Irene Lim, owner and baker at Fernleaf Bakery, began as a software engineer. Though she had a “desk job,” she was always interested in food. Lim was raised in Canada, but born in Malaysia, and attributes her culinary interests to her upbringing.
“Food is part of Chinese culture. I’ve been [cooking and baking] ever since I was young, it was always my hobby,” she says.
While working on computers, she was drawn to the idea of starting her own bakery.
“All my friends were always telling me, ‘You should open up your own place, you bake so well.’ In all my spare time, instead of reading up on computer stuff I would read up on the cooking books.”
When there was a major reorganzation in the company she worked for, Lim decided she wanted to get a culinary degree at the New England Culinary Institute. She liked what she saw in Maine, and ended up moving here with her husband. When a spot opened off Main Street in Saco, Lim made the leap. She even had the name picked out.
“Maine is well-known for its ferns, and I love ferns, so it naturally rolled off to Fernleaf Bakery. It was one of those one-second things when you’re like, ‘Yup, that’s it. It’s gonna stick. And you know it’s right.”
Fernleaf Bakery opened in May 2011, and most of Lim’s customers have become regulars. She believes in the power of word of mouth.
“You can advertise all you want, but if somebody tells their friend, it’s worth a lot more. On the other hand, you have to keep up your end. You have to keep up your quality that brought them in and made them recommend you in the first place.”
Lim’s quality is top-notch, and Fernleaf Bakery offers breakfast and lunch items, coffee and espresso beverages, and specializes in fine cakes and pastries.
What were your most important needs in getting started?
I’m a very practical person, so practically my most important needs were getting more familiar with commercial baking. I’d been sort of self-studying for quite a long time, knew a lot about food and cooking, and then I had to go back to school to get the culinary degree – not so much for how to cook but how to cook commercially, how to do things properly, how to take care of food properly. That sort of stuff, it’s very important. I’m a little bit older so I have some business acumen based on my previous work experiences. And for all practicalities, one needs assets, one need money to start a business, and that we had to solve, too. I think those were my most important needs.
What was there about your upbringing that gave you the courage to venture out on your own?
You know, if it was just my upbringing I probably wouldn’t be here. My parents were very risk-averse, but what they gave us was the work ethic, you know, to be able to trudge on despite what happens and to do what you need to do, because there’s a lot of work. Also I think because they were risk-averse they were always trying to be prepared, so I think I got that from them. It’s like, “Don’t venture into anything without really seriously thinking about what you need to do to be prepared.” So I think that and the work ethic was probably what they gave me, to be able to have the support underneath to go into this crazy high-risk, high-stress kind of thing.
What do you think the advantages are of being a female entrepreneur?
Well I think females are still – especially female entrepreneurs – in the minority, and so there’s a lot of interest when a female shows up just because, you know, we’re not that common, especially for me, a Chinese female in Maine, even more rare. I think when you peak people’s interest, however you do it, whether it’s because you’re female or Chinese or you speak well or you have great ideas or you’re enthusiastic, whatever it is, then they’re interested and you’re going to be more likely to be able to succeed. So I think that’s one advantage to being female right now. It’s almost discriminatory, but there you are. And sometimes when you deal with people you can sense that they don’t take you seriously and you don’t really know if it’s because you’re female, but you kind of feel that way. They look at you and they’re not that serious until you show that you are. They’re like, ‘Is the hubby around?’ And I’m like, “No, you’re talking to me, I’m the one making the decisions here, so let’s get on with it.” It’s also their tradition, so it’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just their baggage that they were brought up with. And [being a female entrepreneur] makes them pay attention.
What advice would you give an aspiring woman entrepreneur?
A Take help when it’s offered. Women, especially women who are independent, want to do everything themselves. We want to be in control of everything and we want to do it ourselves, and I think that you can’t when there are so many details. When there’s help offered, just take it. Take it for what it is. And also, recognize where people’s strengths are and then use that if you can. If people want to help you, and they’re strong in some area, then why would you not want to have that on your side? Also, know your core business inside out, because there are going to be so many details. You’re an entrepreneur, so there’s going to be business stuff, there’s going to be tax stuff, there’s going to be law stuff, there’s going to be practical stuff. So at least you need to know your core stuff inside out so you can roll with the things that happen to you and make adjustments as you need to. I think what’s really important is some people think they have this leap of faith like “it’s meant to be” – and maybe this is where my practicality comes into it. Really, it isn’t, there’s a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of good luck, I must say, but there’s hard work. Both are important, but you need to have a good business sense because you can’t just go out there and know that you’re doing something well and hope for the best. Because you might be lucky, and luck is necessary, but it won’t be enough. So, that’s not so romantic but there it is (laughs).
If you knew then what you know now, would you have done anything differently?
Of course that’s a difficult question to answer. One thing is that I probably got too small of a space. It’s too small for me here, and I didn’t really have that sense that equipment is so big. It doesn’t look that big when you’re looking at it in someone else’s shop or at a place where they sell things. But this was a house – the ceilings are shorter, the rooms are smaller – and when you look at these things they’re usually in commercial spaces, and when you get them here you’re like, “Oh my gosh this is huge!” So that I think I would have done a little differently. But I don’t like to regret things. I think that it’s OK to make mistakes, it’s normal to make mistakes; the thing is you have to recover from them , learn from them and move on. And this is where it’s hard for people who are risk-averse, like me, to take the risk and say it may not be the right answer, but just do it and then see what happens if you can take the consequence of that risk. As long as you know what your consequences are, you don’t want to be blind about it. And if it happens to you, don’t think it’s so dramatic and such a failure. Just move on from that.
– Taryn Yudaken