By NEIL ZAWICKI
Madeleine’s bakery in Milton is a study in bootstrap tenacity.
The adorable storefront with display cases filled with cookies, cannolis, donuts and other pastries is a very small part of the business: A high volume production bakery that sells branded products to retailers all over Vermont.
But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, very recently, bakery owner Erika Brice was not exactly sure how she was going to keep the shop running, and it wasn’t necessarily her idea to open it in the first place.
Brice is a baker by trade, and she learned it through straight experience. It’s essentially all she’s ever done since leaving high school. Her first baking job, when she was in her early ‘20’s, was at the now defunct Ethan Allen Bake Shop in Burlington, where she had to prove herself in an environment that marginalized women.
“’Women have no place in a bakery,’ they would tell me,” said Brice. But she kept at it, and she found her place, or created it, and through that experience learned to really bake, moving on to other baking jobs at places such as Mirabelle’s.
Brice will also say that she is not a business woman by trade, but she was raised by a single mom who did whatever she had to provide for her, and she cites her example as the catalyst for her success with the bakery.
“My mom taught me everything I know,” she said. “I just watched her, and I learned to make the right choices.”
Brice landed as a bakery owner after the owners of The Apollo Diner in Milton rented a space, turned it into a retail bakery, and put her in charge of the whole thing. It was their idea, not hers.
“There was no structure, no guidance, and the bills were astronomical,” she said. “Basically I was just baking pies and selling back to them”
When the diner folded in 2011, Brice found herself all alone with a commercial bakery and no real customers, and no money. As she describes it, the bakery was hanging by a thread. But she kept it going through side jobs. She delivered pizzas at night and ran the bakery by day. When she had an opportunity in 2013 to buy the bakery from the former owners of the Apollo, she still had no money. But she drew on her mom’s example and came up with an offer, and the shop became hers. But still it wasn’t working.
“Nobody buys pastries here.,” she said. “Milton is a tough place for a bakery.”
And then she got creative. She took a leap and moved to a wholesale model, at first selling a small amount to Steeple Market in Fairfax. Those first steps grew to include Maplefields, Jolley, and a host of other retail locations, such as Smuggler’s Notch and Vermont National Country Club.
Today, Brice and her eight employees churn out 3,000 to 4,000 cookies each week, and at least 1,000 brownies, just to name some of her wholesale products.
Brice insists on having them at the cash register at each location; she does not accept placement in some obscure part of a store. If her products aren’t selling at any given location, she pulls them. Such business savvy is something she admits she “knew nothing about,” before she found herself as a business owner.
“I dug myself out to make it work,” she said. “I was underwater.”
Today she owns everything in her shop, and recently renegotiated her lease. She delivers all her pastries herself, with help from her dad, a retired UPS driver who she said is quite proud to help his daughter.
While she maintains the wholesale operation, Brice and her crew also do a fair amount of commissioned wedding cakes. They’re busy through the summer, creating at least two each week. Donuts are also a big seller, at least on the weekends.
“The weekends are wonderful in Milton,” she said.
She makes donuts fresh daily, and does 120 dozen on the weekends. She learned to make proper donuts back at Ethan Allen, under the harsh guidance of those bakers who believed she did not belong there. And she’s proud of her donuts.
“We just learned we’re on the Vermont Donut Trail,” she says with a laugh. “We had no idea what that was, but we’re on it.”
The Vermont Donut Trail is an online guide to the best donut shops in the state.
While Brice admits she’s gained a bit of fame as a Vermont baker, she remains grounded.
“I have no other plans except to just keep growing a little every year,” she said. “We don’t do more than we can handle.”
Still, she says the location of the bakery – next to the Ace Hardware at 5 Southberry Drive, is not the best for customer traffic, except, again, on the weekends, when Miltonians are out shopping.
“I might want to open a second, smaller shop to sell out of,” she said.
Brice also says she’s always been shy, but when she’s in her bakery it’s different:
she’s in her element in the bakery.
“It’s almost like I have an alter ego here,” she said.
That alter ego emerges as she talks, and anyone who drops in will notice. She goes from a reserved business owner with a baker’s dozen worth of things on her mind, and then she’ll smile, and her face lights up, and it becomes clear how much she enjoys her place in the world.
“I’m right where I want to be,” she said.