Jean Blacklock, the founder of Toronto’s famous cupcake store Prairie Girl Bakery (PGB), shared her journey being a total #BOSSBABE in the food industry. Keep reading to learn the secret behind her success, the worst piece of advice she’s ever received, and what she does to stay balanced!
What inspired you to start Prairie Girl Bakery?
After a corporate career I wanted to do something creative - more “me” - and everything connected to cooking, baking and eating (food!) has always been really interesting to me. I looked around Toronto and there didn’t seem to be a bakery that combined excellent old-fashioned baking with modern technology so I went for it. Combining fresh-made baking, a great retail experience and savvy online ordering has kept me and the PGB team busy and entertained for 7 years and counting.
"It is the most trite thing for a business owner to say -
“it’s all about the people” - but it’s true.
Finding exceptional people, training them, motivating them,
keeping them interested…it is big. "
What are the biggest challenges of being in the food industry?
Not eating cupcakes every day!
One of the biggest challenges is accurately predicting what people will buy. I’ve learned that we humans can say we like or want one thing but then actually buy and consume something else.
Mostly this phenomenon works in our favour: the death of cupcakes has been predicted for two decades now in part because of a lot of discussion about clean eating and various healthy eating trends...but we still want a cupcake or cake when we celebrate or want to treat ourselves. So freshly baked, all-natural, no-mixes-allowed baking still has a place in many people’s overall diet.
But several times I have rolled the dice on what I thought was a big idea - like fondant covered wedding cakes - and it’s turned out to be an expensive mistake. There is a big market for fondant covered wedding cakes but it was too far out of our “PGB brand” to really take off for us.
Another challenge is finding and keeping great people. It is the most trite thing for a business owner to say - “it’s all about the people” - but it’s true. Finding exceptional people, training them, motivating them, keeping them interested…it is big. But I know if I’d started a one-person business (i.e. me), by now I would be incredibly lonely in my work life. I love being part of a team.
PGB's Pumpkin maple cupcake!
What does your typical day look like?
Okay, here's where this interview gets dicey because the typical routines of your blog’s other interviewees are daunting - the meditation, journalling and healthy green drinks - wow! I’m up against some healthy competition, no pun intended.
My typical work day starts with Starbucks coffee and their new sous vide egg bites (love!) and then involves approximately 6 hours at the bakery either working on strategic things for the business or talking with the management team of three people. The big strategic project right now for me is expanding our retail presence in downtown Toronto, Mississauga and Markham. In terms of meeting with the managers, we’ll talk about a new idea one of us has had or a project we are working on like a new digital ad campaign or menu or website update. Sometimes they will come to me for my thoughts on an operational issue such as a team member or process that they are concerned about - I always like that but I am not going to poke around too much in their business unless I am asked. They’ve all been with PGB since the beginning so they’ve earned being left alone.
There’s a saying that an entrepreneur needs to decide to work in her business or on her business - I do the latter but you can only do that if you have a great team to run the day to day business otherwise it will obviously not work. After my time spent each day working ‘on’ the business, I do a variety of things including going with my husband Andrew when he travels for work. I always need to have a lot of projects on the go.
What was the worst piece of advice you’ve ever received?
To try skiing. Bad idea. Saskatchewan people should not ski. It was cross country skiing and I was still terrified.
In PGB, I think it has been to sell coffee but I'm not sure because I never followed that advice. I know there are exceptions but places that combine baked goods and coffee either sell great coffee and stale baked goods or excellent pastries and mediocre coffee. Maybe that is just an excuse: mostly I get bored even thinking about how to sell coffee and that’s a terrible place to start an entrepreneurial idea.
"I find it completely hyper-energizing to be on email or the Internet at night and for me that makes it almost impossible to fall asleep."
Do you have any morning routines or evening rituals to help you stay balanced?
I’m a big believer in having a to-do list and for the last few years I have used the Evernote app to keep my lists organized…so one thing I do every morning before I leave the house is to go over my list for the day so I know exactly what I want to get done, not only at PGB but in other parts of my life.
At night, I’ve developed the habit of keeping all electronics out of our bedroom: iPad, my phone, whatever and we’ve never had a TV there. I find it completely hyper-energizing to be on email or the Internet at night and for me that makes it almost impossible to fall asleep.
Lately I have also found a new product from thisworks.com: a pillow spray called Sleep Plus pillow spray. It has a wonderful light lavender scent that seems to meet its audacious claim of bringing on sleep.
What’s one skincare product you can’t live without?
A year ago I read about a product called Caudalie Beauty Elixir described as “a natural cult-favorite toning mist that tightens pores, sets makeup, and provides an instant shot of radiance to the skin”. Those claims aren’t really what I love about it - I love that a little spray of this stuff feels so amazing and refreshing on my face! I use it every morning and night before putting on moisturizer and take the travel size on long flights where the air in the plane can get really dry.
Interview conducted by Yuri Hirama