Rob & Sarah Gartzman (‘The Biker & The Baker’), on balancing fear and love in business and marriage, and building a future that works.
(Publication Date: 11.15.22)
In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, host Adam Williams talks with Rob and Sarah Gartzman, a married couple who also are entrepreneurial partners who own multiple restaurants in the town of Salida, Colorado.
Sarah and Rob met as high school seniors in Evanston, Illinois, somewhere around 20 years ago, and they’ve taken a really compelling path together – and for a bit apart – and have ridden some big ups and some scary downs.
Rob tells about the unwritten rule in their lives that keeps them going through dark-early morning wake-ups, being bosses for nearly 40 employees, being creators, risk-takers and parents, and everything else they’re juggling.
They also get into the seriousness of a truly life-threatening, frightening emergency that led Sarah to the hospital during an already extraordinarily difficult time. And they touch on a topic that not only is critical in Chaffee County, and throughout Colorado, but across the country and really the world: housing affordability and the dominoes that can fall in a community without it.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
The Biker & The Baker
Sweetie’s Sandwich Shop
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
Producer & We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Director of Chaffee Housing Authority: Becky Gray
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service. Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams: Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking upstream, a human forward conversational podcast based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm your host, Adam Williams.
We have two guests for our conversation today, Rob and Sarah Gartzman, a married couple who are also entrepreneurial partners who own multiple restaurants in the town of Salida, Colorado. Sarah and Rob met as high school seniors in Evanston, Illinois, somewhere around 20 years ago, and they've taken a really compelling path together, and for a bit apart, and have written some big ups and some scary downs.
You'll hear me say that their relationship is a strong and amazing thread throughout their story, because it is, and I think that's pretty clear. Rob tells us about the unwritten rule in their lives that keeps them going through dark, early morning wake ups, being bosses for nearly 40 employees, being creators, innovators, risk takers, and everything that joins the biker, that's Rob, and the baker, Sarah, which for anyone who doesn't already know today's guest is perhaps my punny way to say The Biker & The Baker is the name of one of their restaurants, and it's known by travelers far and wide. As is their Sweetie's Sandwich Shop. Adding onto that are a couple more unfolding startup ventures that we'll talk about too.
We also get into the seriousness of a truly life-threatening, frightening emergency that led Sarah to the hospital during an already extraordinarily difficult time. We touch on a topic that not only is critical in Chaffee County and throughout Colorado, but across the country and really the world. I'm talking about housing affordability and the dominoes that can fall in a community without it.
Rob shares insights on some of those dominoes as they affect his and Sarah's businesses and the community at large. He also tells us about steps they're taking to be part of the solution. All in all, I feel like this incredible conversation is about a shared story that balances beer and love and humor and lots of hard work, lots of hard work, adventure and immense self-belief.
Here it is, my conversation with Rob and Sarah Gartzman.
Adam Williams: Rob and Sarah, welcome to Looking Upstream.
Sarah Gartzman: Thanks for having us.
Adam Williams: So of course you two are well known for your restaurant, The Biker & The Baker and Sweetie's Sandwich Shop. But what I want to start with before we get into some of those things is that you two met in high school... by the way, I came from the Midwest too, so we have some of that already as common ground, but I'd love to hear where your origin story, so to speak, is.
And Rob, why don't we start with you and you guys can then feed into each other's story, fill in the gaps if anybody leaves something incredibly hilarious that we need to know.
Rob Gartzman: Okay. So Sarah and I, you're right, we did meet in high school. We knew each other throughout high school. Kind of towards the very end, we started dating and something between us just kind of clicked. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Colorado. Sarah actually moved to Hawaii for a short period and we decided we wanted to continue our relationship. So she then move back to Boulder where I was living. I was going-
Sarah Gartzman: I did move into his dorm room with him.
Rob Gartzman: Yeah. I was going to see you in Boulder. And Sarah moved into my dorm room.
Adam Williams: Did you have a roommate at the time?
Rob Gartzman: I had a roommate.
Sarah Gartzman: And he's still friends with us.
Adam Williams: Wow, okay.
Sarah Gartzman: He just came and visited.
Rob Gartzman: We did that thing for a little while and probably, especially for me at the time, it felt a little intense and then we broke up. And by we broke up, I mean, I broke up with Sarah. She won't let me forget that part.
Sarah Gartzman: I wasn't even going to bring that whole thing up, but that's good.
Adam Williams: I'm so glad that we did. I'm glad we did.
Rob Gartzman: But as many things work out, we were destined to be partners in all of the things we do. So we got back together. About a year later, Sarah moved back to Boulder ultimately where I was living. And after a short while living in Boulder, we moved to Denver and ultimately we moved here where...
Adam Williams: I want to stop us before we get too far down the road there. Sarah, I want to hear from you on where it was you two met. Where was it you grew up actually?
Sarah Gartzman: So we're both from the suburb just north of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois. We went to Evanston High School together and Brad just caught my eyes just in the north Wing, west, northwest.
