Vegan is growing beyond our wildest dreams (Or: Milena is once again forced to get over her skepticism when faced with data)

In the beginning, getting me to make vegan cream cheese was like pulling teeth. I remember one of our regulars, Amy, coming up to me back in the pop-up days at Stock and begging for vegan cream cheese and I would think, “why in the world would anyone want fake cream cheese?” The thought of “foods masquerading as other foods” is strange to me. Tofurky is weird. Turkey bacon is weird. Margarine is weird. Tofu cream cheese is weird. I certainly never tasted one I enjoyed.

With customer requests, I am usually like, “OK fine let’s make it, and if it sucks and doesn’t move we can tell people why we don’t sell it anymore.” (That’s why we don’t make whole wheat bagels: We tried making them TWICE, gave them over a month to stick each time, and we would end up tossing them day after day. Not much of a market for whole wheat bagels, as it turns out.) We came up with a great recipe for vegan “cream cheese” that’s delicious and reminiscent of its dairy counterpart in its tanginess without trying to be exactly like it. (That tanginess? Lactic acid, derived from beets!)

Looking back at 2018, one thing was clear: You guys can’t get enough of our vegan options! I just ran the numbers and the Vegan Dream, our signature vegan sandwich, has grown 2.6x faster than our total sales. According to Google Trends, veganism has grown in popularity in the last 5 years, but certainly not at the pace we’re seeing our vegan sales growth. Needless to say, I’ve gotten over my skepticism and embraced vegan options. (Plus truth be told, I am actually not a huge fan of cream cheese and our cashew spread goes down easier for me.)

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See the graph above: The green line is the Vegan Dream and blue is our total sales. Obviously I deleted the axes/numbers because our sales data is proprietary information. But just focus on the incline of the lines relative to each other: the green line has steeper growth vs. the blue.

Maybe this success with vegan options is a product of our approach, which is to celebrate the veggies and make them interesting and layer the flavors, instead of molding them into lesser-than versions of meat products or giving you lettuce & tomato on a bagel and calling that a “sandwich”. (More like SAD-WICH! I crack myself up…)

I think another factor in our success with vegan options is just the awesome vegan community around us. So many of you have found us through Instagram and continue to spread the word about us! I recently received a postcard from Happy Cow celebrating our listing on their online directory of vegan-friendly spots in Providence. One of you must have created our listing on there — thanks for spreading the word!

So this year we want to do more vegan options. It’s working for us. Certainly we are not turning into a vegan bakery! Wildflour does a great job with that, and I don’t think it makes sense for us to go in that direction. But our kitchen staff is becoming more conscious about making recipes vegan-by-default whenever possible. If we can make simple adjustments to recipes to veganize them (e.g. swap butter for oil in a soup) and it has little impact on flavor/texture/structure, we should do it. We now have 1 vegan pastry (a very convincing banana cake if you ask me!), 2 vegan cream cheese options, 2 alt milk options and 1 vegan sandwich, plus our salads and soups are vegan a good chunk of the time.

Tell me: What other vegan products do you wish we had? Do you have a great idea for a vegan sandwich?

How Rebelle reduces food waste

I will confess: I had never been very mindful about food waste before I started Rebelle. I would buy food and let it go bad in the fridge all the time. But once you start buying ingredients in bulk for a restaurant, two things happen: you realize food waste is literally money going into the trash, and you start noticing the scale at which food waste accumulates. I never once thought about tossing the ends of tomatoes when I slice them (I HATE tomato butts). But it took us 2 weeks after we opened the shop to realize that once you slice 25 lbs. of tomato at a time, you can end up with 2-3 lbs of tomato butts that would be thrown in the trash without a second thought. When I developed that awareness, food waste was literally all I could see and I became strangely obsessed with reducing it. (I’m obsessive about a lot of things…)

I want to share with you some of the ways we deal with random bits and scraps of things in our kitchen to spare them from the landfill. Our team does an amazing job getting creative and resourceful to avoid throwing out food. Maybe you’ll be inspired to adopt some of these practices!

We save the scraps. Many of us prep and throw things in the trash as we go: onion skins, tomato butts, carrot peels. Have you peeled carrots directly over the trashcan and thought yourself a genius for saving time on cleanup? What if you save those carrot peels, grate them and turn them into carrot cake? Or carrot soup? That’s exactly what we do. We also make tomato jam out of tomato butts and relish out of cucumber butts and salmon salad out of salmon scrape and cheesy handpies out of cheddar scraps. But if we hadn’t saved the scraps, we wouldn’t know they’re enough to actually turn into something! (Don’t save onion skins though. Never found a good use for those…)

We repurpose items into something new. Here’s a secret: We take 2-day old brownies and crumble them into our Peanut Butter & Brownie cookies. We used to take day-old babka and turn it into babka bread pudding. We turn unsold bagels into bagel chips. We do this a lot, and so do a lot of restaurants, and so can you!

