Kate Merrill is a Registered Nurse who worked in a Trauma Intensive Care Unit for 22 years before taking the plunge to open her own bakery in Chicago.
Edge of Sweetness was off to a strong start in 2020, hitting its sales targets and becoming a neighborhood favorite. Then, COVID-19 hit, and after months of adjusting and taking the necessary precautions, Kate and her staff made the choice to temporarily close.
Kate then answered the call from the Governor for nurse support and return to work at the hospital she had worked in previously, to treat patients with COVID. Since she has been laying the groundwork for her bakery to make a triumphant return.
Visit Kate’s bakery: https://www.edgeofsweetness.com/
Check out “What’s Within You” to read more of Kate’s story
“You can always help somebody. If you’re feeling down or bored or hopeless or something like that, go help somebody. That is the easiest way to increase your spirits, make you feel better and make them feel better.”
Kate : You can always help somebody. If you're feeling down or bored or hopeless or something like that, go help somebody. That is the easiest way to increase your spirits, make you feel better and make them feel better.
Erik : It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life. To define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. And that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.
Dave : Today we meet an entrepreneur who answered the Illinois Governor's call for nurse support in light of COVID-19. Kate Merrill is a registered nurse who worked in a trauma intensive care unit for 22 years before taking the plunge to open her own bakery in Chicago. Edge of Sweetness was off to a strong start in 2020, hitting its sales targets and quickly becoming a neighborhood favorite. Then COVID-19 hit. And after months of adjusting and taking the necessary precautions, Kate and her staff made the choice to temporarily close. It was then that Kate answered the call from the Governor for nurse support and returned to work at the hospital in the COVID ward. After her stint in the COVID ward, she returned to her bakery where she is poised to make a triumphant return. Enjoy the conversation.
Dave : Well, Kate, we have been really excited to bring you on our show because I think your story is, in many ways, the story of so many small businesses across America, in terms of how you are eking your way through this time period. And then you've also got this incredible personal journey and decisions you made to go back and support COVID patients. And so we're just real honored to have you here today and looking forward to a great conversation. And I guess I'd love to start with you have this amazing bakery Edge of Sweetness. Where did you first start your passion for cooking?
Kate : I went to school for nursing. I had no business background, never went to pastry school. So it was all self-taught and I felt like I woke up one day and told my husband, "I need to start selling my cookies." And he's like, "What?" I'm like, "I know I don't want to do it. It's just a calling that I have that I feel that I need to do. So I need to start doing it." And I was halfway doing it. I was like, "Oh, I have an order. I have to do this." And then I thought, "Well, why are you acting that way? Maybe it's because you don't know anything about business and you're fearful and stuff like that." So I tried to learn as much as I could. And then I was like, "Well, learn as much as you can. And if you're done with it, then be done with it. But don't [inaudible 00:03:40]. You either have to do it or don't do it."
Erik : And then you have a pretty good first period and then COVID struck, right? So that must've been insane.
Kate : Yeah. Beginning 2020 was looking really good and then COVID hit. And it was like, a ton of orders got canceled and I was like, "Oh my gosh. We finally got it."
Dave : That's such a common experience for small businesses, right? Small businesses. You started this business while you had another job as a nurse. You're raising three kids as I understand it. You're also trying to start the [inaudible 00:04:17] business. Finally, you're starting to get a headway and boom, this completely unexpected thing hits you. So what's going through your mind at the time Kate? Tell us what's happening in your head.
Kate : What I tell myself, because I feel like things just happen, right? You feel like you're getting up there and somebody is just like dragging you down, right? They're just trying to be like, "Hey, come on, come back down here." And everybody feels that way. Sometimes I think, and you know what I always tell myself, if something happens or you know what this means, this means something really good is going to happen. Everything just hits the fan and then right before something really good happens. So you just have to take it as a learning experience and move on from it. And everything that I've said throughout my business, I've always said I know I'm going to somehow get through as long as I stick to my values, I'm fine with it. And that's what I try to do in the business.
Kate : So the decisions I make, I try to stick to my values. I'm an honest person. Ask my family, I can't tell why. I just feel that if everybody just... If you treated everybody with respect and just acted good, the world would be a better place. So I try to do my part in that.
Erik : And you didn't want to do retail at first, but then you sound like you got pulled into it, but it sounds like one of the premises behind your company is the idea that, hey, you hand somebody cookies, but there's way more meaning than that behind the counter, right? You can change the trajectory of someone's through just that small act of interaction, right?
