Bird Bakery founder Elizabeth Chambers has been in Grand Cayman with her two children since before the start of the pandemic. From her sunny, remote workstation she’s been dealing with emergency surgery for her four-year-old son Ford after he rolled off the bed and into a side table. “I told him he’s going to have to come up with a better story to impress the ladies because he’s going to have a scar for life,” she said. She’s also working on the opening of a new shop in Denver, where her parents live. We chatted long distance about how to keep old traditions alive while figuring out how to live in an all new reality.
Do you know where you’ll be spending the holidays this year? I’m not normally in Grand Cayman for months at a time. Usually I’m in Dallas and San Antonio at least one weekend of every month. But it’s so crazy because we found ourselves here in March during quarantine, and we stayed here just because there’s no COVID and the kids can go to school without masks. And, you know, I think it’s just one of the only places on earth where they can have a normal childhood existence. If we were in L.A., they’d be doing online classes. Here, school has gone back physically. If their schools are still doing remote learning during the holidays, we’ll probably be here. Otherwise we always spend Thanksgiving in Dallas and Christmas in Denver, where my parents live. So that’s what we normally do. But we all know this has not been a normal year, to say the least.
So is that why you’re opening a Bird Bakery shop in Denver? Because you’ve got family there? I went to high school in Denver, but I grew up in Northern California. My parents have lived in Denver for 20, 25 years. I always say that I will open [a bakery] wherever I have free childcare [laughs]. Armie’s mom is in Dallas, so there’s free childcare there. My parents are in Denver. It’s a lot when I’m at the bakery—that’s pretty much like 20 hours a day just to make sure everything is going smoothly, and I have a lot of meetings. So childcare is important. But we always open in places that are meaningful. San Antonio was our first location because my grandmother had a catering company there, and that’s where she lived.
How has your business been impacted by the pandemic? It’s been very, very, very challenging. I am so grateful that our doors are still open and that we’re still in business. It was highly emotional. I mean, Julie Bowsher, who’s our regional manager, and I had so many arguments over the plans and what we’re going to do. We were taking it one day at a time with all of the different guidelines. We were really navigating it as we went. But it was definitely very challenging, and we’re not out of the woods yet.
Thankfully, our customers have been so loyal and super supportive, supporting small local businesses, but it’s definitely been very, very stressful. In Highland Park Village, especially, you know the rent is not inexpensive. So we have to keep our numbers high in order to stay in business. Thankfully we have, but it has definitely been the biggest challenge since I opened our first location almost nine years ago.
Have you changed your bakery offerings as a result? Absolutely. One of the things we did during COVID was to reduce our menu. We normally have 37 cupcake options, 14 cookies, and certain items on the menu that I love, that are meaningful to me, because they were my grandmother’s. They’re not necessarily bestsellers, but that was an emotional part for me too because they were things that I loved. And I was fearful that once we took them off the menu, we would realize that it was better for the bottom line and they would never come back. For me, I just I love nostalgia, I love tradition. I’m very kind of set in my ways with things being the same, and there’s a reason certain things are on the menu. But during COVID we did have to take some things off, and thankfully they are all back now.
We’re adding a lot of new items that we’ve never actually had during the holidays, and I’m really, really excited. Typically, in October, we’d roll our Halloween items out now. And then November 1st we start Thanksgiving. And then the day after Thanksgiving we launch Christmas. But we had a call, and I said I think everybody is just sick of not celebrating. Everybody is looking forward to new celebrations. So we’re actually going to make all of our offerings available now. We’re putting out our Christmas menu, our Thanksgiving menu. We’re not going to roll it out slowly. People just need a reason to celebrate. And nothing makes you more excited about Christmas than ordering your Christmas cookies, you know? So we’re going to make everything available this week for the rest of the year so people can get really excited and start their planning now.
What are some of the new Christmas items? We’re doing our peppermint chocolate cupcakes, which we always do. And our egg nog. And for Thanksgiving and Christmas, one of the things I’m most excited about is we’re doing sugar cookie place cards. So when you have everyone over for Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner, instead of writing names on a piece of paper, we’re doing ornate gold and white sugar cookie place cards.
Our sugar cookies are so delicious. I know other people make really beautiful ones, and a lot of times they’re really beautiful but don’t taste good. The thing I love about our cookies is we have almond extract in the cookies and in the icing. They are hands down—I would challenge anyone any day of the week that they’re the best sugar cookies you’ve ever had.