Adam Williams: Sounded like when you were maybe seniors it was toward the end of-
Sarah Gartzman: Yes, it was at the end of high school. In the middle of senior year we started dating and we actually had a bunch of classes together. So we had spent a lot of time together. We were already friends and then we just decided we loved each other.
Rob Gartzman: It turns out it was almost 20 years ago that we started dating.
Adam Williams: Wow.
Rob Gartzman: It's been a little while.
Adam Williams: Okay. I think it's great that there were, I don't want to call them bumps, but there were those moments where you had a chance to explore and experience some other things too. Because I'm thinking surely at the time, seniors in high school, you're not thinking, "This is the person I'm going to build my restaurant empire with. I'm going to build my life." Right? So, I mean-
Rob Gartzman: I don't think either of us were even thinking about building a restaurant empire until many years later.
Adam Williams: So much life was out here ahead of you.
Sarah Gartzman: Yeah. I feel like I knew Rob was the one immediately.
Adam Williams: Really?
Sarah Gartzman: Yeah, totally. Without a doubt.
Adam Williams: In what way?
Sarah Gartzman: I just couldn't live without him. I was better when I was with him. I never wanted to be without him again.
Adam Williams: What took you to Hawaii?
Sarah Gartzman: Oh, I just wanted to go as far away from my family as possible. Sorry, family, if you're listening. It didn't last long.
Adam Williams: So then you connect back in Boulder. We have that year period where I assume it sounded like if it got intens., maybe you're breathing a little bit and then realize what, "Oops, I need her back."
Rob Gartzman: More or less along those lines. Yeah.
Adam Williams: Sarah, what did you think when that happened? When considering what you just said, I'm better with him, I need him in my life. And then there's that year gap.
Sarah Gartzman: Well, it was kind of like the best thing that could have happened because we could both be independent and find out what we wanted to do later in life a little bit more and live alone for a little bit. I mean, I was crushed. I was just devastated because I really felt like he was my person. I had no idea what we were going to do together, but I just felt like we could do anything together.
Adam Williams: And he is and you guys are. Isn't that amazing to look back and be like, "Okay, I was crushed at this point," but a year later you get back together and than everything that has come since. So I guess let's talk about then what has come since. Let's go ahead and move along with the chronology. The two of you are back together. You're in Boulder. My understanding, Rob, is that you were a bike mechanic at some point when Sarah, you were learning to become a chef, a baker?
Sarah Gartzman: Yeah, a pastry chef.
Adam Williams: Okay. So where was it that you were learning those skills? Was it in restaurant school?
Sarah Gartzman: So yeah, I went to culinary school at the culinary school of the Rockies in South Boulder. It's been acquired since I went there and it's now the is SCO School of Culinary Arts. I worked there, I worked in a number of restaurants, bakeries, and then I actually went back to work at the school for quite some time.
Adam Williams: Rob, what did you have going on?
Rob Gartzman: So I worked in the bike industry as a mountain bike mechanic and a suspension technician for mountain bikes. I worked for a number of bike shops, bike companies, and I had this dream of making it big in the bike industry as a mechanic. And that dream started to fade as I realized that's not how it works in that industry.
Adam Williams: It's not a thing.
Rob Gartzman: It's not really... Yeah. You might get promised a career, but the career might mean that you're still overdrafting your bank account every week trying to make it all come together. You get really nice bikes though, and that's like the small perk of doing it. But in that process I wanted to start a bike company so I decided that was the only way for me to figure out how to make it and last in that industry. And I went back to school, back to CU.
There were a couple hiccups there. I might have been suspended on academic suspension because I played a little too much in the mountains. And so back to school change my train of thought a little bit and getting a business degree. In that process and I spent years getting this business degree, developing a business plan for this and we Sarah and I would come to Salida frequently. And I thought Salida would be the best place to start this bike company because it's located central to every major mountain bike destination in the state as well as you have riding most of the years, a lot of us locals know.
Sarah and I had this connection with the town that it felt like home when we'd come here. We'd come here a few times a year and we'd been here different seasons, but we'd especially come here for Thanksgiving, just the two of us. And that kind of became our thing while we were here. So I'm in this business plan class, finishing up my degree at CU with entrepreneurship and really, really spent a lot of time working on this business plan.
In the back of my head, it's starting to fall apart and I ultimately realize it's not going to work and it's not worth the investment and I don't want to do it. But while I was still here, we were walking by this bakery that had a for sale sign in it and I kind of jokingly said,
"Hey Sarah, you're going to need a job here. You should buy this place." She laughed at me and then we walked on. But a few months later I'm sitting trying to figure out like, "Oh, bike business didn't work out? What are we going to do now?" I look up this bakery and I called Sarah up shortly after and I say, "Hey, remember that bakery I was joking about you buying, I think we should do it. I think we can pull this off."
We contacted Susan Dempsey Hughes who was the real estate agent listing it, and shortly thereafter we were under contract to purchase this kind of, we'll say flailing business at the time. But it had a lot of opportunity clearly because that business has turned into Sweetie's.
Adam Williams: Sarah, what did you think when he said that to you? When he brought up, "Hey, let's buy this."
Sarah Gartzman: I think I was in shock more than anything.
