Abby Levin of Jam Jar Bakery
Following the ingredients from a recipe, she threw everything into one bowl and stirred it all together, hoping for the best. That first experiment in baking wasn’t a great success, but over the years, with the help of her mother and grandmother, Abby learned her way around the kitchen. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, she always baked for birthdays and special occasions, bringing friends cookies or a cake instead of a gift. When her twin moved to New York City for college, Abby visited often. During one visit, she toured the French Culinary Institute and realized that she could turn her passion for baking into a career, and so she enrolled in the program in 2008. In 2013, she founded Jam Jar Bakery, selling pies and cakes in jam jars. We visited Abby at the brick-and-mortar bakery she opened in June 2016, Abigail’s Bakeshop, and talked to her about how she got her business off the ground and gained recognition.
What was the experience at the French Culinary Institute like? What were the things you learned while you were there?
It's 6 months for the day program and 9 months for the night program, and you learn absolutely everything: from cookies to wedding cakes, to chocolate work and sugar work. You have, maybe, 20 recipes every week that you’re quizzed on after learning them just once. It’s very intense! So it wasn’t the most fun experience, honestly. I had to just get my head in the game and just go for it. It really gave me a foundation for how to bake properly.
You said it wasn’t a very fun experience for you, but you came out of it and still wanted to bake. Did it kind of cement for you that this is what you wanted to do?
It did, absolutely! With something that you’re passionate about, it doesn’t matter how hard it is. It doesn’t ever feel like work. When you’re creating a recipe from nothing, to me that’s the most exciting thing in the world…You might fail miserably at a recipe the first time you make it, but then the second time, when you make it really well, it’s exciting. That’s how school was; it was just learning to be okay with failure, and learning from your failure, and then moving on and doing better.
You’ve worked at some pretty well-known establishments in the culinary world, so what were those experiences like and did you learn things in those places that helped you figure out how you wanted to approach your own business?
When I was in school, I knew that I wanted to have my own bakery, so I never took a job opportunity without it leading to me opening up a bakery. Right outside of [culinary] school, a lot of kids think they know everything...but that’s just not the truth, and you have to start from the bottom. I started as an unpaid intern at Craft Family Restaurant. It’s an intense kitchen – it’s Tom Colicchio’s kitchen and everyone there has a ton of experience. Learning the ropes was really hard, but it definitely shaped me to be faster, better with time management, and taking all that foundation that I had learned in school and making it into something.
I actually wasn’t accepted for the job after my three month internship, which was soul-crushing because I felt like I did such a good job. I ended up frosting cupcakes at another bakery. I was really upset, because I felt like I spent all this time and energy at school and now I was using my degree to frost cupcakes. But then my chef from Craft came to find me and he hired me for a position at Colicchio & Sons, and within seven months I became a sous chef. So, in the year and a half that I worked with that chef, he taught me almost everything that I use to this day, way more than what I learned in school. Technique, speed, all of that. He’s really, really shaped me into the chef that I’ve become.
After that restaurant experience, I wanted to learn more of the bakery side of production, so I went to Magnolia Bakery. There I learned how to do a lot of repetition and I learned about quality control. We were making 1500-2000 cupcakes a day.
You said that you always knew that you wanted to open your own bakery, but how did you know that the timing was right for you to do it?
I was at a crossroads. I had been at Magnolia for two years and I felt like I wasn’t going to go up in the world there. I had learned everything I wanted to. I don’t think there’s ever a right time to just go out on your own, to quit your job and start something new, but I talked to my parents about it, and my family, and everyone was supporting me, so it just felt like the right time for me. I went full time into my business. My parents said, "If you want do this business, you have to just go for it." I followed their advice and I’m glad I did because going into a business, it’s like a child–an infant really–and it needs your full attention to grow. However much attention you put into it is how fast it will grow.
Speaking practically, how did you figure out how to literally start a business, because starting a business is clearly very different from baking. Did you have anyone to guide you along the way? Were there any resources that you consulted?
Definitely. No one starts a business by themselves. You have to have help. I had taken some classes in college about business and bakery businesses, so I had some sort of knowledge about it. But when it came down to filing my business for New York State, figuring what kind of tax filing I have to be in, I had no idea. score.org. It’s a completely free program that was founded by students, and they have tools like business plan templates that you can download. They also have free mentorship. It’s mostly retired people that are looking for something to do during the week. I was very fortunate to find a mentor from the food industry. Elliot had been in the industry for forty years. He taught me all the fundamentals: how to file, where to file, what’s important, what’s not important – all that sort of stuff.
How long did the whole process take you, from saying “okay, I’m devoting all my time to this,” to actually launching Jam Jar Bakery?
I left Magnolia in February of 2013 and in July of 2013 I incorporated as a business. It wasn’t until August or September that I had a product. One day I was visiting a friend in Queens, and I just walked into a grocery store in Astoria and asked the owner if I could set up a table outside and sell some jars. I didn’t realize that you weren’t allowed to do that and that you needed a permit, so I just went for it. A lot of people were like, "why don’t you try LIC Flea? It’s not far from here and it’s a real market where people go and they buy things." I applied and got in, and they really walked me through what I needed to have: a commercial kitchen, a permit to sell to the public, and I needed to have my pricing and all that stuff down. Once I got all of that together, I started selling at LIC Flea in September 2013.
Did you do anything to attract business in those early days? You were in a good position at LIC Flea, but when you were trying to grow a little bit more were you trying to do anything? What worked/what didn’t?
