When you see a need or have a vision for something, what do you do?
Especially when there is a lot going on in your life and in the world. Do you jump in and take action or do you get in your head with all the what-ifs and to-do lists so much so that you do not even start to explore or take action?
Many of us do both.
But there are folks who take action and do something that supports the greater good, even when it feels too hard and there are many, many unknowns.
They take risks, make hard decisions, and commit to their values with laser focus while leading with generosity, boundaries, and tenacity.
With so much unknown when the pandemic hit, it would have been easy for Jeffrey Brown and Jennifer Chen to keep their vision for a new business in their heads and wait until things were less chaotic.
But they did the opposite.
They dove in with their vision for a new business that represented so much more than the products they were creating but became a true extension of their DNA and values.
Three years ago, they started IZOLA, a bakery making sourdough bread, croissants, and rolls. And they have transformed from lowering orders from their window to a thriving community hub in San Diego.
Jeffrey Brown is a prolific business builder who is passionate about creating fully immersive experiences - from reimagining the bakery industry and serving hot from the oven sourdough and croissants resulting in San Diego's only 5-star bakery to telling Pulitzer-recognized stories through film and photography.
Jennifer Chen has a background in e-commerce. She has spent the last 20 years building multi-million dollar brands in the areas of merchandising, product development, and business development. Now as co-founder of IZOLA, Jennifer has been able to utilize this experience and apply it to a new industry.
Listen to the full episode to hear:
Learn more about Jeffrey Brown and Jennifer Chen:
Learn more about Rebecca:
Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:
Rebecca Ching: We all respond to change and challenge in our own unique ways, and how we respond to change and challenge often reflects the privilege we hold and our capacity to sit with discomfort and conflict. So, when we all shut down and sheltered in place back in March of 2020, I paid attention to how people were responding to this seismic shift in how they were doing life. Call it an occupational hazard, right? [Laughs] I watched how the hard stop to doing life and business as usual brought many people to a crossroads that challenged their capacity and their values.
Now, we live in a world that holds high regard, even worships hyper-productivity and constant doing, often at the expense of our well being and connection to ourselves and each other. And then there are times when something is stirring in you that you have to create or cultivate that feels bigger than you but also connected to what matters most to you. It’s less about grinding and proving and more about an expression of your deep values. I hold a special appreciation and deep respect for those who create, innovate, and disrupt, no matter how big or small the impact, because it all matters, especially when others are shaking their collective heads and thinking your big idea is too risky or not logical, you move forward anyways, because to not move forward would be dishonest and to rob you of your peace.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
So, when you see a need or have a vision for something, what do you do, especially when there’s a lot going on in your life and in the world? Do you jump in and take action or do you get into your head with all the what-ifs and to-do lists and all the reasons why this could go wrong, so much so that you don't even start to explore or take action? Now, I can do a little bit of both, and I know I’m not alone. Sometimes I get a vision or see a path to doing something or a conversation that needs to be had and a picture forms in my head that I can't shake until I download it though creating something or mobilizing people. I am restless until I can move this idea out of my head and into the world. And other times, I get all in my head and go in circles planning, strategizing, especially when something feels particularly vulnerable in my system or what I want to do is connected to proving my worth or my value.
Now, I feel a deep compassion for all the ways we navigate change and struggle and getting things done, both in crisis and chronic struggles in day-to-day life. Though I sure feel a lot of frustration and anger, even rage, when I see folks with power exploit and manipulate and double down on harmful ways of doing life and business. Ah, but then there are folks who catch my attention and fill me with hope and awe in how they take action and do something that supports the greater good, even when it feels too hard and there are many, many unknowns.
These leaders respond to needs and suffering and out-of-left-field ideas around them in ways that show they have done the reps every dang day in living their values, often when folks are not looking or it’s a trendy thing to do.
They take risks, make hard decisions, and commit to their values with laser focus while leading with generosity, boundaries, and tenacity. I watch these leaders navigate the internal and external critics and naysayers by looking them head on, addressing them, and then releasing them so they’re not a priority connected to their worthiness or safety, and when I connect with leaders like these, I quickly learn about their long-term commitment to their own healing and a deep humility that their own inner work is never done and is deeply connected to being in service to others. And as they heal the burdens they carry, they break the cycle of pain by leading and creating in ways that heal themselves while also empowering those around them.
With so much unknown when the pandemic hit, it would have been so easy for my guests today to keep their vision for a new business in their head and wait until things were less chaotic. [Laughs] But they did the opposite. They dove head first into externalizing the vision for a new business that represented so much more than the products they were creating but became a true extension of their DNA and values that not only created an amazing product (trust me, amazing) but also honored the people in their business and allowed them to give back to those in the city in which they live.
Three years ago, Jeffrey Brown, a Pulitzer Prize nominated photographer, and his partner Jennifer Chen, an e-commerce specialist, started IZOLA, a bakery-making, hot, fresh sourdough bread, croissants, and the most amazing rolls. They would lower orders down to their customers in a basket from their transformed photography studio at the beginning of the pandemic.
Now, three years later, they are a thriving hub in our city here in San Diego, preparing to expand to a new headquarters that will allow many to experience IZOLA’s special baked goods beyond San Diego. So, let me tell you about Jeffrey.
Jeffrey is a prolific business builder who is passionate about creating fully immersive experiences, from reimagining the bakery industry and serving hot-from-the-oven sourdough and croissants resulting in San Diego’s only five-star bakery, to telling Pulitzer-recognized stories through film and photography. Jennifer Chen has a background in e-commerce and has spent the last 20 years building multi-million-dollar brands in the areas of merchandising, product development, and business development. Now, as the co-founder of IZOLA, Jennifer has been able to utilize this experience and apply it to a whole new industry.