Adam Williams: Did it scare you? Were you the type of person who's like, "Oh yeah, I'm up for a big huge adventure that's totally out of wheelhouse."
Sarah Gartzman: No, no. I'm scared of everything. Totally scared of everything. I was like, "I don't know how we're going to do this." Also, we never lived in a small town. I thought Boulder was a small town when we moved from Chicago. So I was terrified. I also thought he was joking for a while. I was thinking. "This other thing didn't work out. I think he might be losing it a little bit that he wants to open a bakery."
Adam Williams: Having an early midlife crisis.
Sarah Gartzman: Yeah. When you're kind of crushed by the thought of something like one dream not coming true, you really are grasping for the next thing. And I was just terrified.
Adam Williams: You're afraid he was trying to force that idea just so that he had that next thing maybe to grab onto and say, "Okay, now this is my dream."
Sarah Gartzman: I just thought he was a little confused.
Adam Williams: How old were you two at this point and where were you in your life?
Sarah Gartzman: 25.
Adam Williams: Okay.
Sarah Gartzman: We were 25. Rob was 26. I was 25.
Adam Williams: Gotcha. Okay, this big scary idea. I want to ask then since you came up with this, is that more your wheelhouse to say, "Oh, I'm great with big scary visionary things. Let's leap into it. Let's invest what we have, whatever." Is that pretty typical for you?
Rob Gartzman: I would say I'm the entrepreneur and Sarah is too, but at the time I was much more willing to take risks. I believe in ourselves more than I believe in probably anyone else, so I know if we want to do something, we're going to find a way to make it happen.
Sarah Gartzman: I think we just didn't know that about ourselves then. Looking back now, it totally makes sense because we have continued to do these things like crazy big things at hard times in our life and just one challenge, then the next one, then the next one. So it feels like that was really the first time for us that we did something hard.
Adam Williams: I think that makes sense because... Well, let me ask this way. Did you have anybody in either of your lives who you might look to, even if it's in hindsight now and say, "Oh, they're somebody who's a risk taker. They're somebody who has big ideas and that might have been not necessarily a model, but somebody who..."
I guess really the question I'm saying is if we don't have anybody who shows us what is possible, if you come from a family that never travels and goes out in the world, doesn't that seem like a really big scary thing to go travel to the other side of the world? So did you know anybody, Rob, who was an entrepreneur or who took any risks like that?
Rob Gartzman: So my family, my grandfather and my uncle and some other people, they started a business. But my grandfather ran this business's whole life. I wouldn't necessarily describe him as a risk taker in the same way, even though it was a dime store, kind of like the precursor to Walmart.
And his father was the one who started it at a time when he ran a small neighborhood grocery store, but supermarkets were just becoming a thing at this time. So his neighborhood store was no longer real viable option.
So there was this guy, his name was Jules, and he came and talked about this idea of a dime store. And they should get into business doing that well. So my great-grandfather, he starts this business as a dime store. They call it Jewels Five and Dime. It was in Chicago for almost 80 years. My grandfather took it over and ran it. He had lots of iterations. They'd changed different things up or find new ways to bring in business.
Sarah Gartzman: It was like a mini Woolworths.
Rob Gartzman: But to me, he wasn't so much of a risk taker, he was just a hard worker. But I saw also my whole family like we would all go around Christmas like my aunts and uncles, my other cousins, anyone once you were about 10 years old or older, you were working at the dime store for Christmas or back to school, the busy times of year.
And my grandfather who was Jewish said Christmas was his favorite time of year because all the family was working together. But it really was that family business kind of feel. We'd all take a part in it and we all have fond memories of the store. They all played a big impact on our lives.
So I think that from my perspective, the small business part didn't scare me as much because I saw what being in a small business was growing up. The risk taking factors though I don't know that I had anyone who was okay with that. I'm just okay personally taking risks and I believe in myself. But I also believe in Sarah, which was a big part of this.
Sarah is the pastry chef at this point and has a lot more experience in restaurants than I do. So I believe in her and our ability to work together to create this business and take a risk on it.
Adam Williams: I think the relationship between you two is kind of, for me, maybe the most significant thread through everything. So we're going to be sticking with this thread I think, but I want to talk about the restaurants and we will again chronologically kind of moved forward here. I think it was 2012 then you moved to Salida, is that right? From Boulder and opened up Sweetie's?
Rob Gartzman: Yeah, absolutely. So we opened July 1st, 2012. I don't know that that was the best time to open, but I should back up because that was a pretty busy month.
Sarah Gartzman: I was just going to say a lot happened. We moved here at the end of May, in 2012.
Rob Gartzman: First I graduated from CU at the end of May. Then we moved here. We flew back to Chicago. We got married in Chicago, went on a honeymoon and then came back here days before or week before to open Sweetie's.
Sarah Gartzman: Well, to close on the existing business.
Rob Gartzman: So we closed on the existing business and then we started Sweetie's on July 1st, which we didn't really know what the schedule of the summer was like. I mean we were told a little bit, but having not lived it before, we didn't realize we were moving into one of the busiest weeks of the year.
