Cherry Darlings founder Tim Salmon explains why he sees a bright future for his vegan bakery but he can't be the one to lead it. If he doesn't find a buyer, the business may close for good.
Why Tim Salmon has called time on Cherry Darlings
Thousands of feet in the air, looking down at the ground below from the open door of an aeroplane, Cherry Darlings founder Tim Salmon realised the toll running a small business for a decade had taken on him.
Tim’s friends had pitched in together to buy a skydiving experience for his 40th birthday. He grinned as he suited up, when he boarded the plane, and as the aircraft took off. But as the air whipped around his ears and he readied himself for the jump, internally, he felt nothing.
“No dopamine, no serotonin, – nothing,” he says.
“I was cold, but there was no rush. There was no adrenalin.
“My nervous system is so shot, I’ve just run at such a level of adrenalin at all times, there’s nothing to dig from.”
This is not the first time Tim had considered the health effects of running Cherry Darlings, but it was the strongest indicator he’d experienced that he’d pushed his body too far.
“I was, like, ‘That is not ok. That is not normal. I should’ve felt something’,” he says.
Earlier this month, six months after the sky-high realisation, Tim announced via the Cherry Darlings Facebook page that he was putting the business up for sale.
“I’ve been doing it for 9 years, first in a tiny space and now in a new store and an offsite kitchen,” the post states. “We have grown so much but it has taken all of my passion and drive to keep it going the last few years.”
If no buyer is found, “we will be looking at closing by the end of the year,” the post says.
Cherry Darlings started in 2011 as a caterer and wholesaler run by Tim and his then-wife Sharleen. In June 2014, they launched Cherry Darlings in bricks and mortar in Goodwood, creating Australia’s first all-vegan bakery.
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Rarely has running the business been easy. At the time the bricks-and-mortar bakery launched, Tim was in the process of closing Out of Step Piercing, an earlier passion-project business. He would work a 12-hour day in the kitchen and then head to the piercing studio to “go and pull the equipment off of walls, painting, sanding”.
With very few options available for vegans in the early 2010s, Cherry Darlings found quick success. This was exciting, but difficult to contend with. “We were in such a small place that we were growing far faster than the business could support,” Tim says.
Four years into the business, Tim and Sharleen’s marriage ended and Sharleen left Cherry Darlings. Tim continued on and attempted to match the growth trajectory.
“I got led to believe that I couldn’t do it by myself. I was like, ‘Oh, I want to prove you wrong’ type of thing,” Tim remembers. “It felt good for a bit, and then we grew more.”
Cherry Darlings’ popularity reached the point where the business needed an offsite kitchen. While the success felt great, Tim lost a major source of energy by being removed from the customer-facing side of the business.
He was regularly buoyed by the notes of appreciation from the public, and the connections he would make through food. Working offsite, he became isolated.
“I miss people. And I’ve got a little bit too comfortable by myself, which is hard,” Tim says. “Allie (Garland, Tim’s partner, who works in the business) says, ‘People still miss you, and you haven’t been here for three years, so that’s saying something that you still have that much of an effect’.”
The pandemic was another surprise moment of growth. Cherry Darlings saw a jump in sales around “40, 50 per cent”. Tim wasn’t confident the boon would last and so was unsure about whether to bring on another staff member. He wore the extra workload himself, stretching his workdays to 15 hours.
“It was a big financial strain… [but] I might’ve lived and regretted if I didn’t do it,” Tim says.
Without realising it, Tim had locked himself into pumping out thousands of pies alone, all the while dealing with a niggling anxiety about the dilapidated equipment he’d inherited at Vego’s.
“It was just many, many straws – everything that broke,” he says. “I’d have a really good week, and then the girls would be, like, ‘So, the freezer won’t turn on anymore’.”
It took a series of daily breakdowns on the phone to Allie, but Tim eventually realised he needed to excise some stress. He put Vego’s back up for sale in mid-2021, and was happy to find another vegan business, Curiositeas, to inhabit the space midway through 2022.
The ordeal taught Tim an important lesson: “Don’t do someone else’s thing.”
“If you’re going to do it, do your own [thing],” he says. “That helped me focus on [Cherry Darlings].”
As he closed Vego’s, Cherry Darlings’ lease also came up at its Goodwood site. In November 2021, Tim moved the bakery to a new site in Richmond, where, following the lesson about being yourself, he debuted a new ‘80s and ‘90s-inspired graphic identity for the business.
“The original shop was me and my ex-wife, this is me. This is my personality,” Tim says. “It’s everywhere: the videos, the posters, the video games. This is my personal collection; this is stuff I’ve kept that I’ve bought when I was a teenager and kept because I cared about it.
“If I was going to do another [shop], it was going to be for me, displaying this is who I am as a person.”
It wasn’t a given that the business would continue at this point. Tim had considered ending the business with the Goodwood lease, having still not come down from the stress of the preceding years. But he found another bout of inspiration in an unlikely place.