We preserve. Wanna know how we came up with our pop-tarts? We had a bunch of berries that didn’t make it into fruit salads and they were about to turn bad. Too sad to see them go into the trash, we picked off the soft bits, washed the rest, and turned it into jam. This jam went into our pie dough and the rest is history. Now we actually make jam just for pop-tarts, because they’re so popular!

 Just to give you a reason to save scraps at home: Here’s the recipe for our famous tomato jam, which receives so many compliments, I should shut down the bagel shop and devote myself to jam instead. We use it on our BLT sandwich, and it also does a good job of dressing up a humble egg & cheese sandwich.

 Note: All our recipes are scaled by weight for consistency and repetition. You should consider buying a cheapo kitchen scale for your kitchen – ours are $10 from Amazon!

Rebelle’s famous tomato jam

Makes 1 quart

Ingredients:

1733 g tomato scraps, pureed in food processor (seeds fine, no stems/leaves)

533 g granulated sugar

67 g apple cider vinegar

13 g kosher salt

Directions:

Cook all ingredients over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until it passes the jam test. (Highly scientific jam test: put a plate in the freezer until super cold, then spoon some jam on the plate. Stick it in the fridge for 2-3 minutes and then tilt the plate slightly. If the jam runs or drips, it needs to cook down more.)

We have to do something about selling out of bagels early.

If there was one misconception about our shop that I wish did not exist, it’d be this: We don’t sell out all the time. We don’t!

I have a complicated relationship with selling out of bagels. In an ideal world, we sell out of bagels maybe 30 mins before closing, TOPS. (The last 2 hours of service are typically slow for us.) Selling out near closing time gives us a bit more time to clean up at a chill pace, and the opportunity cost of lost sales is very low. If we sell out 2 or 3 hours before closing time, that’s good money we lose. Every time a customer comes up and we are sold out, I’m keeping track of every single sale we could have made. Darn it.

We forecast our production a week in advance and feed it into our ingredient ordering process. To forecast, we look at what happened the weeks prior, which is captured in painstaking detail on our Daily Recap report. (Every morning, the bakers record the production by item, and in the afternoon we record what’s left.) We also look at our sales data from the year prior, especially if we’re looking at holiday periods. Sometimes we tweak the plan halfway through the week to accommodate crappy/nice weather, unexpected construction, etc.

We don’t want to waste food. We never sell day-old bagels, so whatever doesn’t get sold that day is not held for the next day. There’s only so many bagels we can chip (we chip A LOT), donate, gift to friends or take home to eat for breakfast. I don’t like seeing food hit the trashcan. More than wasting food, it’s also wasting time that the team could have spent making other things! As an engineer, inefficiencies drive me totally bananas and this one in particular is a biggie for me. It’s the perfect trifecta of wasting time, money and ingredients.

I just scrolled through our Instagram and counted our Sold Out posts. Fourteen in total for November and December. Out of 48 days that we were open, that gives us a 29% sell-out rate. That’s a far cry from “always” but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised. That blew me away a bit. No wonder people think we always sell out, we post about it every 3-4 days! I am sure a lot of people, especially those who aren’t on Instagram, don’t bother coming because they think we’re sold out. That makes me sad. We want to feed you bagels!

We have to do something about both selling out AND the perception that we always sell out. I have a few ideas that we’re going to start testing immediately:

  • We’ll post more frequent updates on our Instagram story: We’re going to set alarms on our iPad registers to take photos of whatever bagels are left, twice per day (maybe at 10 and noon?). We’ll timestamp the stories so you can always go on our profile and take a reasonable guess at where we are for the day. I think this is also going to act as a check for us: Are we frequently selling out before noon? Then we should adjust our production plan!

  • We’re going to improve our production planning process: A few months ago, I learned more about regression models in business school and played around with our data long enough to realize the day of the week and weather conditions are closely tied to our sales. I need to go back to that model, feed it more data and train it. We should try baking to whatever plan the model gives us and see how it holds up. I think my fear of being wasteful can be mitigated if our production plan is better than guessing based on last week (just being real with y’all, what we do is on the level of educated guessing).

