Hard work and love

zoe nathan, huckleberry
Zoe Nathan, owner of  Huckleberry Bakery in Santa Monica, California, wanted to create a better cookbook for consumers.

Zoe Nathan, owner and baker at Huckleberry Bakery in Santa Monica, California, works a lot, but not as much as she did before she started a family. Eighteen hour days didn’t faze her for many years early in her career. After opening additional restaurants and having children, Nathan transitioned into trying to “make her house a home.”

Cutting back on work hours and cooking at home with her oldest child sparked a desire to write a better cookbook for baking, not only for her children and friends, but for anyone who wanted to. “Frankly, a lot of baking books were really kind of not that great,” Nathan says. “I just got a kick out of other people being able to make these things in their home. I want people to be able to bake some really good stuff in their house. It’s not hard; they just aren’t starting with an awesome recipe.”

It reached people

Although the inspiration for Huckleberry: Stories, Secrets and Recipes From Our Kitchen came from a desire to tell the story of the bakery and share recipes with others, it did reach people and increase sales. Huckleberry’s business increases every year and always has. While Nathan and the staff might not feel it while working, the sales show it, but the Thanksgiving after the cookbook came out different. “We did a solid third more sales this Thanksgiving than last, and it’s a month and a half after the book came out,” Nathan says.

Any sales of the book provide extra revenue to Nathan, and the increase in business always makes a positive impact overall, but the joy she gets from overall effects of the book mean a lot. “There are definitely people who come in for the book, we sell a lot of copies here,” Nathan says. The joy from the potential reach of the book over longer distances excites Nathan as well. “It’s super fun that other people, in other states might open it, and like it, and see it, and then maybe come to visit us.”

Getting it done

From conception to the finished and published product, the book took Nathan and her community of helpers about a year and half to complete. The “heavy working period,” took about three and half months. Huckleberry’s vast number of recipes couldn’t possibly fit into a single book, so Nathan and all that helped had some choices to make. “We have a lot of recipes and make so many things. I wanted the book to feel abundant like that,” she says. “So we basically just looked at all of our recipes and picked our favorite ones.” Once they picked out the recipes, they still had work to do.

Nathan needed to convert the recipes to home baker size. This proved a little more challenging than originally anticipated. “It took a little more time than we thought,” Nathan says. “Then we also had to convert everything to how it would work in a still oven rather than our convection oven to try and make it really great for somebody at home.” Then Nathan and her team had to test the recipes.

“We sent them out to all our friends and they tested them,” Nathan says. “Then they sent them back to us and some had complaints and then we had to retest them. It took a big community to help us test everything.” This process didn’t detract from the work at all. Nathan, her team and her partners do all of their work this way. “All of our restaurants are kind of in the same area. We’re very close to everyone who lives here and everyone in the community, so it was fun to make the book in that similar way.”

Getting it published

Getting the cookbook published came easy for Nathan and the Huckleberry. Chronicle Publishing contacted them now again for a couple of years asking if they wanted to do a cookbook. “We were working, I had no interest in doing a book,” Nathan says. Time passed, they opened another restaurant, started their family and worked even harder. The idea of writing a book and being at home more appealed to Nathan. “We contacted Chronicle and they were totally into it,” she says.

Once the story and recipes were ready, Nathan sent them to the editors at Chronicle Publishing. “We handed them a large amount more than is in the book,” Nathan says. “We have a few breads in there, but they cut a lot of that. They cut some of the cakes. They had to kind of whittle it down.” Nathan intended the book to give people the ability to make their favorite things from the bakery. She wanted the bakery’s regulars to have the recipes.

“It’s pretty crazy writing a book because they don’t really tell you how to write a book, or what you’re supposed to do, and we were really just winging it. You kind of feel like what ‘what the hell am I doing and then you have to hand in the draft.” Nathan got an agent to help with deal, but says that it didn’t feel necessary because the deal part felt so easy.

The manuscript then went back and forth a few times between Nathan and the publishing company for changes, edits, etc., here and there. She had done the heavy work, but it took more to get the polished and final product to press. “You have ten days of photography, which is the most fun part,” Nathan says. “You go up there, you do layout, you go back and forth and have all these opinions.”

Maintaining Balance

Raising young children, running a business, writing a book and being a mother to young children all come with a certain level of stress and anxiety, no matter how great you perform each task. To balance all these things requires a dedication to and love of all of them. This is something that Nathan has in abundance. But beyond that, it also takes help and an eye for intelligence in others.

Nathan gets that help from a number of different places including her husband and partner, family and staff. “I’m really lucky, I do all this stuff with my husband,” she says. “We kind of take turns where somebody stays home more and somebody is at work more.” Nathan and her husband believe in hiring people that are smarter than they are. “We have no interest in being the smartest people in the room,” she says. “Because then you have to stay in the room. Our goal is always just to find really awesome, amazing people, treat them really great, and hope to make this a life for them.”

Often times in small business, owners feel a need to take on 100 percent of the responsibility. This can lead to fatigue and poor decision making. It’s always in an owner’s best interest to hire good people and give them the space and tools they need to do well. This practice will give owners a better opportunity at a balanced work and personal life.

“I think how we balance it is that we just have really awesome people and families who help us and I love my job,” Nathan says. “So when I leave my kids, I know I’m going to do something that I love. When I come back to them I’m happy, and I feel like I’m a better mom for it.” And sometimes an owner just has to make sacrifices.

When the Nathan kids were still young enough, they just went to work with their mom, but once that didn’t work anymore, mom made some adjustments. “Now I work when they sleep for the most part,” Nathan says. “So I go to work from about 2:00 a.m. until about 6:30 a.m. when they wake up.” She will spend most of the day with the kids and might even go back to work that night. It’s hectic and there’s not very much sleep sometimes, but it fits into what Nathan does and how she likes to do it.

“I just do it. I also think that we’re young and this is what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to work really hard and then hopefully one day we’ll just kind of chill out on the porch and drink tea or something…whatever.”

In the future

The Huckleberry cookbook held a special place in her heart and meant a lot more than just writing a cookbook. She wrote it for herself, to tell the story of her bakery and to tell the story of being a female baker and trying to have a family. At this point in time, Nathan has no immediate plans to write another cookbook. She has some ideas that might possibly inspire books down the road, but it would have to really be right and in line with her priorities.

“I want to write a really rad cookbook for kids, but beyond that I don’t know,” Nathan says. “If there was a story that I wanted to tell about family suppers and wanted to write that book, then that’s one thing, but I don’t want to write something that’s just another book on the shelf.”

The idea behind writing a cookbook with your bakery’s recipes for the home baker needs to be about sharing and the love you have for baking. While a cookbook might generate some extra income, it won’t replace your career as a retail bakery owner. It’s more about reaching people and enlightening them to your story. “I really felt like Huckleberry [Huckleberry: Stories, Secrets and Recipes From Our Kitchen] was something special and we were really proud of what we did,” Nathan says. “So if there is something that comes along, cool. But it not, I can just stay in the kitchen and do what I do.”