I mean, it was pretty wild for us. We start coming in earlier and earlier as we realize how much work needs to get done. We have one employee at that point, but it's just the two of us working all the time and one employee kind of helping us.
Sarah Gartzman: Helping us and one we mean all the time. We mean then I would get there about 1:00 AM Rob would come in at four and then we'd work until about six or seven immediately pass out and do it again the next day.
Adam Williams: Why did you sleep so late, Rob?
Sarah Gartzman: He sometimes stayed later than I did.
Adam Williams: Was this something, Sarah that you knew about yourself or the two of you about yourselves that you were willing to put in those kinds of hours?
Sarah Gartzman: I had no idea I could do this.
Adam Williams: Was it just out of necessity. You really jumped into the deep end at that moment.
Sarah Gartzman: It was actually out of necessity. It just kept getting busier and busier and we would sell out of everything. It was just me making everything baked. I had no idea how to do any of it, so we opened at 7:30. I would have a good six hours to figure out how to bake everything for the day, how to make the right amount of everything, how to somehow make the bread and roll it out for the next day and then do it all again the next day. It was wild.
But then in between, then we had to serve the customers, I was standing on the register all day and Rob was making sandwiches and breakfast when we first started. We'd have to walk through the restaurant to bring a handwritten Post-it note ticket to each other. It was wild.
Rob Gartzman: It felt really hard and busy, but the reality was it wasn't very busy.
Sarah Gartzman: But also 11 years ago that was busy here. It was different.
Adam Williams: [inaudible 00:21:13]
Sarah Gartzman: Yeah, it was a different lifestyle.
Adam Williams: What was it that you-
Sarah Gartzman: Lifestyle.
Adam Williams: ... liked about it? I mean you must have enjoyed something in what I would have to think is stressful and not getting a super amount of sleep. You're working really hard and you've kept going. Like you said, it's 11 years. It's not like you said, "You know what, this isn't for us.” So something stuck. What was it that you did enjoy about it?
Rob Gartzman: Well, I think there were two main things that we really enjoyed, and I can at least speak for myself, but I think they're pretty similar. The first one was that we enjoyed doing it together and it comes back to the thread you were talking about with the two of us.
The second part was that we did get an enjoyment out of trying to do it better, trying to sell more, trying to be more efficient, trying to figure out how to make this work and that drive in itself kept us going. That's why we kept coming in earlier or working longer because we really did want to figure out how to make it work and how to somehow turn this into something more successful than it was.
Adam Williams: Okay. So I'm going to maybe speed us up a little bit through some of this timeline knowing that you also opened a second restaurant, Mo Burrito, I think that was in '16. You sold that a few years later You've since opened The Biker & The Baker which by the way, it occurred to me, we've already talked about Rob, how you were in a mountain biking. Sarah, you're the baker, The Biker & The Baker.
That sounds like to me a sort of movie title, a rom-com or something that the two of you who meet and... Anyway, I just started getting this picture of just this quaint little mountain town and this couple. I don't know. It's a restaurant, the cafe where so much happens in the lives of so many people in the town. I don't need to take us down that thread. You can think about it.
Sarah Gartzman: But if you know anyone at Netflix, we're happy to entertain offers.
Adam Williams: Oh, that would be amazing, wouldn't it? So you mentioned the stress and short timeline of when you started from leaving the University of Colorado, starting the restaurant, but I think the story here with The Biker & The Baker and moving buildings with that and Sweetie's, the pandemic, that's another kind of, we're going to jump into the deep end and have... You couldn't even predict that with the pandemic and how that would impact restaurants in particular.
So Sarah, will you, I guess tell me a little bit about what the vision was there. I skipped over some details, so maybe let people know what I'm talking about with The Biker & The Baker and Sweetie's collocation and so on.
Sarah Gartzman: Yeah. Before we moved into our existing location, our sweeties was on F Street between 1st and 2nd and right around the corner was The Biker & The Baker on 1st Street. We didn't have a kitchen in The Biker & The Baker. The back doors were kind of connected by the alley. We didn't have an oven. The only thing we had was a refrigerator, a little mini college freezer and a slicer.
So we would make everything at Sweetie's and bake it all and bring it through the alley to The Biker & The Baker. So that made that overhead pretty low for the biker in the baker. It also meant that we could be open a little bit less. We were only open Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday to start in the evenings with charcuterie service, wine and dessert service.
We saw the potential for both places to grow and we wanted them to be under the same umbrella. So we started building our current location on G Street, in G and Sackett right before the pandemic started. We broke ground, I think like March 20th maybe. And then the next week-
Rob Gartzman: In December.
Sarah Gartzman: Oh, in December?
Rob Gartzman: Yeah. In December of 2019, we officially broke ground.
Sarah Gartzman: Oh, I don't remember that.
Rob Gartzman: We'd been working on it for a little over a year at that point.
Sarah Gartzman: But right as we started the construction, everything shut down.
Rob Gartzman: Yeah.
Adam Williams: Okay.
Sarah Gartzman: Like The real construction, everything shut down for COVID, so we had to pivot a little bit, but it was very scary.
