While reminiscing with Timm on the past ten years of Hurley House, he helped me come up with a list of questions to answer that touch on a number of different topics related to Hurley House. I found the questions interesting and thought-provoking, and I hope you will too.
Where do your recipes come from?
Every recipe at Hurley House comes from something I have made at home. Even if it is a recipe that originally comes from a source other than my personal recipe collection, I always make it at home first before we decide to offer it. If my family likes it, if I like it, if I think it is exceptional and has something special, and (most importantly) if it is scalable without sacrificing quality, then we bring it into the Hurley House kitchen and develop it for production.
Why do you share recipes?
I love sharing recipes! Seriously. Ask me for a recipe, and it’s yours. Sharing recipes ultimately creates connection, and I wouldn’t be in business if someone hadn’t first shared their recipes with me. I also learned from a successful local restaurant owner that no one needs to be afraid of sharing a recipe with a client. The truth is, just because someone has the recipe doesn’t mean they are always going to make it themselves. Clients who love your product will still come buy it from you because there are times when we all know how to do something but would rather pay someone else to do it for us. So I choose to err on the side of generosity.
What is the favorite part of your job? What is the least favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is bringing new ideas to life with a team of people who share my excitement and want to explore what’s possible. Whether it is hosting Taylor Swift Week or creating a new cake flavor, working with others toward a common goal is incredibly satisfying and fun for me. There were plenty of years where I was a one-woman show, and while necessary in the beginning, I wouldn’t choose to go back to the solo days. Sure, sometimes working with people gets messy and challenges certain parts of my ego, but in the end, it’s always better to be alongside someone than alone, and my team is incredibly creative and welcoming to new ideas.
My least favorite part sounds silly, but I really dislike the tasks that have become mundane. There is a list of tasks that aren’t glamorous but have to get done in order to keep things going, and they never ever sound exciting to me. Ordering groceries, writing checks, filing taxes, creating an email, printing the daily meal count sheet, making sure we have plenty of labels, and the like are not exciting to me. I’m not naturally good at grinding out predictable tasks, but it’s part of the job, so I make sure it gets done despite my disdain. Oh, and I also hate taking out the trash.
Do you want to open an second location?
In a word, no. I have no desire to open a second Hurley House location. Bringing a brick-and-mortar store to life requires enormous lift, and I have no motivation to jump back into that fire. That being said, I am currently looking for a creative studio space to house my office and provide a place to shoot videos, take photographs, and allow for other ideas brimming on the horizon. I currently office in a corner of the Hurley House store which means I get to see everyone that comes in while being a few steps away from the action (so fun!). But certain creative jobs (like writing and shooting videos) are impossible to do in a bustling bakery, and I am feeling the strain. I hope to find a perfect spot to house my quiet creative work without being too far away from the fun and energy of the store.
You have a large team of loyal employees, which is rare in the food industry. What do you think makes them stay?
People often ask, “Where did you find your staff?” I always reply, “They found me.” Our staff has been one of the biggest sources of provision I have witnessed in the past ten years. Whenever someone leaves our team (which is not very often), without fail, and always at just the right time, someone walks through the doors asking if we are hiring. I have posted on social media when we have needed to get the word out that our team had openings, but more times than not, our new team members come from personal recommendations.
As to why people stay? I think our culture of belonging has a lot to do with the longevity of our staff. Working at Hurley House is fun. The people are great. The culture is kind and familial. The clients are exceptionally supportive and loyal. The hours are family friendly. And the work, while challenging at times, is good, heart-warming work. There is a shared sense of accomplishment among our staff, and I believe when you work hard with others toward a shared goal, you ultimately become friends. And who wouldn’t want to work with friends?
The average lifespan of a brick-and-mortar storefront is one year, and the average lifespan of a small business is three years. You have been in business for ten years and in a store-front for seven. Why do you think you’ve made it this far?
This one is tricky because ultimately, I don’t know. I obviously believe in the product and feel passionate about the vision of the business, but so do a lot of people who start businesses only to watch them go under. I don’t think we would have lasted a month if our food wasn’t excellent, but that isn’t enough to account for the longevity either. Again, lots of places have delicious food yet don’t survive.
If I had to narrow it down, I would say there are two main contributing factors. The first is an incredible community of people who wanted to see Hurley House make it. That community was forged in the early days when I was operating out of my house, and then expanded little by little as we grew our clientele once we opened the store. People really like what we do, and I think they like how we do it. I think what we offer is incredibly personal, and that draws people back for more. Our clients become part of our story, and that is incredibly powerful. Having a loyal community counts for a lot in the small business world.
The second factor is less concrete. Call it luck or call it the sovereignty of God, but regardless of your world view there were so many instances where the cards simply fell in our favor, and it had nothing to do with me or any aspect of the business that I could control. A few examples: I had no idea how beneficial it would be for my business to be located across the street from a school. I had no idea how the area around our store would blow up and develop into a popular part of town. I had no idea how one little drive-through window would be a major differentiator for Hurley House and would ultimately be the reason we were able to stay in business during Covid. I had no idea that because our business model was already geared to picking up meals, we did not have to pivot during Covid and were able to thrive during a time when many did not. I had no idea how important it would be to have a landlord that is a kind, generous human who will bend over backwards to make sure his tenants are happy and taken care of. I had no idea how monumentally important it would be for the store to be less than a mile from my house, making it possible for me to get to work quickly and run home quickly if needed. The list goes on and on, and I could tell you ten different stories where the only reason we made it was because of a crazy coincidence or detail or unexpected benefit that had nothing to do with me. That reality is difficult for me to accept because I want life to be fair, and I don’t want to believe that some things (ok, most things) are out of my control. But the truth is life is not fair, and ultimately all I can control is myself and the work I do. I am grateful everyday for the gift of watching my business continue to thrive when so many don’t. I take none of it for granted.
