In 2006, Marsha Lemos quit her job as a baker at a natural foods store in Sackville, N.B. to care for her sick father. When he passed away a year later, Ms. Lemos found herself in debt and without a job to return to.
Faced with an uncertain future, she decided to put her love for the kitchen to use. She knew she would need to carve out a niche. Her choice: an organic bakery.
To make customers appreciate her products, she knew it would be critical to educate them about organic food. To open up a business for herself with few business skills and even less capital was Ms. Lemos's challenge.
Ms. Lemos was born in the United States and came to Canada in 1977 to study at Mount Allison University in Sackville, where she completed a bachelor's degree in fine arts. She fell in love with the place and decided to stay, later getting married and settling down.
Food had always played an important role in her family life, especially natural, healthy products.
"I come from a family of people who believed in growing things straight from the ground up," she said. "My grandfather had a garden and my father had a garden, so it's logical from what I grew up with."
To gain the skills and capital to launch a venture, Ms. Lemos decided to take advantage of a program for entrepreneurs offered by the local Community Business Development Corp.
The program offered a free, intensive, two-week course for entrepreneurs. It also offered an opportunity to apply for a startup loan of $10,000 after successful completion of the program.
Ms. Lemos also found another a $10,000 seed loan through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
She received funding from both in September, 2007. One key to the success of her applications was her decision to focus on the growing organic food niche.
Ms. Lemos opened her business, Aliper's Hearth, a month later, on Halloween.
A key to growing the business has been taking pro-active action to educate customers about organic and locally sourced food. Ms. Lemos regularly participates in local Saturday markets, fairs and other festivals and events in the area not only to sell her products but to increase awareness of them and educate consumers about the need for and benefits of the organic food movement.
The business has not been without some trials. After an initial two years of solid sales, the business suffered a third-year decline as the prices of ingredients rose. Around the same time, Ms. Lemos was forced to vacate her rental space. But she quickly found an alternative location and moved in June, 2011.
Since then, Aliper's Hearth has been doing well. As one of the few places selling organic baked goods in the province, it has established a loyal and growing customer base, with about 70 per cent of sales coming from breads and other baked goods, and the rest from soups, salads, sandwiches and the like.
Ms. Lemos has received several offers to relocate to a bigger city and expand her business. She has politely declined these offers, calling her decision to stay in a small town a lifestyle choice.
She is, however, exploring avenues to share her experience by setting up an apprenticeship program, aiming to train young people interested in making a similar lifestyle choice in the bakery business to eventually open their own venture in another town. That, she hopes, will allow others to also become entrepreneurs enjoying a sustainable balanced lifestyle.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Nauman Farooqi is a professor and head of the department of commerce in the Ron Joyce Centre for Business Studies of Mount Allison University.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.
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