Kate : Yeah. And that is something that I've grown to love about the business, because as a nurse, I was very... I worked in the ICU and I was a nurse for 22 years. And I saw people from all over. The homeless people, people from nursing homes, people who didn't have loved ones and just putting your hand on their arm. Somebody shuttered when I touched his arm and I was like, "Oh my gosh, I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?" He's like, "No. It's just that nobody's touched me like that in two years."
Kate : That stayed with me. I mean, this was probably 10 years ago and that stayed with me and made me realize that not everybody has somebody and people just really appreciate you treating them well. And I feel like everybody deserves it at sometime. Some people aren't the nicest people, but as long as you treat them with respect and welcome them. And so that's what we try to do here. We put personal messages on the coffee sleeves. And I love listening to the patrons. They're like, "Oh my gosh. I love this. This is great. This just make day." Just little things that can turn somebody day around. And that's what we're about.
Dave : Now, I imagine as an ICU nurse prior to running the bakery, you see some really difficult situations come to fruition. And yet your attitude as a business person is, "Hey, as things get worse, there's always going to be something better." Did you see that thing happen when you were in the ICU as well?
Kate : Yeah. I mean, I was a trauma nurse and so you obviously see a lot and you try to make the most out of the situation that you're in, right? In critical situations, I usually perform my best. I'm the calmest one in the room, and I feel like there, like, yes. I save people's lives, right? But that's like in an acute situation. I can talk to somebody. I can talk to somebody who's a gang banger and be like, "Hey, but come on. What are you doing with your life? Let's go on."
Kate : And we can have this whole conversation and he could be, "Yeah, you're right. I'm going to do this. I'm going to do that." And then two months later, he's back at it, right? You're not continuously in their lives. And here, I feel like I have such a bigger reach for some reason. We have our community, but every business or every partnership I have with somebody it's just about treating people well and helping each other out, right? And hopefully that will pay forward. Hopefully they will do that to other people. And then, we'll just continue to grow and grow and grow.
Erik : I kind of like that. I know I'm stretching the analogy here a little bit, but it's like, "Hey, treat them really well and have this beautiful connection and relationship in the bakery and maybe help some just a little bit not to meet them again at the ICU."
Kate : Right. Yeah. Even that. I haven't thought about that, but yeah. I just hope that they... If they're not feeling great one day, they come in here, they feel better. They walk out, they say hi to somebody else, make their day better. That person feels great. They do it to somebody else. You can do it on a personal level and then you can do it on a bigger level like that as well, where you're keeping people out of trouble.
Erik : So, but then COVID hits and you just get totally thrown, right? You're retraining employees, trying to figure out how to do things safely. Basically create a new strategy for your business, right? And you're committed to staying open, right? At the beginning, at least.
Kate : Well, so what we did, I read about it. We had a bunch of stuff going on for St. Patrick's Day. Obviously that got canceled. And I was reading about it. And I felt like our neighborhood, I'm in Chicago, but our neighborhood is a small town. Everybody's very supportive, locally supportive and everything like that. And I felt like our customers were coming in to support us. And we were here to support them. And I just felt there was a dangerous situation. Because many people are higher risk. They may be people of the older population.
Kate : And so I know that I could not live with myself if I knew that something spread in our community through here. So I shut down. So I initially shut down. I had to lay off all my employees. And then I was down for, I think a week and a half. And then I started doing a weekly stock up sale. And I was the one doing everything because I just wanted to keep it safe and clean. So I did that for about four weeks by myself. And then my kids would come, my daughter would come and help me. In the kitchen, the kids would help me pack up.
Erik : So you go from your bakery that you close up and then you get a call from a friend of yours talking or asking, at least if you would come back to nursing, right?
Kate : Yes. She was trying to plan. They were not hit bad there yet. But she's like, "I'm trying to plan because I know this is going to hit and it's going to hit bad." So she's like, "Will you come back?" And I said, "If you guys need me, of course I'll come back. I'm not going to leave you hanging, but I do have a business and I can't be at the business if I'm working with COVID patients." So, I worked that out with the hospital. And at that time I had gotten... Right before I went back, I got the PPP loan and so I was able to bring back some employees with that.
Dave : I mean, it strikes me that you made that decision pretty easily. I mean, you've got three kids, you're running a business and COVID's hitting and yeah, you've been through a lot in the ICU. But this is different, right? This is a risk that you could bring to your business, to your own family. How did you process that whole risk?
