To Build a Bakery is an ongoing series from Craft to Crumb featuring the stories of growth for bakeries of all scales. From establishing a brick-and-mortar location to multiple shops and beyond, the series talks with bakers from across the country about how they’re scaling up their businesses.
SAN ANTONIO — Today, Bird Bakery, known for its fare of from-scratch baked goods, has its roots in four brick-and-mortar locations. But a little over 10 years ago, the bakery was just getting started, created as a way to honor the legacy of founder and CEO Elizabeth Chambers’ grandmother.
“I always knew I wanted to open a bakery,” Elizabeth said. “I always knew I wanted to pay homage to my grandmother, who was my best friend. I think it’s really sad when people we love pass away and their recipes are what live on as memories.”
While she would always make those recipes at home, Elizabeth, who is also an actress and TV host, wanted her grandmother’s legacy to be bigger, especially in the San Antonio area, where her grandmother had run a catering business. Bird Bakery’s first location, which was originally a sporting goods store, was in proximity to her grandmother’s kitchen, making it the perfect spot for Elizabeth to set up shop.
Building the foundation
“I thought I would do it probably later in life,” she recalled. “I’m really glad I didn’t wait because I don’t think I would have had the stamina required to open. I always say if anyone told me how much work it is and has been, I probably wouldn’t have done it. Ignorance is bliss in that regard.”
With a background as a home baker and a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in business, Elizabeth pieced Bird Bakery together through an exercise in resourcefulness. Though she lacked the budget to hire an architect or professionally complete the build-out, she rolled up her sleeves and did it herself, going so far as to connect with local culinary pros for guidance.
“I didn’t know where the oven should go, so I went to local restaurants and culinary schools and met with chefs and I said, ‘I’ll buy you dinner if you’ll come over to my kitchen and tell me what you think I should do,’” Elizabeth recalled.
Through that approach, Elizabeth connected with four different chefs and a professor, and over a meal, gained guidance on how to lay out her future bakery. That first location, built from passion and grit, opened its doors in 2012.
Support through staffing and strategy
As with many bakery owners, Elizabeth worked overtime managing everything from baking and decorating to payroll by herself. She pieced together how to build her operation out over time, learning how to delegate and create a schedule.
“The fact that our systems are in place today and we operate the way that we do is nothing short of a miracle,” she said. “When I think about how little experience we had in the food industry, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come, and it’s really fun to look back and see what those solutions were early on.”
Getting Bird Bakery off the ground also required getting the right people in place to support the operations. As Elizabeth noted, staffing is everything, and having a strong team to keep things moving serves as a bakery’s foundation.
“When you’re starting off, you really need to have a solid team, because that’s your foundation,” she shared. “That’s the framework from which you’re building the rest of your company. You can’t do everything, you simply can’t. You can try, but if you’re scaling and growing, it’s physically impossible.”
In addition to staffing needs, Elizabeth was exact when it came to locking in her ingredients, a must with a from-scratch, baked-daily operation. Though food costs can be a challenge, she prioritized quality in ingredient sourcing to ensure her recipes were up to standard.
“We were trying to find food suppliers, and they were bringing in these huge vats of gross peanut oil saying, ‘If you replace your peanut butter with this XYZ brand, you’ll reduce your cost by 70%,’” she recalled. “And while it’s tempting when you’re looking at the bottom line, for me, it was imperative that we always maintain our integrity and always use the best ingredients.”
Other challenges Elizabeth faced included negotiating leases, crafting consistency and infrastructure, and developing effective communication.
“Everything is a challenge,” she said. “You are truly reinventing that wheel, and you are creating the foundation on which you’re going to build something much larger bigger and better. But you need to have that framework in the beginning.”
A new opportunity up North
Though customers urged her to expand Bird Bakery in the northern part of San Antonio, Elizabeth felt no need for another location in the same city.
“In the first four years, I was being approached a lot about opening another location in San Antonio,” she said. “Everybody wanted us to open North in the same city, but I, honestly, was very satisfied with our original location. I didn’t feel the need to bring anything else on. I wasn’t interested in a second location.”
Stephen Summers, owner of luxury shopping center Highland Park Village in Dallas, sparked the move for a second location in northeast Texas, noting the popularity of the bakery among Dallas residents who’d visited the flagship store, including his wife.
“I really was not interested in a second location, I was really busy with work — my main job has always been television — but he was persistent, and I’m really happy he was,” Elizabeth said.
The second location opened six years ago and though it was still a challenge, having that initial framework from the San Antonio store made things a lot easier. Yet there also was a challenge in staffing the Highland Park Village location. Due to the high socioeconomic area, Elizabeth struggled to find staff members who lived less than six to eight miles from the bakery.
With two more bakeries in Denver and in the Cayman Islands, Elizabeth quickly learned that each location had different menu demands due to the demographic.
“Colorado in particular was very interesting,” she mused. “Going from Colorado to Texas, some of our favorite items like our banana pudding, which is beloved in Texas, did not sell for three months in Colorado. We took it off the menu.”
“Every location has presented its own challenges, but it’s always an adventure and it’s never boring,” she said.
Where Bird Bakery will fly next
As far as future growth goes, Elizabeth has her eyes set on locations in Houston, Austin and Los Angeles. With the bakery brand still operating like its early days, there’s an opportunity for expansion with the right support.
“I would definitely want to bring in a financial partner and somebody who could do more than I can,” she said. “As CEO for the last 12 years, I’ve done everything I know how to do. I really do feel like I need to take that next step in scaling the company in a bigger way that’s not just myself.”
Throughout this journey of scaling and expansion, the legacy of Elizabeth’s grandmother lives on in the bakery cases at Bird Bakery.
“It’s so incredible how taste, recipes and food affect our memories and take us somewhere happy, joyful and indulgent,” she said. “Food is so emotional. It has always been such a place of comfort, family and memory for me. It’s really cool to see people across different regions in the country getting to experience something that they love.”