Now, listen for how a dream of IZOLA kicked off at the start of the pandemic and how their business grew by word of mouth only. Pay attention to when Jenny credits going to therapy from the start of their relationship and how that’s fueled the success of both their relationship and their business today. And notice when Jeffrey shared the heart of IZOLA and what it means to him to create a business that honors all people. Now, my apologies for some sound issues at the beginning. Hang in there. It is worth it. Now, please welcome Jeffrey Brown and Jennifer Chen to The Unburdened Leader podcast!
Jeffrey and Jennifer, welcome to the podcast!
Jeffrey Brown: Woo woo! We’re so, so stoked to be here. Thanks for having us on, Rebecca!
Rebecca Ching: I’ve been looking forward to this conversation, and I’d love to kick off by taking me back to June of 2020 when you lowered your first fresh-out-of-the-oven baked goods, lovingly placed in a basket and then kind of pulleyed-down three stories down to your first customers.
What was that day like for the both of you? Jeffrey, why don’t you start us off?
Jeffrey Brown: Well, you know, it was kind of at a pivotal moment for me because I’d been in that space at that point 20 years, you know? And I never really thought of lowering anything out the window, but lowering that hand-over-hand down in that time period when COVID was raging and there were no shots and we were all scared and just the idea that we can bring a little bit of joy to folks, when I saw that first person pull that box out and take a bite of that hot-from-the-oven croissant, I tell ya, I was hooked, and honestly, the course of my life changed in that moment.
Rebecca Ching: Wow, how about for you, Jennifer?
Jennifer Chen: Sure, yeah! You know, it was exciting and thrilling, as Jeffrey said. But it was also, for us, I think quite unknown, you know? We were going through a lot at the time, and this was something that, to be honest, we just thought we were gonna do for a few months. A great way for us to reconnect with the community while we were all sequestered at home at the time. So, we were just looking for a way to just safely say hi to our neighbors. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Interesting. So, yeah, tell me more about what led you to open a bakery, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic.
Jennifer Chen: So, passion. Passion for food. So, Jeffrey loves eating bread at every single meal. It’s a staple for him. He had been making loaves of bread just as a hobby. I am a passionate eater of food. I just love eating. I have always joked that if I could create the career of a lifetime, it would be to just eat professionally. Unbeknownst to me, [Laughs] we created that. So, I think that definitely was a part of it, but it’s really about connecting with our community as well.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, what would you add to that, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey Brown: Well, you know, as a couple, sometimes I have a different recall of that. I basically think that Jenny dared me to do it, like to stop talking about it and just do it.
And so, we did it. [Laughs] I’m like I’ve been talking about opening a bakery for a long time. You know, I’ve been a photographer and never done anything else, and I have obviously no qualifications to open a bakery other than I literally love hot bread, you know? I’ll take it over croissants, over sourdough, over dessert of any kind. So, she’s just like, “So, let’s do it.” And I’m like, “Okay, yeah! Let’s do it!”
Jennifer Chen: Essentially, he took two days off when COVID hit. He took two days off and was like, “Okay, what am I gonna do now? I’m gonna open that bakery.”
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah.
Jennifer Chen: And he hit the ground running.
Jeffrey Brown: We got home from Europe, what, like, early March, and we had IZOLA on its feet and serving our first customers by June 10th.
Rebecca Ching: Wow. And it blew up by word of mouth. You didn't do any formal promotions. This was literally a grassroots business, is that correct?
Jennifer Chen: Absolutely. At the beginning, and still to this day to be honest, it really has been just all from the heart, and it’s been amazing to see the community really respond to that, you know? What we have found is that a community that is just passionate about being together and enjoying great things and just slowing down a little bit, slowing down and having a cup of coffee and a croissant when our lives are just so busy these days.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely. Especially since we’ve gotten back to the swing of things, it’s almost like we’ve lost that beauty of that pause. It’s interesting because I heard about you through a client who was like, “Oh, I’ve got a stomach ache.” I’m like, “What’s wrong?” He’s like, “No, it’s a good one! I just got this amazing bread, and I ate past fullness, but it was worth it,” and I’m like, “Where is this place?” He told me, and as soon as we were done, I Googled it, and then I read about your vision, your business, and I thought, “Oh, my gosh,” and so, literally, put my order in and boogied down there days later, and my family was just over the moon.
I actually went there this morning. I actually got to meet you in person, Jeffrey, and I grabbed our family’s favorites that I’m showing you right now. There’s the chocolate croissant. I lived in Europe. I lived in Switzerland, so I can be a little bit of a food (and especially bread) snob since coming back to The States.
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah! Right?
Rebecca Ching: Okay, but this Tahitian Vanilla Roll, when my family was biting into it, I was like, “Now, don't rush it. Let the flavors wash over your mouth.” [Laughs]
Jeffrey Brown: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: You know, just like people would talk about wine. I’m like, “Did you get that? Did you get that extra flavor?” And they're like, “Okay, mom. Chill out.”
Jeffrey Brown: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: So, I’m just holding up these beautiful pastries that are a work of art, and I want to hear more about your actual process, but first, walk me through the vision for IZOLA. Again, what really sets you apart from a lot of businesses is this intentional intersection you have cultivated between food, social justice, and environmental stewardship. What are the practices that you have in place that really bring these values into the lived experiences for both your team but also for your customers?
