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[00:00:00] I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers.
Immigrants come to the U. S. with very high expectations of themselves. This is where they can be who they really are, become who they want to become, and grasp at every opportunity to make their American dream a reality. But it’s a lot harder than it sounds, and the amount of work they put into making that dream a reality is steep.
For Brad Brown, baker, immigrant from Canada, and founder of Blue Frog Bakery in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, dreaming too big almost killed him. His dream of launching the 7-Eleven of French-style patisseries just wouldn’t work out. But he found not only something he could manage, but also tremendous gratification in being a neighborhood business, where he could see every day the positive impact he and his business were having on [00:01:00] real people.
Brad shares with us the highs and lows of being a baker — but not a businessman, starting out with small business — and how he was able to find his groove and maintain a neighborhood institution for almost 20 years. He also has some thoughts on how the value of immigration and diversity benefits communities like his. As you learn in this week’s episode of JobMakers.
Denzil: Brad Brown, owner of Blue Frog Bakery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, immigrant from Canada. Welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?
Brad Brown: I’m well, Denzil. Thank you very much for having me.
Denzil: So, let’s go back to the beginning. What first brought you to the U.S.? And was it your plan to stay here permanently?
Brad Brown: Sure. Greed! Greed brought me to the U. S. I had plans to become a rich and famous pastry chef in New York City.
I see. There we go. Of course!
Brad Brown: [00:02:00] And then once I, once I finished my training in Canada, I got, I went down and looked for a job in New York and found one and moved down here.
Denzil: And what was the allure of New York or the U.S., given that you’re just several miles away in Toronto?
Brad Brown: A couple of hundred miles away, but, all of the literature that I saw in Toronto, all of the magazines, all of the high-end pastry chefs that I was reading about, were either, in New York or San Francisco, L.A., and, San Francisco and L.A. were a long way, so I thought New York, plus I had some family that were living on Long Island. It would be cheaper to stay with them. Yeah, I just, I moved down to New York and embarked on my pastry career.
Denzil: Would you call it sort of the American Dream that drew you here?
Brad Brown: I think so. Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I grew up middle, lower-middle class in Canada. We had everything I could hope for. I never went without, but I mean, it’s not like we lived in a mansion or anything like that. And when I looked around, it was part American Dream, part wanderlust.
I like to travel, and I wanted to get out of — even though I’m from Toronto, I’m from one of the suburbs and it was an insular kind of community everywhere you went, you saw the same faces and the same people — and I wanted to get away from it.
Denzil: So even from right across the border, the American Dream looks sort of, loomed large for you, even though you were right there. We often think of these far-flung places in Central America or in West Africa. People think about the American Dream, but it exists right there in Canada. So, Blue Frog Bakery is what I think an iconic business in Jamaica Plain, certainly with an iconic storefront. Where did the idea for Blue Frog come from? And give us some insight as to the name.
Brad Brown: Sure. I spent most of my career working in restaurants, as a pastry chef. And then, I got a job working at a place in the south end of Boston called the Garden of Eden that has since closed. But that was my first foray [00:04:00] into retail pastry. And people started coming just for my stuff, not coming for dinner for the chef that they read about in Food & Wine or in the Boston Globe or anything like that, but specifically to eat my dessert, eat my pastry. And I thought, you know what, I could do this for myself as opposed to working for other people. And I’d always been slightly entrepreneurial. So, I thought, I’m going to try and do it myself. So, I decided to go out on my own and try and open my own bakery, and through the process, I had to come up with a name and I had these visions of grandeur that I would be the 7-Eleven of upscale pastry shops, one on every street corner kind of thing. So, I didn’t want to call it the Jamaica Plain Bake House or the Green Street Bakery because we’re on Green Street, or anything like that.
And I was in a bookstore on Long Island, visiting my niece and nephew, and the Blue Frog Bakery popped into my head. It was this subliminal, like, wait, wait a sec. So, I went back to where it popped into my head, and, on one of the end caps of the rows was this book called The Blue Day Book.
And it’s a self-help book with a big blue, a big bullfrog on the cover, and the whole thing is tinted blue. And it was just kind of subliminal, and it’s… Almost alliterative. It’s almost BB blue frog bakery. If you use blue frog as one word, it kind of rolls off the tongue. And, we got a friend of the family, who’s, an artist to draw our logo for us, a cool looking blue frog wearing high top chucks and holding the spoon.
