Sometimes when an opportunity arises, you just gotta roll with it.
Jesse Thompson and Lee Valenti were school teachers who dreamed of opening a learning center they’d call Hey Giant Robot, but they needed a way to fund it.
They decided to raise money by baking biscuits to sell at a pop-up market within the learning center.
“We were thinking we could sell them and make a couple hundred bucks on the weekend,” says Thompson, 39, who recalls they’d bake 500 biscuits and sell them for $3 to $4 a pair. “But then every weekend, we were selling out, and people were lining up.”
Within three months, the couple realized they didn’t have a side hustle baking biscuits to support their learning center.
They had a biscuit-baking business.
“We decided to flip our model,” Thompson says.
Instead of selling biscuits out of the learning center, they housed the learning center inside a bakery.
The couple found a location in Tampa, Florida, that could handle both the baking and the learning. They retained a bit of their original idea for the establishment’s name: Hey Giant! Little Biscuits.
A year and a half later, the biscuit shop employs six to seven part-time workers and costs an average of $15,000 per month to operate — “right now our profits range somewhere in $3,000 to $5,000 a month,” Thompson adds.
Valenti, 41, quit her teaching job last year when the couple realized that she could match her $45,000 annual salary by running the shop.
“Starting out, it was the goal to make almost the same or, if not, just a little bit less than what I was making teaching,” says Valenti, who attributes much of the business’s growth to catering events. “We did that fairly quickly.”
This year, Thompson quit his job so they could open a second location.
The pair aren’t alone in trying their hands at baking — here’s another baker who turned her passion into a sweet gig. There are 7,757 retail bakeries in the U.S. as of the first quarter in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a 14.6% increase since 2008.
But that doesn’t mean the baking business was everything Thompson and Valenti dreamed of.
“Our vision of what we thought running a biscuit shop would be like was completely different than what it actually is,” Thompson says. “You think, oh, this is going to be cool — make a couple biscuits, hang out all day and when it’s slow, just sit and read some books.
“No, there’s none of that — we’re constantly making food.”
And although the path was unexpected, Thompson and Valenti say that starting over with new careers isn’t as much of a pie-in-the-sky idea as you might think.
Recognizing an Opportunity
From the beginning, the couple set themselves up for the possibility of expansion — just in case.
“When we tested the waters with our pop-up, we said, ‘Let’s rent a space and get the licensing,’” Thompson says. “‘Because if this works out, we can keep going forward. And if it doesn’t, then we’re not out too much — it’s going to be a meager Christmas, but that’s it.’”
Investing time and money turned out to be the incentive the couple needed to make some big decisions early on.
“It was too much work to be half in,” Valenti says, and Thompson adds, “If you don’t find some level of commitment, you’re less motivated to keep driving forward.”
Although neither had previous experience in the food-service industry, Thompson and Valenti did bring translatable skills from their previous careers.
“We’ve relied on and applied our teaching methods and our classroom management,” Thompson says. “You have to deal with different types of learners, and that flexibility on the management side has helped.”
Serving up biscuits behind the counter during a mid-morning rush, the pair calls out to customers by name — looking a lot like teachers at the head of a classroom.
After spending most of their professional careers in teaching, Thompson admits the couple misses certain elements of their old life — particularly when they attended an open house at their children’s school and realized they wouldn’t be setting up their own classrooms.
“If you do a career for 15 to 20 years, like we have with teaching and education, you’re going to miss it,” Thompson says. “There are certain routines and certain ways of life that you’re just used to.”
But the biscuit business has also offered the creative control that was sometimes missing from teaching, Valenti points out.
“Teaching is creative, but for us, we needed another outlet of something we ran,” Valenti says. “The biscuit shop is cooking, but it’s also a creative outlet for us — where we design the place, we make the menu, we make the recipes.
“It really feeds something that both of us are always looking for.”
Not Losing Sight of the Goal
The couple may have discovered a great way to make some dough, but what about their original idea, the learning center?
Thompson describes their vision for the first location as a junky robot repair shop that kids could explore before entering the learning center hidden in the back.
“None of that was realistic,” he says with a laugh.
The learning center is instead housed in a room off the main bakery, hidden behind a sliding chalkboard door that announces Biscuit Specials like Mississippi Maple and Nutter Butter Fluffer Nutter.
Staffed by volunteers, the center offers free tutoring, writing workshops and art classes after the bakery closes for the evening and on weekends.
Thompson notes that, although they enjoy baking, he and Valenti still consider the shop a way to fund their learning center.
“Being part of the learning community and sparking creativity is kind of our ultimate goal,” Thompson says. “We love making biscuits, but if we could [operate the center] full time, we would.”
Taking a Chance on New Careers
The couple agrees that, despite the risks of leaving steady teaching jobs for the uncertainty of the culinary world, they have no regrets.
“You have those conversations of, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if one day,’” Thompson says. “We decided this has to be that ‘one day,’ because if we don’t, three years from now, we’ll get back to ‘what if.’”
Valenti notes that by challenging themselves to learn something new and by being flexible about their options, they’ve had an opportunity they thought they could only dream of.
Thompson’s advice to others fantasizing about a new career? You’ll never know if you don’t try.
“You have to take that plunge,” Thompson says. “Just be open to where it takes you.”
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer with Codetic. Data journalist Alex Mahadevan contributed to this article.