Entry 5

In a moment of exhaustion earlier this year, I decided to sell the BreadLine. My reasoning was: I had created Marvelous Market, a successful bakery in Washington, lost it, and opened a restaurant. The BreadLine gets a lot of acclaim and appears to please hundreds of customers each day. That we don’t make much money is my fault, but I knew, at the age of 64, I wouldn’t learn how to do that.

I was tired of trying to be a manager when it’s something I don’t do well. I was tired of nighttime telephone calls and worrying about equipment failures and truck accidents, and I was tired of getting up at 4:30 a.m. So, I let it be known that the BreadLine could be bought.

First came nibbles: Another bakery suggested a merger. A young man made an offer. I had protracted discussions with a local restaurant company. A brilliant young consultant volunteered to help me think things through. Another group spent time trying to learn the business and its value.

This is a complicated affair. First, I won’t sell the company unless I can get a decent return for the people who invested in it (me) six years ago. Second, I can’t sell it and walk away from it. This is not like a McDonald’s franchise; it is a complex little enterprise with a complex product line. So, I will be tied to new owners for some time, helping them learn baking and understand the foods we do. That means I have to choose carefully. And finally, I am unlikely to find buyers who want simply to plunk down the price I want to get; most any buyer will want to pay some of the price from the cash flow of the company itself.

Knowing all that and concluding that selling was a long shot, I hunkered down late this summer, deciding that I’d better plan to be here for the long term. I found a really experienced restaurant manager to replace the really experienced manager who was leaving us. At the same time, I was invited by George Washington University to open a small BreadLine in a new building just across a wide street from the State Department.

Then three young men, eager to get into the food business, presented an offer to buy the BreadLine. I began to spend time with them, and they began to spend time here.

Only a week after that, an old friend, a restaurateur, called me to say that a big food company might want to start opening bread bakeries around the country. Could he bring his friends to Washington to see the BreadLine?

And then early this week, some wonderful people who bought one of our old Washington hotels asked if the BreadLine would take on the food service at their hotels.

For me, this is all quite confusing. Can I sell the company? Should I expand it before selling it in order to increase its value? Shall I try to find partners to help me run it? How much risk should I take on?

At the age of 64, I am supposed to be winding down. I want to write a book. I want to stop carrying 50-pound sacks of flour and instead be a consultant to young people who carry the flour. Indeed, I am already a consultant—I am helping the French Laundry open a bakery in Napa Valley. I’d like to do more food development and train chefs and retailers to recognize good bread from bad.

But I was a management consultant during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I really didn’t like advising people who had organizational power while I had none myself. All these entrepreneurial opportunities are exciting. It would be so much fun to help open a restaurant that serves traditional American comfort foods. It would be wonderful to relocate our bakery to a more orderly environment. I would miss not having a professional home and an organizational identity.

And most important, how attached am I to control? Suppose my successors here decided that Niman Ranch meats are too expensive and Tropicana orange juice is good enough. Suppose they wanted to put winter tomatoes on our sandwiches and replace our mayonnaise with Hellman’s. Suppose they wanted to produce soft-crusted, light-baked American breads.

There is much to be said for organizational power.