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Sarah Blackburn: Permission to Stay Small

APPLE PODCASTS | SPOTIFY | STITCHER Preview: “If you’re not growing, you’re dying” In the business world, “success” is often directly or indirectly tied to this idea of “more”. More sales, more profit, more growth, a bigger team, or more franchises. Translation? Success = more MONEY.  But what if “bigger” isn’t always better. In fact, […]




“If you’re not growing, you’re dying” In the business world, “success” is often directly or indirectly tied to this idea of “more”. More sales, more profit, more growth, a bigger team, or more franchises. Translation? Success = more MONEY. 

But what if “bigger” isn’t always better. In fact, what if small is actually the business model that keeps you thriving, happy, being creative, and having fun. Is that not success as well? 

From stay at home mom to bakery owner with two brick-and-mortar stores in less than 2 years… In today’s interview with Sarah Blackburn, founder of Free Reign Bakery, get a behind the curtain look at how unexpected quick growth taught this entrepreneur what she did and didn’t want. And why she’s giving herself the permission to stay small.

It all started with a stomach ache…

Sarah Blackburn didn’t start out with the intention to be a business owner. In fact, she didn’t even plan on being a baker. 

“It was always my career plan to be a police officer! I got so far as to go through the police cadet program and was even working for a local police department when things changed.”

For Sarah, that change came in the form of marriage and kids. As it does for a lot of women, starting a family was the catalyst for starting so much more.

“I knew when I had kids that I wanted more independence in my career. I didn’t want my schedule dictated for me. I wanted to make my own choices. I wanted to have the freedom to build a career that allowed me to also be a mom at the same time.”

 And for Sarah, that career came from an unexpected place. 

“I’d had digestive issues since I was a child, but nobody could really tell me what the problem was. I had countless doctor’s appointments, tons of testing, saw so many specialists, and it all just led to more frustration. Nobody could give me an answer.”

Eventually, Sarah took matters into her own hands. After researching her symptoms, she found herself on a food elimination diet that finally gave her the results she was looking for.

“Taking certain foods or ingredients out of my diet gave me the chance to listen to my body and see what was actually causing my problems. And once I figured it out, I knew I’d never go back to eating the same way again.”

Turning Lemons into Lemonade. so to speak.

A baker by hobby since childhood, Sarah threw herself into converting her favorite recipes into allergy-free goodies she could still enjoy. 

“I was baking just for myself and my family at first. But I realized pretty quickly that there was a huge demand for these kinds of treats. There are so many food allergy sufferers who just want to enjoy the foods they love without the fear of getting sick. And I knew that I could help them do that.”

So, in 2018, Sarah started selling her goodies at the local farmer’s market. Word spread quickly, and eventually, she was selling out within the first hour each weekend. 

“People were coming back every Saturday for more. They said it was life-changing for them, and that was incredible to me. The need was bigger than I even knew. That’s when I knew I had to keep going.”

She started working out of a commercial kitchen to bake and sell more. Soon, she was selling out of local store on a regular basis. Each week she’d make the delivery of new goodies, a line of customers would be waiting for her. Simply put, the demand for Sarah’s allergen friendly bakes was huge.

“It just sort of clicked to me one day that I could do this. I was looking through my emails and saw a local bakery had gone up for sale. That was sort of it. I just knew that I could do it. I could create this space where people who have food allergies could go and enjoy the products.”

Sarah jumped right in, opening Free Reign Bakery just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. 

“I wanted to create a name that spoke to the customer. I wanted people with food allergies to know when they walked in the door that they could have free reign to eat anything without fear.”

And eat they did! The day Free Reign Bakery opened, the line to get in was down the street. Customers were coming from around the city, and business was basically booming from the get-go.

Permission to Stay Small

Soon, Sarah was considering something she never thought she would: a second location.

“I went down this path of opening a second location in a different part of Knoxville. And I can honestly tell you, that was a really hard lesson for me to learn. It gave me twice as much work, and that isn’t what I went into this business to find. I wanted more time at home, not twice as much at work! There was so much pressure to grow at the time, but looking back, I wish I’d just given myself permission to stay small. I loved my one store and focusing on that, and I wish I’d been more confident to stand in that.”

2020 hit with Sarah facing the burn out in her growing business. And as we all know, it also hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, that second location closed, a hard but much needed change for Sarah, her family, and her business.

“When I went back to one store, work became fun again. I realized then that, no matter how much pressure I felt to grow and expand, I wouldn’t do it. This is how I want to run my business. This is how it needs to be for me. This is success for my business and for my family.”

Now, Sarah wants other business owners and entrepreneurs to learn the same can be true for them. 

“Starting this business didn’t look anything like I thought it would. It was a lot of late nights at Starbucks handwriting my budgets and trying to make the numbers work. It was a lot of trial and error. It was a lot of learning to listen to my own instincts above all else. That’s what I want other people to know. If I can sit at Starbucks and come up with handwritten business plans to figure it out, you can do it, too. Don’t let anything or anyone hold you back!”

Press Play to hear the full interview or download the full transcript.



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Sarah Blackburn

Sarah Blackburn is the founder of Free Reign Bakery. A allergen-friendly bakery based out of Knoxville, Tennessee. After spending much of her childhood and teenage years struggling with digestive issues, as an adult she finally figured out how food triggered her health symptoms. Willing to make dietary changes in order to help her health, she wasn’t willing to give up the childhood sweets she loved. Instead, she set out to create the best tasting sweets free from the most common allergens (including gluten, dairy, soy, and eggs to name a few). In 2018, Free Reign Bakery was born and she’s been satisfying sweet tooths around the US ever since. 


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October 21, 2022

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