AJ Perry’s passion for baking took hold at an early age. From the time she was old enough to walk, she happily measured flour, cracked eggs, and sprinkled cinnamon on scraps of pie dough in her mother’s farmhouse kitchen.
Why does baking still appeal to Perry, owner and operator of Sassafras Bakery, after all these years?
“What I love about baking is the sensuality of it− the most amazing gift of raw ingredients from the earth, the process of mixing those raw ingredients from scratch with my hands, the fragrant aromas, the visual allure, the layers of flavor and texture on the tongue,” she says. “It’s all pure pleasure and the highest expression of my love.”
Business is booming at Sassafras and there are rumors that Perry will be signing a lease for a bakery space in the next couple weeks. To date, she primarily works out of her home kitchen, which is licensed by the state of Ohio, and rents the Luna Burger kitchen when her workload necessitates it.
Perry says having a retail space for Sassafras will dramatically increase not only her visibility but also her ability to serve walk-in traffic on a daily basis.
“With a storefront, I plan to expand my menu offerings, including soups, salads and sandwiches, as well as pie by the slice with a scoop of Jeni’s [Splendid Ice Creams] topped off with a cup of Café Brioso coffee or my house-made root beer,” she continues. “I’m really looking forward to creating a place for the community to gather to pause and savor the sweetness of life. “
Having her own space will also allow her to grow Sassafras’s wholesale business and increase its presence at area farmers markets.
To learn how a stress fracture in Perry’s shin helped change the course of her career path, whose help she can’t do without, and which of her recipes is garnering national attention, keep reading.
The Metropreneur: For ten years, you worked as a graphic designer. How has that experience influenced your work at Sassafras Bakery?
AJ Perry: Primarily, being a graphic designer allows me to be able to do all of my own design work– from logo to labels to web and other promotional materials. Not only has it been a huge cost savings, it gives me the ability to bring my vision to life beyond the kitchen.
Aesthetics are as critical as taste in my book, and I believe I have earned my reputation for creating food as beautiful as it is flavorfully delicious, artfully displayed. Merchandising my products has become one of my favorite tasks.
[M]: What inspired you to make the leap to self-employment?
AJP: Throughout my career at Limited Brands, I spent my free time training for and competing in triathlons through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training program. A large portion of my fundraising was garnered through offering baked goods at the office on a weekly basis, always to a sell-out crowd. That gave me the confidence that I had a viable business concept.
In June of 2007, I competed in a half-Ironman distance race and sustained a stress fracture in my shin, sidelining me from my athletic forays. It was at that time that I decided to experiment being a vendor at a farmer’s market, and I applied for a booth at the Gahanna Jefferson Farmer’s Market just for the month of August to try it out. A few weeks later, Limited Brands laid off 10 percent of their corporate workforce, and my position was eliminated. Two weeks later, I was set up at the Gahanna market as planned, and sales were strong from the start.
I continued to balance freelance design work with the growth at Sassafras Bakery through February of this year, when I simply could no longer manage both.
[M]: What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced as a business owner and how did you overcome it?
AJP: Negotiating growth. That first week in August of 2007, I didn’t even own a mixer. I did everything by hand. Now I have both 6-quart and 12-quart mixers with my sights set on a 30-quart version.
I have the technical know-how in the kitchen and the vision for creating a remarkable brand. Bringing it all together and managing all of the moving parts has been a learn-as-I-go experience. I continually straddle left and right brain activities− procuring farm-fresh produce, managing financial statements and projections, dreaming up new menu items, all while engaging customers and mixing batch after batch of delectable treats.
Right now, I’m navigating the greatest challenge yet– establishing a brick and mortar storefront. I’m so close I can taste it. I’m spending a lot of time managing estimates from contractors, negotiating with prospective landlords, and securing financing.
[M]: In your opinion, what’s the most rewarding aspect of being a business owner?
AJP: Relationships− with vendors, fellow small business owners, my employees and, most especially, my customers.
Eating locally isn’t a new idea for me; it’s the way I was raised. Working directly with our local food producers gives me the satisfaction of knowing where our food comes from, and that it is the most delicious and of the highest quality. Shopping directly with local producers is also critical for sustaining our local economy.
Entrepreneurship is alive and well in Central Ohio and connecting with other small business owners −whether for collaboration or mentorship− has been critical for my success. Their eagerness to step up and be a contribution is what makes Columbus so great.
I couldn’t do what I do without the incredible help of my employees. I have six team members: two part-time and four who step in during busy periods, and I know that each member of the Sassafras Bakery team is committed to the same standards and goals as I am. It’s satisfying to watch them grow and I learn from them, too.
The relationships with my customers have been by far the most rewarding– whether they are celebrating a special occasion or a Tuesday, or seeking out the comfort and nostalgia of home-baked goodies from their childhood. Getting to know them and to watch their families grow has been an unexpected gift. I feel as though I’ve been invited to their dinner table, and it is such an honor.
[M]: Your apple pie recipe is featured in the November issue of Food and Wine magazine. You must be excited about that.
AJP: I’m thrilled! Not only to have a recipe featured, but for that recipe to be classic, all-American apple pie is such an honor. They initially contacted me in May and we exchanged a number of emails throughout the summer. I really had no idea what to expect, and am so proud and delighted to be the lead recipe in the story.
[M]: Is there anything else you think we should know?
AJP: You can find me at the Worthington Famers market Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon through Oct. 29 or online.
To learn more about Sassafras Bakery, visit SassafrasBakery.com.