Rob Gartzman: We had just ordered like $300,000 worth of equipment and Sarah said, "We should just return it all and move on and not do this anymore. We don't know what's going to go on." But in the end we stuck with it and it's been great for us.
Sarah Gartzman: I think the real theme is me saying, "No, I'm terrified, we should stop." And you're like, "No, thank you." That's really what's happening in this story.
Rob Gartzman: So many times.
Adam Williams: So again, that thread, married couple at this point, but a longstanding relationship and partnership for life decisions, for business decisions, and in a very stressful industry.
Sarah Gartzman: A very stressful industry.
Adam Williams: So what is that dynamic? If you don't mind sharing. Is the stress between you two or what is it that makes it work when you're surrounded by stress?
Rob Gartzman: Well, we have both found out how to deal with a lot of stress all the time and how to find ways to manage it. We also both have an unwritten rule between us that only one of us can be losing it at a time. The other one, if someone's got it worse than the other, we got to make way to that person because one of us has to keep things together if the other one of us is having a hard time.
We both have hard times at different... What we're doing isn't easy and there's so many layers to it. But we also find ways that while we do the same things, we also both have pretty respective roles and we're respectful in each other and maintaining those roles and not stepping on each other's toes. It doesn't mean we don't work together or do the same thing sometimes. We absolutely do.
But I think we found ways to balance the stress of different roles between us, but also realize that sometimes one person needs more help than the other. So we're there for them at that time, for each other.
Sarah Gartzman: I think both of us genuinely enjoy the adrenaline rush of working on the line, working in the kitchen, serving people. I think we both get some kind of thrill from it.
Rob Gartzman: Coming up with a solution to a problem.
Sarah Gartzman: I know that we both enjoy that part.
Adam Williams: How many employees do you have between the two restaurants?
Sarah Gartzman: 37.
Adam Williams: So that's a lot going on there too.
Sarah Gartzman: Yes.
Adam Williams: There's a lot of people coming to you when they have a question, have a need, have a problem, need to schedule change. They have a problem that they are fielding from a customer or maybe from a vendor.
Sarah Gartzman: Or they have an issue with each other working together. They want to complain about their coworker. It's a lot all the time.
Adam Williams: So Rob mentioned that you have ways I think of dealing with the stress. Sarah, how is it you deal with that stress?
Sarah Gartzman: The stress is hard for me. I don't always deal with it well sometimes. I get upset.
Adam Williams: Do you have particular go-to things that you... I mean even if it's to step outside the door and take a breath, go to a yoga class, go for a hike, go for a nap. Are there particular things like that?
Sarah Gartzman: I enjoy doing all those things, but I think when I'm stressed out, the best thing that I can do for myself is just to keep going, honestly, to keep doing it, to stick with it and not quit. Not that quitting is going home and resting and taking care of yourself. That is helpful too. But I think I don't feel satisfied in a way unless I stick it out and handle the issues, deal with it, and then come out on the other side.
Adam Williams: Okay.
Rob Gartzman: The stress in-
Sarah Gartzman: I don't know that that answered your question. The stress is really hard. I just live with constant stress and anxiety and depression all the time. It's a really hard job.
Adam Williams: Yeah. I'm definitely not trying to remind you of how much it's there, but I think it's also because it seems clear that for all the work you're doing that it's just part of life. We all have it. So as hard as you're working and in the restaurant industry and together all the time, there's going to be those moments. You work harder than I think I want to work.
Sarah Gartzman: That's okay.
Rob Gartzman: We work harder than most people want to work and we see it's not always going to be that way, but there's something about it that we can't stop either.
Adam Williams: For the time being anyway, huh?
Rob Gartzman: Right now it feels like realistically our job at this point is to make sure things go smooth. And so that's dealing with problems, dealing with employees, dealing with customers and making sure the food comes out well. Whatever it is, making sure it goes smoothly and it goes smoother if we're present. So we feel a responsibility to that, to all those different groups and to ourselves to make sure that I think... We care that much about it, that we want it to go smoothly.
Adam Williams: So we've talked about the fact of the pandemic. It had an impact, the timing with what you were doing and trying to build out these two restaurants together. But there also was another significant challenge in your lives when Sarah... I know that you had an emergency room type of scare and we briefly touched on this before we recorded today. I've seen what you've posted on Instagram and shared so heartfully there. Can we talk about that today? What was it that happened?
Sarah Gartzman: Yeah. So I have degenerative spine disease. So it means that all of the discs in between my vertebra just are drying up and withering away. So I first had surgery in October of 2020 to put in a prosthetic disc and have a small lumbar spinal fusion that was hopefully going to fix that issue.
I had some really scary complications about five days after I had surgery, I had a collapsed lung, blood clots in my lung pretty much all over my major organs and hepatitis as well. That happened from the surgery. I was in the hospital for about 11 days after the surgery here until I could stabilize. Luckily I got to the hospital when I did, so I was okay and it's kind of since then had a lasting impact on everything.
Took me a long time to... I had to learn how to breathe on my own again. I had to learn how to walk again at the same time. Scary. I had to change my diet completely. It was really scary. But I did get better. And honestly running food up and down the stairs when we first opened probably helped heal my lungs a lot after not using them so much. So that was big time life saver.
