Connecticut entrepreneurs Pam Paydos and Sara Allen recently celebrated five years of ownership at Popover Bistro & Bakery in Simsbury. Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke to them about what it was like starting out, how they’ve evolved, and some of the challenges they’ve overcome.
NAN PRICE: How did you come up with the business concept for Popover?
SARA ALLEN: We started with the idea of serving baked goods and smoothies. We had our eye on a tiny space down below our current location at Simsbury Town Shops. Then I fell in love with this space and, before we even signed the lease, we wrote several business plans. Each time we wrote a business plan, we realized we’d be out of business in no time because we weren’t selling enough. Because this was a much bigger endeavor.
PAM PAYDOS: We had decided on this space, which was much larger than we’d planned. We realized the town needed something like this, a place that served gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan choices. Nothing fit that niche.
SARA: Eventually, we came up with a plan with numbers that could work. But, from day one to year five, it has evolved continuously. And it’s through trial and error.
NAN: Do you have mentors or other restaurant owners to get tips and advice?
PAM: Absolutely. A little background: I opened Iron Frog Tavern in 2010 and ran it for four years before selling it and deciding to start Popover. I had no idea what I was doing when I got into it! But it was an amazing experience and I learned so much the hard way.
At the time I was opening Iron Frog, Tyler Anderson was opening Millwright’s Restaurant and Tavern. We became good friends because his whole crew would come to Iron Frog. Tyler became a great resource because he has four restaurants in Connecticut, he’s been on Top Chef, so he knows a lot about the industry. When I have a question, he’s typically my first call.
Also, we use a lot of local products, so we’ve also forged relationships with many local vendors.
NAN: The food industry is highly competitive. To what do you attribute your success?
PAM: Ever-changing. Keeping with trends. When I am looking for new things for the menu, I’m researching things in L.A. We change our menu every few months to keep things seasonal.
SARA: I think we’ve been innovative because there wasn’t anything like this in the area. So, filling that void initially was our first successful move, but it wasn’t enough. We had to keep growing on top of that.
PAM: It was a rocky start. After our first year, we worried whether we would be able to keep Popover open. And we made a lot of changes. For example, at first, we were trying to make it more of a bakery, but that wasn’t working, so we put in a counter.
NAN: You mentioned some of the challenges you’ve had along the way. What would you say is the biggest challenge?
SARA: Staffing. You have to learn the right paths to find people. Usually it’s word-of-mouth and once you find the right people, things settle in. The restaurant business is generally transient. Many people don’t stay long term.
That was something we struggled with in the beginning. We took who we could get right away and then we realized what would and wouldn’t work. Because when you’re a business owner, when someone calls out you are the one who has to step in. So, we cooked, we waited tables, we made coffee, we cleaned bathrooms, we did dishes. We did it all.
PAM: We still do! I think another challenge has been finding new ways to grow. We got to a point where we’re full and we’re busy, so how do we expand? When you have a new idea, then you have to keep up with it. You need to hire additional staff for catering. You need to try and find new revenue streams.
NAN: In terms of marketing, how do you continue to keep clientele and add more?
PAM: We hired INGroup Creative. Cofounders Jeannette Punsoni Dardenne and Kristen Fritz are amazing. We started using them three years ago and we saw our business increase.
We also use a lot of social media—keeping up with that is challenging, too. Instagram is changing all the time. We occasionally do print advertising and we’re fortunate to be on TV fairly often, so we do get out there in the public eye.
NAN: As business owners, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
PAM: I’ve learned to be an efficient multitasker. A lot of people don’t have that skill, and this is the perfect business for it. I’ve also learned to be very flexible and patient with people.
SARA: I’ve learned to accept that life is off balance—and that’s okay. As women business owners, we tend to take on a lot of other roles. We’re both moms, so we’ve got this entire work family to take care of and then we go home and take care of our other families. It’s not easy. Everyone in our families is affected by our schedules and conflict management.
PAM: Right, it’s not easy. You can’t start a business and think it’s going to be so much fun. There are fun moments—probably more fun moments than not—but it’s hard when your life isn’t your own. We’re five years in and we are doing really well with steady growth—and there are still challenges. But it’s rewarding at the end of the day and you do get to call the shots.