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Careful balance between family and work is recipe for success

Kammy Magnuson, owner of the Rockwood Bakery, wraps trays of freshly made Christmas cookies on Wednesday. (Colin Mulvany)
Kammy Magnuson, owner of the Rockwood Bakery, wraps trays of freshly made Christmas cookies on Wednesday. (Colin Mulvany)

When Kammy Magnuson opened the Rockwood Bakery 13 years ago, she would cook all night, take a nap, then return to serve customers.

She could work that hard, Magnuson explained, “because I was single and kidless.”

Marriage, motherhood and a child’s organ transplant spurred Magnuson to find balance in her own life, and in her employees’.

That’s why she closes the popular Manito Park rendezvous at what could be some of the most lucrative times of the year: Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekend, Thanksgiving and the day after, Christmas and the day after, New Year’s Day, “and we close early on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.”

The policy may not make financial sense, she concedes, “but my core people need time off, and I want to be with my family.”

Customers who forget the policy and show up on holidays are disappointed, “but most of the comments I hear are positive.”

Loyal patrons, great employees and the bakery’s ambient energy are what Magnuson loves most about her business. She discussed how she got started and the key to her success during a recent interview.

S-R: What led you to opening a bakery and coffee shop?

Magnuson: I grew up in Spokane and went to college in Seattle. I learned to make coffee working in a little shop in Wallingford (near the University of Washington). I graduated from Seattle University with a degree in English and a business minor, then got an MBA at UW. I worked at Arthur Andersen for a year and really liked accounting, but couldn’t imagine doing it my whole life. A friend told me about a nine-month pastry course offered at the Culinary Institute of America’s St. Helena (Calif.) campus, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

S-R: What brought you back to Spokane?

Magnuson: I was at a turning point, because I had lived in Seattle for 10 years and liked it, but thought if I met someone in Seattle I’d end up spending my whole life there, and I really wanted to be in Spokane. So I came back here and went to work for Fugazzi Bakery, planning to spend a couple of years learning how to bake commercially. But then I heard the old Rockwood Market was for sale and, with my parents’ help, I bought it.

S-R: Your experience didn’t include renovating a circa 1911 building. Did you realize what you were getting into?

Magnuson: I figured it was mostly cosmetic – paint the outside, do a little work inside. But we had to strip it down to the studs – in fact, we had to put in new studs – and redo all the electrical. It took 10 months.

S-R: Did you have a vision?

Magnuson: In college I hung out at Seattle coffee shops, pretending to study. I really loved that atmosphere, and wanted a place where I could hang out in Spokane. And I didn’t want to be in a strip mall. When I was growing up, we used to go down to the Rockwood Market for groceries. So it was perfect.

S-R: Was the bakery successful from the start?

Magnuson: Yes, but growth has been slow.

S-R: Did the recession hurt?

Magnuson: No. I read somewhere that during recessions, bars and bakeries do well. Maybe that’s because they’re an affordable luxury. Sort of like when I went to Costco on 9/11 and it was really quiet, but the bakery did well. People seemed to want to be around other people.

S-R: One of the bakery’s distinguishing characteristics is its living room décor. How long do your sofas last?

Magnuson: Usually a couple of years, but I probably push it a little too far.

S-R: How has the business evolved?

Magnuson: When we first opened, I thought most people would get coffee to go, so we divided the building, planning to rent out a third of it. But most people wanted to sit down, so we knocked down a wall to open up more space.

S-R: What else has changed?

Magnuson: We’ve added lunch – soup, salad and sandwiches. Initially we only offered coffee and pastries.

S-R: What’s your business philosophy?

Magnuson: Treat people well.

S-R: What qualities do you look for in a job applicant?

Magnuson: Someone who’s clean and dependable. My little boy had a liver transplant seven years ago, and when we got the call that an organ was available, we had to pick up and leave for three months. My employees and my family kept the bakery going while we were gone.

S-R: What are you most proud of about the business?

Magnuson: When people say they love to come in – that it’s a comfortable place. And when they say, “Your employees are so nice.”

S-R: What has been your best idea?

Magnuson: Opening the bakery. After I purchased the building, I went to the Small Business Administration and took an entrepreneurship class, which had us run the numbers. When I saw how many coffees and scones I’d have to sell in a day, I stopped (calculating), because the numbers said there was no way this was going to work. I was already committed, so it had to work.

S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Magnuson: For my family’s sake, I sometimes wish we weren’t open on Sundays. Even when I’m not there, as a business owner you’re always there because things happen and you have to be by the phone. But Sundays are good – lots of families come in.

S-R: It’s easy to tell when the local Porsche club gathers at the bakery, because the street is lined with shiny sports cars. Who else meets there routinely?

Magnuson: All sorts of people. There’s a bicycle club. And a group of deaf people who get together, which I think is neat.

S-R: Some people stay a long time. Is that OK?

Magnuson: Yes, but we don’t have wi-fi because I don’t like it when everyone is staring at their laptops. I want people talking.

S-R: From a business standpoint, what’s been the biggest surprise?

Magnuson: How much you have to sell to break even. The cost of ingredients keeps going up, but you can only charge so much for a muffin.

S-R: Other challenges?

Magnuson: It’s very difficult to change menu items, because people get attached to their favorite pastries.

S-R: How much would it cost to launch a business like yours today?

Magnuson: If you were going to buy a building, probably $1 million. But that’s in Spokane. In Seattle, you couldn’t have a bakery this big. It would be too expensive.

S-R: What advice would you offer an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to start a neighborhood business like this?

Magnuson: Work in a bakery and learn all the positions. You don’t want to have to close because the baker quit. I know how to wash dishes, do the books, make coffee and bake.

S-R: What part of your job do you like least?

Magnuson: Now that we’ve been open 13 years, things are starting to break.

S-R: What’s the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Magnuson: My greatest mentor is Vicki Green, who owns Knight’s Diner. I worked there in high school, and learned by watching her. She’s an incredibly hard worker, doesn’t waste anything, and never leaves rags on the counter. That’s my thing, too. My employees laugh, but leaving rags lying around is like leaving your underwear out. She also taught me to haggle with purveyors to get the best price.

S-R: How do you relax?

Magnuson: I hang out with my two boys. I used to be all about the bakery. But since the transplant, I have a broader perspective. For instance, it used to drive me crazy if the toilet paper was hung the wrong way. Now I can let it go.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at