Almost everyone has experienced the disappointment of missing out on a favorite menu item. It can be crushing, especially if you’ve driven for miles in anticipation of that one special something.
Yelp reviewer Amber W. trekked an hour from the suburbs to Paper Route Bakery in Austin, Texas, just to try one of its specialties: the milkshake cookie. Unfortunately, they sold out before she made it to the store. But owner Aaron Serriff-Cullick sweetened the loss with a free chocolate chip cookie—making a connection so memorable that Amber came back to Paper Route for her birthday cake.
“[Aaron] was really disappointed for us that they were gone,” Amber said. “But you could just tell he was so happy that… people were going out of their way to come there.”
In her review, she added: “[The milkshake cookie] is a hot item, but we got lucky that fresh scones were coming out. The owner is super cool, and he even brought me a huge chocolate chip cookie to make up for being out of the milkshake cookie. I will definitely be back here early enough to get one.”
As a first-time business owner who turned his passion for baking into a brick-and-mortar business in 2018, Aaron is no stranger to disappointment. “Even from the first second I got going, it’s been high stakes,” he said. “We could call it an adventure, but crisis is more appropriate.”
Even when Paper Route was routinely selling out of their baked goods and was named the Best Cookie in Texas by Yelp, the business was still not making a profit. Closing the bakery in the pandemic, reopening with the help of Small Business Association loans, and honing in on one speciality—cakes—helped Aaron regain his footing during a long period of financial instability.
As of 2022, the bakery has pivoted its focus to cakes and only offers cookies like the one that enticed Amber during special events. Refocusing the menu has helped grow production without overstretching the small staff. But the decision was hard for Aaron, who didn’t want to disappoint more customers by discontinuing something they loved.
“When people come to the bakery, I really want them to have the experience they were hoping for,” he said. “Coming to a bakery is exciting and it’s a treat, and you’re supposed to have this unfettered pleasure experience, where you go in and you ask for what you want, and you get it, and it’s amazing. I love providing that experience for people, and it breaks my heart when people come to the bakery wanting something and we can’t provide it for them.”
But when a customer’s needs aren’t met, it doesn’t have to mean losing that customer. How you help them pivot makes a huge difference. The key is turning on the customer service and redirecting them to something equally delicious, which is exactly how Aaron handled Amber’s disappointment at missing out on her dream cookie.
“Over time I have gotten better at absorbing people’s disappointment—letting them know that we are also disappointed that we don’t have those goods in stock,” he said. “And we really hope to bring them back soon. But in the meantime, there’s this amazing cake that you have to try, and we wouldn’t be making it if we didn’t think it was amazing.”
Still, Aaron hasn’t given up on cookies entirely: By offering them during a one-day, holiday event, he was able to pivot his business strategy, even for a short time, and simultaneously create more buzz through social media.
Platforms that showcase images, such as Instagram or Yelp, have been especially useful for Paper Route since the product looks as good as it tastes. That’s part of what brought Amber to the bakery in the first place, she said: “All his stories are great and show how much he cares about the importance of being unique from all the other bakeries in Austin… You have to convince people somehow. And the way he does it is a great way to do it—showing how he makes it, how it’s homemade.”
Every business relies on customer feedback to learn what they’re doing right—or could perhaps do better. But reviews like Amber’s are especially meaningful for Aaron, who rarely gets to hear customer reactions firsthand. Reading on Yelp that his customers are willing to pivot with him and expand their dessert horizons gives him confidence that Paper Route is having a positive effect on the Austin community.
“It means so much to me,” he said. “I’m just a kid baking in my apartment and trying to share what I make with the people around me. So it blows my mind that people love my baked goods so much. Those reviews are my professional fulfillment in a nutshell.”
Other lessons Aaron has learned over the last few years can be applied to any small business:
- Find comfort in sharing your struggles. Running a small business is hard. Talk about the difficulties instead of burying them.
- Pivoting is essential, but it can be tough on your customers. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions and changes to your business structure, even though you know it will disappoint customers. Remember that if your decision is ultimately necessary for the business, be sure to communicate it to your customers, and they will understand.
- Help your customers pivot with your business. When you do pivot your business, take your customers with you to make the changes easier. Stick to a quality product, and they’ll follow you.
- A picture is really worth a thousand words (or more). Reviews with photos can help describe a product when words fail. Use photo-forward social media to help promote products.
- Keep your personality in your business as you expand. Small business owners don’t have to give up their personal lives forever, but it’s important to set boundaries as your business expands. Have a plan for infusing your vision and personality into your business, staff, and overall operations—even when you’re not there.
Photos of Paper Route Bakery on Yelp; editorial by Emily Moon & Holly Hanchey
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Aaron and Amber, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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