August 20, 2018

BirchTree owners have perfected the couples dynamic

Avra Hoffman, Co-owner, BirchTree Bread Co., Worcester

Avra Hoffman, Co-owner, BirchTree Bread Co., Worcester

Founded: November 2014

Employees: 32

Age: 36

Residence: Charlton

Birthplace: Worcester

Education: Bachelor's degree in English, UMass Amherst; master's degree in education, Worcster State University

Avra Hoffman and her husband Robert Fecteau started BirchTree Bread Co. in Worcester's Canal District after initially selling homemade bread out of their car at farmers markets. The business has grown steadily and now is contending with the construction of a $21-million apartment-and-retail development next door, which is taking over the restaurant's former parking lot.

What's it like working with your husband?

It is great! At this point, going this far into it – four years – we realized we have to set boundaries for when we discuss business, but there is no one else I would do this with.

Rob had this vision of starting this artisan bread-baking, and as soon as it happened, I was on board, doing social media and being his biggest cheerleader.

Did you have to take out a bank loan?

We did. I was scared. This place is huge. It's 5,800 square feet. We had talked about opening a little bakery, so this was a bit risk taking on such a big space. But I trusted Rob and his vision.

We had a little help from family, but part of the plan was the staging of this place, adding things piece by piece, so we didn't have to go all in from the beginning. I kept my full-time job as a teacher so we would have a steady income. But as this place grew, I realized I really loved being here and working on things like the coffee program, so I decided to come on full time. My role then really evolved.

How do you two complement your roles?

For centuries, husbands and wives have run shops and farms together, so for us it is no big deal. I know a lot of people are surprised when they hear I work with my husband, but it is just a complementary extension of our relationship. I'm not a baker like Rob, but I understand the importance of being organized here, paying attention to staff and focusing on the details of the business.

So you are more on the business side and he is on the creative?

It is balanced. I have a creative side as well, and he knows a lot more about restaurants, so we are learning together. We've had great mentors.

What sort of boundaries have you set?

We try our best to not talk about work when we are not at work. If one of us gets too involved in a conversation about work, one of us will say, "I'm tapping out." That is kind of like a safe word.

Can you still take vacations?

We agreed at the beginning, in order for this to work for us as business partners, we needed to honor our own lives and honor when we need to take a break.

When we do travel, it oftentimes turns into inspirational trips. Both of our families are food-oriented, so even if it is just family dinners, we are around great food and getting ideas. We've been to Spain and Italy, so when we go somewhere, we are always checking out new drinks and how the services is.

That is what is really fun about doing this with my husband. We both enjoy it, talk about it and get excited about it.

How has the business grown?

It has grown very quickly. We were able to support the growth by adding in small additions, slowly. We added a second register. We added live music on the weekends. We started with bread, pastries, coffee and toast for the first few months before we added the full sandwich and lunch menu.

Then we decided to get a liquor license and started having pizza nights twice a week with live music. We added more seating.

It has grown a lot faster than we expected, but we have been able to put Rob's ideas into this fast-paced growth and have it sustain our current business.

Has the construction impacted business?

Honestly, no. We thought the parking lot construction was going to start in September, so I made up a bunch of cards with maps showing where our parking lot is. We passed all those out in the fall, so we just redistributed those marketing materials this spring.

Where is the parking lot?

It is at 22 Assonet St., about a three-to-five minute walk.

With this neighborhood having such great walkability, having the parking lot a little further away will hopefully get people thinking about how all the businesses are connected here. You can come here for coffee, go shopping at Crompton Collective, get dessert at The Queen's Cups and find dinner while exploring the area.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by WBJ Editor Brad Kane.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly said BirchTree Bread Co.'s square footage is 1,500 and its parking lot is at 22 Housatonic St. The correct facts are 5,800 square feet and 22 Assonet St.


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