“Asking for help was SO HARD, but we had no doubt that it was the right thing to do,” says Jessica (Jess) Carpinone, co-founder and one of four owners of Bread By Us (BBU), a Hintonburg artisan bakery and espresso bar. After six years in business, March 2020 shook Bread By Us—and its founders—to the core.
Before COVID-19, BBU was run by these two strong, passionate women who lovingly served a large, loyal client base. Surrounded by dedicated staff to help with business challenges, burdens, and responsibilities, Carpinone and Sarah felt a sense of stability.
But when change comes, big choices may arise. Carpinone explains: “It quickly became clear that the entire business was being flipped on its head. That our business felt like a completely new enterprise.” After laying off all staff (though they were fortunately able to rehire them later in the pandemic), they had to figure out how to operate in this new world. The solution: Reinvent themselves.
A new online store offered a reprieve, but Carpinone says: “The management of, and pressures from, the business were not sustainable for Sarah and I long-term.” Indeed, Sarah took medical leave after a very long struggle with chronic stress and other compounding mental health factors. “The pandemic was a very hard blow for her, and we knew she needed to take a step back,” Carpinone says. The web store gave them time to think.
“With my business partner having to take a big step back, I felt very afraid and alone. I of course was not fully alone—I had an amazing staff of 12 other people. However, it would not have been fair to ask them to support me in the ways that I needed to be supported.”
The challenges made Carpinone question BBU’s longer-term viability. A feeling of belonging was missing, and burnout was setting in.
In the end, Carpinone’s background in community organizing helped. “When you have something you want to protect,” she says, “and build into the long term, it cannot depend on just one person.” Moving forward began with “having conversations with people who were close to us, who we knew would keep this information close to their chest. It’s very scary to admit that you are not OK… but it’s an important first step.”
Reinforcements were clearly needed. “In late 2020, we knew we would not renew our lease unless we had new or expanded ownership,” Carpinone says. After a winter of careful considerations, she says: “A decision was made in the new year to approach our management team about joining us.” BBU didn’t need outside money or expertise; they required “commitment, specifically from people with existing intimate knowledge of the bakery.” Luckily, their team already had everything they needed.
During a first-quarter meeting in 2021, with sweaty palms, feeling “super vulnerable,” their team sitting in front of them, Carpinone and Sarah asked for help. Happily, Milisa Gardy and Rachel Danesin said yes.
“Both Rachel and Milisa bring over five years of experience as bakery staff, which gives them intimate knowledge of our operations. They both bring a very distinct but important flavour to the table. Milisa’s greatest contributions to the ownership group centre around customer care and satisfaction. Milisa gives a voice to customers and community at the table, and always asks us to think about the broader effects of our decisions. Rachel brings a level of thoughtfulness and wisdom that is rare to come by. She is an incredible teacher and mentor, and someone who is deeply respected by all the staff for everything she brings to the workplace. Both of the new owners have a work ethic that is second to none. They are the type of people you have to kick out of the bakery at the end of their shift, or they would never leave,” Carpinone says of the new partners.
The new shareholder agreement took a year to complete and “outlines roles, responsibilities, decision-making processes, and dispute-resolution mechanisms,” says Carpinone, adding that the “process forced us to sit down together and figure out a) what is our shared vision for Bread by Us, and b) how do we protect ourselves, each other, and the business’ interests into the long term.”
The other main change was the decision-making process. “With our new structure, no one can make a significant decision on their own. There are decisions that need ¾ approval, and ones that need unanimous approval, and no one’s vote is worth more than anyone else’s. We have designed our shareholder agreement such that decision-makers have to be open to hearing each other’s opinions and willing to adapt and make compromises.”
“It feels really good,” Carpinone says, “to be at a point where we can try new things again. With our expanded baking team, we have started to offer more wholesale services. We are now baking bread for a handful of new wholesale business clients, which we are really excited about! Sandwiches are back and we are experimenting with new sweets.” All of this resulted from admitting that they needed help, being courageous, and viewing change positively.
Bread by Us is a bread-focused bakery and espresso bar in Hintonburg, Ottawa. Established in 2013 with the intention of sharing good bread and challenging traditional food business models, Bread by Us has grown into a beloved community space, driven by an ambitious and dedicated team. The bakery has a storefront that is open Wednesday-Sunday, and an online shop. Follow them on Instagram @breadbyus or sign up for their newsletter to stay up-to-date.