Jeffrey Brown: You know, I would like to say that in April of 2020 we sat down for a cup of coffee and layed all this out, but we didn't. We took it one step at a time, and you used the word intentional, and I think that’s a great word in the sense that we have tried to decide on every choice and not just kind of let it flow randomly. And so, the business is a reflection of Jenny and myself’s values, personally, but that came a little bit later. We really just were like, “Okay, we’re here. We’ve got time. We’ve got a community that is hurting right now, and so, we want to get out and try to just add a little pop of joy to a scary time.”
If you remember back to that, we were afraid of each other. We were afraid of dying. We were afraid of COVID. We were afraid of all of it.
So, we would be like, “Okay, we’re gonna make a good croissant.” You know, we didn’t set out to make the best croissant or anything else. We were just like, “Well, we’re gonna make a good croissant.” We couldn't get any warm bread anywhere, and so, we would just put it up on Instagram. We would lower it out the window in that basket, and down it would go. And so then, another decision would come. “Do we want to make something else?” And so, we would try something. We’d be like, “We don't love it, so it’s not going in there.” So that’s kind of the intentionality.
And then as we started to gather momentum, and after the first six or something months, we started to bring some folks in to help us. And so, we were like, “Okay, how do we want to treat -- what kind of community do we want for the folks who are on the team?” And as you start to generate some sales, you also have power to affect change. We don't have to ask anyone for permission. We don't have to get a government grant. We don't have to do anything. We just do things the way we think is right and the way we want to be treated.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, Jenny, what would you add to that?
Jennifer Chen: Really, I think that the brand of IZOLA is a reflection of who Jeffrey and I are, truly, as people. As he said, we didn't sit down and strategize what our business plan would be or what market would be the best fit for this product. What it really is is an expression of how we live our lives. And so, the economic justice, environmental justice, and gender justice, those are all things that are incredibly important to us in our day-to-day lives and have always been, and so, they just naturally came out. They came out in how we do business, and we weren't necessarily connecting it to a revenue stream or a revenue model.
It really was just what felt right for us, so I don't think it actually ever was a question for us as that started to be expressed within the brand for that to become some central pillars for IZOLA.
Rebecca Ching: Mm. One of the many things that stood out when reading about the vision was wanting to pay your team well in addition to being extremely particular on where you source your product. Talk to me a little bit about building your team. Leading is one thing when it’s the two of you and your dream, but as you expand, how have you maintained your vision and the expression of your values and what you both believe, and what does that look like in the hiring practices, in how you pay, in how you care for your team?
Jennifer Chen: I will say that this, for me, has been the biggest learning curve, and we have made a lot of mistakes, and I think we will continue to make them because the way that we lead a team will probably evolve as that team changes and grows as well. So, when it was the two of us and then we added on our very first team member, Spencer, that was very, very different from where we are today, but there have been several stages throughout the evolution of IZOLA where we’re approaching it a little bit differently. We had a really familial sort of community and environment amongst our team when we were seven team members or less. As we grow to beyond seven (to about ten plus) it becomes really different. You know, we had to really figure out how we could evolve the way we communicate with our team members because we could no longer communicate with each and every team member directly at that point, right? So, how do we develop systems to ensure that each team member is seen and heard, but we can't have ten people coming to us every single day. It’s just not manageable for us.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Jennifer Chen: And so along the way, we’ve really had to pivot the process and the way we lead the team as that team grows. And we’ve learned a lot.
Rebecca Ching: What’s been one of the biggest learnings in that particular part of your business in terms of hiring and leading your team?
Jennifer Chen: There are no guarantees and also just following your gut. I think that we have really stayed true to kind of really hiring by the values that a person exhibits and less about the resume they bring to the table because what we have learned is that we can teach somebody to bake, we can teach somebody to make a croissant, but we can't really instill that passion and that hard work in somebody. And so, all of our teammates right now, none of them came from the service industry or the baking industry or they didn't go to culinary school for this. It’s all been taught by IZOLA, but they are all incredibly passionate about what they do, and they come to work every day with their whole hearts. We can't teach that.
Rebecca Ching: Well, I picked that up this morning when I had my surprise tour behind-the-scenes. Whether it was the place where you were dusting the bread or in the proofing room, I got to meet some of these folks, and that’s something that definitely landed with me was the heart. I didn't know the training. I really think there’s a lot of wisdom there in hiring for values, for the person, and the skills can be taught. That’s a really great lesson. Is there anything you would add, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey Brown: Well, you know, we began this process because we could hire personal qualities as opposed to experience, but it’s come to my attention that it’s also a strategic advantage in the sense that we don't need to hire folks who have been baking for 5 years or 20 years or something. So, our pool of available people who can do amazing things is much, much larger.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Jeffrey Brown: Generally speaking, of people, I’ll talk a little bit more about our roles, Jenny and mine, have changed. Jenny and I used to make all the croissants ourselves on Sunday. We would go in, before we had a machine or anything, and we would go in and roll everything out for the whole week in one 13- or 14-hour session in the freezing cold room. [Laughs] As we continued to grow and sell out and started to bring team members in, our roles have shifted in a sense that we are now focused on, essentially two things: team building -- because the culture and what you felt when you walked in. I mean, we make a decent croissant and a decent sourdough, yes, it’s true. But that’s not really the core of the IZOLA experience in my opinion. You know, it’s how you feel when you walk in. It’s everything. It’s the food. It’s the service. It’s the hospitality. It’s the whole experience.