Adam Williams: I think there are so many questions that came to my mind while you were explaining that. How did you come to know that you had this degenerative disease and needed the surgery?
Sarah Gartzman: Yeah. So after my son was born, our son was born about seven years ago. I've had this awful back pain that I had gone to probably... I don't know. I had gone to the doctor a lot of times and said, "I'm in so much pain. I need help." They kept telling me it was one thing after the next. It wasn't a big deal. I just needed acupuncture. I just needed a chiropractor. I just needed yoga. I just needed a massage. But structurally something he happened when I was giving birth to him, the sped up the okay degeneration.
I had one disc that had completely ruptured between L4 and L5 that I lived with probably for about five years. When I finally went to the surgeon, when someone would give me a referral, it had been five years and the surgeon looked at me and he was like, "I can't believe that you're not paralyzed. I cannot believe that you can walk in here." The disc was pushing, had ruptured and had caused so much nerve damage. I couldn't feel my whole right leg or my foot. It was wild.
Adam Williams: So he felt like paralysis was a definite risk. You do the surgery.
Sarah Gartzman: So I do the surgery and-
Adam Williams: And then it leads to other things.
Sarah Gartzman: And then it leads to other things, which was very scary. I'm a healthy person. I'd never had surgery before this. I'd never really had any medical interventions, never stayed in the hospital other than to have children. So it was really scary. Also, it was during COVID so no one could be there in the hospital with me.
Adam Williams: Oh, wow. So Rob, you weren't able to be there because of that?
Rob Gartzman: I was only allowed to go for an hour or two a day.
Sarah Gartzman: If no one else was there.
Rob Gartzman: [inaudible 00:35:56]
Adam Williams: How far was that on both of you?
Rob Gartzman: It was really hard on all of us. I think it was clearly the most hard on Sarah. She's going through this and in the hospital by herself. It was really hard on our kids who couldn't see their mom. They weren't allowed to go. There could only be designated one person that could go to the hospital and they were very limited on how long you could go.
But also I couldn't take away the time from this massive construction project that we were in the middle of opening a restaurant and taking care of the kids without Sarah. It was a little more than we were anticipating or a lot more than we were anticipating a lot of ways. But luckily Sarah pulled through and is doing all right.
Adam Williams: I'm glad for that. I'm thinking of you having said about the embolisms and the fact that they were... And a collapsed lung and that there were embolisms in multiple organs. I'm not a doctor, but that sounds life threatening to me.
Sarah Gartzman: It was life threatening. One of the ER doctors said if you had come an hour later, it would've been a different story.
Adam Williams: I'm also a husband, a father. I can empathize with you, Rob and Sarah to be going through that. And then on top of it having that time where they're not even allowed to be there with you.
Rob Gartzman: And they probably at the time didn't make it sound as serious. It was like you don't realize how serious it is until later.
Sarah Gartzman: I think also I couldn't communicate the whole time I was in the hospital. I also couldn't walk. I couldn't move. I had just had major spinal surgery five days before this. So I was like, yeah, I was-
Adam Williams: It's a lot.
Sarah Gartzman: It was... Yeah.
Adam Williams: It's a lot.
Sarah Gartzman: I couldn't really relay the information because I couldn't-
Adam Williams: To Rob?
Sarah Gartzman: I couldn't understand what was going on. I mean, I was comatose. I couldn't really understand what was happening and then there was no one else there to understand what was happening. So I couldn't really tell Rob or his family what was going on because it's hard when no one can be in the hospital with you and you're not well enough to know. For me, that was a really hard thing and it felt like a lot of pressure, but I did learn you really have to advocate for yourself.
Adam Williams: So what I'm hearing in all of this, along with the other things we've already talked about is that for the two of you in your relationship, you have tackled a number of challenges. You've tackled a number of scary things. I think, again, being married myself and having some awareness of others over the years in their relationships. Some of these really challenging things can lead in one or direction or another. They can be what makes life too difficult to continue together sometimes or they can be what draws you closer.
Clearly, you two seem close and in all of this together. Did you feel that moment throughout all of this, throughout the stress of a new... Getting a restaurant open, a new construction. The pandemic, kids and the health matters, did you feel that drawing closer as you were going through it all?
Rob Gartzman: I don't know that I felt like we were drawing any closer. I think Sarah and I have an incredible commitment to each other that we've had for a long time and we feel through situations like that, that we can get through them. I don't know that we can become any closer than we already were before then. And that was one major hurdle and was incredibly difficult, like I said, especially for Sarah, but for all of us. We've been through a lot throughout the years and in some ways it just feels like it was continuing.
Adam Williams: Sarah?
Sarah Gartzman: Yeah, I agree with Rob. I don't really think that one thing would make us closer or I think that we're already incredibly close and we just want to support each other the best we can. So we learn new things when we have to deal with different problems together. But the way that we are there for each other is really by supporting each other. I think just being there for each other.
Rob Gartzman: I will say that after going through that process with Sarah's health and doing the restaurant and then moving, and opening it up, we decided we probably don't want to open another restaurant again.
