How It All Began: From Briefs to Bagels

A lot of people asked me how I ended up owning a bakery.  They're usually stunned to learn that I'm also a lawyer.

You know how people used to ask you what you want to be when you grow up?  If you asked me 35, 25, or even 15 years ago to name 100 professions for myself, bakery owner would not have been on that list.  Lawyer, yes.  President of the United States, sure!  Social worker, maybe.  But bakery owner?  No way.  My culinary training was limited to a bit of baking with my family and the baking unit in Home Ec in sixth grade. (Fun fact: Baked by Yael's oatmeal raisin cookies are based on that Home Ec cookie recipe.)

It Started as a Stress Reliever

I made my first bagel in January 2009 and continued baking as a way to relieve stress during my last semester of law school and while I was studying for the bar exam.  I'm a multitasker by nature, but when you're studying for the bar, it's all exam prep all day every day.  I had taken time off from work, I wasn't hanging out with friends.  It was just me and a bunch of books.  Six months after the first bagel baked by Yael, Baked by Yael was born.

Many bagels and a (passed!) bar exam later, I returned to White & Case as an attorney... but I didn't stop baking.  I started a tradition at the firm called Monday Treat.  Every Monday I brought in a different baked good that I had made from scratch.  I'd send out an email to a few dozen of my colleagues inviting them to my office to try the treat of the week.  While they enjoyed my baked goods, many of them would remark that while I was a great attorney, I really should consider starting a bakery.  I thought -- why do I have to choose?  I'll just do both!

Lawyer by Day, Baker by Night

Turns out that wasn't as easy as it sounded.  Practicing law and starting a business are two of the most grueling, time-consuming professions.  24 hours in the day just wasn't enough.  Believe me, I tried.  I remember standing in my kitchen hand-rolling cakeballs until the wee hours of the morning.  I got my billable hours in during the day and baked at night.  For several months, I spent my weekends at the Annapolis Mall where I sold my products at the Baked by Yael kiosk in the middle of the mall.

In 2011, I got the press that was a real turning point:  Daily Candy reviewed my bagels.  They sent out an email blast to all of their DC subscribers titled "The Best Bagel We've Ever Eaten".  If you live in DC, you know that everyone who got that email opened it.  In 2011, DC was a bagel desert.

A Choice Had to be Made

That article put Baked by Yael on the map.  I scrambled to set up an online store.  I was having trouble keeping up with demand.  Working two full-time jobs became untenable.  I had to choose:  do I stick with the sure thing, the big paycheck, the window office, the great benefits?  Or, do I take a leap of faith and choose entrepreneurship, which comes with the highest risk and an income that will never even come close to my current salary -- but a job that makes me happy, that excites me?

Spoiler:  I chose entrepreneurship :-)

I remember when I left White & Case, the HR director called me into her office for my exit interview.  She went through her checklist and then put it on her desk and looked at me.  She asked me, "So, what's going to happen to Monday Treat."  I said, "Well, as much as I enjoyed baking for you all, I'm leaving my job to do this, so I'm not going to be able to bake for you for free anymore..."  The next day, she told me she had gotten approval for the firm to sponsor Monday Treat!

After I left my day job, the pressure was on.  Baking was no longer a hobby or a stress reliever; it was my only source of income.  By that point, I had moved operations to the basement of a synagogue and was accepting advance orders only.  In the morning, I did all the baking.  In the afternoon, I brought orders to Weygandt Wines, which allowed my customers to come to pick up their orders.

In 2012, I began to think about what I really wanted out of Baked by Yael.  As much as I enjoyed baking, what I really loved was what the baking represented:  a way to make people happy, a way to be creative and clever, a way to control my destiny.  Baked by Yael as a one-woman operation was not sustainable.  If I really wanted to make something of the business, I'd need to hire employees and I'd need to scale up production.

Dreams of a Brick-and-Mortar Shop

I imagined a bright bakery where customers could come to enjoy cakepops, to catch up with friends, to host cakepop making parties.  I wanted a brick-and-mortar shop (the rendering below was created by Michelle Lee).

By this point, I had blown through most of my savings.  To finance my idea, I would need a business loan.  Ironically, as I learned the hard way, to get a bank loan I needed money or assets as collateral, neither of which I had.  So, I had to get creative.

I had heard about crowdfunding, which in 2013 was still a relatively new concept.  Kickstarter was the biggest crowdfunding platform at the time, but they were used primarily by tech companies.  It was tough to find successful Kickstarter campaigns for perishable, handmade products like mine -- but I wasn't able to let that stop me.

Launched A Kickstarter Campaign

In the summer of 2013, I launched my month-long Kickstarter campaign to help build DC's first cakepoppery.  Running that campaign was a full-time job!  It was worth it, though.  By the time the campaign ended in June, I had surpassed my original goal and raised nearly $75k from 669 backers.  Many of the backers were friends and former colleagues of mine.  Many were people I'd never even met.  And one backer whom I'd never met before eventually became my husband♥️

Check out this short video of my interview with CNN's Brianna Keilar:

The funding from Kickstarter campaign, coupled with my strong methods of persuasion😉, helped me secure a commercial business loan from Revere Bank (now Sandy Spring Bank).  And in 2015, after sweat and tears (but thankfully no blood), Baked by Yael opened DC's first cakepoppery across from the National Zoo.

It Takes a Village to Build a Business

Baked by Yael bears my name, but the business has always been more than just me.

It's my dedicated and hardworking staff who make all the delicious treats we sell and who make our delicious treats and ensure that each person who visits Baked by Yael has a wonderful experience.

It's my former colleagues who selflessly volunteered their taste buds to taste-test my products.

It's my friends who have supported me and cheered me on every step of the way.

It's Maria of CreativeCouch Designs who designed Baked by Yael's logo and brand, Katie Jett Walls of Red Turtle Photography who photographed my first creations, and Josh Davisburg who filmed my Kickstarter video.

It's my mentors who have guided and counseled me, who helped me negotiate my lease and the subsequent buildout of the cakepoppery.

It's my husband who supported a then-stranger's dream and has since spent countless hours helping me keep that dream alive. 

And it's my family who has supported me unconditionally, in particular my parents who helped me with the baking, who sold cakepops at my mall kiosk while I ran down to the food court, who helped build the store literally and figuratively, and who continue to love me and believe in me.

Today, there are thousands of others who help keep my dream alive.  It's the families with nut allergies and the families who keep kosher who make a point to visit Baked by Yael whenever they're in town because we're one of the few nut-free and kosher bakeries in the country.  It's the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park residents who walk to the bakery each week (sometimes every day) for a fresh bagel and cup of coffee.  It's our challah subscribers who come by every Friday for their weekly challah.  It's the customers who stop by our booth at weekend farmers' markets to stock up on bagels for the following week.  It's everyone who lives, works, and visits DC who orders from us for their meetings and special events.

What started as my dream is now our dream.

Owning a bakery comes with a mountain of challenges and obstacles, but becoming an entrepreneur is one of the best decisions I've ever made.