Erik : Yeah. There's a lot of reasons that you could have easily said, "No, thanks. I'm not coming back to the ICU, right? There's just too much risk. It's too scary. I don't do that anymore."
Kate : Yeah. I don't know. I know people say that and it's... To me, I always say if you're at your kid's baseball game and somebody gets hit in the head with the ball and if you're a nurse or you're a doctor, you're a healthcare professional, you're going to go out and check on them, right? You're going to go help them.
Kate : And so for me, it was a no brainer. Oh, I have this training. I worked with multi-system organ failure, with lung disease, all this other stuff and help is needed. So I should be going. And then I was like, oh... I told my husband. I said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I should ask you." I realize. I said, "This is risky. What do you think?" And I said to my kids too. My husband said separately from my kids. He said, "Well, I don't want you to do it because of safety reasons. But I mean, this is what you're trained in. You need to go help people." I asked my kids and my daughter's like, she's like, "It's the right thing to do." And that's what I've always tried to tell them growing up. I said, "In any situation, just try to do the right thing."
Erik : Your husband maybe said, "Hey, I mean, I get that you're taking on risks. But if our kids ever got sick, I would want you to be the one stepping up to the plate." And that's pretty beautiful.
Kate : He did. Yeah. He's a sweetheart. Yeah. I forgot about that. He did say that. Yeah. So, I mean, it was good. We planned it beforehand. I asked Liza my friend from the hospital. I said, "What do you do?" Because she has two kids at home too. Everybody has families. There's doctors that live with their parents. There's people who live with their parents. Everybody has some kind of risk and you just have to take those precautions and my family has been great.
Dave : Walk us through. You make that decision and this is early on, right? So this is before all the things we know now, before there's been progress on saving lives and a better hospital experience. And you're coming in at a time when we don't know all that. So tell us about that experience, going back to nursing at the time, in the early phases of COVID in a big city.
Kate : Well, I went back in April and so, yeah, we didn't know. When I went back, I was like, "Oh, I got to read about this and how it's being treated and protocol. So then I'm up to snuff on how to treat these patients." So I was researching it a bit and trying to find protocols and what other hospitals are doing because New York was already been annihilated by it. So I thought they may have some research on it or something.
Kate : And so, yeah, I was reading about that and I went to the hospital and I was like, "Okay. What's the treatment plan? What are we doing here?" And at that point, nobody was sure. Once you got in the ICU and you're intubated, nobody was surviving. And it was so sad. You can't believe it unless you actually physically see it because even I was at work and there was somebody else at work. And he came back to work too in the ICU. There were a few of us who came back. And one day we were just working and it was probably, we had nine patients in our unit and five of them could have died that day. And it was code blue, code blue, code blue. They're calling us from downstairs.
Kate : "Do you expect anybody to die because we've more patients to come up?" The overhead thing, the Intercom is going off every half an hour, code anesthesia on this floor, on the COVID floor. I mean, it was just like, "What. I cannot believe we're in this." I mean, it was horrible, horrible. So very scary. Nothing I want to go back to.
Erik : How long were you at the ICU again when you went back?
Kate : So I was there six weeks and I had told them I would be there until the end of May. Then I said, I need to go back to my business. I was in the surgical intensive care unit. So all the COVID patients initially went to the medical intensive care unit, then overflow came to our unit. So then the trauma patients all went to the recovery room so we could keep them separate. So by the time I left, I think we only had one COVID patient on the unit. So they had slowed down. So they were set and they were staffed. They had hired more staff. So I felt comfortable leaving there at that time.
Dave : How do you manage, there's a lot written about the mental health issues for nurses and people who are going through this over and over again. And now it's happening again. When you think about yourself, like you're talking about this very matter of faculty. This is what you did. This is what it was like, but that must be really hard to deal with the emotions you get off of a day when there's all these code blues and people are dying or at risk of dying. You got check out, you got to go back to your family. Meanwhile, you're still trying to keep a business running. How do you handle all that?
Kate : Yeah, it was really tough. I would go home a lot of nights and just hug my kids with tears in my eyes. And I knew I had responsibilities at the bakery as well. And trying to keep the employees working as well as training them through it because they're used to me being here and I got through it. I know people that I worked with at the hospital would come into the bakery afterwards and there at different hospitals. So as well, and we just talk about it and we're like, "Oh my gosh, I know we're all going to have PTSD someday." And I have to tell you, I had it recently.