And so, our roles, Jenny and mine, have really morphed into inculcating those values into the leaders -- basically encouraging leaders to grow up from within the team and to inculcate those values to them so they can perpetuate those ideas and those concepts, and we really protect the IZOLA culture, both for guests and team members. And then a lot of strategic development because I think that’s where other bakeries or other businesses sometimes struggle is, you know, you’ve got a great baker, but they may not be a strong businessperson or they may not have that forward-thinking vision to go, “Okay, I’m making these by hand now, and if we’re gonna grow this thing up a ways, how do I protect the culture, protect the quality, and figure out how to scale it?” And so, those two things are what Jenny and I -- in addition to Jeff, who you spent some time with today -- that’s what we spend our time working on.
Rebecca Ching: You know, I’m thinking back to a previous Unburdened Leader guest, Wendy Collie, and she worked -- we were talking before we were recording about Starbucks -- she actually worked for Starbucks in the early days, and she said, “Culture will eat strategy for lunch.” And so, just really appreciate everything that you just shared.
I want to also kind of talk a little about the environmental stewardship piece and kind of where you source your ingredients. You’re very particular where your butter is from, where your flour is from. How do you decide where to invest in your product? What are some of the things that you're looking to tick off the list to make sure that the businesses that you source from are aligned with your business values?
Jennifer Chen: For us, when it comes to our ingredients, it really just comes down to taste. What is going to be the best-tasting ingredient? It surprisingly is not always an organic ingredient. Though, we do use organic milk. We use organic flour. But our butter is not organic. We tested 17 different butters in a blind taste test where the only difference from the process was the butter. The 17 different batches got to really narrow it down to the butter from Normandy that we currently use. And so, when we’re talking about --
Rebecca Ching: Seventeen!
Jennifer Chen: Yes! [Laughs] So, when I’m talking about a professional career in eating, that was a dream for me. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: You’ve arrived!
Jennifer Chen: I tried 13 different types of croissants. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: You can go ahead, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey Brown: Well, and now, her professional eating career is being elevated. I’m dragging her off to Amsterdam to continue her professional eating career, to taste test a croissant automation line test, basically, to taste test croissants as they come off the line with our recipe on an amazing automated croissant line that’s in the Netherlands that we were considering for our new IZOLA Main.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my goodness! That is gonna be incredible. I cannot wait to hear how that trip goes.
Jeffrey Brown: We make these choices even though they are not necessarily the cheapest. I mean, for example -- and you probably noticed it when you were in today -- there is almost nothing disposable that you were served on today. Our plates, our glassware, our knives, our napkins. We launder napkins, you know?
Rebecca Ching: I noticed that.
Jeffrey Brown: You know, because that just takes so much out of the waste stream. And even looking forward into the new IZOLA Main -- and IZOLA Main, just to kind of bring your readers with us is our new dough innovation center and bakeshop that’s in design right now that’ll be about five miles away. And so, for example, we’re gonna incorporate full-on automated material handling. Well, what does that mean? That means that we could pull a semi truck up full of organic flour and hook a hose up to it and suck it all up out of there and into a silo, and every year that will take 25,000 pounds of paper out of the manufacturing stream. I’m not talking about recycling. I’m talking about those bags will never be made.
Rebecca Ching: Wow. Wow.
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah, and so, stuff like that. Strategic, expensive, high-capital costs. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been raising some capital out there because we’re building -- you might think of it as the factor of the future, which enables the productivity of our workers to grow up, which enables them to get paid more and enables our profit margins to go up, too.
Rebecca Ching: It’s not convenient, it’s not efficient to do all the work and the research. Like you mentioned, there’s a cost in that, but to not do it, the cost is greater. So, I really appreciate your example, and I cannot wait to see IZOLA Main as it comes to fruition.
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah!
Rebecca Ching: So, speaking of that, you just wrapped your second round of grassroots investor’s funding, now totaling over a million dollars. What led you to growing your company through this avenue? Jenny, do you want to start off on that?
Jennifer Chen: We didn't actually start out even wanting to seek investment. We actually started to have customers come by and ask about our future and ask about how they could get involved, and as we started going down that path, we’ve had a couple of professional investors come through interested in helping craft the future of IZOLA. As we learned a little bit more about that more traditional way of raising funds, it just didn't feel like the right fit for IZOLA because it really is available only to a select few (SEC rules, there are minimum income requirements).
And Jeffrey had actually stumbled upon this new platform, which he can share with you more details on that, but with the new platform where we did raise our million dollars was it allows us to really tap into the IZOLA community, and it allows anybody to invest, and that was what we really loved about it. For as little as a thousand dollars, we would be able to purchase it. And so, that immediately felt like the right fit for us.
Rebecca Ching: That’s incredible.
Jennifer Chen: Jeffrey, did you want to expand? Yeah.
Jeffrey Brown: A couple of things. So, we are raising our capital through a regulation CF (or crowdfunding) equity raise, and that’s regulated by the Security Exchange Commission.
And so, you might think of it kind of like Kickstarter, but you actually get something for your money. [Laughs] So, you know, the people who invest will own a piece of IZOLA, will own a piece of the company, and they will be subject to the same potential gains and/or losses (i.e. lose their entire investment just like Jenny and I are subject to). So, you know, just philosophically, have lined up well because, as Jenny said, effectively, to be a non-CF (crowdfunded) investor, you’ve already got to be rich. You have to have over $250,000 in liquid assets over and above your home. And so, that didn't sit right with us. And so, out of 252 investors, there are only 7 that are not IZOLA customers. And so, we have 252 partners at IZOLA, and 245 are all IZOLA customers, so we’re very, very proud of that.
Rebecca Ching: I mean, I think there’s something to be said from just thinking about that from your roots of starting and just how the word spread, but that theme of community keeps coming up and the experience and the care. That’s such a powerful theme, and I know that that captivated me when I first heard about your company. It’s also almost a bridge to the social justice piece, too, because even how you chose to do funding, it didn't move it out to an elite few. I wonder, too, even with how you are crowdsourcing, some folks are like, “Financing, bread, social justice, that’s a stretch. How do we bring all that together,” you know?
