Praxis Alum and Culinary Expert Joscelyn Armstrong a Leader in our Community
Do You Follow a Passion, Earn a Living, or Both?
When Joscelyn Armstrong graduated with a four year degree in Political Science (University of Alberta) in 2009, she thought she might become a lawyer.
She certainly had no intention of working in the culinary field.
Sure, she had catered events for various people throughout her high school years. She had put herself through university by catering. She had catered extensively in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, too, while back-packing, in her 20s.
Joscelyn had learned to cook in childhood, by observing her mother and grandmother doing it, on the family farm near Sceptre, SK (south east of Kindersley). Suffice it to say, catering was Joscelyn’s passion.
But a “passion” wasn’t about “earning a living,” she thought.
It was not until back-packing through some of the non-English speaking countries of Europe and Southeast Asia—travel that uncoincidentally revolved around food culture—that the idea of opening her catering business took shape. While living in Edmonton and working in the Technology Department at the University of Alberta, she felt the creative and emotional lure of a return to culinary life.
Following that “passion” and “earning a living” dovetailed purposefully in 2004, when Joscelyn entered culinary school at Toronto’s George Brown College. She excelled and went on to work in many kitchens in Toronto and Saskatoon.
It made sense for her next to settle down in Saskatoon in 2011, since her family, history and heart were all in Saskatchewan.
Joscelyn comes from a hard-working, entrepreneurial family: Her father is a farmer. Her brother, a plumber and a farmer. Her sister runs an import/export business in Italy. Entrepreneurship is in the family DNA. But Joscelyn is the only one of them to have graduated from the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship.
Finding the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship (PSE)
Joscelyn contacted the CanSask Employment Centres, both in Kindersley and Saskatoon, trying to find “classes on [how to] build a business plan,” which she knew she would need, as a café owner and chef. At the time, she received excellent support from a CanSask advisor who referred her to the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship.
Joscelyn recalls sharing several “nice calls” with Elaine, the program manager, that offered her a “safe space” to talk about her business idea, get some feedback and learn how the startSMART program worked.
After deciding to apply, going through the intensive intake process and being offered a position in the program, Joscelyn joined the startSMART cohort, starting in April, 2012: “One year later, almost to the day,” she opened Honey Bun Café.
Her previous experience as a chef told her that only creating a rock-solid business plan would get her the funding she needed to launch her own café. The major banks refused to finance it. But loans from the Canada Youth Business Foundation (CYBF, since renamed Futurpreneur) and from Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan (now called WESK) allowed Joscelyn to open shop.
From Catering to Tech Support; Milling Grain to Baking Ketogenic Style
Honey Bun Café, the name that “stuck” after earlier versions of it, began as a small cafe that offered significant catering services. For most of the past seven years, Joscelyn has managed catering and quoting on catering contracts, suspending the service only when pandemic times arose, in 2020. She may return to some form of catering in the future.
Joscelyn is now in charge of “tech support,” for touchless, online ordering, pick-up and delivery of her daily lunch and dinner menus—drawing on friends and former colleagues in the Technology Department (University of Alberta), with whom she has kept in touch. The café’s beautiful and functional website, complete with stunning food photography, bears witness to the fruitfulness of Joscelyn’s collaboration with them.
When developing a business plan and first running the café, Joscelyn strived to have an entirely Saskatchewan-based menu, even milling her own flour from grain, pulses, chickpeas and lentils, including some from Lazy Hounds Farm, and two other, Saskatchewan farms.
Gradually, however, Joscelyn realized she did best by sourcing many local ingredients but not solely Saskatchewan grains. She decided to focus instead on “home-style cooking that customers liked best and that [she] was good at.”
As the café’s name suggests, baked, stuffed and cinnamon buns quickly became popular staples on the menu and were easy for customers to remember. The name (“Honey Bun”) is also a term of endearment that in part reflects the supportive family and farming community from which Joscelyn comes.
She says her motivation was born from pure passion as an entrepreneur, with the management of costs coming after: “Even though the details of the café and catering services changed, what I wanted to create never changed. I had spent time in kitchens with chefs with big egos, alcoholism and sexism. What I wanted was a safe space for women to work, a respectful workplace where we could be creative and enjoy what we’re doing.”
She describes the food at Honey Bun Café as fusing new, international flavours with recipes that retain the familiar comfort of Prairie classics. One week’s menu includes turkey meatballs, combined with pesto, swiss cheese and served with a mushroom risotto. Another day, pulled pork is served alongside a greek salad. There are ham and scalloped potatoes, too, followed by a dessert of Ketogenic Nanaimo bars.
startSMART Strengths Include Intensity, Funding, Realism, Encouragement, Entrepreneurial Point-of-View
The intensity of her preparation through Praxis’ startSMART program never scared Joscelyn, particularly after she had financed her way through a university degree and worked in high-stakes, stressful kitchens, around the globe. She says that she would have said “Bring it on!” if asked, since she was highly motivated to build her business.
Joscelyn entered the startSMART classes through the “Self-Employment Program,” a special initiative funded by Employment Insurance (EI), and saw it as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be paid to go to school.” As a farmer’s daughter, accustomed to working hard and financing her own living, she says she initially felt uncomfortable about receiving EI funding, while planning her business. She adds: “I would have studied [startSMART] without financial support, but having it was a bonus I didn’t know about, before I took it.”
