STORY & PHOTOS By GAYLE WILSON
For Jessika Hepburn and Chris Graham there were a number of ingredients in their lives that led them to become the new owners of The Biscuit Eater café and bookstore in Mahone Bay in 2016.
And, just over a year later, they're convinced they've cooked up a recipe for not only the business's success but, in part, for the rural economy as well.
Hailing from East Vancouver, Hepburn is no stranger to stirring up favourable conditions for small enterprises.
A consultant with Etsy, the hugely successful global online marketplace for unique, vintage and hand-crafted items, she has been instrumental in organizing a series of Etsy Makers Cities summits bringing together small-scale entrepreneurs and policy makers at global events in Brooklyn, New York, including the Etsy Made in Canada event that runs in Halifax.
"My background is community organizing around shared values," she told LighthouseNOW in an interview.
As a consultant, she describes herself as "an entrepreneur for over 15 years."
Originally from Halifax, Graham met Hepburn out West. After the two settled in Lunenburg five years ago and began raising their two young girls, Graham, who worked in the construction trades, was compelled to commute regularly to Halifax to act as a caregiver to his ailing parents.
Within a three week period in June, 2016, he lost both his mother and father to their illnesses, and a "dear friend and co-worker," who was killed on impact after he fell from a ladder.
"That's what precipitated this," he explains, sweeping his arm around the café.
"When you lose people, the bottom falls out, right? Especially when you do so much care giving," adds Hepburn.
"All of a sudden you hit a wall, and see what actually really matters."
While her career was going from strength to strength, "it wasn't home, and our kids weren't a part of it."
Moreover, she recognized the drawbacks of the bulk of her work being online.
"We weren't part of the community, really. Nobody came and visited us with casseroles. Or checked to see if we were okay. They liked to post on Facebook, but we weren't part of the community. And I think we both felt a little orphaned," she said.
So when The Biscuit Eater came up for sale a few months later, they decided to check it out.
"It was already really the heart of the community. It's such a warm place and it embodies so many of the values that Chris's parents had," recalls Hepburn.
Graham's father was Dr. Jack Graham, a highly regarded physician who started the Family Practice Associates in Halifax's north end.
"His whole life was about being of service to the people of Nova Scotia. Really, to care for them," said Hepburn. "How do you honour a life like that?"
She answers her own question with, "Books and comfort and good food."
Ultimately, they decided to invest the inheritance they received from Graham's parents into the café.
The couple recount how Graham's sister, Beth, who now works in the cafe, told those attending their father's memorial, "Live like you're retired."
According to Hepburn, that left them wondering what life in retirement would feel like for them.
"For both of us, it was feeding people, and loving people, and being in that place where you can go and people light up when they see you come in the room. And we've been really able to do that since taking over here."
In between owners, the business was closed for one day, while Hepburn and Graham did some cleaning.
They've since shifted furniture around, opening up the place so the books are more accessible and the space more welcoming.
The fact that neither had any experience in the running a café didn't matter.
"Right from the beginning, [the café] has really gone a long way toward healing and building new family," says Graham.
"And, really, that has been the important part. And I figure if it's supposed to be for us, if this is what we're meant to be doing, then with enough hard work and commitment it will work out."
Meanwhile, Hepburn was positively brimming with confidence.
"I have a history of making something out of nothing. That's my biggest super power. Give me some boxes and I'll make you a business."
Stressing she had a lot of experience building businesses globally, she says she could see "how we could take those principals and those values and apply them to a very, very locally-based business."
Equally, important, she says, the business was already viable when they bought it from Cara and Frederick Weston in November, 2016.
"It was making money and it had consistently made money - with some serious limitations, like not being open on Mondays, closing, like, three-thirty in the afternoon."
They put together a business plan and report it's been "100 per cent on track.
"We have met and exceeded all of our financial projects. We're double the sales of the first months that we took over, and have never slowed down, really, since the summer," says Hepburn.
The café is now open seven days a week, and determinedly serves a biscuit-based menu.
"It was The Biscuit Eater and there were no biscuits on the menu," says Hepburn laughing. Among other items on the menu are brisket in a biscuit, chicken pot pie with a biscuit, and English "high tea."
They also lowered the price on everything across the board, from coffee to biscuits.
"We wanted people to come in five times a week if they wanted to," says Hepburn, noting that many of their regulars are seniors on a fixed-income.
"That was really our focus - unpretentious, accessible warm space to come and get good home-made food from people who really care about you. And people have responded to that hugely," she says.
Still, the couple admits they have some goal posts to reach.
Despite the fact they had a sizable down payment in hand in the form of Graham's inheritance to invest in the business, "not a single bank" would approve them for a mortgage.
Graham had "taken a credit hit" when he was a caregiver to his parents, and Hepburn says she herself had no credit history.
They admit lenders were also uncomfortable with their "conservative" business plan that saw themselves initially taking no salary. In the end, they grudgingly ended up with what they describe as an "onerous" financing arrangement with the sellers, who are now in Dubai.
But they're quick to point out the business is proving viable even under these conditions, and they're confident that, in time, they will build up a sound credit history and business track record than will enable them to qualify for a traditional mortgage which, they say, would cut their financing obligations in half.
Meanwhile, they did get some operating financing through FarmWorks Investment Corp., since the majority of their food is locally sourced.
Hepburn, who is the founder of the Maritime Makers organization which hosts the Etsy Made In Canada event every year, says she and Graham have developed "sound relationships with local producers."
And that's key to success at not just the individual enterprise level, but at the provincial level too, she says.
"We already have everything we need to have an excellent economy. I think we really believe that. We don't need anybody to come and save us. We just need the mechanisms to do that together," says Hepburn.