Erik : What happened?
Kate : Well, so my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer just last month. And so that really triggered... I think it brought up a lot.
Dave : I mean, I think this idea that we're going through life and a series of things starts happening that is unanticipated and devastating. And how do we keep going forward? I think you've got this story.
Kate : Right.
Dave : The COVID impact on your business, the commitment to the nursing, going back to the business, which we haven't gotten to that part of the story. And then all of a sudden you have this deeply devastating personal news, and you've been geared up for all these other things. And then this thing hits and it's got to be overwhelming.
Kate : I think it came tumbling down and the thing I told my kids and my husband, I said, "You know what? Nobody has to be strong for anybody. If you're upset and you want to cry and you want to talk about it, let's do it. I've had a lot of heaving crying moments. And I feel like people need that sometimes just heaving crying. And then after that, I feel better. It's just sometimes you just need to get it out, just release it, feel it, own it. And okay, now let's pick up the pieces. Just do what you can, make the most of the situation you're in, hopefully learn from it and move on. That's it.
Erik : And learning from it, people talk about adversity bringing in innovation sometimes. Did you find that happen with your business? Is there any innovations, any new things that came out of the COVID crisis where your business is better?
Kate : I have made my cookies since I was 12 years old. Every single time I take a bite out of the oatmeal raisin cookie. I'm like, "Oh my God, this is so good." And it brings back that warm, comfortable. I don't know if he had a grandmother that baked really well or a mom or aunt or somebody like that. It's just like-
Erik : Of course.
Kate : ... a comforting feeling. And so I want everybody to be able to have that. And so I've been so busy with the retail and after this and do that, and I was like, "Wait a minute. I've wanted to get my cookie dows, mixes, dry Nexis, and frozen cookie dough in stores. Let's do this. Let's work on this."
Erik : This is the time.
Kate : Yeah. And so, it makes you look at your business plan again and really focus and realize what is important. And, it also helped me realize that I need to be with my family a little bit more. And so it's important for me to be home at night even if it's three days a week. It's helped me realize that on a personal level, business level, I have really been focused on our vision and our mission and making people's lives easier, better, more personal, more personal. And that's just what I want to do here.
Dave : Well, I love this concept that, we also teach too, which is like, when times get tough in your business, the place to go to is your vision. And to re-look at it and really hunker down on what it is you're trying to do in your life and your work and it sounds like that's exactly what you did.
Kate : Yeah. Thankfully.
Erik : Okay. Do you have any advice for other small business owners? I mean, because like, for instance, I talked to my brother I'm pretty close with him and he just opened a world gym before the COVID crisis. And this is bad timing. Just really struggling.
Kate : Yeah.
Erik : Is there any advice you might throw out to people?
Kate : My biggest advice is mission, vision, and just go for your mission and vision. A lot of times we think about how are we going to pay the bills? What do we have to do to pay the bills, but first focus on mission and vision, and that will help you realize how to pay the goals, right? Because you've developed this business concept for a reason, right? I feel like if you're working and living your vision and your mission, and you're much more passionate about it, it's going to come to fruition. It's going to happen. You just have to stick to it and just keep eye on the goal, right?
Erik : And I think you've already talked about this as well, but what's your mission and vision? How do you define those for people?
Kate : So our vision statement is, in every interaction with the Edge of Sweetness, our customers will feel our integrity, our community, and the comforts of home. And, we make it personal in everything that we do. And it's so great because, when I surveyed the customers before this, I was like, "Well, what does the bakery feel like? What kind of feelings do you have?" They're like, "I feel like I'm at home when I'm there." I'm like, "Oh my God." I'm so excited.
Erik : Yeah. That's your mission.
Kate : Yeah, I'm like, "Oh, that's so great. I love it." But yeah, it's about personal relationships. People are lacking that these days, especially with all the remote everything.
Dave : So not all of our listeners live in Chicago area. Is there any way for all of us to try some of these amazing baked goods from you or not yet?
Kate : Yes. There is. It's edgeofsweetness.com.
Dave : edgeofsweetness.com. It sounds like we all know what we'll be getting for our friends and relatives for the holiday season. A little taste of home.
Kate : I hope so.
Erik : Some oatmeal cookies. God, I need one now.
Kate : Yeah. Those oatmeal cookies, I'm telling you.