I mean, I see it, but I think a lot of folks, maybe because things are -- I don't know. I mean, we fight cynicism (at least I have to fight it) on a daily basis, and some folks roll their eyes, but there’s something about this business that really is digging into the people. Can you talk a little bit more about the community funding this and how that connects to your commitment to social justice?
Jeffrey Brown: For me, I think that everyone should have the opportunity to earn some money by investing or to lose some money by investing. And so, for me, it’s just like everybody gets to play, and we’ll see how it turns out. But I think it’s kind of paternalistic in some ways to be like, “Oh, no, you can't do it, but only these folks who’ve got this can do it,” and I understand the purpose of the laws in order to protect people from getting swindled or getting in over their heads or whatever. So, the great thing about this is the minimum investment’s a thousand bucks, and so, effectively, anybody who wants to can. That’s it for me, giving people a choice. A lot of people don't. You know, we’ve got a lot of customers, and a lot of people are like, “No, I’m not touching that with a ten-foot pole,” and I’m like, “You're probably smart.” [Laughs] And so, “Come on it. I’ll give you a free croissant.”
But for us, we just want to -- and it’s the same way we run the space -- we want to make fertile ground for people to come in, and it doesn't matter what you look like, who you love, where you come from, you're welcome.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, what just happened there? What did you just feel as you shared that?
Jeffrey Brown: You know, I grew up in kind of a rough town, and it was not always easy for me. I’m a queer kid from a farmtown, and I basically had to fight my way out of that town. And so, I have felt like an outsider for most of my life.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, IZOLA’s a place to make sure that nobody feels that they're an outsider when they come in contact with what you both have made.
Jeffrey Brown: That's for sure because it can become a pain in the ass about food quality. Wait until you see somebody threaten what we’ve got going at IZOLA because you will have a hand full. [Laughs] Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Has that happened? Has someone tried to threaten what you have going?
Jeffrey Brown: Sure. You know, we’ve got people coming in sometimes and being rude to the staff. I politely, but forcefully, escort them out. I won't tolerate it. I won't tolerate people being treated poorly, anyone. Like I said, I feel like it’s a safe place. We’ve got Black families hanging out with their families next to old ladies who can barely get up the stairs. We have to strong-arm them up the stairs to do the tour you did today because they can't walk up those stairs. So, it’s just we will not tolerate any sort of bad behavior in there.
Jennifer Chen: Yeah, I also wanted to share why we named the bakery IZOLA because I think it very much illustrates the background and what Jeffrey and I are trying to create here. IZOLA was named after his grandmother. I was not fortunate enough to meet her, but I have heard so much about her, and from what I have heard, she provided that safe space for Jeffrey as a kid on the farm, and she was that welcoming open door that anybody could walk through and stay and linger for as long as they wanted and to feel welcome. And so, it really is quite an honor every day to be able to say her name in a space like IZOLA.
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah, if you are a neighbor or stop by or a stranger, she’d invite you in to the table and pour a cup of terrible Folgers coffee and serve a really nice piece of pie, you know? [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Oh, Folgers coffee. So, you both are really continuing IZOLA’s legacy, literally.
Jeffrey Brown: [Laughs] Sans the Folgers, though.
Rebecca Ching: And they're scaling it. Yeah, Folgers is not within a ten-mile radius, right, [Laughs] of your space, hopefully.
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: No, I really appreciate that. I really appreciate that. Thank you both for sharing some more of the heart behind IZOLA.
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I want to shift a little bit more to the two of you. I mean, this is an occupational hazard, but as a 20-year veteran psychotherapist and leadership coach, I’m always noticing when couples go into business together, and I’d love for you to share what a typical day is like for the both of you along with what intentions and boundaries support your decisions around roles and responsibilities as you navigate running a business and leading your team and caring for your relationship. [Laughs]
Jeffrey Brown: Jenny, you better kick this one off! [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Jenny, why don’t you -- yeah! [Laughs]
Jennifer Chen: All right, I’ll take it. I’ll take it. You know, I think it’s interesting that you're a psychotherapist, Rebecca, because, often, Jeffrey and I credit our relationship to therapy. We started our relationship both of us going to therapy from the very, very start and dedicating that time every single week to myself really helps everybody around me. Understanding where I’m coming from, what my fears are, what my goals and dreams are only helps my relationship with Jeffrey.
It helps my relationship with our team members. It helps my relationship with our customers at IZOLA. And so, we say, often, that had it not been for our therapist Greg, we probably wouldn't be together, and it’s hard work. It’s hard work to kind of look within and face those fears. And so, we do that every day.
But stepping away from that, in terms of our relationship personally versus professionally, it is challenging. The company takes up every single day. Sunday through Saturday, the entire week, we’re working on it. And so, naturally, we find ourselves at the dinner table talking about the bakery. And so, we have had to make really conscious decisions to choose the times that are appropriate where maybe we choose not to talk about the business and really connect with one another, whether that means going to take our dog, Sam, for a walk on the beach while the sun is setting. You know, really just pulling ourselves away and reminding ourselves that by taking that two hours that evening to go and do that, whatever we would have accomplished in those two hours at our desk, it can wait until tomorrow. And so, that has been hard for us to learn, but I think we’ve gotten a lot better at it. So, just really carving out that very purposeful time for one another.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm. That’s essential. It’s essential because the work will run your relationship to the ground if you don't create space away from it. So, I love hearing that. What would you add, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey Brown: You know, I don't have a whole lot to add to that other than it’s like drinking from a firehose. And so, you can drink it all. You just have to shut the valve and just go away and just walk away from it, you know?