So, it just kind of worked, the whole thing worked. And the visual for me was if you saw that frog on the top of the box, you may not know what’s inside the box, but you know it’s going to be great. So that’s how we got the name and just wanting to work for myself was the reason I wanted to.
Denzil: So, you said that you were somewhat entrepreneurial. I mean, the fact that you just even moved to New York itself is sort of entrepreneurial to me, because you’re taking a risk and leaving everything behind. What was it like though, when you first started the business, I imagine it was challenging. You don’t have [00:06:00] a formidable business background. What was it like?
Brad Brown: There’s a quote that I love to use all the time. And that’s “Just because you’re good at doing the physical work of a business doesn’t mean you’re good at running the business that does that physical work.” I might have been a great baker, but I was a terrible businessman. But what was it like? It was, I mean, you hear about the school of hard knocks. I went to the school of hard knocks running this bakery. I learned a lot the hard way on how to deal with people, how to manage people, how to take care of your taxes, how to pay people. And if there’s one piece of advice I would give anybody is hire a payroll company, because they take care of all of those problems. So yeah, there was, it was tough at first, but gratifying. Long hours, seven days a week, 10 hours, 12, 14, 16 hours a day is whenever it takes. And that’s kind of what you have to do. At least, I believe ,when you start your own business, you have to be willing to put in the hours and, you know, suck it up basically.
Denzil: I mean, you’re reflecting on this in hindsight, but at the time it must have been just grueling, and you must have had some doubts, right?
Brad Brown: Yeah, we opened on March 19, 2004, which was a Saturday. And if we didn’t open on March 19, 2004, chances are we weren’t going to be able to pay our rent in April. So that would have been a terrible way to start off, but we opened, and we had people coming in the door from the word — day one. You also have to remember, I come from, working in restaurants and things like that, where 12-hour days are normal, you know, working in a hot environment, the pressure is there, it’s instantaneous pressure, it’s like bing, here’s your order, got to fill it, got to make those desserts, got to get stuff done.
So, it was a little bit less than that. And, but yeah, it was, there was a lot going on and it was always trying to put out little fires, you know? The first day we opened, this woman came in and ordered $60 worth of stuff. [00:08:00] I said, that’ll be $60 please. She pulled out a credit card. We weren’t taking credit cards at that time.
She went, Oh, okay. And walked out. $60 sale gone. The next day I found a credit card company and started taking credit. Yikes. Yeah. Things like that,
Denzil: Learning on the job!
Brad Brown: Exactly. Learning on the job.
Denzil: and so, you’ve been around for almost 20 years, I guess next year marks your 20th anniversary. How has your business grown over the years? And I know you’ve tried a lot of different things like pop ups. You once opened a pizzeria, you’re doing Cambodian style ribs, which sounds crazy to me as this Canadian patisserie, but what has the journey been like?
Brad Brown: Sure. So, most of those that you mentioned, the pop-ups, those were, in conjunction with a program called First Thursdays. It was a First Thursday art walk that was put on by our local Main Streets organization. And we wanted to do something. We had artists come in and show their stuff, but we’re a very small space and you can’t show a lot of art in our space. So, we thought we would [00:09:00] donate money back to the organization by hosting these pop-ups.
Plus, it gave me a chance to do something different. We had the bacon bomb sandwich, which is pork with bacon around it and barbecue sauce and coleslaw. We did bao. We did pizza, which turned into a regular Friday night pizza party that we threw, which then turned into us, my wife and I — Ginger — opening a pizzeria, down the street, further down the street in Jamaica Plain.
We were, you know, restaurateurs and owned two — two separate places. So, just for the bakery, we’re only 600 square feet total. The kitchen can only produce so much stuff. We’ve tried to do wholesale things for people when they asked us, and it just doesn’t work out for us. It’s too much of a pain. we don’t deliver, they didn’t want to pick up and we have done, long-term, wholesale things. We did all the buns for [00:10:00] a local burger chain that had two outlets called Grass Fed. We were their sole bun provider for their entire higher scope of their business. But yeah, the business has matured in what we make and how much I know how much to make.
Now, when we first opened, it was just kind of like, I don’t know, are we going to sell 100 croissants today or five? We’ve seemed to level out and everything works smoother. But as for growing the business, and I hate to say this, the biggest thing for us was the COVID outbreak, being a small, like micro business basically, we had three employees working at the time, myself and two counter people, one in the afternoon, one in the morning. And when everybody else closed in the neighborhood, all the other coffee shops closed down, we stayed open. We masked up, we gloved up, we washed our hands more than we normally do.