He’d sought business partners for the venture’s move to Richmond, but instead found himself embroiled in a legal battle with the would-be partners.
“What could’ve broken me ignited me a little bit, and gave me that flame again,” Tim says. “I was like, ‘Screw those guys. I’m going to get out there and gonna do it myself. I don’t need anyone else’.”
Cherry Darlings thrived at its new locale – albeit with some demographic tweaks.
“Our clientele changed dramatically. Going from Goodwood, where it’s very much kombucha sales were through the roof, to here where Coke sales are a lot higher,” Tim says.
“We had to pivot, we were doing our weekly specials, where we’d do a themed weekend, and those were really, really popular. [Royal Adelaide] Show week was insane.”
A month after Cherry Darlings’ biggest day ever, signs of a straining economy began to show. “We planned this big Halloween thing, and… this was an event that just didn’t hit like it should’ve, like events were hitting two months previous,” Tim says.
Spending habits then started to reflect in sales generally. “Rates started going up, and people were, like, ‘Oh, we can’t come every week’,” he says.
In response, Tim adjusted the staffing levels at the restaurant and once again increased his own hours. His anxiety levels – though unperturbed by the thought of jumping from an aeroplane – began to spike again.
“I was waking up in anxiety messes at 2am, hyperventilating and all of that sort of thing,” he says. It wasn’t until Allie highlighted his mental health that he saw the need for change.
“She was, like, ‘You can’t live like this. It’s not normal. Just because it’s your normal, it’s not normal’,” Tim says.
“That moment [comes], where you’re just, like, ‘I have put all of myself into this, and now I am a shell of a human, and I am hoping a car hits me so I can have a day off’. You’re, like, ‘This isn’t good’.
“I really had to take stock on, ok, carrying this business has obviously taken its toll way more than I thought, so I’ve now got to focus on my family and the people around me, and myself.
“That was that moment of [realising] I’ve got to find an exit plan for myself.”
Tim drafted the Facebook statement, Allie edited it, and the two sat on it. They planned to go public with the decision to sell the business after the Easter break, but on Sunday, 2 April, he and Allie “both had a really rough day”, and they knew it was time. “I was, like, ‘Just post it’.”
The mix of grief and relief that followed was overwhelming.
“As soon as I posted it, I cried for two hours. Cried every day since. Probably going to cry again. I’m probably going to cry for the next six months,” Tim says.
“It was a huge release. It was a deep sadness and some deep grieving, but it was done.”
Within 24 hours of making the announcement, Tim received offers from people interested in purchasing the business. He’s hopeful these discussions will amount to a future for Cherry Darlings, though he seems to have made peace with the idea of it closing.
“I hope so. I hope so. I hope so,” he says, when we ask if Cherry Darlings will continue. “But if I close, I’m closed.”
Although the decision to leave the business comes on the back of a long stretch of stress, Tim is proud of the more than a decade of success and community Cherry Darlings has built.
“Being the first at what we did in Australia, that’s massive. And it was in Adelaide – it wasn’t Melbourne, it’s wasn’t Sydney, it was little old Adelaide,” he says.
“I definitely feel like I opened a lot of doors for vegan places and non-vegan places. I can feel ok that I’ve done something special and I can walk away and go, ‘Yeah, I feel proud of that’.”
He does see a future for the business, but knows he’s no longer in a position to lead the way.
“We’ve noticed the spending has been coming back a little bit more, which is really good, and it sucks because I’d love to stick around because I know it’s going to get better again… but I owe my customers, I owe this business more than that,” he says.
“I know that, and I’m going to do myself and everyone else a disservice just sticking around for the money, because it’s never why I did it. It was meant to be a hobby, it was meant to be a passion project, that just blew up and went for nine years.”
Tim has started a TAFE course in community services and hopes to transition into “youth mental health or disability services” – a role that will use the interpersonal skills he missed while locked away in the kitchen.
But he’s also not completely discounting a future in food – either staying on with Cherry Darlings in a consultative role under a new owner, or starting a food truck (much, much) further down the line.
In the meantime, Tim is looking forward to a break from the stresses of business ownership, letting his body recover to the point where he might one day be able to feel excitement and adrenalin from other sources.
“Maybe go bungee jumping or do something like that, and go, ‘Oh, I still feel joy. I still feel that excitement’,” he says.
“Because I’m a very passionate person, and I’ve lost that a bit. That’s hard to hear, and it’s fucking scary to say.
“I’m going to have to go through a little bit of an ego death, where I’m just Tim, because I’ve always had some sort of niche business or cult following: Tim from Cherry Darlings, Tim from Out of Step Piercing.
“But then I get to find who I am, because I’m in my 40s and I don’t know who I am outside of this business. That’s what I’m looking forward to, is finding that person.”