We’re getting better at it, and we’ve got a ways to go still. I was just talking to a friend about self-care yesterday and saying, “Look, we want to teach the team to do it. We also want to engage in the practice more ourselves,” and we’re gonna run some team-building workshops out of the bakery with the idea of helping people kind of map their souls a little bit more.
Jennifer Chen: And I would also say, professionally, there have been a lot of learnings as well. We just touched on how we have tried to really protect our personal relationship, but professionally, we have had and we will continue to have disagreements and heated discussions about the business. We don't always agree on everything. And so, we have also learned over the past year/year and a half how to have healthier conversations around it, to bring us and arrive at the decision that we want to take the business in.
Rebecca Ching: I love it.
Jennifer Chen: That has also been a learning for us, too.
Rebecca Ching: Hey, a team, a couple that can navigate conflict and see it as an asset is going to not just survive but thrive. So, I love that that’s been a growth edge for the both of you. On just a practical level, what is a typical day like for you? Jeffrey, you want to start?
Jennifer Chen: Not very exciting. [Laughs]
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah, you know, we roll out of bed pretty early between around 5:00/5:30, and then just hit it. And so, we just go as far and long as we can to just find our way in each of these tasks, whether we’re designing the new building or developing more sustainable packaging that’s getting manufactured in China, to figuring out how to bring a 401K plan to our team members because we think that it’s absolutely crucial for these 20-year-olds to sock away some money because then by the time they're our age they’ve got a half-a-million or a million dollars. [Laughs]
So, I will say that sometimes it’s easier to keep going than it is to make that transition and transition to personal time or dog time or physical exercise time or whatever. And so, that’s one of the things at least I’m working on is, I don't want to say hiding behind it, but just being more proactive and just being like, “Boom! Done! I’m taking the dog for a run,” you know? The to-do list with 68 things on it is still gonna be there later today or tomorrow or whenever.
Rebecca Ching: It is.
Jeffrey Brown: Same with Jenny. Let’s go to dinner. Let’s go for a walk. Let’s go to the beach. Let’s hangout. Let’s watch some Vikings. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Jennifer Chen: Guilty pleasure of ours.
Jeffrey Brown: Vikings and chocolate, you know?
Rebecca Ching: That’s a good one. Great guilty pleasure. So, it’s like rolling out of bed, going hard, crushing, repeat, with some structured boundary time where you take a break from the work and really focus on each other or on yourselves, and that’s how you do it, especially when you're in the phase you are with growing and expanding a business for sure.
I am so curious, too. I’d love for our listeners to know a little bit more about your previous work experiences and studies and how they influence and support your work growing IZOLA today.
Jennifer Chen: Yeah, sure. So, I’ve spent my entire career in e-commerce. I’m from the Bay Area. You know, I got to see the big start-up boom, both booms, and my career has been in merchandising for e-commerce companies. So, that’s product development, brand development, and so, while very far from the bakery industry, it has definitely served us well here at IZOLA in terms of some of the key areas where you will see kind of that experience really coming into play are the way that we forecast our products.
So, we’re talking about environmental justice, and we think a lot about wastage. So, we forecast every single day, down to the unit, as to what we’re expecting to sell for that day. For the past several months, we have unfortunately been selling out every day just because of the demand, but prior to that even, prior to us being at peak demand, we were only at about three percent wastage for each day on average because we forecasted the demand. It’s something that I’m super proud of because in this industry it’s in the double digits, and it’s usually in the twenties or so.
Rebecca Ching: Exactly. Wow.
Jennifer Chen: That has definitely been a great impact on the business, me being able to just really forecast the business and put processes in place that allow us to really manage the day-to-day logistics of baking hot from the oven. So, we’re baking live as we’re open. We don't bake everything out overnight like a typical bakery is doing. And so, we’re baking in much smaller batches, and so, we need to forecast by the hour how many proofers do we have by the hour and what items are they, what is our anticipated walk-in demand so that the bakers know exactly what to put in the oven at what time, and then we’re calculating down to the unit what is available at that moment. At 8:07 AM when you walk into the bakery, what can our front-of-house staff offer to you and sell to a customer.
Rebecca Ching: I lucked out today. I lucked out today, let me tell you. I scored with my favorite treats. But man, that forecasting is both an art and a science.
It’s very dynamic, and so, to get down to three percent, that’s incredible. The way my system works, I’d almost be competing, like, “All right, how do I get it to 2.9?” I’d be just driving myself -- I’d get so into those numbers. So, that’s really exciting.
Jeffrey, in researching your background from being raised in the Midwest on a farm, I saw in one interview that you actually went to school to get into engineering, then switched to photography, and now you're running IZOLA. Talk to me about how all of those experiences influence and support your work growing IZOLA today.
Jeffrey Brown: For sure, and I have to say, before we do that, I just want to put a little kicker on to what Jenny said in the sense that --
Rebecca Ching: Yeah!
Jeffrey Brown: You know, Jenny is a very modest person, and so, she effectively, single-handedly built what I call is the IZOLA Operating System. So, in addition to just forecasting, it controls where 5,000 pieces of pastry are all along their four-day process. So, if you think about it, it’s like watching an arrow, and then you come in and put your order in, and the flight path has to deflect while it’s in flight. And so, it’s absolutely key to our ability to take care of the customers we do have in the way we do, in the sense that it’s almost like the worst of both worlds. We are not doing it like a typical bakery baking it all at two o’clock in the morning in the morning and then just putting it all on the counter. That would be easier. We have a product that takes -- you know, a loaf of bread for us takes 40 to 42 minutes. And so, we can't wait until you come in and order it either like a traditional restaurant where you come in and order a bowl of ramen and it’s ready in ten minutes. And so, we have to forecast it, and we have to know that you, Rebecca, are gonna come in at -- you came in at, what, like 8:30/9:00 today? We have you guess that you're gonna come in, and we have to start your bread at 7:50 for you.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Oh, wow.