Adam Williams: Well. I was going to ask you how all of these challenges, especially when they all piled up at once, how they might have affected you in your view of some things going forward. So that might answer part of that, but also in terms of life realizing there was a close line that you were at Sarah in terms of the paralysis when this was discovered. That would've altered your lives significantly.
Then the surgery that led to complications that definitely could have altered lives significantly. Has that given you any sort of perspective on life and what you're doing together as you move forward that maybe you didn't have before, having these close calls?
Sarah Gartzman: I didn't really feel like people say like, "Oh, life is short. You should just do what you want." I didn't feel like that. I kind of just wanted to get back to the life that I had before where it was pretty normal. I mean, not normal for everybody, but normal for us. I just didn't want to miss out on the everyday things anymore. So I think the perspective is that we don't want to do this forever. This is great that we're doing it now. We have other projects that we want to work on too, but just being able to live the lives the way that we have been doing is a gift to me.
Rob Gartzman: Okay.
Adam Williams: Good enough. Let's talk about some of these new big directions. Entrepreneurially, Rob, you have a thing going on. Sarah, you have a new idea going on. Sarah, let's start with you and what is happening with... I think, is it packaged products? Is that what you're starting to unfold, bring out to the world?
Sarah Gartzman: Yeah. So we are putting together some of our, I would say most well loved recipes from Sweetie's and turning them into box baking mixes that will be available to hopefully be available by Christmas to purchase.
Adam Williams: Okay.
Sarah Gartzman: The company is called Hey Sweetie and we have three different prototypes to start, fudge brownies, salted chocolate pistachio cookies, and our gluten free Ozzie monster cookies. Ozzie is our son's name and he helped me figure out the recipe, so they're named after him.
We're super excited to start kind of packaging, moving into a different space of consumer packaged goods that we don't really have. We haven't worked in that space yet, so we're learning new things about packaging, selling, selling things online, websites, social media, all that stuff that we didn't really tackled those issues yet.
Adam Williams: You keep expanding your comfort zone and knowledge base it seems like, and then business base. Everything just keeps going forward, keeps growing.
Rob Gartzman: Absolutely. I think we strive and personally are motivated by both being creative and challenges that present themselves. And then how do you solve those challenges? In this case, we see an opportunity in a market that's fairly stale. When you think of baking mixes, you think of Betty Crocker and Pillsbury.
A lot of them are the same recipes for the last 50 years. They all taste pretty similar, which isn't very good. We wouldn't call it actually baking. So what we're trying to create with the Hey Sweetie brand is a true baking experience for one high quality pastries, little to no food waste and very limited chemicals, preservatives. Little to none of those.
Some of our ingredients like M&Ms that are in some of the cookies might have something like that, but what we're putting in there is not chemically modified in any way. So we're really excited about this. We're excited to bring it out to everyone and been working hard to get to the packaging part, which is a separate challenge of like, "Oh, we have this idea and we have these recipes." That's one thing, but then to actually get it to an actual product is completely different.
Adam Williams: Okay. So Rob, now to your area, you also have a new venture that's kind of unfolding a new... I guess what's become a passion here in Salida in Chaffee County, Colorado and plenty of mountain towns and plenty of other towns across the country. We have some housing challenges and that's something else that you're tackling. Tell me what's going on there? What has stirred up that passion and need from your side, from your view?
Rob Gartzman: So for a long time, we have been struggling in Salida with affordable housing. We got involved in this conversation about what's affordable and how we become more affordable. As the town was starting to become more expensive. Probably in 2016, it really started to become more of an issue. And from our perspective, it has a lot to do with being able to find help to run our other businesses.
Our businesses at this point don't really work without the support of our staff, but even if we're short, just one or two people, that has a huge impact not only on the rest of our staff, but particularly Sarah and I who fill in for everyone and our lives become much more tiring as well as stressful because we're filling in for our roles and other people's roles and anyone who might be sick or need time off as well as solving any problems that come up.
As we started to see that it was becoming harder and harder to hire people, we also saw the correlation that people couldn't move here because they couldn't find a place to live. They couldn't find an affordable place to live. This problem has only continued to get worse and really got a lot worse during the pandemic as there were a lot of people who wanted to leave the cities during those times and they found towns like Salida as a great location to move to and they could work remotely. They could pay whatever they wanted to for housing and it really drove up the housing prices in the last couple years.
Now, we're in a much more dire situation where we really are struggling to find people. We can go for three months and have a job posting and no one applies. We're hoping every day someone will. Ultimately we're not alone in this situation. Every restaurant and business is in the same situation. We have just enough people, but it creates a whole new set of problems. It's driven up the price of our goods as we're also dealing with inflation.
We also have to pay everyone more. They're dealing with inflation. And so all of our costs have gone up substantially. We are always involved in the housing conversation, whether we're looking for housing for somebody or looking out for housing for a potential employee or whatever the case is, or the person that we employ there. Housing is no longer available or has just gone up substantially in price.