I always appreciate candid (and kind!) feedback from our customers. Please tell me: What else do you think we can do to prevent early sell-outs and to communicate better with you? What have been your frustrations with our sell-out days? Curious to hear your thoughts, you can always email me here :-)

Design upgrades and a lotta DIY

Opening my own bakery turned me into a hyper-aware consumer, and now everywhere I go eat, shop, whatever, I totally pick apart in my head. What do I like and don’t like and why? What works and what doesn’t? Through this mental exercise, I realized I am really enjoying pretty spaces right now. I am getting lost in the little thoughtful details everywhere that add up to the personality of a place.

We’ve done a lot of design changes to our front of house in the last 2 months. I started by wondering if I could rearrange the furniture for a better layout so we can fit more people more comfortably. Then I got a little carried away with all the inspiration I’ve been collecting.

(I think all crazy redecoration projects start with rearranging the furniture around the room. Turns out, we had a total of 6 seats that were not being used at all prior to rearranging the furniture, and now they are! I felt like a genius after that.)

During Thanksgiving, we built new wood benches that rest against the windows and make the whole place feel like a cozy nook. I hadn’t thought about it before but sitting along the perimeter, facing the room, just opens it up so much! We love them so much, we plan on building a few more. A bonus: the outlets are also now accessible to twice as many tables as before. I spent 3 days on this bench plugged in, studying for my finals and enjoying the chill vibes at the shop. I encourage you to bring your book/work and take a long breakfast on a weekday morning!

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During Christmas break, we worked on several other design projects:

  • We changed the menu boards. I had 2 issues with the old menu boards: I couldn’t take them down to update them, and they were in cursive. Turns out cursive is hard to read quickly and from an operational standpoint, we really need people to read the menu and quickly figure out what they want to order. The new boards now hang from a rod (!) and are written in sharp block letters. It’s taken us a few days to finish this one because the old ones were glued to the wall, so patching things up and giving the wall a fresh coat of paint takes way longer than we can work in one go.

  • We changed the countertops. The old plywood counters had sentimental value to me, since I spent 2 weeks sanding, staining and sealing them before we opened and daydreaming about what operating this place would be like. But they were degrading quickly (especially the one near all the coffee) and our accountant encouraged us to invest in meaningful upgrades. We now have beautiful, shiny stone counters, with trash cutouts for your convenience (!). We’re still waiting on one final piece of countertop so we look kinda mismatched at the moment. Oops.

  • We installed a plant wall. I am obsessed with the houseplant explosion at The Nitro Bar. I went a bit wild buying these wall-mounted planters and stuffing them with ivies. I can’t wait for them to grow in! We’re going to add more houseplants around the room.

One of our 2019 goals is to continue prettifying the space, so you can expect to see more changes in the coming months. (Especially in January, since I don’t have school and can focus on DIY projects!) I’m curious to hear how you like to use our space and what upgrades can make it a more enjoyable experience!

Will we be the first in Providence to pay employees a cut of profits?

I have this document on my computer that I wrote before we opened our store. It has goals about paying living wages, offering benefits, and making this a place where people can start and grow their careers. I want Rebelle to breed high-caliber food & hospitality professionals. I want to subvert the notion that food service jobs are low-skill, low-pay and just pit stops on your way to something “better” like an office job. (I had one of those office jobs and it wasn’t for me.)

Anyway, I have a lot of ideas in that document but it’s not crystal clear how we get there. I can’t raise our prices 10% every year to pay for raises and benefits, so giving our employees more while keeping our prices relatively stable requires creative financial acrobatics and being militant about operational efficiencies. Tough balancing game.

But I think we’re figuring it out just fine. It’s time to give back to the crew that makes the magic happens! We’re going to start giving our team a cut of the business’s profits. This is called profit-sharing, and it’s all the rage right now, and as far as I know we’ll be the first restaurant in Providence to offer this benefit. I’m not trying to gloat — but I think this is a BIG DEAL. I hope this will be successful for us and that other business owners will follow along.

Here’s how it will work: Every 3 months, we will put 5% of the profits into a “pool” that all employees will share, disbursed according to hours worked. It will function just like our tip pool, but funded by the business. As a retention incentive, team members have to be with us for 6 months before participating in the pool. If I did my math right, this benefit will amount to about 1 week’s paycheck as a bonus every 3 months. For Q1 2019, our profit sharing program will be a test (and has been communicated to the team as such). My deepest hope is that it will improve our retention rate, create long-term engagement within the team and make them feel better compensated for their work.