Jeffrey Brown: And if we don't, there’s no bread for you.
Rebecca Ching: So, forecasting is like fancy guessing.
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah. Yeah, and tracking it.
Rebecca Ching: I mean, but then there’s -- yeah.
Jennifer Chen: Yeah, absolutely.
Jeffrey Brown: And so, it’s amazing.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Jeffrey Brown: There is no other -- we have a screen for the bakers that tells them which serial numbers of trays to grab next to feed the right flow, you know? Once it comes back out, that data is entered in, they click “good,” and basically it goes to the screen on the front of the house and adds those 12 croissants that just came out to the total available. But before it does that, it subtracts out the six for your pre-order and goes, “You only get six for the front of house because these six are already for Rebecca.”
So, anyway, I won’t get too far in the weeds, but all I can say is that IZOLA exists today because of the work that Jenny has done, really incredible work that most people will never see because they just walk in and there’s this amazing hot-from-the-oven bread and pastries.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you for going into that more. You created some beautiful visuals for that, too.
Jeffrey Brown: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: So, thank you so much for circling back. I really do want to hear a little more. Your journey has been eclectic, but it seems like everything that you have done is fueling IZOLA today from growing up in a farmtown to studying engineering to running a photography business to today. Yeah, so, tell me more about how you see those experiences supporting your work growing IZOLA.
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah, I think you might say that everything I have done up to this point is leading me to the skillset that I’m using at IZOLA right now.
So, if we back it up, growing up on a farm, I learned an incredible amount of scrappy, can-do moxie, “I can fix this. We can do it,” because that’s just the way it is on the farm. There’s never enough money. There’s never enough time. And so, you just do it yourself. If you want something fixed, you fix it yourself. And so, people are often like, “Well, how do you know this stuff?” And I’m like, “I don't know it.” I didn't know how to bake. I just got the recipe from the back of the flour bag, and I’m like, “We can launch a bakery. I can make bread. I can make a croissant.” When the air conditioner breaks, I get my little tool set, and I go over there, and if I don't know what to do, I watch a YouTube video and I try and try and try, and sometimes I can't fix it, but nine out of ten times I can. And so, that’s really helped propel and accelerate us, that part of it.
The engineering kind of follows right on that. The design of the new IZOLA Main, effectively, I’ve put it together with paper and scissors and tape, and then the architects and the kitchen designers put it in AutoCAD. So, that’s how this new building has gotten designed, you know? Because our system is so idiosyncratic that it doesn't follow any of the typical ways that bakeries are designed. I mean, I know your readers won't be able to see that, but all of that stuff on that blueprint, it’s just like I just cut it out, I call people in Europe, and they're like, “We can't do that,” and I’m like, “Well, I think you can.” It does happen to be your equipment and your factory, but I’m pretty sure you can figure it out.
And so, sure enough, now the tide has turned and people have figured out that I’m not insane, and also we’ve also started to get some recognition.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Jeffrey Brown: And so, that also helps the momentum come. And so, we’ve had teams from all over the world fly in to visit us to propose to be our equipment suppliers, and we’re leaving on Saturday to fly to Amsterdam to test our croissants at the Rademaker factory outside of Amsterdam. They supply some of the biggest companies in the world with croissant-making and dough-handling equipment. They just flew in here with three people to pitch us, and I said, “Yeah, that looks really great, and so, let’s try it!” And so, the tide has turned on that.
And then with photography, you know, I’m a very visual person, and so, I walk through the space, and much to the chagrin of my assistant general manager today, I had 13 notes for him before he arrived this morning of stuff that I thought needed attention, and he’s like, “How did you find all this stuff?” I said, “I just see it as I walk around.” It’s like this can't be there. That can't be there. We are able to do a lot of this ourselves, and we’re not afraid, and we bring some visual style to it as well.
Jennifer Chen: I also think that’s a great example, too, of the advantage of not being from the industry, right?
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Jennifer Chen: Right? So, we’re not bound by the way “things are done,” because we don’t know. We have no clue.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Jennifer Chen: And so, we’re looking at it through fresh eyes and asking why couldn't it be done hot from the oven. Why wouldn't we do it that way? We know now why: it’s hard. It’s hard to do that, but had we known how hard it was, we probably wouldn't have done it. Jeffrey challenging these different manufacturers and vendors on new ways of creating a croissant that looks like it’s been hand-crafted, that’s not anything they’ve ever considered before. But to him, why not? Why wouldn't a machine be able to do it?
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] It’s almost like everyone that you've been interacting with you're calling them up because you don't know all the shoulds and the have-tos from a system that’s kind of maybe even operationalized creativity out of things to make it systematic and efficient. You're coming in saying, “Let’s do it,” and proving them wrong in the best of ways. So, that’s exciting, and that also takes some guts, too. That takes some guts. I appreciate that.
I’m from the Midwest, and I grew up in Minnesota, and one of the things I learned early on is I have such respect for farmers, and everything you detailed just reminded me even some of my friends I grew up with and just what I watched and listened to growing up where there were still family farms around and that there isn't this is just your job and not anything else, and you can't take no for an answer when so much is on the line. So, I really appreciate those roots that are driving things today.