To Joscelyn’s mind, the program’s directed preparation of the business plan (which is completed in the first trimester of the program) was “so beneficial,” because a solid business plan was the basis to receive financing. Also, the “daily encouragement” and coaching on strategy from the primary entrepreneurship coach (and Praxis alum), Deanna Litz, including Deanna’s “honest feedback on what would work and not work” avoided problems before they could develop. Joscelyn says she responded well “to clear guidance and didn’t want sugar-coating on how to run a business.” Praxis’ down-to-earth, realistic strategy was invaluable.
Even after the program ended, she says that collaborating with Deanna, as a farmer/provider of produce, was supportive and pivotal to the café’s early success. Joscelyn also recalls feeling encouraged after she had graduated from the program, by visits from her early contact, Elaine Mantyka.
While Joscelyn appreciates the well-intentioned support offered to entrepreneurs by other local organizations, she asserts that Praxis stands apart because it features “entrepreneurs led by entrepreneurs.” These included “an accountant, a lawyer, a marketing specialist, and not just people with business degrees who have never operated a store.” She says that adopting the entrepreneur’s point-of-view for the program—not the instructor’s—is the bedrock of the startSMART program. She has never encountered another educational or career program that harnesses that approach.
Not surprisingly, Jocelyn recommends startSMART to others interested in starting businesses, but stipulates that newbies should think ahead about what their business idea will be and have “something specific to go in for. You need a goal to work towards . . . The key to success” in the program “is to know what you want out of it.”
startSMART Training Helps in Crisis Times
Few business plans until recently could dictate how to operate in a global pandemic and its aftermath. But the process of developing and enacting her plan in 2012/13 exposed Joscelyn to strategy and critical decision making that remain mental assets, today.
She observes that the startSMART program is very much worth continuing and developing “because the community needs local businesses badly, especially in the next, coming months.” She adds: “There’s a lot of room for new businesses to fill space left by Covid-19. There’s a lot of room to be creative. It’s worthwhile taking charge of one’s own financial future,” as an entrepreneur.
She encourages people to apply to Praxis in times like these. A crisis may be exactly “the time . . . to educate yourself, to work on that business plan. It’s a great time to plan for your future,” when much of the world has pressed “pause.”
Making the most of reduced customers in challenging times, Joscelyn rapidly “built ecommerce” on Honey Bun’s website, “to have something to open in the next week.” The new online structure allows customers “to order and pay, all in one.” She “revamped and created a new plan for Honey Bun, so that staff would have jobs in six months.” That strategizing she would not have known how to do, without Praxis training and coaching.
Pivoting in the Present
Challenging economic times have meant pivoting from catering services, for which demand bottomed out, to selling meals and desserts online. Working with her former colleagues at the University of Alberta, Joscelyn ensures that the ecommerce of Honey Bun’s website remains fully functional. Simultaneously, she has also overseen the repainting of the café and refinishing of its floors, by delegating her staff of five to work as “construction workers,” as well as “bakers” and “delivery persons.”
An example of creative pivoting is rooted in Joscelyn’s sympathy for the bored children and harried parents of pandemic times: She has created popular “cookie decorator kits,” with dinosaur, sea creature and seasonally shaped sugar cookies, along with colourful icing and decorations, for kids to use. The product answers her own strategic question: “What can I do logically, financially and physically” in the café, “when there is less labour and less disposable cash for ingredients?”
Staying open with such relevant changes allows her business to survive, keep staff employed and pay the bills. From pivoting toward the products of her small, six-person business, Joscelyn creates ripple effects that sustain the larger community. She ensures there is a business for staff and customers to return to, each morning.
Owner Serves Staff and Larger Community
Joscelyn says that “first and foremost, care for staff, who have been with me for years” has been her priority and direction: “The livelihoods of those five women are something I take very seriously,” she says. She provides “full benefits and a strong job to go to,” advising them that self-worth comes from having a good job to work at: “If we stay in bed, we won’t get out of bed,” she observes.
Facing crisis times, Joscelyn has responded to reduced capacity in the café’s business district, by “elaborating on what is filled online to [bridge] the gap and [to] continue to get creative” about what she sells.
Strategizing amid uncertainty does not, she says, occur in a vacuum from the larger community. Joscelyn’s work as a community builder is implicit in her approach: Although reticent to talk about charitable efforts for fear of seeming self-promoting, she has developed a free Wednesday lunch program each week, for local homeless people who need sustenance. The café serves hearty, meat-based soups and hot coffee, at no charge, as long as supplies last. The program also gives staff “a purpose . . . and control over what otherwise feels like a helpless situation,” of street people struggling by the café windows.
Joscelyn reminds her staff that earning their livelihoods in a resilient business that was built through an EI funded seat in the startSMART program is important: Continuing to work allows them to prepare and earn their living more purposefully than receiving short-term, emergency, government crisis benefits.
She also contacts fellow business owners online and maintains a social media profile, to remind readers on Instagram that “we’re still here and have lots to offer!” She sends her manager to social media classes and encourages staff to acquire new skills, knowing they will need to be marketable as they expand on opportunities and eventually work elsewhere. Some of them may consider attending the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship, themselves.
Joscelyn adds that customers who in turn share the café’s social media messages with their followers go “a long way” to promoting sales and morale. She and her staff appreciate that support. And they “hold onto easier times in our minds, as a survival strategy.”
“I know that Honey Bun is going to get through this” and future challenges, she asserts. “I just don’t know what it will look like on the other end.”
Embracing that uncertainty, the once prospective law student jokes that she is glad to have found “a kitchen more comfortable than a courtroom.” Her passion and her living have dovetailed beautifully.
What Joscelyn has found in the process is a hands-on way to serve good, local food—and through it, community development—in generous and enriching portions.
Honey Bun Café
Owner & Operator: Joscelyn Armstrong