What did you want to work that didn’t? What work that surprised you?
There are so many ideas I thought would be amazing and awesome, but that ultimately crashed and burned. For every success you see, there are about ten failed ideas you never knew about. For example, I tried hosting a book club (no one came), a meal-planning group (nope), an internship program (terribly ill-timed and ultimately not in line with our mission), a family dinner event (zero profit margin), and in-person workshops (which worked for a time but then completely fizzled out). None of these ideas took off, despite my best intentions and effort. I still also struggle with our summer offerings. Summer is a weird season at Hurley House because our traffic patterns change and everyone travels a lot. It’s hard to know what people want or need, and it is a constant guessing game. We have tried a different approach every summer, and nothing has done as well as I would have hoped. But I’m not giving up! I think this year may be the winning combination.
As for a surprise success, I am surprised how well lunch has done at Hurley House. Not because I doubt our product (I mean, have you tried our chicken salad??), but because it was never part of the original business plan. Lunch at Hurley House emerged simply because our staff at the time was tired of buying lunch every day. We literally said, “I bet we could make a great lunch salad or chicken salad, and then we could just eat lunch here instead of picking up from somewhere else.” And voila, a few recipe trials later, a few dry runs with trusted friends, a signature mint iced tea developed, and lunch at Hurley House was born! Lunch is now a major part of our business, and I am pleasantly surprised by its success.
What were your most memorable moments in the Hurley House space?
Opening day was spectacularly amazing. I could cry just thinking about it. Any time friends who were part of the original house on Hurley Avenue stop in for a visit, there is a swell of emotion. So many of those friends were college students at the time, and now they come in with their kids to get a cookie. It’s very full-circle and beautiful. Hosting Jake’s Eagle Scout ceremony was a recent memorable moment, although I did giggle a bit watching the color guard advance from the kitchen. Watching my kids grow up in the space has been sweet. There have been a lot of family memories made within the Hurley House walls.
Oddly enough Covid lockdown was one of the most memorable seasons in the Hurley House space, even though we operated exclusively through the drive-through window for over a year. Getting to continue coming to work and interacting with other adults on a daily basis was a sanity saver. Our church used the space to live-stream our weekly worship service, which was beautiful to watch. Hearing stories of how our drive-through window was some people’s only point of in-person connection during the difficult time during lockdown really meant a lot to me. There was also a day during the massive winter storm where we handed out free hot meals, and I will never forget how meaningful that was for our community as well as our staff.
What’s something no one tells you about owning a business?
Two things. Number one, it’s not charming. There is a romanticized version out there of what it means to own a business, and the myth is perpetuated by social media which curates images and makes even hard things look cute. The truth is, owning a business is not cute. The good parts are wonderful, of course. But the hard parts are gut-wrenching, and ultimately, all of the hard sits squarely on my shoulders. Even with a support network of people who love me, the hard is mine and mine alone. So many challenges that I faced while working out of my home for three years were solved when we moved into a commercial space (increased storage, larger appliances, a team of employees, etc.), but I instantly inherited one thousand new challenges that hadn’t existed prior. I hope it’s obvious how much I love my work and how joyful it has been to watch Hurley House grow, but you often only hear about the good. What you don’t hear about is the ugly hard that comes with owning a business, and there’s nothing remotely cute about it.
Number two, owning a business involves a ton of writing. Seriously. I once heard a successful entrepreneur say that when staring a new business, the first person you should hire is a writer. I didn’t believe her at the time, but now I get it. I write every day, and I’m not talking about the blog. Product titles and descriptions, the wording on a menu, the caption of a social media post, the verbiage on the website, the verbiage of your reservation policy, the words you use to train your staff, the scripts you develop to describe different aspects of your business…it all requires writing. So much writing! Thankfully, I love to write and feel like it is one of my strongest skills, which has served me well. But how many times do you hear someone talk about writing as a requirement for starting a business? Not very often!
How do you spend most of your time now?
There are a handful of tasks that I still execute in the daily operation of the business. I manage our staff, I put out fires, I develop new ideas, and I answer questions that no one else knows the answer to. I determine our menu, develop new products, and work with our kitchen manager to determine how much of a given item we will make. I plan and execute all of our social media, create all of our marketing pieces, and run our website. I also spend a large portion of my time writing, developing content for the blog or social media, creating graphics, and continuing to grow the creative arm of my work. While I don’t spend all day at the store, I am there every day in some capacity, and I love getting to go to work.
Where do you hope to be in ten years?
In ten years, it would delight me for Hurley House to still be churning and burning, thriving and serving our community in even more developed ways than we are now. I would hope that my audience here on the blog and on social media has expanded and that I am continuing to create meaningful work that inspires people. I hope to have published a book or be on the road to publishing a book (I have several titles I want to write and publish), working with an agent and editor who understand and believe in my message. I hope to have cultivated a larger creative team that will allow me to bring more of my ideas to life, and I hope to be able to do that in a space specifically designed for that purpose. Ultimately, in ten years, I hope the heart of Hurley House is still going strong, whatever form it takes.