10 years, friends. We can’t believe we’re saying this… Schoolhouse is 10 years old! The big day falls on a Saturday, this Saturday in fact, and the Schoolhouse team will be at the Seaport Market to serve you as always. This weekend will be quite special, as we’ll have discounted market specials, a special on-site giveaway and so much more.

Honestly, we’re truly humbled by what Schoolhouse has become. We certainly couldn’t have done it without all of your support over the years. We are beyond proud to be a part of the fresh food movement and small business community here in Nova Scotia. We have, and will continue to give it our best shot to show up every single day for ourselves, for our twin girls and for you.

Andrew, our Schoolhouse Social Media/Communications Specialist stopped in for a visit a few weeks ago to chat with Jen and Aidan, to ask them about how it feels to look back after 10 years in the biz. He wanted to dive deeper into their journey, to ask about how it feels to look back on humble beginnings and the history of Schoolhouse.

10 years later, we have a lot of customers who have been around since day one. Customers who have been eating the Pumpkin Muffin, for example, every day for the past decade. With new customers, though, it’s easy to get labeled as a brand JUST for Celiacs when ‘gluten-free’ is in your name. How do you want new customers/those who are unfamiliar with us to see Schoolhouse?

Aidan: Certainly from my end, when we first started developing recipes, I just didn’t want people to take a bite and say “uhh, gross—it’s gluten-free! I can obviously tell this is gluten-free.” I just really wanted to make good, delicious and ‘healthy as I can’ food. Honestly, the gluten-free products on the market in the beginning coming from some of the large companies, which is all we really had access to, just didn’t cut it. I remember making a sandwich with gluten-free bread I had bought, taking that first bite, chewing it and thinking… I… I, I have to spit this out. I couldn’t actually even bring myself to swallow it. The texture, mouthfeel, everything… I thought “No, BLEGH! This is awful. I will have nothing. I’d rather have nothing at all. It’s worse for me to eat this!”

It has been very surprising, honestly. I say that in the sense that we have more people buying our products than just those who are Celiac. I feel we’ve met our aim, and I continue to refine recipes, to get better and better products out there that are just totally indecipherable from other gluten-free products on the market.  We have access to so many different ingredients now compared to what we had before. What I’m able to do now is way different from what I was able to do 10 years ago when we first started. 

Jen: When it comes to the branding side of things, you’ll notice that’s why we made Gluten-Free Gourmet smaller. ‘Schoolhouse’ first in bold red letters, ‘Gluten-Free Gourmet’ in a finer font underneath. When we were branding ourselves, we knew we needed to have gluten-free in the title, but we wanted it to be secondary… that was on purpose. When we first started to go to the market, we actually stopped saying gluten-free for a while. We found in the beginning, it was very prohibitive. When certain people saw that our products were gluten-free, they’d think “I don’t want to try it. This isn’t for me”. So, instead, we let the products speak for themselves instead of pushing the fact that they were gluten-free. We’d hand out samples and would simply ask: “Would you like to try this brownie? Would you like to try this muffin?”.

I also think that what we learned pretty fast and furious is, the people who are Celiac, gluten-free/have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance—advocated for us hard. We got into so many stores from word of mouth, and those dedicated customers took care of it. They were so excited to advocate for options that they could actually enjoy. We secured new retail partner contracts because celiacs and people who are gluten-free went out to those retailers and demanded that they carry our product.

Here’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you both about. The Schoolhouse, the building itself, probably has its own story and so much history behind it. Being such an old building, it must certainly play into the interest and intrigue of the brand? The Schoolhouse almost takes on an identity of its own.

Aidan: It really is a character in the story, it is part of the fabric of who we are. It’s been really interesting over the years, how much of a role it still plays in the community. Every now and then, we’ll have someone roll in who was a student there. In fact, the last graduating class of Grade 8’s was in 1967. The Schoolhouse took on many identities, different shapes and forms over the years and it served the community in so many ways. From a community centre to a fish and chips place that people still talk about! We get people who come by and say “I remember when this was the best spot for fish and chips on the South Shore!”.

