Real Talk With Paula Dempsey, Founder of Dempsey Bakery
For those of you who have food allergies or have friends and family who do, Dempsey Bakery is something of a safe haven. Its founder, Paula Dempsey, has worked tirelessly to make gluten-free food that’s not only delicious but affordable. Paula’s been an entrepreneur for years and has taught me that you can do anything you set your mind to — no matter how old you are. So, next time you’re downtown Little Rock —food sensitivities or not—stop by Dempsey’s Bakery, get a cookie, and see what all the buzz is about!
Name: Paula Dempsey
Location: Little Rock, Arkansas
Company: Dempsey Bakery
What it is: Allergy sensitive bakery
Educational Background: High school diploma from Mount St. Mary Academy
What inspired you to get your start?
I was inspired by our family and all of their food allergies. My husband was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis 20 years ago and we found a doctor 11 years ago that determined that the cause of it was gluten. And so we had a lot of health issues in our grandchildren and my son and we figured out the common denominator was gluten — a lot of my grandchildren have a lot of other health issues like they’re severely allergic to nuts, they can’t have tomato, they can’t have eggs or dairy.
It made me really sad that all these children who have these allergies couldn’t have a pretty birthday cake. My poor little daughters-in-law tried to make them a pretty birthday cake and it would take them a week and they’d be fretting over it because they aren’t decorators. Their kids would go to birthday parties and all these other kids would have these fancy Kroger cakes and Minecraft cakes and they would get a little cupcake — it’s sad. So that inspired me to do this.
What has been the most rewarding thing about starting a family business?
We had a family business before; we were in the film business before this. For 20 something years we had 30 employees. The most rewarding thing about a family business in general is that you can take care of your employees in a different way than you can in a corporate environment and you have a lot more flexibility.
Also, you worry a thousand times more. The most challenging thing is managing and balancing. Treating your people really well and paying the bills, it’s very difficult to do both. People think that businesses should just automatically be able to pay them what they think they’re worth and for our other business we paid our employees health insurance, they had a lot of benefits and perks, but eventually it doesn’t always work out. There’s a balance and I don’t think people understand that.
Here at the bakery I haven’t even gotten a paycheck yet, five years. Most people starting a business borrow the money to pay themselves so then if it doesn’t go well then they owe all this money, but we borrowed the money to build the bakery but we didn’t borrow any to pay our people. So, you have to pay your employees before you pay yourself. It’s a really difficult challenge of the business.
What’s your secret to keeping happy employees?
Fairness and treating your employees right. You’d be surprised at how many businesses don’t pay their bills properly. I admire people who do what they say and respect their employees because without them they’d be nothing, right? I’ve worked in both kinds of environments, so the employees are really more important than you [the boss] are actually.
So what does a typical day look like for you?
Well, I don’t get here until about 8 o’clock because my bakers come in. One comes in between midnight and 2 in the morning — that’s a baker’s life — so he gets here first and does a lot of the baking. And then we have someone who comes in at 5:30 and they start helping them with the buns and stuff that need a lot more hands.
The decorator usually comes in around 7 and I come in at 8 and then we started packaging and getting ready for the day. Of course we have a lot of other details like my manager does all of the ordering and stuff like that.
My main day is working the front and developing the business. I’m always trying to get new customers. And it’s working, we’re getting more and more. We’ve got buns in a lot of restaurants. The commercial stuff is so important because yeah we have people who come in for lunch or people like your mom who come in once a week but it’s not that busy, but we never stop packaging.
So that’s kind of what fuels the business?
Exactly. It’s growing and we didn’t start out that way but I don’t think that you could run a small bakery like this, gluten free, without having other stuff.
So what has been the hardest part of starting your own business?
The hardest part of starting the bakery was the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about the food business — the bakery business or retail. So just the challenges of packaging and how to get the stuff really blew me away. I didn’t really think about packaging; I’d have to say that was the one thing I wasn’t really prepared for. I also don’t really have a math brain. I have a good overall picture and I can organize numbers and reports, but to sit down and actually do the detailed work, I can’t do that very well.
So when we started doing all this packaging for Kroger and Cisco we had to get down to the weight and when you get the label with the ingredients and calories on it you have to do averages and it’s a lot of math. You have to figure out how many cases go in a box, what size box, how much the box costs, I mean just on and on. Where you get your packages and how expensive it is just blew me away. I don’t know how these small business stay in business because their cute little packaging things they all use are so expensive.
Of course, when you’re a big company you can buy in bulk and it’s cheap, but when we designed our professional packaging for our cracker bread, oh my lord, the cost of figuring it all out was insane. It’s not just opening a bakery and baking some cookies.
If you could have given yourself a piece of advice when you started what would that be?
I think if I knew then what I know now I would’ve never started it.
Because it’s a lot more challenging than I thought. The packaging and all these things are so hard that I think I would’ve just said I’m too old for this, it’s too hard, and I don’t have the money to hire all these people who already know how to do that. If you do have the money to do all that then it’s not all on you but for me it’s been a lot of learning. I’ve done all my own marketing.
Speaking of marketing, how’d you get your name and business out there in the beginning?
Facebook has actually been my biggest marketing tool, and now they’ve changed it up so much that it’s not that big of a help. But when I first started, everybody who liked you saw all of your posts. Three of four months before we opened I started using it, and I didn’t even know what Facebook was so I had to have people show me how to take pictures and post on my wall. But people started Facebook stalking me because they were so excited that there was going to be an allergy-free bakery in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I do very little magazine or newspaper advertising mainly because I can’t afford it. I’d rather put my money in product and packaging than advertising. Word of mouth helped too. I went to all of the holistic and allergy doctors and they started telling their patients about us. Children’s Hospital doctors refer their patients to us, so it’s basically been a lot of word of mouth and Facebook.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
I try to go home every evening and shut it off. I get up at about 6:30 every morning and do all of my computer work. My husband is retired, so by the time I get home I have to cook his dinner and he’s been home by himself all day so when I get home I don’t do bakery stuff from then on — unless I have something really important or a big project to do. I try not to work Saturdays, so that’s when I spend time with my grandkids and my family.
What are some of your hobbies? What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m a big knitter and I love to needle point. I used to love to garden, but with the bakery I’m just a little more physically exhausted than I used to be so I don’t garden as much. Right now I just don’t have the time to do it, but I love it.
How do you define success?
I would say success in small business is when you can pay all your bills and yourself. Everyone would say that I’m successful because they see me everywhere but I don’t think that’s the case. As far as success of the marketing of my business and the quality of my products, I’m 100% successful, but I won’t feel like a success until I don’t have to worry every day about paying a bill.
They say it takes three to five years to make a profit, and we’ll be five years in September. But this is a very unique business in Little Rock, Arkansas. If you were in a place like New York maybe it would be easier for the bakery itself. But I feel the momentum in our commercial business, that’s where my growth really is, and it’s a lot more consistent.
What would you say your greatest accomplishment is?
My greatest accomplishment at the bakery is the taste and quality of the food. If you travel a lot and you go to other gluten free bakeries, you would be amazed. I have customers from all over the United States and they all say this is the best gluten free bakery they’ve ever been to. My goal was for anyone to be proud to serve it to their friends and family, that was the goal.
What’s next for you?
Getting more products commercially out there.
Last modified on September 20th, 2016