I’d love to wind up our conversation talking about how you both view success, especially in the context of your work at IZOLA today. What does success look like to you now, and how is it different from what you were taught? Jenny, do you want to kick it off?
Jennifer Chen: For me, I think it’s just getting back up after I’d been knocked down. These past two years have been incredibly scary for me. Every big milestone we’ve hit has been, for me, filled with fear of can I do it, is it gonna be too hard, and once we actually just put one step in front of the other, it really isn't as bad or as fearful as I think of in my mind. And so, the moments I was proud of myself is when I’ve gotten back up and brushed myself off and just go at it again the next day. That certainly differs from the kind of perspective I had growing up.
Growing up, it was about getting straight A’s, knowing how to take tests, knowing how to study, get into a good college, get a great career going at a big corporate company, and I did that, and I’ve loved it.
But that was how success was framed as I was growing up was those sort of metrics of what kind of job could I get and what kind of income would I have, and not about what I was able to accomplish personally myself in terms of how much I was able to push myself each day.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, yeah, there really is a powerful measure of success and how we rise when we get our butts kicked and we have face-down moments.
Jennifer Chen: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I really appreciate that. How about you, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey Brown: You know, I am really driven by the experiences people have at IZOLA, and like I said, when I looked down from that third-floor window as we were lowering those first few baskets down, and I would see people pull the box out and like get in there and start eating it, and their head would tilt back a little bit, and their eyes would close a little bit. And I’m just like, “Boom! There’s another one.” And so, for me, that’s success. It’s so incredibly simple. Everything else funnels to that, and that’s the measuring stick for every single decision that we make, you know, is how does it affect that customer experience. That’s it.
Rebecca Ching: How is that different from what you were taught about success?
Jeffrey Brown: I’m very fortunate to have parents and mentors and family that I do -- you know, I graduated with an engineering degree, and the day that I graduated I’m basically like, “And I’m going off to become a photographer!” And so, off I went, [Laughs] and subsequently was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. You know, my family’s measure of success and what I inculcated in it was you do something that you believe in and love, whether you're rich or poor, it’s all good, and we got your back, too
And so, when I made those big pivots, even like this, it’s like I know that no matter how bad I screw up the IZOLA bakery, my family’s there. We had to borrow some money to buy this piece of land, because you’ve got to put down a fair chunk, and I didn't have it. My family stepped forward. They just wrote me a check, you know? And so, that kind of --
Rebecca Ching: Wow.
Jeffrey Brown: You know, I sit on the shoulders of giants.
Rebecca Ching: Mm. Yeah. Again, continuing their legacy.
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you for sharing that. As a parent, that’s resonating with me deeply, and my kids are obviously focused on the grades, and they're blessed with incredible brains and skill, but wanting them to know we’ve got their back. What do they want to do, and if you fall and change -- I don't know which career pivot, but at this point, my family, whenever I’m like, “Hey, I’m doing this now,” they're like, “You know what? We know whatever you do, we know you've thought it through, and go for it!” [Laughs]
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah!
Rebecca Ching: You know, before they were nervous about it, and now they're like, “Eh.” [Laughs] We figure it out. So, thank you for sharing that.
Jeffrey, Jennnifer, this has been a real honor, so I’m really thankful for this time. Where can listeners find you if they want to connect with you both and the IZOLA business and community?
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah, probably the best place is www.izolabakery.com. That’s kind of the center of it all. From there, you can find our Instagram, which is also @izolabakery. But, you know, you can see our blog, which is kind of a backup of previous posts that we’ve made. If you're interested in investing and in financial stuff, there’s a link to the Main investment portal off of that. So, ordering, too. You can order some food, too!
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely! Well, I’d love for you both to come back once you are in your new space and give us an update on what you've learned and what you're creating because we’ve got a lot to learn from you. So, thank you, again, for taking your time today for this conversation. I’m so grateful.
Jennifer Chen: Thank you, Rebecca! That was so much fun.
Jeffrey Brown: Yeah, good times, man! We hope you come back anytime to the bakery. We’ll feed you some more, and maybe we could do a live broadcast from inside the bakery. You know, you could talk to some of the team, too. That would be fun having them filtered though somehow.
Rebecca Ching: Consider it a plan! Thank you both. Thank you so much.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, cheers!
Rebecca Ching: Okay, before you leave, I want to reflect on this episode and so many bits of wisdom both Jennifer and Jeffrey shared today. Now, they reminded us the power of stepping out of the traditional ways of doing things when they saw a need and had a vision. So many systems and structures hunker down on the ways things have been done and send the message doing something different is not possible. Jeffrey and Jennifer took those no’s and the you-can’ts as a creative challenge instead of a final stop. And they also modeled the power of taking the time to follow the numbers while testing and innovating. The two of them are a powerful merger of gifts, and I love how they got into a space where they had no experience directly with the baking industry and also have hired so many people who are new to the baking industry.
Now, I value experience and expertise, but gosh, we often miss how the skills and experience can cross over in unique ways and how we can look for other qualities and ways people can learn and add to a team, which welcomes in possibility and opportunity. So, after listening to this interview, I’m curious what is stirring in you right now that you may be talking yourself out of, and how can you be a better support to those around you who are innovating, disrupting, and creating in ways that support the greater good?
Jeffrey and Jennifer remind us the power of doing their own inner work so they can take action on their relentless curiosity and their commitment to not putting themselves or anyone else in a box, and this is the work of an Unburdened Leader.
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of The Unburdened Leader, and if this episode was meaningful to you, I’d be honored if you took a moment to subscribe, download, and leave a review and a rating. These things matter and help this show reach more people! You can also find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me, at www.rebeccaching.com.