Interview with Brooke Saward (Charlie’s Founder)
Celebrating our three years of operation at our flagship store in Launceston, Tasmania, we sit down with Charlie’s founder Brooke Saward to answer your burning questions. We asked on Instagram for the questions you’re dying to get answers to – relating to the creation of Charlie’s, lessons learned in business, creating the menu and how Brooke was inspired to create Charlie’s Dessert House.
Interview with Brooke Saward
Charlie: Hi Brooke! We’re excited to steal 20 minutes of your time today. We would love to know more about your idea for Charlie’s Dessert House and how it all came to be.
Brooke: Thanks for taking the time to make this interview (finally) happen! My travel schedule has been crazy for World of Wanderlust so I’m happy to be back on home soil.
Charlie: Tell us about the day you decided to open a Dessert Restaurant in your hometown. Was it a long time planning?
Brooke: What is perhaps surprising to most people is how quickly the idea sprung upon me and how quickly I turned the idea into a reality. I was hiking on Bruny Island with my then boyfriend who had expressed his desire for me to travel less and be at home more. I had been travelling solo for about 4 years at that point and being a travel blogger was the only career I knew. I had a hard time stomaching the idea, but it was more important for me to choose love and put the relationship first – so I began brainstorming ideas and thinking “what else am I good at?”
Eating. I’m very good at eating. More specifically, I’m good at eating dessert. I remember being in Singapore a year or so earlier and a friend took me to the 2:00am Dessert Bar in Singapore. I loved the idea of being able to get dessert any time of day or night and thought how cool it would be to start a similar idea back in Tasmania. Of course the town I grew up in was really quite small (100,000 population) so this same concept wouldn’t work (for scope, Singapore has a population of 5.6 million).
From the time we started that hike to the time we finished, I had refined my idea. I would open a late night dessert restaurant that sold only desserts. It would operate as a cafe/bakery during the day while preparation was done for the evenings and of the evening we would serve up waffles, ice cream sundaes, warm cookie sundaes and seasonal specials.
Charlie: Wow! How long was the hike?
Brooke: About 5 hours return.
Charlie: That’s so impressive. Did you face any criticism when you told friends and family about your idea? How long did you wait before telling anyone?
Brooke: At the time the only person who knew was my (now ex) boyfriend and I don’t think he even took it seriously. I’m one of those people who always has crazy ideas, so I think he thought it was just one of those (ha!) A couple of months later I told him I had found a (retail) space and I wanted him to come check it out. We both knew as soon as we walked in that this was it and around 6 months later the shop doors opened!
Charlie: What happened in those 6 months?
Brooke: A LOT! I had no idea it would be such a huge undertaking to open a dessert restaurant. I was so naive. But that is probably what helped the success of Charlie’s – I just believed in it so much!
After signing the lease, I began designing the store floor plan. I had no idea how to design a restaurant but I found a lot of helpful resources online and used my previous experience dining in many restaurants around the world. I drew inspiration from Angelina Paris, my all time favourite teahouse in Paris. I drew inspiration from bakeries all over the world – San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and London.
After the floor plans were drawn (or more accurately my doodling on a piece of blank A4 paper), I had an architect draw them up for the building company. We had to rip up the floors (they were uneven), build in a commercial graded kitchen, paint from top to bottom, custom make all of the details: a huge barn door, the patisserie display, the wall behind the counter is completely built in… the list is endless. We transformed the space over the coming months and opened the doors on October 1, 2016
Charlie: What were the biggest challenges?
Brooke: Luckily the entire process was exciting for me as I really loved sweets, desserts and pastries. I had always dreamed of owning my own bakery, so despite all the difficulties I stayed in a really great mental space until the day before opening (which was nothing short of a disaster!)
I think the biggest challenge was to get the doors open on time. I had completely jumped the gun and set an opening date which I thought was far enough in the future and would act as a way to keep the contractors on track. Although it kind of worked out that way, there were also a handful of events out of their hands that led us to announce we would not be opening in time. We had people all over our social media saying how disappointed they were, that all the hype was for nothing. It just meant we had to work harder to earn back their respect and trust, which is never an easy thing to do!
We opened the doors on October 1st. I will never forget the first order of six people sitting on Table 1. They ordered 4 servings of pancakes, along with waffles and hot drinks. As soon as the order came into the kitchen we realised we had no pans… no pans! It was a hellish few days. Our chef quit on day 2 so I was working 18 hour days for the first 6 weeks. I lost all feeling in my right arm (from my finger tips to my elbow). I later discovered I had carpel tunnel from doing so much in the kitchen every waking hour. My feet felt like they could drop off at any moment… it was really, really difficult. There were many tears.
Charlie: Were the hardships worthwhile? What were the trade offs?
Brooke: Of course in the long term but for a period of time there, it was really hard to see light at the end of the tunnel. The business killed my social calendar and eventually, my relationship. Owning a business just puts so much pressure on a relationship unless you’re in it together and can both understand the hardships of working a minimum of 12 hours a day on your feet, 7 days a week. I think that was the biggest trade off: putting work in front of absolutely everyone. But once the can of worms was opened, there was no other way to survive.
Charlie: At one point you lived above the shop, what made you choose to do that?
Brooke: Ha! What a whirlwind few years it was. Yes, I bought an apartment above the shop about 1 year into business. I was still working 12 hour days and wanted to be able to stay close the business so I could wake up and be straight in the kitchen. It was really fun, kind of inspired by Gilmore Girls’ Luke’s Diner. It didn’t last too long: I burned out really quickly. About 6 months later I went travelling for 3 months in Los Angeles in search of myself. It was probably the most difficult time of my life internally: I was fighting a battle with myself and my choices to put work first. I started to feel really empty and shattered mentally. It took me a while to really put myself back together and see work in a healthy way. I really love work and being busy/passionate about a project but I wasn’t making any time for myself – to take care of my body, my relationships, and my mental health.
Charlie: And now? What’s next since moving on from Charlie’s?
Brooke: I couldn’t have asked for a better end to this chapter. My parents purchased the business off me so they could keep it running as Charlie’s and keep my vision in tact. My mum actually worked full time as the manager for 2.5 years at Charlie’s so it was a really organic change for the team.
I moved to Cape Town (South Africa) a few months ago to start fresh with my boyfriend. He and I met a while ago and only got together almost a year ago, so it was a pretty big decision to move halfway across the world! I don’t know if it is our forever plan but it is the plan for right now. We joke about opening a Charlie’s in South Africa but if I’m honest, I’d be more inclined to wait and see where we settle. If we land back in Australia I can definitely see a Charlie’s in the future in Melbourne or Sydney! Who knows. It might be the close of this chapter but the book is still being written.