Erik : I to get a sense of my grandmother's house again.
Kate : I got you.
Erik : So it sounds like this decision for you is pretty cut and dry, pretty black and white, right? You were just like, I knew I needed to pause my business and go back and be a nurse because I'm needed. That's what I do. That's what somebody in the medical care world does. If somebody gets hit in the head with a ball, you go out and you help. Okay. So, but for a lot of people, it's not that easy, Kate. So, they're struggling at this time to think about how do I make an impact in the world? Is there any way I can elevate myself and others in this time? Or do I just shrink and just hibernate and maybe sleep as much as I can and get through it, just survive. What's any advice for others who are trying to think about their place in this situation?
Kate : Yeah. You can always help somebody. I feel like everything I do is very selfish because it makes me feel good to have other people feel good, right? So if you're feeling down or bored or hopeless or something like that, go help somebody. That is the easiest way to increase your spirits, make you feel better and make them feel better. The point of it is to make them feel a little bit better. So you can always do something. You can always do something, whether it's a smile, even though everybody's wearing a mask, a wave. If it's wearing a mask, that would be amazing if you just wore a mask. It's not going to harm you and it can save somebody else. So just do it. There's so many little things that can be done. A nice gesture to somebody, a phone call, a text, thinking about you. I had friends who would just randomly text me once a week, thinking about you. It's the best thing. It was great.
Erik : Yeah. And you get charged up by that, right? I know my family, we've talked about the idea that this is going to be a really hard holiday season for people not being able to see their relatives and how many people are just right on the edge of poverty or all kinds of challenges. And so we decided we're going to go through this charity and help another family during Christmas. And that just charged up our family and united our family, and we're going to have the kids get into it. And so I'm charged up by that right now, just thinking about how can I help other people in such a dark time. So yeah, I get what you're saying.
Kate : Yeah. And even if you don't have money, you can always help somebody. You can always help somebody. Again, a kind word, a bottle of water, some mittens or-
Erik : Send them some oatmeal cookies.
Kate : ... helping somebody cross the street. Yes, exactly. I mean, there are so many ways. You don't have to have a million dollars to help somebody. You just need to see another human being.
Erik : Well I hope people will do that. Good advice.
Kate : So do I.
Dave : Well, Kate, we really appreciate you joining us for this conversation today. As always, our listeners can find show notes. We'll list any of the websites that were referenced here, any details. Kate, we wish you the very best of luck in your business endeavor, and certainly wish your mom, health and happiness, and a lot of time with the family.
Kate : Thank you very much. And I want to thank you, both of you for doing what you do and continuing to do what you do. I know you elevate a lot of people and that's so great. And I know you see the change in people's lives and it has to be so amazing to see that.
Erik : Thank you.
Dave : Take care, Kate.
Kate : Thank you so much. It was my pleasure.
Erik : Buh-bye. I really loved the way she ended that, right? Which is everyone can help somebody. It doesn't matter whether you have money or not. You just have to see people. And that's pretty profound for me, right? Because it is hard, right? I'm feeling this pandemic right now, right? It's so natural just to retreat. And that may be fine, right? But what she's saying is just step up and see people, and that connects us more to our sense of humanity. I feel like I need that right now. I need to feel that connection. So I think you have to work a little harder to make that connection right now.
Dave : Yeah. It's so true. Yeah, and I really love the... For all those small businesses, small business owners out there. Just the idea that focusing on your vision and your mission and your heart and soul and why you're in this to begin with and merging that with what you need for your family at this time is like the best that you can do to hunker down and say, "Gosh, what did I in this for?"
Dave : And I think what we saw from Kate is she found a pathway to really redefine her vision. And now seems very energized by it, despite the fact that COVID caused her to close her store. And so I think that's a pretty powerful way to think about your small business.
Erik : Yeah, and to get all profound. I mean, when we look back at this era, I think in this profound crisis, there's going to be these huge profound shifts in behavior. Maybe not all of them are good, but some of them may be bad. But there's just going to be huge shifts in the way people think about their lives and reassess what they're here to do.
Dave : Yeah. So true. Thank you everybody for listening today. We appreciate your support. As always, you can go to nobarriersusa.org to learn more about how to get involved in all of our amazing virtual courses and programming right now, and look forward to seeing you in person sometime in 2021. Thanks so much.
The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer, Pauline Shaffer, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman. Special thanks to the DN Ryan band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.