Don’t be nervous: We’re not paying for this or our upcoming 6% wage increase with price increases. In the short term, we’re absorbing the cost. And in the long term, I am hopeful our growth will continue into 2019, and that we’ll be able to keep and expand this program with your support. I ask you to consider this as you decide where to eat your breakfast, where to grab your morning coffee, or where to order holiday treats.

Every dollar you spend is like casting a vote in support of business practices. I hope you will vote more often with us!

(And if you’re a talented food & hospitality professional: let’s talk. We have some openings on our team and we’d love to meet you!)

The Great Soup Test of 2018: Not looking so hot

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I took this photo on November 7th, the day when we made our first batch of soup at Rebelle. We’ve been slowly pushing over the last few months to become more than just a bagel shop, and pushing for lunch is part of that. I recently had soup for lunch at Tatte in Kendall and it was a nice, healthy, warming meal, and the $5 price tag was just right. I wanted soup at Rebelle. You wanted soup at Rebelle! This was fated to succeed.

We had some chorizo bits and pieces from our Spanish Tortilla sandwich special that were begging to be put to use, so we made Chorizo, White Bean & Kale soup and put it in a $80 soup kettle from Restaurant Depot. Because the soups would be a vehicle for bits and pieces of things that would otherwise be deemed “scraps”, this was a very low-risk experiment. At $5 a piece, we needed to sell 16 soups to earn back our “investment” on the kettle. Easy!

Not so easy. We’ve sold a grand total of 15 cups of soup since launch. We don’t put the soup kettle on during weekends, because at noon on a Sunday people are still thinking breakfast. So the soups are only a weekday thing, but it’s still painfully slow movement on a new item at an average of 1 unit sold per day.

I’m not ready to give up on soup yet. Our soup is delicious, and winter is the time for soup. We must be doing something wrong! I have several hypotheses for what’s going on that I will try to validate over the coming weeks:

  • No visibility: We’re keeping the soup kettle in the back for practical reasons (not much counter space in the front). But I think we have to try putting it in the front!

  • Poor signage: We have the soup on a sign on our counter. There are 3 other signs on there. It’s too many signs to read. Probably nobody is reading it. (We are fixing the sign issue!)

  • We didn’t give it enough time: We try to give new items at least a month before calling them dogs and retiring them. Given that the soup is only a weekday item, we should probably give it longer.

  • We didn’t market it well: We haven’t given soup the spotlight to shine on our emails. We’ve launched other items successfully by sending coupons to drive trial. We should try that again!

For this week, the soup is on hiatus as I do some soul-searching. We’re going to make a cream of mushroom soup next week. Will you please come try it? We hope to see you!

Testing Monday & Tuesday service this week (and feeling super 😬)

We’ve been training new bakers Sky, Anna and Lauren for long enough that I’m afraid they’ll leave us if we don’t open 7 days a week soon. So here we are! We’re testing service this Monday 12/10 and Tuesday 12/11 from 6:30 am to 3 pm. We’re a bit nervous but very amped to see if this helps us meet your needs, grow our business and not lose our minds!

If you’ve signed up for our email list, you’ll get a free treat valid this Monday & Tuesday only. If you’re not signed up, you should sign up at the bottom of our website to get freebies ;-)

Hello, world!

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We now have a blog! Inspired by Clover Food Lab, I have decided to start a blog for us at Rebelle. Clover recently turned 10 years old and hitting such a big milestone gave them an opportunity to reflect back on their history through their blog. It’s hard to imagine making it to 10 years in business, especially when we picked an industry with such a high failure rate, but that’s what we’re hoping for: a moment when we’ll want to reflect back on our successes and failures (which I hope document here in a very candid fashion).

I also want to use this blog as a way to reach out to our customers and other budding entrepreneurs. We imbue everything we do here with a heavy personal touch (our marketing emails are written and signed by me) and having a blog where we can document our thought process around how we run and grow our business will hopefully bring us closer to our customers. Y’all have a question or idea to share? I’m always on email! And for entrepreneurs, we know there is just no blueprint for how you start a business. We all make it up as we go. But I learned (and still learn) a great deal by watching what others do. My biggest hope is that, in some distant corner of the universe, someone is reading this blog, working up the courage to start their own business or learning from our mistakes.

I don’t have an agenda for what I want to write about and a lot of this is going to be very freehand, stream-of-thought kinda vibe. If you have anything Rebelle that you’ve been curious about, hit me up. Let’s start a conversation :-)