We’re also doing some beautiful cakes. We’re doing our white birthday cake with little trees around the edges. And of course our Reindeer Feed. It’s basically a sweet and salty combination of cereal and pretzels and red and green M&Ms. It’s a great gift for teachers and neighbors, and if you have a holiday party, it’s a nice takeaway item as well.
We’re really just thinking more about gifting this year. It’s just the reason to celebrate and lift people’s spirits, maybe someone you haven’t seen in a long time, and you want to send it to them or have it dropped off. I think it’s more of a feeling this year than it has in the past.
Everybody’s really going to have to come up with some new holiday traditions this season. Are there any longstanding holiday traditions in your family that you want to try to keep? Absolutely. I would be hard-pressed to find someone who loves traditions more than I do. It’s all about doing the same thing every year and being with family. Our Christmas traditions usually take place in Colorado, but we might still be here [in the Cayman Islands]. My mom has needlepointed all of our stockings. When I was pregnant with both of my babies, she was needlepointing. So I’ll make sure that those are FedEx’ed here. I’ve already reached out about a Christmas tree, which is crazy because it’s October, but I want to make sure it’s a Douglas fir, the same kind we usually have. And then the ornaments—the ones I made when I was little, and the ones that my mom made and my dad made when they were little. That’s such an important part.
And then really everything is around food. I’ll be sure to make everything that we always do, like the Cornish game hen Christmas Eve. And then the tenderloins for Christmas day. In the morning we always have our breakfast casserole, which we we sell at the bakery in small cups. But when I make them at home, I do it in a big casserole pan. We don’t really advertise it, but that is an actually an option that we do offer at Bird Bakery—you can bring in your own dish and claim it as your own. We always say that we’re not going to blow anyone’s cover if they want to claim it as their own homemade item!
It’s an amazing Christmas morning tradition that we have. You can use any kind of bread and eggs and sausage and cheese layered. You just cover it and put it in the fridge the night before, and you can pop it in the oven right before you start opening gifts. Then, you know, halfway through, when you need that breather, it’s perfectly ready and makes the house smell amazing.
That’s something my mom would have done—put it in her own dish and claim it as her own. Whatever works! If you go to the party and somebody else has done the same thing, then we can just pretend it’s a coincidence.
How do you keep your kids involved in the kitchen without having them be too underfoot? My son, especially, really loves to participate. He’s like the master egg cracker. Even if it’s just cooking a bagel, he wants to help and be involved. You can order child-friendly knives on Amazon. I highly recommend that for anybody who has kids that are interested in being in the kitchen—or give them a gift to use in the kitchen. I really think that with a Postmates culture of ordering our food, kids don’t know where our food comes from. They don’t understand the effort that goes into making it. And not having the skills when they’re older to actually provide for themselves really scares me. I know it’s convenient to be able to order things, but I think we need to go full circle and use this time when we’re home more to try. I feel very strongly about it. It’s kinda like revisiting those values that our grandmothers instilled in our parents and our great grandparents, and giving them the tools to know how to take care of themselves and cook for themselves and take an interest in that.
What cookies do you put out for Santa? We always serve sugar cookies for Santa, and we usually decorate them. We make ginger snaps, which are a molasses cookie. And we usually make a thumbprint cookie at home, which we don’t serve at Bird Bakery. We leave out Reindeer Feed and carrot sticks for the reindeer. And eggnog with a healthy splash of bourbon.
Do you have a favorite holiday food memory as a kid? My mom is an amazing cook. Everyone in my family is a chef or cook, either in food or wine. She would always have these huge parties for my dad’s office where she was cooking for like 300 or 400 people. She did all the food herself. She makes thousands and thousands of cookies every year. She’ll start like December 15. Our home growing up was always a cookie factory but especially during the holidays because she would literally make thousands and thousands and give them to neighbors and friends and coworkers. And so cookies have always been currency at our home. I think that has always resonated with me.
It’s become our tradition as well. I just started doing all different kinds of cookies, and taking out old Sunset magazines and the old Southern Living magazines and my grandmother’s cookbooks, and kind of experimenting with cookies I haven’t done in a while. Christmas to me is celebrated with food, family, excessive amounts of cookies, and a lot of sweetness. That’s just how it always was in our house. And that’s how we celebrate it now.