ROGERS CITY — At a small-town bakery, the challenges of 2021 have prepared a new business owner to charge forward into the new year, armed with fresh ideas, hope, and a mixing bowl.
For the past year, Sarah Romel has learned the bakery business on the fly after taking over Tradewinds Bakery in Rogers City in December 2020.
Retaining the recipes and traditions of the long-time business and trying out ideas of her own, Romel learned the ins and outs of entrepreneurship while coping with the fallout of a pandemic.
Asked if the good parts of 2021 were worth the difficulties of trying something new, Romel was quick with a reply.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, cheerful grin lighting up the bakery. “If it’s your dream and something you want to do, absolutely it’s worth it.”
Bakery ownership fulfilled a long-time dream sparked as Romel worked at her grandmother’s elbow as a child, practicing piping frosting onto a baking sheet.
Her husband’s suggestion that they buy the business — one of only two bakeries in Northeast Michigan that makes doughnuts from scratch — meant giving up a stable job managing a dental office, along with that job’s health benefits and retirement package.
But, with her husband’s support behind her, Romel decided to leap into a new venture and began 2021 learning the art of doughnut-making from the store’s previous owner.
She soon added her own touches to the business, offering customized cakes that quickly became a top seller, along with the specialty cupcakes that now fill a quarter of the bakery’s glass cases.
While many people tell Romel she is living their dream job, the last year hasn’t been all sweetness, she said.
The demands of providing fresh goods every day meant long hours, sometimes working from 4 a.m. until 9 p.m. while her two young children spent summer days without her.
Even with her managerial training from working for a restaurant chain, Romel had much to learn, from when to hire new employees to how much frosting to make each day.
Supply chain shortages came between her and the ingredients she needed, and COVID-19 meant employees sometimes had to stay home, leaving Romel to keep the shop running by herself.
In the business’s first year, when she barely broke even some months, Romel didn’t have extra capital to fix aging equipment, from the temperamental industrial-sized oven to the broken mixer her husband rigged with a car jack.
When the oven gave out the week before the community’s well-attended Nautical Festival, Romel had to find a way to keep her shelves stocked.
“First, I called my husband and panicked,” she said.
Customers had to content themselves with fried doughnuts until her husband could get the part needed to fix the ancient oven.
A first-year business owner can’t look at last year’s numbers to see how many cookies or doughnuts to bake, Romel said, recalling busy summer days when customers bought more than double what she’d projected and clamored for more.
Some of her new ideas for the bakery flopped, like the bagels and muffins nobody bought.
Other lessons came swiftly and messily.
“I learned that, when cleaning the doughnut fryer, you don’t drain it into a plastic bucket,” Romel said wryly, recounting cleaning up a flood of spilled oil after the bucket melted.
Despite obstacles, the business flourished in Romel’s first year, the shop’s small entryway bustling with customers eager to try the turnovers, danishes, and puff pastries she added to the store’s lineup.
During the Nautical Festival, she made 1,700 paczki, a Polish pastry, and sold out by 11 a.m.
“This year, we’re going to go for 2,000 and see how we do,” Romel said.
She hopes to offer customers fresh-baked pretzels, pot pies, and other new items in coming months. Her five-year plan includes expanding into a back portion of the building to create room for customers to sit, and she and her husband are toying with the idea of opening a storefront in Alpena.
For others contemplating a new venture in the coming year, following their dream probably means stressful days and unexpected challenges. It could mean losing family time and sometimes failing, Romel said.
But, her new role has taught the baker that she’s stronger than she thought she was, and she is entering 2022 and a new year of business ownership with bright eyes and brighter hopes, she said.
Jean Wirgau, who worked at the bakery for 14 years under the previous owner and still boxes up doughnuts with a smile for current customers, said some regulars have been popping into the shop for years, to buy a doughnut or just to say hello.
The community is ready to support the new owner — and take home neatly-wrapped boxes of pastries — as Romel tries the next new thing, Wirgau said.
“Change is always good,” Wirgau said. “That’s the way I feel about it.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jriddleX.