While there is undoubtedly strength in numbers, sometimes just the power of two is enough to work magical things. From front/back of house pairings and designer duos to sibling set-ups and mom & pop alliances, this series of interviews looks to gain insight into what makes some of British Columbia’s more interesting partnerships tick.
Shira McDermott and Janna Bishop are the co-founders of beloved East Van bakery & cafe, Flourist. Besides being clever, conscientious and cool, food-loving business women, they are also advocates for sustainable Canada-grown grains and the farmers who grow them. Flourist is simply a delicious, Vancouver-based extension of their combined mission.
Flourist’s flagship Commercial Street location recently celebrated its four-year anniversary. Although it hasn’t been quite that long since we’ve wanted to quiz McDermott and Bishop about their partnership, we have had the wheels for an in-depth interview in motion for several months…that the timing of publication could also coincide roughly with two such auspicious occasions – Flourist’s anniversary and International Women’s Day (Wednesday, March 8th) – is just brown butter frosting on the sifted spelt flour pumpkin cake!
Take us back to the beginning: where and how did you meet?
Shira McDermott: We met back in 2011/2012, when Janna was working as a clothing designer at MEC. During that time, my husband was working there as well. We shared a lot of mutual friends and connected almost instantly over our shared interest in food, food trends, blogs, and vegetarian and vegan recipes. I was doing a lot of food blogging back then.
How did Flourist begin? When and where did the idea to bring traceable grains to market begin?
Janna Bishop: My stepdad, Bob, is a 7th generation wheat farmer from central Saskatchewan. Back before Flourist existed, Bob would visit me in the city and we would go to grocery stores together. On those visits, he’d comment on the poor quality of flour, whole grains and beans available in the market, even in premium health food stores. He would also see the Saskatchewan wheat that he grew being exported to other markets outside of Canada. Given my connection to such deep roots in Canadian agriculture, I knew there had to be a market for folks looking for better sources of dry goods.
It was after meeting Shira, who had a food industry background and at the time was an avid food blogger, that I saw an opportunity to create something meaningful with our combined skill sets and relationships. I had begun bringing Bob’s chickpeas, wheat berries, and lentils to Shira after visiting the farm, and they changed the way she saw these products forever. They were so much better than anything she’d ever tried, and she’d been using them her whole life!
One night I pitched the idea of starting a traceable, high quality dry goods business, and from that night on, neither of us could get the idea out of our minds. A few days later we started building a business plan.
In terms of the partnership, what are your official roles?
Shira: I look after most of the customer-facing elements of the business, though there is a lot of the creative work that we share, given we have a lot of the same tastes and sensibilities where branding and aesthetics are concerned. My official role is Chief Product Officer, and my responsibilities include all aspects of our online presence (social, website, content, photography), as well as looking after the in-person experience at the stores (menu direction, merchandising, and buying).
Janna: I’m responsible for a lot of the very un-glamorous elements of running the business: insurance, equipment maintenance, licensing, cash flow, costing, scheduling, loans, legal, grants, etc. I also use all the amazing creative assets that Glasfurd and Walker developed for our brand, and rework them into our ongoing marketing efforts: postcards, pizza posters, etc!
How about your “unofficial” roles?
Shira: I’d say I definitely have an unofficial janitorial role! I find cleaning and fussing to be really therapeutic and having a business our size provides more than enough opportunity to do the jobs no one else really wants to do. I’m the one you’ll find outside clearing errant bags of dog-poop and wiping counters to calm my nerves. Outside of that, I’ll field any incoming corporate sales request if it means I get to close a deal of any kind. I guess I missed my opportunity to be a realtor, as I still really love sales.
Janna: Unofficially, I spend a lot of time answering Shira’s text messages and I’m the team therapist.
Transparency is a thread you carry through your business – not just in sourcing but also in the ‘culture’ of your brand. Ironically, many conversations and layers of examination have to happen behind the scenes to be transparent in a publicly facing way. Can you tell us about some of the issues you’ve jointly found important enough to discuss internally that may not be part of your ‘official’ brand identity but have also helped shape/mould and evolve Flourist into what it is today?
Janna: Transparency is really woven into every element of our business, but we have found that customers only have an appetite for so much of this. Internally, we have a few unwritten rules: if we’re claiming a bread contains a particular type of flour, it must contain at least 50% of that grain, and usually it’s 100%. Our whole grain items contain 100% whole grain flour. We publish the recipes for most of our best selling items, so people know exactly what they’re eating and can even make it at home. This is in addition to our official brand promise of always working with Canadian family grain farmers.
As a values-driven small business, alignment motivation and goals is a consideration when forging partnerships of any kind. From the farmers who grow the grains you mill to the staff you employ – what are some of the things you look for to gauge whether your prospective partners and employees will be a good fit for Flourist?
Janna: Our business has always attracted staff and partners that are looking to make the world a better place. In all honesty, we’ve had many staff that left because we weren’t doing enough advocacy or pushing the dial far enough in the direction they cared most about. We love having these conversations – it makes the business better – and ultimately we’re all on the same team. Shira and I also have business realities to consider, which always has to take top priority in order for Flourist to flourish in the long term.
We want to work with people that love eating and making food. These people always have a better appreciation for the work that goes into our food systems, right from the farmers and millers, to the bakers and chefs, and ultimately they care about the people doing these jobs.
For grain sourcing we have a lot of specific and technical requirements, but at a high level we only work with Canadian, family run farms that care deeply about the land they grow on.