There's problems that come and go or they have a fairly affordable place to live and the landlords don't want to fix anything. They have roommate issues. I mean, the housing drama is never ending, but it's also sad to see that our kids, unless they live with us in the future, might not be able to live here either.
There's this sustainable aspect of if our businesses don't function and at some point business owners don't find it worth it anymore. I mean, we just talked about health issues with Sarah. At some point if we work ourselves into the ground and health issues become more of a thing, we will balance the trade off and at some point it won't be worth it for us anymore to run our restaurants.
I mean, It's just the reality of the situation. If we can't find enough people to help us run our restaurants, we reach a point... At some point in the future we don't want to do it anymore because it's too hard and we're not alone in that. There's a lot of other business owners and that's... We just talked about all the different types of changes, investments, other things we've made over the years. I mean us saying that isn't saying that lately. It's saying that at some point we just can't keep going at the pace we are.
So we need solutions and we need them quickly. And talking to the community and talking to the city council members or other members that are more in control of what's going on, the housing authority, housing trust, all the different people involved, we felt like change wasn't going to happen quick enough. So recently we acquired a piece of property that's two acres in town. We are working on putting a development together for workforce housing.
It's asking for an increase in density that we haven't seen in Salida, but the only way to achieve affordability is through density. On two acres, we're going to try and put 70 units. Most of them are going to be single bedroom or studio apartments. We'll have a few single family homes and a few duplexes.
We'll have a little community there that we are trying to make sure is there for our workforce long term. It's our goal to be a benefit to this community long term with this project, not from the developer standpoint, which is typically how much money can we make from the community. So there are other options for us to put housing on this property that would be financially, I guess, smarter for us, but we would prefer to go the route to have a positive impact on the community.
So that's kind of one of our goals long term. In addition to maintaining our restaurants, we're working on these two different startups and finding ways to kind of branch out, be a benefit to ourselves, the community, and provide kind of new ideas.
Adam Williams: That's a significant investment of your time and I'm sure all other resources that you can muster for this. It's a huge building project that's even bigger than I had gotten the hint of before. It's amazing how much energy the two of you have and the ideas and the willingness to work hard to make those things come to be.
You mentioned your kids, and I know that's an ongoing thing too is that if kids say they go off to school or they're starting at the lower rungs of what they can earn and where they are in careers at some point in their early and mid 20s and can't come back here and buy a house.
Certainly we know that these are ongoing challenges. It occurs to me that maybe your kids then are going to get to live in the very development that you are now taking a leadership role in creating.
Rob Gartzman: I think that will be something time will tell in the future, but we want our kids to see that we're hard workers, that we care about people, our community, the people around us that we want to work hard to maintain a sense of community, a sense of family, a sense of doing what's right and also working hard.
And that's how you can move forward in different ways and in life by doing some of those things. With them, we want to set the example up front of expectations that we have, but hopefully that would lead them to come up with their own ideas in the same way that we have.
Adam Williams: I asked you about a model before, if there was anybody in your family who was an entrepreneur and you shared that story, certainly the two of you now are modeling that and setting some examples and showing what's possible. It sets a new standard, a new bar I think for what really does take courage.
What's scary but not too scary. It gives them a path forward. I want to wrap up with a simple question here, Rob. Do you mountain bike at all anymore? Is that part of your life? Is that your way of getting some time out on the trails here, getting away from some of the workload?
Rob Gartzman: Absolutely. It kind of comes in waves and there are times when I'm on the trail five days a week. There are other times where there's a lot more going on. Maybe it's only once a week or not at all. It all depends on time of year. But I did a couple weeks ago just partake in the Monarch Crest Enduro race with some old buddies of mine and that's a pretty intense couple days of riding. It was a great time. So I do still get out and it is definitely one of my ways to keep me healthy and ways to keep me sane both physically and mentally.
Adam Williams: Sarah, how about you? Do you have an activity like that you go to when you need time?
Sarah Gartzman: I used to trail run a ton. That used to be my thing, but I did just have another surgery just a couple months ago, so I'm still recovering. I don't really have a thing right now. I'm just trying to get better.
Adam Williams: Well, absolutely do that. Thank you both for coming in here and talking, sharing your stories, your ideas, your inspiration for any and all of us who have some ideas that maybe we're a little afraid and you've shown us some light on how to reach out for it. So thank you again for coming in, talking with me.
Rob Gartzman: Thank you so much for having us.
Sarah Gartzman: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for thinking of us.
[Transition music, guitar and horns]
Adam Williams: All right. That was my conversation with Rob and Sarah Gartzman. If what they shared here today resonated with you, you can email comments to Lisa Martin, one of our producers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We invite you to rate and review that We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also welcome your spreading the word on your social media pages and telling your family, friends, and neighbors about the good work that we're doing here at Looking Upstream. Once again, I'm your host, Adam Williams.
Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN Radio where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado. Heather Gorby for graphic and web design. Lisa Martin, producer and community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Initiative. Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment. And Becky Gray, director of the Chaffee Housing Authority.
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing and is supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities.
You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook at We Are Chaffee.
Lastly, thank you for listening and until next time, as we say it at We Are Chaffee, be human, share stories.