How to Keep Your Head Above Water
So you want to own your own food business? Fluff Bake Shop's Rebecca Masson knows you have to take the bitter and the sour along with the sweet.
Editor’s note: In November, we launched Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: firstname.lastname@example.org. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to foodandwine.com.
Rebecca Masson is the owner of Fluff Bake Bar in her adopted hometown of Houston, Texas. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu and interning at Hotel le Bristol in Paris, she worked at db Bistro Moderne, Daniel, Biltmore House, The Red Cat, and BLT Prime in New York City, and *17 Restaurant and the Sam Houston Hotel in Houston. She gained national notoriety with a feisty and flavorful turn on season two of Bravo’s Top Chef Just Desserts before stepping out on her own in 2011.
After working a 7 a.m. to midnight shift (an employee had showed up drunk and I had to let her go) I crashed on my couch and slept hard. My mom woke just a few hours later to let me know the alarm had gone off at my bake shop. I was so tired, I'd slept through several calls, even though the phone was right by my head. When I finally reached the alarm company, they told me the motion sensor had gone off and they dispatched the police. This happens from time to time and it’s always nothing. In fact, my employees have decided we have a ghost, who we have named Ghost Girl #12.
But this wasn't just a false alarm. Someone had broken into the bake shop by shattering the glass front door. They ripped out the cash drawer, which was already open and stole all $24.92 worth of change. I laughed to myself. I mean, they didn’t even take the cookies that were on the pastry case. I guess he was too good to eat day-old cookies. My parents were surprised about how cool-headed I was, and I was just trying to figure out how to fix the door. When you have seen water flowing from your ceiling for three hours, what is $24.92 and a broken door?
I am Rebecca Masson and I have owned and run Fluff Bake Bar in Houston, Texas, for about six years now. I started out selling wholesale to one customer and my business blossomed to 15 customers in the first year, but I had no idea that it would become what it has become today. It’s still small potatoes but they are my small potatoes.
And those potatoes come with a big side of stress. About four months ago, the fellow in the third-floor apartment above my shop didn’t unhook his washing machine correctly and burst a pipe. The apartment complex didn’t have maintenance on property even though it was noon, and the water wasn’t shut off for over an hour and a half. There’s nothing I could do. There isn’t any way to stop the water. I kept sweeping the water out of my shop. It’s painful, but I couldn't cry, not then. I had to work to save my baby.
I dealt with insurance, landlords, contractors, and lawyers. I was blessed that my kitchen was in working order. I contacted all my wholesale customers, assured them we would still be selling to them. I started planning pop-ups around Houston. The holidays were less than a month away and I had to continue to prepare for them. I was certain we would be back open by Thanksgiving, but that was wishful thinking.
I was determined to keep my bake shop relevant while we rebuilt. I was going to keep my staff working and paying them, even though I would have to borrow money from my parents to pay my mortgage. I did all of this so that my bake shop would survive. I had to keep the storefront closed for three months. I was doing everything I could, but it felt like the world was against me.
My landlord didn’t give me the go-ahead to rebuild until one month after the incident. I don’t know how many hoops I had to jump through to get the approval. Then the waiting for the drywall guy started. Houston had a major hurricane a month prior the bake shop being flooded. Drywall guys were hard to come by and even when I found one, he would only work in short bursts. But once he was done, the bake shop was on its way to being rebuilt. And then another wave hit. Hard.
A major media outlet reported that Fluff had closed. Everyone else on the list was closed and would never reopen. Yes, the storefront was closed, but we were operating, we were still making money, we were still making sweets for our customers. I reached out to the editor, but she wouldn't take Fluff off the list. It got messy, and I requested that they never write about me again. But they did—when we reopened on January 20 of this year.
Yes, we reopened. Fluff Bake Bar was back and everyone was happy to see us.
I know so much more now than I did on that opening day a few years ago. Like that the receipt printer doesn’t come with paper. You have to buy that separately. That I needed $1 and $5 bills in the register. And that my staff doesn’t work more than eight hours a day, unless I want to shell out serious money for payroll taxes and overtime. My commercial front door hinge broke? I'd better go to Home Depot and figure it out, because it’s my problem to fix. Breaking even is a good sign at the end of the month. I shouldn't read Yelp, ever, or if I do, I must have a sense of humor.
There were so many lessons to be learned in the first week alone, never mind the six months prior to opening where I was dealing with permits, plans, construction, landlords (oh god, I have to start paying rent) and that question everyone asks: When are you opening? And two and half years later, I started dealing with some real shit. I was finally making money and then BAM! right in the kisser.
Why do I do it? When I unlock the door at 7 a.m. and I am the first one in, I turn on the ovens and the hood vent, lay out the floor mats, make a prep list for the day, turn up the radio, open a Dr. Pepper, and get to work. The first three hours of the day, I get to bake. I get to throw flour around. I get to do what it is I love. I am in my bake shop. The one I built.