partners find the information you needed? Were you getting advice from people that had been through the process? Were you googling shit online? How were you putting your business plan together basically?
Ryan: Rod had owned a few cafes in Australia so he had a basis. There's tons of business plans online to read and I've actually opened quite a few restaurants with other people in the city. So things like contacting purveyors, permitting processes, health dept. and so on comes with the restaurant experience, 18 years working in New York. But for someone that's green, the advice that I would give is to go and work at one of the places you emulate and see what it's really like.
Tilit: Does it matter if it's a smaller start-up type place or a big shop?
Ryan: It doesn't matter, it could be anything. Just get some experience. Dreams are great, but having no frame of reference on what it's really like is hard. There's a lot of romance in the industry these days, that you have to see what it's really like.
Photo by Heidi Geldhauser
Tilit: It's hard, and it depends on where you work because you're not always exposed to all the right numbers and the things you need to know when you actually become a business owner. It is a challenge in finding that. Hopefully this will be a little bit of a help in that area. I feel like mentors are great, but again a challenge to find someone willing to share the shit they went through and give it to you for free! When did you decide to start looking for spaces?
Ryan: The beginning. That was what we were looking for. The space was really important to start with.
Tilit: The neighborhood or the space itself?
Ryan: Both really. We looked at 30 different sites. Beyond usage and square footage and ceiling height, there's whether you need venting, ac, structural integrity of the building. You have to take everything into consideration. There's so many things you can miss. And then being able to recover from your misses!
Tilit: Again being flexible with your concept, but still being true to what you're doing. I noticed your electric oven. Was that (electric kitchen) something you wanted or was that being flexible with the space?
Ryan: Well we could have put gas, but it would have cost a ton of money and the black iron venting is like $1000/ft. and it has to be run to the roof of the building. We are very bakery focused and we're not doing a lot of (savory) cooking, so I thought that we coudl get away without gas. I also felt like we didn't need the headaches of gas at this point, like the ansul systems and the codes for the city.
Tilit: When you first started with the idea, what things did you do really well and what things would you go back and do over?
Ryan: I would have given myself more time between doing both projects and then starting this place. I did a ton of R&D, but I would have rented a space to do the R&D in rather than in my apartment, in my tiny tiny kitchen!
Tilit: You're talking menu development?
Ryan: Yeah, we got everything done that we needed to do, but I feel like if we had a professional kitchen and professional equipment I would have been more comfortable with coming in to the menu. When you start up a business like this you need to come in with guns blazing. You can't take it slow. You need to make money. You've put a ton of money forward, you have a lot of people that are looking at you and you have to be ready. That pressure is where I feel like a lot of people misstep.
Tilit: So that was something you would maybe do over, what about something you did really well?
Ryan: Well we had a lot of support from people we had worked with and a lot of people saying "You should do this", "This a great idea", "You should've done this years ago". That was really encouraging and kinda solidified for me that we're doing the right thing. Also bringing in the electric machine and working with smaller machines, not spending a lot of money at first was something I thought we did really well. Though I am dying for a portable sheeter, now that we're turning 40-50 lbs. of puff pastry every day!