SEATTLE, Wash.—Chris Porter, owner of A La Mode Pies, used to think the answer to his cash flow problems was simply to sell more pies. But, as he learned from his business advisor at the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC), being busy and selling product is not the same as being profitable—even if your product is pies, and people all over the Puget Sound LOVE your pies.
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Porter started out in 2009 baking pies in a small commercial kitchen and delivering them himself. By 2016 he had two retail stores—one selling only pies, the other a pie shop and café—and employed nearly 25 people to bake and serve a dozen different pies, including beloved favorites like, Bourbon Butterscotch, Apple & Ginger Pear, Mexican Chocolate Mousse and Key Lime.
His pies were being sold by the slice at more than a half-dozen restaurants and cafes around Seattle and at CenturyLink and Safeco Field. The readers of Seattle Magazine had voted A La Mode Pies “Best Pie Shop” every year since he opened.
From the outside, things looked peachy, but Porter had a problem. His business systems had not kept pace with the growth of his company, cash flow management was an on-going headache and Porter worried that any unexpected hiccup could collapse the entire enterprise.
Working on the business fianancials
When the manager of one of his cafes recommended the services of the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Porter made an appointment to talk with SBDC business advisor Steve Burke who works at the SBDC center in Tukwila.
The Washington SBDC is a network of more than two dozen small business advisors who work one-on-one with small business owners and entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or buy/sell a business. The Washington SBDC network is hosted by Washington State University and receives about half its funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration. State and local funding partners include WSU, other institutions of higher education, economic development agencies and business and civic groups.
After reviewing Porter’s financial statements, Burke’s assessment was blunt. “Do you want a hobby business or do you want a thriving commercial brand?” he asked, “because right now you’re treating this business as a hobby.”
Porter didn’t see how he could possibly work any harder, but Burke said he needed to work smarter—especially when it came to business systems and financial discipline.
To build a business of value, Burke said, Porter needed to focus his attention on the business itself. A former broadcast journalist turned marketing and media relations consultant, Porter had used his considerable skills to build a large and growing customer base, but he needed to become equally skilled at reading financial spreadsheets, managing cash flow, understanding margins and tracking income and expenses.
That was tough to hear, Porter said, but following Burke’s suggestions and using the tools and resources he offered has made a huge difference.
“As the owner, you need someone to have the hard conversations with you,” he said. Porter said he especially appreciates being able to talk candidly and confidentially about his business with an expert who has no agenda but helping him succeed. “Sometimes you feel so alone,” he said. “As the owner, there is no one for you to talk too.”
Creating a Business of Value
Figuring out how to work on the business and not be consumed by it is an ongoing challenge, Porter said, especially since the business was always a long-shot proposition. Baking pies for a living was a mid-life career pivot made possible by a small inheritance he received in his late 30s.
He had no commercial baking experience, but he loved to bake, so at age 37 he quit his corporate job in public relations and marketing and started making pies. Even as a kid, he said, “whenever I had a day off from school, I would bake.”
In the early days he’d make five or six pies each morning and then deliver them in the afternoon directly to customer doorsteps. When Thanksgiving rolled around that first year, he had orders for 30 pies.
Business grew from there, with Porter learning as he went along. He often felt that he was flying by the seat of his pants, but demand for his pies continued to grow so he continued to work harder, not smarter.
He opened the pie shop in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood in 2011, and the pie shop/café in West Seattle in 2016.
That second café was the tipping point, when Porter realized he needed assistance in building a foundation for manageable growth. Today revenue at each café tops $1 million annually and they produce more than 1,000 pies, at each location, for Thanksgiving celebrations.
Porter knew he could bake delicious pies that people would buy. What he didn’t know is whether he could build a business of value that would provide financial stability for himself and dozens of employees. With the help of SBDC advising, he is doing just that.
For more about A La Mode pies, go www.alamodeseattle.com
For more about the Washington SBDC, go to wsbdc.org