Rhiannon Russell: You opened up Blackbird Bakery five years ago. How have things been?
Kayla Morrison: For the most part, pretty good. You always have ups and downs — that’s the nature of business. But for the most part, everything has hit the growth expectations we’ve been hoping for and it’s always been able to take care of itself. For a business of this kind and this scale, it’s been pretty much the best I could hope for. Hopefully we can continue along with that, with it taking care of itself and taking care of me.
RR: How did you get into baking?
KM: My mom taught me to bake when I was really small. It was something we always used to do together. When I was too little to reach the counter, she’d drag up a chair and we’d make cookies. It was never something I thought about pursuing professionally. And so I went off to university and I tried different things and I tried different jobs.
I was actually reading a story [a comic book in the Kabuki series] and one of the characters was having a discussion about when you’re faced with the option of can do anything I want to do, how do you choose? And the advice she’s given is to remember what you did when you were seven or eight, because you’re old enough to know what you like and have an identity, but you’re not so old that you feel like you need to fit other people’s perceptions of success. So the things you loved then are probably the things you really love. And I figured I probably wasn’t going to make a living off playing with My Little Pony, so I should pursue baking.
RR: Once you had this realization, what led you to open up here?
KM: I wasn’t living here at the time. I was in Ottawa, working at a coffee shop named Bridgehead, and I thought back to a couple of things. I had been living overseas, teaching English in China, and I came back and one of the things I was thinking of doing was sewing, which I also really enjoy.
I applied for a job as a seamstress and at the same time, I applied for a job at a coffee house. When I got the job as a seamstress, I actually felt despondent. I didn’t want to do it. So I ended up going to work for my sister-in-law at a café. It was that realization that I do like the food environment, so maybe I should steer myself that way.
When you decide to pursue baking as a career, there’s only so far you can go up before the only option is opening up your own place. You do potentially make more money being a pastry chef in a restaurant. Restaurants can be really fun environments, but they can also be really high-pressure.
You get that image of Gordon Ramsay yelling at people and that does happen a lot in kitchens. That’s just not where I want to be, that’s not the work environment I want to have. I like to have a much more casual, welcoming, supportive environment.
And then as far as doing it up here, I’m from here originally and my family was still here.
Realistically, there’s a lot of virtue to opening up in a small town. In a larger urban centre — not to be like, “Oh, the city is so cold and unwelcoming,” but in a city, there’s so much competition. There are so many people who are also doing charming, small bakeries.
Whereas in a small town, people feel like they need to support local and it’s almost like they feel responsible for your success. It’s really lovely to have that small-town support.
I remember in the early days, before anyone knew we were here and we were still under construction, all of the contractors and construction workers were in here every day, buying baked goods for their families and friends. Even they felt responsible for helping me out.
I know that they have an active job and they’re really busy, but nobody needs to eat that many butter tarts. But they were. Because they were like, the building doesn’t look ready, people don’t know you’re here, we have to support you.
RR: When you decided you wanted to be based here, what was the first step in that process?
KM: The first plan was getting a business plan ready. I needed to have math that showed that this was a viable prospect.
It’s one thing to go from ‘I’m going to be a baker!’ to knowing, what are the numbers I need to hit? How much do I need to sell everyday? How many hours am I going to need to work to make this happen? That was step one.
Well, I guess step one was learning how to write a business plan. Then step two was writing it and doing that research.
Going around Ottawa and sitting in cafés for hours, mapping the traffic outside and the traffic inside. How many people come in? And then doing the same here in Whitehorse.
So I sat for about three hours in Baked, all the Tim Hortons, looking at how traffic moves, how many people are walking in off the street. Then looking at what people were offering, what I could offer that would not be a direct overlap of existing businesses — trying to create my own niche.
As a trial run, I did the Fireweed market through the summer to see which recipes had the most local interest. I was expecting it just to be research, but because the market is so successful, I was able to be much more successful than I had planned.
That worked really well, and then I started scoping out spaces.
RR: Where does the name come from?
KM: “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” the nursery rhyme. It’s not the most original name — there are so many Blackbird bakeries. Maybe a dozen or so in Canada.
I think there’s two in Alaska. There’s a bunch of us. But I do like nursery rhymes and I like those classic, old-fashioned things.
Especially since the style of food I wanted to go for was rustic and old-fashioned, I thought pulling the name from a nursery rhyme evoked that feel. [The lyrics are “Sing a song of sixpence / A pocketful of rye / Four and twenty blackbirds / Baked in a pie.”]
RR: Being surrounded by sweet treats all the time sounds like the best thing ever, but has having this as your work made the appeal of eating cakes and cookies wear off?
KM: I don’t bake as much at home, but that’s because my kitchen here is better. So when I do want to bake for fun, I tend to just bake here.
But I still eat entirely too much cake. It’s a lot harder to resist when you’re around it all the time. But you do get the balance — realistically, it’s a pretty active job and I’m on my feet a lot. They’re long days, so it balances out, the extra indulgence. At least I hope it does.
RR: Are there any big lessons you learned over the last few years about how to run a business?
KM: The big things, I think, are: never let it get bigger than you need it to be. At the time I started, I actually didn’t need a space this big. It was the peak of the commercial real estate bubble, and there was nothing open anywhere except this building.
I was going to go much smaller. But once you have a space this big, you need to make enough things to justify that space. So it ended up being up more than I was prepared for at the time, which made my life a lot more stressful early on. So be ruthless with the size and be exacting with your own ability. And don’t try to bite off more than you can chew too fast, because it makes it less fun. The other big thing would be don’t let the fear get to you too much. Don’t give in to being afraid. It’s going to be hard, but you’ll get through. And take the importance of bookkeeping very seriously. At the end of the day, it’s all math.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rhiannon Russell is a freelance journalist in Whitehorse.