The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Entrepreneur Jen Smurr started out selling bread at a local farmer’s market. Six years later, Smurr has transformed her bakery business to include an established storefront where she now employs 38 workers.
Facing the COVID pandemic, Lakeland small-business owner Jen Smurr thought she had no option but to attempt the impossible. She did it, determined that hard work would pay off.
Smurr, 33, owner of Born & Bread Bakehouse, was recently named to Forbes magazine’s “Next 1,000,” a list of America’s rising entrepreneurs. She is one of 20 Florida business owners recognized so far, as nominations are still being accepted.
Seeing her name on a Forbes list dominated by engineering, technology and e-commerce companies came as a bit of a shock to Smurr.
“The first time they wrote, I thought it was a joke,” she said.
Born & Bread was started in spring 2015 as a booth at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market. Her first day, she brought about 40 loaves of rustic country bread and 75 servings of baked goods. Smurr sold out within 15 minutes.
Smurr said she feels a lot of people underestimate all the skills required to successfully startup and launch a business.
“All of the nuances and things that go into running a business are way bigger than the craft sometimes,” she said.
In the past six years, Smurr has moved her business out of the Catapult entrepreneur center to an established storefront at 1113 S. Florida Ave. She now employs 38 workers, who help to produce a wide variety of old-fashioned crusty breads, buttery croissants, sandwiches, cookies, tarts, quiches, scones, cakes, muffins and more.
Last year, the bakery made $1.3 million in revenue despite the pandemic. Smurr still sees more room for her business to grow.
“We’re still in this really great window where we have a cult following with some customers and some people are continuing to hear about it for the first time,” she said.
In March 2020, Born & Bread held its annual birthday celebration on March 14 — which Smurr noted is Pi Day. She recalled the eerie atmosphere as customers were reluctant to sit down and enjoy their Saturday croissants inside the bakery, and others declined to sit at outdoor tables to listen to a hired band. Less than a week later, the business was shutdown.
Smurr was unsure how her business — and the workers she felt responsible for — were going to survive.
“We had no option but to jump in headfirst to something we thought that we could never do, which was a preorder system,” she said.
Prior to the pandemic, customers lined up long before the Lakeland bakery opened its doors in anticipation of the sweet and savory baked goods being prepared. It wasn’t unusual to see the crowds winding down South Florida Avenue, people standing dangerous close to the curb on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings.
Within weeks, Smurr devised an online ordering platform, taking orders in advance and baking to meet those preorders. She said she felt vulnerable moving into uncharted territory, fearful of making mistakes and disappointing her customers.
“I felt out of control, but I also felt determined,” she said. “There’s nothing I’ve been more confident about in my journey as a business owner than no one will outwork me.”
Smurr has also been fortunate to have three key mentors who have helped guide the growth of her bakery: Larry Ross, a professor emeritus of business at Florida Southern College; Mayor Bill Mutz, who previously owned an auto dealership; and Lakeland Realtor Chris McLaughlin.
The switch from a walk-up bakery order to a preorder system had its hurdles. Smurr recounted the early days when some customers waited up to an hour and half to a pick up a preorder. Her goal is to serve each individual within 10 minutes. The mantra quickly became “Next week will be better,” Smurr said.
“We learned. We learned through trying. We learned through continuing to adapt to whatever it took,” she said.
Now, preordering is expected to become a permanent part of how Born & Bread does business. Any Wednesday night or Saturday morning, customers can walk up to place a preorder or have the option of ordering out back. Brightly decorated picnic tables underneath triangular sail shades offer a place to sit down and eat safe from the summer sun. A stereo system quietly plays music.
The back patio area came about after Smurr personally witnessed bakery customers sitting inside their cars, often parked in the shade, to enjoy a treat while it was still fresh while the indoor area was closed because of the pandemic.
“I thought there had to be a way we can provide them an area where they can have the same experience,” she said.
Smurr said her goal with Born & Bread has been to get people to slow down and appreciate old-fashioned baked goods, whose process often requires three or more days to make. The long lines of the past, indoor booths and outdoor patio she hopes all provide an opportunity for guests to talk and reconnect.
“You need human connection and need to be able to enjoy the simple things in life,” she said.
Smurr wouldn’t go into details with The Ledger about her future plans, but there’s indication of an expansion.
“Right now, our team wants to do more, and we could give more to our community more consistently,” she said. “So I’ll leave it with we want to be more consistent than what we are doing now.”
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7545.
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