I started selling at the end of the market's season, but I would give out more business cards than I would sell jars, but I always say that that business card is worth so much more than one jar. A jar is $6.00, but a business card could be a whole order! In December 2013, I was scouted by Whole Foods. They wanted to sell the jars in their stores, but they needed real labels with nutritional information and everything on them. I didn’t even have the flavor on the label! So I hired a graphic designer and she completely rebranded everything, and once that happened it was a snowball effect. I actually decided not to work with Whole Foods and focus more on direct to customer. Later, I hired a programmer and went from a Shopify site to a real website. My designer made me look a lot bigger than I was. Shortly after, I was approached by Oprah Magazine and I credit that to the way the website and the product now looked. That was a pivotal turning point for Jam Jar – getting an audience.
Was there a particular reason why you decided to focus on direct to consumer versus the offer that Whole Foods was making you?
When you’re first starting out, every order counts. I was on a couple different websites like CaterCow, where people can order through a third-party service and then get your product delivered. Getting to the commercial kitchen space I was renting in Harlem was an hour and a half trip each time to go produce, and I didn’t have a place to put the jars. I had to go deliver them immediately after. The Whole Foods wholesale pricing did not work for me at that time because my cost of production was really expensive; it took a lot for me to make just one jar. I pretty much would’ve been giving them the jars for free with the pricing that they wanted for them.
Can you speak a little bit about why you wanted to expand your business and why you opened Abigail’s Bakeshop in addition to Jam Jar Bakery?
I knew that after my first holiday season at the kitchen in Harlem that I was at my peak – I couldn’t really expand at all. Getting a space takes a long time and a lot of research. My second holiday season was on me before I knew it and I had to just get through that, but I knew in 2016 I was opening up a kitchen. The original idea was just to have a space, I just needed a kitchen so I could have hands helping me lid, label, and bake jars. I wanted it to be in Brooklyn because this is where I live, and I knew Crown Heights was a very “up-and-coming” neighborhood. There’s really not a lot on Bedford Avenue, so I decided to find a space around here, and the space I found was large enough that I could actually have a retail part as well. I always envisioned Jam Jar being just jar desserts, but I wanted a fuller menu. I decided to name it Abigail’s Bakeshop because my grandmother always told me that if I ever became a chef, I had to be Abigail not Abby. I also wanted to bring in other products, like Tipsy Scoop and Squish Marshmallows, and give a platform to my friends to sell their products as well. In addition to the shop, we bake and we ship Jam Jar Bakery products from here.
And you ship your products nationwide. What scale were you operating on when you first started and how did you end up being able to grow that much and get the word out about Jam Jar Bakery beyond just New York?
Social media has played a big part in that, whether it’s a big influencer who comes by and takes a picture or shipping a couple jars to someone in Chicago or LA. I'm too small to pay for any kind of advertising right now, but giving out products for photos is a good alternative. I’ve gotten some TV and radio action from that as well. It’s really expensive to ship a perishable product, so I started working with a company that exclusively ships perishables and is able to give me a discount on FedEx’s rates, which makes shipping more affordable for my customers.
How did your experience of opening this brick and mortar space compare to the experience of getting Jam Jar Bakery off the ground?
Every step in growing a business is hard – there’s no easy step. I couldn’t have taken this step three years ago when I was just starting, but I also didn’t think that moving into a commercial kitchen was something I could do. After every step, you get a little stronger and you figure things out a little better. I wouldn’t say that opening the bakery was harder or easier than starting from nothing, but it was just a natural progression. There’s always going to be a roadblock to deal with… but every time you grow, you gain that knowledge of how to do it.
So speaking of challenges, what were some of the challenges that really were significant for you anywhere along the process of building a business and how did you overcome them?
Even to this day, marketing has always been my biggest challenge. I’m a baker, and I’m much more comfortable in the back of the house. Being in the front and talking about something that’s so personal to me is a little awkward – it’s like talking in third person almost, it doesn’t feel very natural. It can feel like bragging when you’re talking about yourself. I think it's just about getting used to it. I mean, no one is going to talk about my brand other than me, unless I hire someone to do it. But no one will do it in the way that I can, and no one cares about my business more than I do.
Do you have any goals right now or hopes for what the future brings as far as both Jam Jar and Abigail’s Bakeshop?
For Jam Jar, I would love to hit the 50 state mark. We’re close, we’re at 44 states, so 6 more to go! That’s a big goal of mine. For Abigail’s Bakeshop, I would love to have a pop-up in the city. I don’t know if we’d be a permanent pop-up or just different places around the city and bake here and bring it there – that’s kind of where I see Abigail’s going.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs that have an idea they want to get off the ground? Because it can be scary thinking about starting your own business, but you’ve been there.
Stay true to yourself. And if you come up with a product or an idea, test it out with friends and family first because they’ll give you their real, honest opinion. But then also find somewhere local where you can put it out in front of strangers. They will really tell you how they feel, and you’ll see it on their face. Take that feedback and use it to change and grow. You have to nurture your business. The more time you put into growing it, the faster it will grow, but it will take a shape of its own. When I started Jam Jar, I didn’t know what is was going to turn into, but it’s lead me to the wedding and special events industry because they’re customizable. I had never even thought about customizing jars before, but the business kind of lead me there, and you have to listen to what is best for the business. So definitely keep an open mind.
Any closing thoughts you’d like to add?
No work is easy and it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in – if you’re behind a computer screen or in the kitchen, work is hard. Make sure to do something that you love because it will make every day go by faster and you’ll feel more fulfilled with what you’re doing. I think it’s really important to follow your passion, even if it's something as weird as putting a pie in a jar, just go for it.
Interview by Kate Palisay