Cary's Camino

Friday, December 29, 2017

Cary Clifford, owner of Camino Bakery in Winston-Salem, NC 

Cary's Camino

by Naomi Gingerich

In 1997, fresh out of college with a history degree, I walked the Camino de Santiago, an ancient path of pilgrims in Spain. Newly married to my husband, Jonathan  Milner, I was searching for direction on what to do with my life. Though this was a formative journey for me, I never dreamed I would return to my home town of Winston-Salem to raise a family, or to open a business in the former tobacco city where I spent my childhood years. But life can be a winding path, and for me, that path has led me home where I now own a bakery, coffeehouse and wine bar named after the pilgrimage so inspiring in my early years.

Owning a business came as somewhat of a surprise for me, but after our second son was born with a chromosomal defect, I began looking for something I could do out of our home.  The idea of baking cookies for a local coffee shop seemed like the perfect way for me to stay home with our two sons, Owen and Errol, while at the same time providing a way to pay for Errol’s mounting hospital bills. In 2008, I started my home bakery and within a few months I had outgrown my small kitchen.  About this time, a renovated kitchen space became available in the basement of Krankies, a local coffee shop which sold my baked goods, so I decided to move my business there.

During the next three and a half years I watched a steady growth in sales as I added more wholesale clients throughout the city. But In the middle of this incredible surge of growth, I faced one of the biggest hardships of my life, which actually threatened the future of my fledgling company.
After multiple surgeries and spending weeks at Duke Hospital in Raleigh, our son Errol died at age three and a half.

This was a devastating time in my life and I only survived with the help of friends and family.  I wanted to close the business, but my crew surrounded me and said, “We got this, we’ll make it work.” My friends and employees kept the bakery going when I had nothing left to give during those dark days, and I certainly couldn’t have done it without them.

Growth continued, in spite of the crushing heartache our family experienced, and in 2011 we made the big decision to open a retail location.  We moved our business to the historic Nissen building on the corner of Fourth and Cherry.  Built in 1927 by W.M. Nissen with the fortune of his wagon wheel company, this Neo-classical gem had been home to a variety of industrious shopkeepers before us, from clothing boutiques to shoe companies and even a lingerie shop. We opened our doors to the bustle of pedestrians, and today our bakery, coffeehouse and wine bar is affectionately known by many as their “home away from home.”

Creating an environment that nurtures community and provides a congregating place for all ages was a big part of my vision for Camino.  Growing up here, we didn’t have a place where as teenagers we could meet our friends – a place that was safe and fun and our parents didn’t have to worry.  A place where we could act like an adult but could bring a kid to play. I wanted a place like that.

And if you step inside my bakery, you’ll get a feel for what I’m talking about. There’s elbow-to-elbow seating around hand-made tables flanking a wall of windows where a community gathers. The counters hold an assortment of breakfast sweets, cheesecakes, layer cakes, and croissants. And then there’s the artisan bread lining the wall behind the counter, with choices ranging from French Baguettes and California Sourdough, to Pan au Levain and Brioche, all baked fresh daily.  But the best part is the people of all ages gathered around tables in happy conversation, or perusing a newspaper or hunched over laptops doing school assignments.

In 2015, we acquired a second location at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital, and in 2016, a third, with the acquisition of Camino Brookstown, located in historic Old Salem. While this growth may seem a remarkable accomplishment in a mere 6 years, we really just went with the opportunities that presented themselves. It wasn’t anything planned. The hospital location came to us when they lost a tenant suddenly. I was in Canada with Jonathan at the time, celebrating our 20-year anniversary when I got the call. My employees really stepped up to the plate that time, too.  The Brookstown location came as a result of needing extra kitchen space to keep up with the 300 loaves of bread we bake on a daily basis. We hadn’t even been thinking of opening another business, but then the former Ollie’s Bakery became available and it had everything we needed to give more room for the bread-baking portion of the bakery. Within several weeks we had a deal worked out.

These past six years have been an adventure, for sure. In addition to our three retail locations, we now have wholesale customers in over 30 coffee shops, restaurants and stores, many who have been with us from the beginning. Additionally, we have a booth at the Cobblestone Farmers’ Market downtown where we sell our bread and pastries each Saturday.

Owning a business (or three!) does not come without challenges, but it can be greatly rewarding.  Like anything in life worth having, it takes hard work, but I have an incredible team of 45 employees helping me every day. Pretty much everything in this place is done better by someone other than me because we have experts in each thing.  I’m just the one making the connections. The number one piece of this puzzle is the people who are making this stuff, and we value our employees.

Though it’s been years since I walked the Camino de Santiago, the journey continues to inspire me in many ways, and I try to express that through the atmosphere I create in my Camino locations in our city. I want our coffee shops to be a place where people can gather in fellowship with friends over beautiful food and drink.  And perhaps, in the process, figure out their own path in life.

 This business has been born out of community, from friends and family who gathered around me during the sickness and death of my son, to the employees who have stood by me through good times and bad, and the loyal customers who come back day after day.  I have had so many people supporting me and helping me. If I can provide that kind of community for others, then I have accomplished my mission.

Cary’s Advice

  • ·    Food businesses are notoriously low profit and high risk, and it’s also a ton of work cooking in a commercial kitchen. So that you can see if you like owning a food business without being burdened by too much debt, try starting out simply: rent space in a communal kitchen or work out of your home if your local regulations allow for that. If you have to buy kitchen equipment, buy used equipment through Craigslist or auctions, and get the bare minimum you need to get started. 

  • ·     I highly recommend selling through local farmer’s markets - and be sure to work the booth yourself as much as you can in your early years! You’ll get immediate feedback on what people in your area like and dislike, and how to make customers feel loved and appreciated. For 5 years I spent my Friday nights baking for our farmer’s market, and although it was difficult to work our booth after those long nights of baking, that was the best experience I ever had in customer service. I’m still friends with a lot of people who were my early market customers, and they gave me many of my best ideas about baked goods and how to present them. 

  • ·     If you decide to open a brick and mortar location, here’s a simple test you should give any location before signing a lease. Sit in front of the potential location for an hour and count people walking by. Do not go by your gut when picking a location and do not make the mistake of thinking “But we’ll be that destination location!" The exposed bricks or high ceilings that look so gorgeous in an out-of-the-way location aren’t going to look pretty at all when you can’t make payroll. 

  • ·     Finding great people to work with is both essential and really tricky. There’s no simple formula to hiring well, but I’ve definitely learned to look for happy people — one unhappy employee will bring your whole team down! 

  • ·    Beverages are crucial to the financial success of most food businesses. Profit margins for food products tend to be about 2-6%, whereas beverages are often 80% or higher. So make sure to offer a great range of drinks, especially coffee, wine, and beer (which also happen to be 3 of my favorites!).

  • ·     Social media and emails are fabulous free ways to market your business. Set a goal for how often you’d like to post (I recommend posting once a day and emailing once a week), and be sure your photographs are inviting!

"If your Nerve deny you--Go above your Nerve--" – Emily Dickinson

                                               Photography by Red Cardinal Studio

Article as published in the 2017 Winter issue of Where Women Create Business.