It has had a lot of other incarnations, as well. Most of our staff are from the area, and had a relationship to it before they even came to work with us. We hired someone new last week (prep/dishwasher), and as a kid, she remembered coming to the Schoolhouse when it was an English tea house in the summertime. It was a tradition for her family, so it was neat for her to have it come back into her life at this point. The Schoolhouse has a lot of character, and this really positive energy. You can feel this ocean of lifetimes that have been through this building. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of people over the years. People who have had formative experiences (students that studied here, etc.)

The relationship I’ve developed with the building is also pretty special. Jen and I wear many hats with the business, and one of mine is operations. Aside from everything else I do, I’m also taking care of repairs around the Schoolhouse. For example, the water tank blew out this Spring, so I spent an entire week, 20 hours a day, ripping out the 200-year old floor. I’ve been through every inch of that building, inside and out. You can feel the history, even through looking at the beams. I remember thinking “I’ve never seen trees around here the size of what those beams are, what this building is made of… it’s unbelievable.”

I’m not sure if a lot of people know about this, but you didn’t plan to buy a Schoolhouse. You found it by chance, and then you ended up living upstairs when you first started, right? How much did living and working in the same space affect your ability to get things done/remove yourself from work; compared to now that you’re living next to the lake, away from everything?

Jen: Well, I think it’s important to say that we knew we always wanted to live on the south shore. So, coming down here was all very purposeful. Almost in some ways, the location was in some ways, before the business (Schoolhouse) came into the picture.

Aidan: Yeah. I remember one Sunday morning, getting up and pouring a cup of coffee. I sat outside, picked up one of those fairly useless real estate guides that are placed inside the foyer of grocery stories, you know, the ones that are mostly ads. I remember flipping through and seeing the Schoolhouse. What are the chances, right? I thought, the price is within reach, and a lightbulb went off for both of us. I think we bought it within a week (on September 7th). We had no intention of ending up in a Schoolhouse, or to be a Schoolhouse, but that all kinda fell into place because of that one little chance moment.

Jen: Speaking about living/working from the Schoolhouse, the business really ran our lives for the first 3-4 years. We bought the Schoolhouse on Sept. 7, 2009; it was just Aidan and I. We were going to two markets, it was just 2 weeks since we had moved into the Schoolhouse. We were just getting established at that point. Really early on, Pete’s Frootique and Organic Earth Market started calling us to get our products in store. We were still in our ‘trial’ period, still wondering if we were going to open a business. We had no brand at that point, we had a name that we registered (Gluten-Free Goodies) but it was still too general. We had no website, we really had nothing ready at that point.

But, of course, we said “YES! Of course. We can do that!” And we asked for 6 weeks. Or maybe I said 8. Some unreasonable amount of time to re-brand, make a website, put product out the door and start a contract. We had no labels or anything. We were just at the market and we were just wrapping things up, putting them in a bag and putting a little sign out front that said ‘this is a cookie’.

Aidan: And it’s ‘gluten-free’!

Jen: If people wanted to know what the ingredients were, Aidan would just list them off. We were asking what people thought of our products, asking if they would buy them again. We were still using our time at the market as market research and then we dove head first into business. We bought the Schoolhouse with nothing really ready. 

Aidan: Jen and I, we kicked it into high gear. I vaguely remember that period. Because we worked so much. There were days where I would work morning to night. I would not encourage any budding entrepreneurs to do this (work smarter not harder), but when we were in the thick of it, we didn’t have any money and we just had to make things work. I remember basically I had this warn path down out of the flat from upstairs down the stairs into the kitchen, and that was my track from the bed to the kitchen every day. I would go down to work say like 20 hours a day, sometimes 24 hours a day, terrible recollections of going to work on like a Thursday morning and working all of Thursday, all Thursday night, all day Friday, all Friday night and then putting Jen in the car to go to the market on Saturday morning and then sleeping for like 2 days. And then going out, getting up and doing it all again. 

Wow. That must have been tough in the beginning, but look at where you both are now! Do you have any advice for anyone out there looking to start the journey of entrepreneurship/starting a business?