We wash our hands a lot in the bakery industry. We limited it to one person in the store at a time and we sanitize the front of the store every half an hour, 45 minutes. So, we got a huge [00:11:00] increase in business. We gained a ton of market share in our little neighborhood. And we did a service for people, they’d come in and order a croissant and stand around and talk for a couple of minutes because they were segregated at home.
They didn’t have anybody to talk to. We were there for them. and we also put together meal kits. Or it started out for, restaurant workers who were furloughed that could come by and grab a box of, we always had some kind of protein, a whole chicken or a whole pork loin or some ground beef or something, potatoes, pasta, sauce, whatever, vegetables, fruits, loaf of bread.
And it was just come on and buy and get it. And that kind of did well. And, but that wasn’t super, super successful. And then we opened it up to everybody in the neighborhood and it took off. We had 30 people every Thursday coming by to get these meal kits that would feed a family of four, a meal and a half, maybe.
If it’s just two people, you’re gonna, you’re gonna get three meals out of it now. So, we gave back a little bit, but that’s what, [00:12:00] really increased our business. and it hasn’t slowed down since then. Our businesses stayed at that, not quite at that level, but still a pretty high level.
Denzil: So, you mentioned a few things, a few items, just now. What — and it’s just so interesting for me to talk to a baker — what are some of your favorite items that you sell and what makes Blue Frog so special now?
Brad Brown: Sure. Uh, I mean, on a personal level, chocolate chip cookies, blueberry muffins. Two favorite things that I make that, if I go out somewhere, I’m having a blueberry muffin, I’m having a chocolate chip cookie.
Denzil: I was expecting something fancier!
Brad Brown: I’m a simple guy. As a baker, I enjoy making the bread. There’s something, with the shaping of the bread and rolling of the dough and making it, there’s, and when you bake it, especially the baguettes, when they come out of the oven, they start to crackle. And if you have enough of them, it’s like a symphony. I mean, you can, it’s loud enough. You can hear it, whatever you got going on. for our customers, chocolate almond croissant, bread pudding, that would be our, if you asked any of the people that go to Blue Frog, if they’ve, you know, the [00:13:00] thing, that’s what it’s, it has many names.
People come in and just grunt and point for the bread pudding. We do it only on the weekends and you’ll hear every day, every Saturday ‘Somebody told me to come by and get the thing, the chocolate!’ Yeah. Okay. We know exactly what you’re talking about. But yeah, for me, making the bread is the most soul satisfying.
Denzil: And for that you won Boston Magazine’s Best of Boston Bread Award in 2015.
Brad Brown: We did. yeah. Yeah.
Denzil: So, you’ve had a long, career in Jamaica Plain, which is a neighborhood in Boston. in what ways have you sort of taken part in the building up of the community?
Brad Brown: Sure. very early on, I think the, uh, at the end of the first year I was open, uh, I met some people from the JP Center South Main Streets organization and they helped me get a grant for a sandwich unit, start making sandwiches and hire a person to make those sandwiches and employ people. And I’ve been [00:14:00] involved with them going on, on, 19, almost 20 years with Center South Main Streets. It’s a great organization. There’s 20 of them in, in, in Boston, 20 different Main Streets organizations, all independently run. And we’re part of a larger network of Main Streets across America. And funny enough, we’re also the largest. Boston Main Streets has 20. There are states with less Main Streets organizations. So, when we go to their national conferences, they’re like, oh, we’re from J. P. Center South, we’re in the Boston Main Streets, we have Queen, like in the state, like, no, just in our city. There are three in Jamaica Plain alone, all serving different areas of J.P. and all serving different demographics, basically. but they are, they’re a great organization. They work with the city and they — we give out grant money for, especially during COVID, we give out grant money — for people that were furloughed. We helped restaurants put out their outdoor seating when we were doing outdoor seating in the street, we helped liaise with the city on that. So, it’s just been a great [00:15:00] organization. They do a lot of work with the city and the neighborhood; beautification right now is a big thing we’re working on. We’ve got a grant to do that. So, we’re making the place look better. We do what we call “re-store.” It’s helping businesses with their facades, signage, giving money for that.
