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What I Learned from My Grandmother, the Entrepreneur

By Kathleen M. Rehl September 09, 2020 Managing Money

My Grandma’s label said VIM bread ingredients included “whole grain wheat flour, raw sugar, non-fat milk solids, fresh creamery butter, salt, water, and fresh yeast,” with “nothing taken away.” Created honestly, with integrity. Authentic. That was my grandmother’s small business in the mid-1950s.

Vim Bakery
Vim Bakery circa mid-1950s

A Dreamer with a Vision

Ruth Whittenbaugh operated VIM Bakery for several years at 419 State Street in Madison, WI, focused on baking loaves “packed with vitamins and minerals.” Her products were radically different from the popular fluffy white commercial bread back then.

She was way ahead of her time, embarking on her entrepreneurial journey in her early 50s. Quite unlike most housewives her age.

I Loved Helping Around

I remember paying a nickel to ride the city bus to her bakery most afternoons when my fourth-grade class finished. A little bell tinkled as I ran through the shop’s front door. Delightful aromas met me – hearty dark bread, muffins, tasty cookies, and frosted cupcakes in sparkling glass cases.

Goodies ready for customers to buy. After Grandma asked about my school day, I swept the bakery’s front room and the outside walk. I loved it when she let me ring up small sales, watching that I gave the correct change from a mammoth old-fashioned cash register with its side crank.

My other tasks included running the electric bread slicing machine and cellophane wrapping device. I managed the tricky rhythm between these two mechanisms, not losing momentum. That included pulling fresh bread off the cooling racks at the right time, so the slicing would be done perfectly.

Boxes had to be filled with bread and shipped soon to out-of-town grocery stores. Everything moved quickly since no preservatives were added to Gram’s bread.

Sometimes I helped in her shop’s backroom, where bread dough raised and baked. Usually, Grandma started the first batches long before dawn, when I was in dreamland. If a late afternoon baking was scheduled, I began the process by crumbling fresh wet yeast into the giant mixer’s bowl of warm water.

I liked organizing coins from the day’s sales, popping paper wrappers open with a squeeze and filling the coin rolls with 50 pennies, 40 nickels, 50 dimes, or 40 quarters.

My grandmother counted the paper dollar bills for a nearby bank drop of this money in a zippered canvas cash bag, reserving what she planned to need for the next day’s business. To celebrate a terrific day’s take, we ate yummy chocolate brownies if all hadn’t sold before the shop closed for the night.

Grandma toiled incredibly hard, long hours, six days a week. She was committed to her dream. My father also worked there for a couple of years. Other VIM Bakery loyal crew members included her mother (my great grandmother), a pastry baker, another bread baker, and a gal who did whatever.

Grandma’s semi-invalid husband was at the shop sometimes before he died, but I don’t remember him doing any real work. Just smoked his stinky cigar and sat in the corner trying to supervise everyone rushing around him.

There’s Work and then There’s Rest

Grandma stayed away from her bakery on Sundays, doing interesting stuff with me and my brothers. That included driving her old woodie wagon very slowly around the block with the tailgate down to give us a ride. We loved it!

woodie wagon

The author with her two younger brothers and neighborhood kids after a tailgate ride on her Grandma’s woodie wagon.

She read a lot, encouraging me to do the same. What fun it was feeding day-old, unsold bread to ducks at a close-by pond.

Her business eked by for a few years, but sadly it folded in the later 1950s. Perhaps it was a lack of marketing, less interest in healthy bread, or just not the right time for her small business.

Grandma’s Advice

I loved working with my grandmother. Today I still very much enjoy baking bread, including a honey wheat version of that original VIM loaf. I feel especially close to her when my hands knead the warm dough.

original VIM recipe bread

The best lesson I learned from Grandma is that it takes dedicated, demanding work to make your small business a success… and even then, things might not work out.

I saw her laughing and crying as she followed her dream of creating and managing VIM Bakery. When I started my first business, I believe Grandma whispered advice to me, long after her passing.

Her tips below helped my two ventures – Rehl Financial Advisors, 1996-2013, and Rehl Wealth Collaborations, 2014-2020 – succeed, before “reFiring” last January on my 73rd birthday.

  • You can start a business when you’re middle-aged. Go for it!
  • Provide products/services your ideal clients/customers want, not just what you think they need.
  • Keep enough cash available for the good times and as a buffer when business isn’t stellar.
  • Be authentic.
  • Mentor women interested in your business.
  • Enjoy life outside of your business, too, focusing on who and what you love.

Thanks, Grandma. You were the best!

Do you know of a family member or relative who was an entrepreneur in the distant past when you were a child? Who was that person? What did you learn from them, and their business? How do you implement those lessons today? Let’s have a conversation and reminisce on the old times.

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The Author

Kathleen M. Rehl, Ph.D., CFP®, wrote the award-winning book, Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows. She owned Rehl Financial Advisors for 18 years before an encore career empowering widows. Now “reFired,” Rehl writes legacy stories and assists nonprofits. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s, CNBC, and more. She’s adjunct faculty at The American College of Financial Services.

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