In this installment of Meet the Merchant, we speak to Jay Spencer of French Press Bakery & Cafe in Needham, Massachusetts. Jay shares his experience introducing French pastries to the Needham community, how his background influences his menu, and how he uses Clover to stay nimble during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clover: Hi Jay! Thanks for chatting with us today. Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to open French Press Bakery & Cafe?
Jay Spencer: French Press has been open for a little over five and a half years. We’re a made-from-scratch artisanal bakery and cafe. Our goal before the pandemic was to offer all-day dining. We make all of our croissants, danishes, brioche, and muffins fresh every morning. At lunch we serve tartines—open-faced sandwiches—as well as salads and sandwiches. We’ve always had a small dinner menu with beer and wine as well. It’s not unusual for people to come to us more than once a day, because everything is made fresh.
Before opening French Press, I worked in finance and strategy at JPMorgan, which is what brought me to the Boston area. After working there for a while, I decided that I was going to return to my passion for food. I enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York in the culinary entrepreneurial program. The program focused on taking a concept and developing it to eventually open up a restaurant.
When we first opened, I focused most of my energy on making really good pastries and coffee. People kept wanting more—which is how we’ve grown our menu. Now, we change our offering with the seasons. We make everything in the traditional French style with a creative flair to it. I love getting input and suggestions from my team, and together we take influences from our own distinct cultures.
Clover: What was one of the biggest challenges in getting French Press off the ground?
Spencer: I think the biggest challenge was that people looked at the price point of certain menu items and got sticker shock. Needham isn’t a big draw for French pastries, so many customers were unfamiliar with our concept. The first week that we were open, a woman said to me, “I’ll be surprised if you make it six months based on your prices.” So, at first we had to really educate customers about our use of all-natural ingredients and our small-batch, hand-made approach. We trained our baristas and our pastry chefs to go out and talk to customers about how our food is made.
A year or so later, that same woman came back and said to me, “I don’t know if you remember, but I said that you were never going to make it because your prices were too high. Now I understand what it takes and how good your food is. The fact that my daughter likes your food is just all the more surprising to me because she doesn’t really like anything.” Sometimes you have to be introduced to an unfamiliar food and taste it to appreciate and understand what it takes to craft it.
Clover: You mentioned leading with French-style food and adding your own twist to the menu. Can you tell us more about that?
Spencer: My husband and I came to Massachusetts for work, but also because we thought it was a great place to live because of the diversity that it represents. We’ve been married for 14 years now and together for much longer than that. I’m Black by heritage. But, if you trace my family tree, I’m from a number of different cultures. My great grandfather was Indian, born in Calcutta and raised in Bombay. He married an Irish woman, and they had my grandmother. Then, she married a Black man—so I’m the combination of a lot of different worlds that people wouldn’t normally think to put together. I draw inspiration for French Press based on all of these different influences, from my diverse team of chefs, and also from our travels.
Clover: How has Clover helped you grow French Press over the years?
Spencer: I had used a different POS at another establishment, and found the system too clunky and complicated. When we opened French Press, I was looking for something that didn’t require a lot of training.
What I like about Clover is that it doesn’t have a lot of upfront expenses. The reporting features have come a long way since we first launched—it’s more than done the job in terms of what we need. We recently participated in the beta test of the next Clover Station, and I appreciated that the feedback we gave Clover during that early test run has been implemented.
We also use Smart Online Order, which has helped us tremendously. We sell gift cards through eCard Systems as well! All of the integrated apps that we’ve added from the Clover App Market make our Clover set-up more efficient, which is a huge help.
Clover: What has this year been like for your business? How have you adapted during the pandemic?
Spencer: I have to make changes every day; that’s the best way to describe it. We built our cafe on customer service and in-person customer interactions. What this year has taught us is that we really needed to have a strong digital presence. It’s not efficient to take a telephone order, write it down, and then walk it back to the kitchen. We had to evolve to be more streamlined.
Before, people didn’t mind waiting for their coffee or food. They could chat with friends; they could take a moment to just kind of relax and enjoy their day. Now, people don’t feel comfortable being around other people. They may feel comfortable visiting our storefront to pick up an order, but they don’t want to hang around. We’ve had to figure out how to leverage technology to interact with people in a way that honors this change. Like everyone else, we’ve focused on streamlining orders, payment, and pickup so that our customers and our staff are protected and safe.
Clover: What advice do you have for other small business owners?
Spencer: If you’re not thinking about ways to use technology to help you, it’s going to be a tough time. COVID cases here are still rising, and people are tired—so for me, it’s all about finding different ways to be more efficient and effective in our business operations. That means using the right technology that can flex and adapt with us.
Read more of our Meet the Merchant stories for real-life stories of small businesses in action all over the country.