“As the cultural gender conversation has evolved, it’s been refreshing to almost eliminate gender being a factor in our identity as business people entirely. We try to lead as ourselves, and while our perspectives are undoubtedly those of cisgender women, we try to stay aware of that but ultimately conduct ourselves as people just trying to do our best and lead with as much honesty and authenticity as we can.”
As partners and friends, can you tell us about one unexpected strength, skill or talent that you see in each other – something that you didn’t know about before going into business together but now value or rely on?
Shira: Truthfully, I think there are too many to name. Going through this recent pandemic era together as a six-month-old restaurant has really tested us both, and shown us just what we are made of. I will say that Janna’s natural diplomacy and ability to see and understand others’ perspectives is a wonder to behold. She is the definition of compassionate.
Janna: I can think of many things but I’m always grateful for Shira’s “follow through”. She thinks through every detail of a project from start to finish, and executes perfectly every time! I love getting things started, but it’s really how well you finish something that matters.
How has being a business owner affected how you behave as a customer?
Shira: So many ways! Appreciating just how much goes into crafting a great customer experience has been a wonderfully humbling experience. Knowing all the lengths that folks have to go to to get all those little touches right, and to do it day after day under all kinds of outside pressures and circumstances, is not something you can possibly grasp as a customer until you take it on for yourself.
Janna: I never did before, but I would never, ever leave a negative Google review! I think being a bakery owner has made me a more critical customer because I pay much more attention to the details than I ever did as a customer. But like Shira said, I’m very empathetic to all the ways something can go wrong.
Over time, partnerships develop their own language or shorthand. Can you share a curious/silly/unusual shorthand term you have in your working relationship vocabulary?
Shira: There are a few that pop up over and over for us. Instead of ‘Roger that’, we use ‘Rita’ in an attempt to feminize that sentiment. We are all about extending BOTD (benefit of the doubt) in all situations.
Janna: Well, sometimes we have to work harder than others to give BOTD, but we always try. There’s also a lot of talk of retrogrades and planetary transits too, particularly when Shira is around.
Do you think that being a women-owned-and-run business affects how you operate Flourist?
Shira: It’s become a little less of something we think about as time goes on, as our experience has shown us that leaning too heavily into our identity as women-owned can bring about some problematic and unrealistic expectations. As the cultural gender conversation has evolved, it’s been refreshing to almost eliminate gender being a factor in our identity as business people entirely. We try to lead as ourselves, and while our perspectives are undoubtedly those of cisgender women, we try to stay aware of that but ultimately conduct ourselves as people just trying to do our best and lead with as much honesty and authenticity as we can.
What was the hardest thing about being in business last year?
Janna: The unrelenting inconsistency of 2021/2022 was by far the hardest to navigate. It felt like we had to recalibrate every aspect of the business every four weeks. Whether we were responding to changing customer demand, swings in staffing, government policy changes, or ingredient costs, it was a real roller coaster. It was understandably draining, and distracted us from doing what we love doing the most: making new things and getting people really excited to eat our food.
What was your biggest “win”?
Shira: We managed to make payroll and rent every month, and lived to see the sun come up on 2023! I know that sounds bleak, but in conversations I often get the feeling that folks think we somehow “won” the pandemic. In many ways we did, and not a day goes by that I am not deeply grateful for every person that saw us through those months and now, years. But make no mistake, like everyone else, we have not had an easy time.
I am really proud of the way we handled the pandemic pivot as a team, amidst a global flour shortage and folks buying multiple bags of dry goods and flour before heading to their bunkers in the woods (we truly saw it all). We simply would not be here if it was not for our community that showed up for us in the past few years. Reading the comments on our four-year Instagram post is such a wonderful reminder just how strong this community is, and we could not be prouder to have made it to this point.
Given the difficulties small business owners have faced recently, I cannot urge folks enough to show some love to the independent businesses they love the most. We may not talk about it openly (grim reality does not make for the sexiest marketing), but it’s taken a supernatural amount of energy to keep up with the pressures of changing consumer behaviors amidst the deluge of rising costs. It definitely takes its toll. If we don’t want a world full of solely Amazon trucks on every block, it’s up to all of us to find a way to prioritize supporting small business every way we possibly can.
What are you looking forward to as a business this coming year?
Shira: I am excited for Saturn and Pluto to finally shift out of their current placements and lift the heavy, restrictive energy we’ve all been existing in these past few years! In all seriousness, it feels like 2023 is going to be good. I’m really excited for the winds of change to visit us and hopefully stay a while.
Janna: I’m looking forward to eating a whole grain croissant in our gorgeous bakery.
Do you have advice for anyone looking to go into business together?
Janna: Lots! If you’re really planning to run a business with another person, making all the everyday decisions together, you have to approach the partnership the way you would a marriage. There will be days you disagree, there will be days that are very hard, but you are committed to each other and you need to have faith in that commitment. Don’t take the partnership for granted and don’t make the commitment lightly.
Shira: Speaking of transparency, the requirement for honesty and openness in a successful business partnership is immense. Much like a marriage, it’s really important to ensure compatibility when it comes to the big stuff. I also think that fostering self awareness is key as well, as you can’t know where your blind spots are together without a deep commitment to staying humble and self aware (and trust that everyone has blind spots, it’s a fact of being human!). The small holes can be filled or outsourced, but if you are unmatched in the macro or big picture, that’s where I think the potential for an enduring partnership could be impeded.