By Rebecca Susmarski
The Register-Mail, Galesburg, Ill.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Columnist Rebecca Susmarski sits down with entrepreneur Rachel Brown to chat about some of her interesting customers, what her favorite new recipe is at Uncle Billy’s, and why her husband Ron likes to call for her from the kitchen with a whistle.
The love that Rachel Brown has for her job shows in the way her eyes light up whenever she sees her customers, and how they reciprocate her enthusiasm.
Brown, 36, has a photographic memory for her customers’ names, their favorite menu items and even the day of the week they like to stop by at Uncle Billy’s Bakery, 83 S. Seminary St. That includes a couple who always orders pecan cinnamon rolls and scones, and a man who frequently comes in for croissants.
“It’s always a fun part not knowing people (who are) coming off the train or just passing through, because then you get to ask them where they’re from and where they’re going,” Brown said. “It’s interesting to hear their stories.”
Those customers rotate in and out of Uncle Billy’s and its adjacent business, Cornucopia Natural Food, at a rapid pace. Some congratulate Brown on buying Uncle Billy’s from Cornucopia’s owners, Maury and Susan Lyon, in early November. Others notice the little details.
“I didn’t recognize you with your hair down,” one regular said to Brown Wednesday.
That passion for customer service attracted Brown to the food service industry over the course of many years, and drove her to run Uncle Billy’s with her husband Ron. It’s also what helps Brown maintain her awe-inspiring amount of stamina — she worked a nonstop 42-hour shift through Thanksgiving after just coming off of surgery.
Brown built up her endurance by serving in the U.S. Air Force for three years, and her familiarity with Uncle Billy’s itself by working at Cornucopia in high school. She also worked at various country clubs, bars and catering restaurants over the years, including the Meadowbrook Country Club in Dayton, Ohio, where she met Ron.
She picked up her talent for memorizing customers’ names by working as a captain at Meadowbrook, where she scheduled and managed parties or weddings with 250 to 300 guests. Yet she credits her mother, a seamstress and former dispatcher for the city of Galesburg, for passing on her inherent love of connecting with people.
“It’s one of those passions where you just enjoy coming into work every day,” Brown said. “I’m very fortunate.”
The Register-Mail asked Brown about some of her interesting customers, what her favorite new recipe is at Uncle Billy’s, and why Ron likes to call for her from the kitchen with a whistle.
RM: Who are some of the regular customers you’ve gotten to know well?
RB: There’s a group of three women who come in every Tuesday morning, and they are a hoot. They started asking ‘what about this (menu item)’ and ‘what about this,’ and one of these Tuesdays when I get my act together, I’m going to make everything they asked for and bring it out on the table and see what they do. They’re things we don’t normally have but are totally doable; not out of the realm of possibility.
RM: What are some other interesting requests you’ve gotten for baked goods?
RB: There’s a couple who comes in from Davenport (Iowa), and they didn’t know that they could call ahead and ask for something before they came through. And every time they come to Galesburg they come in here, and they get like two or three dozen cookies to put in the freezer. … My uncle came in yesterday (Tuesday) and he was like, ‘remember those little cookies dipped in chocolate?’ I said, ‘the chocolate dainties?’ ‘Yeah. Will you make me some of those?’ So I wrote them on the list. We get special orders every day.
RM: You strive to deliver a personalized customer experience at Uncle Billy’s. How has it benefitted the business to have that personal touch?
RB: I’ve had a couple of people who came in who had not come in in a long time, and they’re choosing to come in now. We’ve only had it a couple of times, but it’s enough where I know that people appreciate it. And it makes me feel good that I’ve done my job; that they want to come back because of what’s going on now rather than what was going on before. A little reassurance that I’m doing an ‘OK’ job. (Laughs)
RM: What’s your personal favorite new recipe?
RB: My new favorite is this cinnamon apple bear claw that my husband made. When he started working here he was confused by the bear claws we had; it was a savory bear claw with sun-dried tomatoes and onions, more of a lunch bear claw. He said, ‘I thought bear claws were supposed to be sweet. I’m going to try it.’ He did, and they sell out every day. We just made a big batch of them last week and they’re already gone. … Ron is so ridiculously creative with food in general.
RM: Was there a skill you acquired in the Air Force that you’ve used as a business owner?
RB: It’s always, always an influence. I made some mistakes my first couple days of basic (training), so my punishment was being in charge of the restrooms. I was the ‘latrine queen,’ they called me. (Laughs) They were very, very hard on me on how clean the bathrooms were. But the attention to detail that they teach you, I’ve never lost it. And I was only in for three years, but it still has an influence on me.
RM: There was another influence from the Air Force that led to you meeting Ron. Can you tell us about it?
RB: I have a hard time hearing sometimes because of what I did in the military. I copied Morse Code, so I can hear high-pitched voices or high-pitched whistles really well. But in a kitchen you have the stove going, the burners, and you can’t hear anything. So he was asking for something and I was on the server’s side and he was on the grill, and I was like, ‘what did you say? I cannot hear you.’ He walked around and said, ‘I needed a side plate!’ So when we eventually exchanged numbers he put me in his phone as ‘side plate.’ (Laughs) It’s just a funny ongoing story, and now when he needs me he’ll whistle, and I’ll hear the whistle and I’ll know he’s calling for me. And his ringtone is a whistle.
RM: Uncle Billy’s is a Galesburg legend. What was it like coming in and taking over?
RB: It was super intimidating at first, and then once I started talking to people and telling them what we were doing, their support made me feel a lot better. They said, ‘oh, you’ll be great; you have the perfect personality,’ and that helped me feel less intimated. But yeah, (the Lyons) have had it for 20 years, and they obviously figured out what they’re doing because they’ve done an outstanding job. They’re very big shoes to fill, and I knew that going into it.
RM: What’s been the hardest thing about running Uncle Billy’s so far?
RB: Probably inventory is the hardest thing. Figuring out what to keep in inventory and where to get it, and how much has been my biggest struggle. (The Lyons) have so many carriers and since they have a grocery store, they have all these different places they can get things from, and if they didn’t use it here they could use it (at Cornucopia). I don’t have that luxury, so I’m trying to figure out what works for us rather than going to 20 different places for 20 different things.
RM: What was it like working at Cornucopia in high school?
RB: I worked a lot with the trucks when they came on Sundays, and then just the every day, keeping things stocked. And I had a friend who I worked with and we goofed around and had fun. It was a fun job. Everything we did we did with pride; we had to make sure everything was perfect.
RM: What advice do you have for other young entrepreneurs looking to start their own businesses?
RB: Try to be prepared. I went and talked to (James Boyd of the Illinois Small Business Development Center) beforehand, and he gave me a packet of information on everything. That was probably one of the biggest helps I’ve ever had. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have known what to do, so knowing people was a huge thing for me. I probably would have given up if it wasn’t for the people that I just happened to know or helped me. Definitely do not be afraid to ask for help.
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