Aidan: Having separation, I would say, is really important. It’s easy to work all the time if you have an office in your house, or it is not separate from your living space. It’s easy for the two parts of your life to bleed together. Your to-do list will never end. It doesn’t matter if you work 20 hours a day, it’s still going to be that long tomorrow as an entrepreneur. It’s about prioritizing and lowering your expectations, having that separation of space. Finding that balance, it has allowed us to be more way more efficient with the time that we have when we are at work. Because we only have that window, so we’ve learned how to work a lot better with less time, I think, instead of working less efficiently all the time.

Jen: We just didn’t know it was going to actually take off this fast. We thought we were being really smart about going and testing our market; we thought we were making a business for Celiacs, that’s what we thought. We’re going to go figure out what they want, and we’re going to get a space, and we’re going to do this for a little bit, get a label… we thought we had a plan. And then it just exploded due to timing. Due to literally no local gluten-free market. So everyone wanted our product fast and we decided, because we weren’t comfortable with a financial burden, but we should have got a loan and hired people to help us. But in the first few years, we didn’t.

Another great piece of advice. Sometimes we say no. We never did that before. At the beginning, you don’t say no. But we got really good at knowing what’s worth our time and what isn’t. If THIS is the direction we’re going in, we’re not going to spend time doing THAT. If someone asks us to go do something that isn’t for us, then we just don’t do it anymore.

Okay, last question! With this beautiful backdrop behind us, away from the hustle and bustle of it all—you’re at home, in your happy place. Over the past 10 years, what are the most humbling moments? Ahead of the Anniversary on Saturday, how does it feel to have gone from living upstairs in the Schoolhouse, never saying no and just running through it all; to then be opening an online store, working with so many incredible retail partners across the maritimes?

Jen: I think it’s pretty amazing. What is most humbling is that we’ve figured out how to make it work. I can’t actually believe that here we are, 10 years later… we have a family business, 2 children, and it’s working. We pay 7 people, and ourselves to live a simple, great life. We make a small product, we take it out to market and people love it/still want to buy it, and have continued to buy it for 10 years now. So much so, that we’ve made that sort of impact on our lives and the lives of our staff, as well, that we’re all still able to be here doing what we love. We have some staff who’ve been with us for 7, 8 years.

Aidan: Exactly. I mean, it’s not like we have a huge team. I always joke about it as they’re our baseball team. You know you need to have the right pitcher, a good 1st base, 3rd base. When all of those pieces are in place, it’s a great feeling. As a small business, we’ve been able to get there. To know with all the work we’ve done over the years, to look back on that… it is pretty amazing.

Jen: It’s incredible how we’ve evolved as a team to make bigger and better things. We’ll get to chatting with the team in the kitchen, saying things like “Look how much we’re able to make now” and “Can you believe how we used to do it?” For example, Melissa is one of the staff members who has been with us the longest, she’s the mixer. In the beginning, she would text and call me asking specifics about the numbers/orders for the next day, wanting to ensure she would be able to get her head around everything that was going to happen. Then, once we hit year 4 or 5, we were busier than ever. I’d ask Melissa if she wanted to know what was going on tomorrow, she’s say “Nah, I’m good. Somehow we’ll get it all done. We always get it done. We’ll figure it out.” She has grown so much, we’ve all grown so much.

Aidan: I loved that Melissa would say “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’ll do it. ‘Cause we always figure it out. It always comes together.” What a great attitude that is. It was amazing to see her go from, you know, wanting to feel like she has a sense of control, to just going with the flow and knowing that everything was going to work out in the end.

Something else that’s pretty amazing is that we’ve become a go-to brand in Eastern Canada… people know us! When someone is talking about Schoolhouse, there’s a really good chance they’re referring to us. Knowing that people appreciate our take on traditional recipes, how we re-work them into something memorable that people want to keep buying. That’s why we wake up every morning to do what we do.

Jen: That was one of our goals, actually, when we were coming up with our brand identity. Schoolhouse was a natural fit because it became an important character in the story and really embodied the concept of traditional, feel-good recipes made into something new.


Stay tuned to the ‘Be Well’ blog in the coming weeks for more excerpts from my interview with Jen & Aidan! There was so much to talk about, I knew there would be no way to fit it all into one blog. We covered the story of how the twins (Sadie & Asha) joined the family, balancing the Schoolhouse and parenthood, stories from the Schoolhouse kitchen, working with local producers, and so much more!

Until next time!

In health and happiness,
Andrew

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