And then the only other things that I’ve done is just invest in any local nonprofits that we support. We get asked for money all the time being the ultra-successful, rich, famous baker that I am. And I say that tongue in cheek because, it’s a tough, it’s a tough life with tough way to make a buck. But we sponsor a baseball team every year and we sponsor different local charities. in the JP area, so that’s pretty much what we do to be a part of the community.
Denzil: And you’re part of this community that I have to say is probably one of the most diverse, one of the most diverse [00:16:00] in Massachusetts not to mention it has just seen waves of immigration over the years and so you are a witness to the impact of immigration at the local level. What in your mind has been the impact of immigrants in your neighborhood?
Brad Brown: The fact that we have so many restaurants in the neighborhood. If it wasn’t for immigrants, there wouldn’t be those restaurants. I think it’s been a positive having these people moving into the neighborhood and, again, social structure doesn’t matter. I’ve got kids that come in every morning and buy coffee from me and muffins and stuff like that, they work the line at one of the local taquerias, so it’s, they’re just, they’re giving back to the community instantly.
The money that they’re paid from their employer goes into my coffers and then I pay my employees with that. And there’s all kinds of metrics out there on how much money stays in the neighborhood when you shop local. But yeah, being in such a [00:17:00] diverse neighborhood is a great thing. It’s a great thing.
I think that we could be any middle American town if we were all just, white people and it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. It wouldn’t be nearly, we just had our open streets when they shut down Center Street for a mile between Center South and Jackson Square and it was great. Everybody was out. Thousands, tens of thousands of people were out there walking around. There was music being played. There was salsa. There was hip hop. There was jazz. There was rock and roll. Where are you going to get that anywhere else?
Denzil: I mean, I haven’t even been to JP many times. I know the storefronts that you’re talking about, the restaurants, but you can get empanadas, you can get oxtail soup. You can get so many different things. Even the doggy daycare is run by an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. I mean, for crying out loud. So, what is the real value of diversity itself? You sort of, hinted at it with the different kinds of [00:18:00] cuisines. we take this thing for granted in the U. S. that we have access to so many different cuisines from all over the world, so many different ways of life. Many Americans probably will say, no, no, stop. I don’t want any more diversity. What to you is the real value of diversity?
Brad Brown: I think, you know, the real value is that, if you’re insulated, you hate. If we were to — I have some, family members, my wife’s family that live in Ohio, and their idea of great ethnic food is the Olive Garden. And, if you surround yourself with different people, you begin to appreciate those people as people.
And, for me, it’s always been through food. You sit down and have a meal with somebody, you’re friends. You can talk about things you’re sharing and experience. It’s like that in the neighborhood. You, you walk down the street and especially during the open streets or, we do a porch fest or the JP open studios where people are walking around [00:19:00] looking at art.
You meet somebody who might be Dominican. They might be Pakistani. They might be Iranian. Who knows, with Russia, whatever. It doesn’t matter. And you have a quick little conversation over a piece of art or an empanada or some music that you’re both listening to and liking. And it makes you a better person.
And if everybody across this country had a little bit more diversity, and we’re a little bit less, excuse me, a little bit less insular, then I think we’d all be happier.
Denzil: That sounds incredibly gratifying. Brad Brown, owner of Blue Frog Bakery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, immigrant from Canada, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.
Brad Brown: Thank you. It’s been a lot of fun.
Denzil: JobMakers is a podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and innovation produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not for profit that gives immigrants a voice. [00:20:00] Thank you for joining us for today’s inspiring story of an immigrant business owner who’s feeding his community and giving back. If you know another outstanding immigrant business owner or innovator we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D E N Z I L at jobmakerspodcast. org. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you in two weeks for another episode of JobMakers.
This week on Jobmakers, host Denzil Mohammed interviews Brad Brown, owner of Blue Frog Bakery in Jamaica Plain. Mr. Brown, an immigrant entrepreneur, discusses his arrival in the U.S., the founding and growth of Blue Frog Bakery, favorite products, community engagement, and the broader impact of immigration in their neighborhood and beyond.
Brad Brown, a native of the Toronto, Canada area, came to the U.S. with dreams of becoming “a rich and famous pastry chef in New York City” and founding a string of patisseries modeled on the 7-Eleven franchises. After working for others, Brown decided to open his own business, Blue Frog Bakery in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. He has spent nearly 20 years living out his entrepreneurial dream, learning the hard lessons of running a small business, and contributing to the culture of one of the city’s most diverse and vibrant communities.