Dan McGarigle has been an all-star in the referrals department. He contacted Elise to tell her about this project and I was glad to hear she was keen on participating. We set up a meeting over at Fearless Baking where she is the founder. She recently sold the bakery to Thump Coffee, but she continues to work there as their "Jane of all trades". She's one of that rare breed of folks who says hi to passers-by and she was showing that smile pretty much the entire time we chatted, so I can only assume that's a regular thing. Keep an eye out for her at the bakery and out on the trails, where I'd guess she's shredding.
Who are you?
Who am I? Elise Kukulka. I'm originally from Buffalo, New York. I moved out here about six years ago now. Just to be closer to the outdoors and I always wanted to live in the West Coast. I kinda felt a little like a fish out of water on the East Coast. I was always driving up to the Adirondacks and different places to be outdoors and living a completely different life during the week - going to work in an office and stuff. So that's kind of what drew me to the West Coast. Obviously Fearless is a huge part of who I am. I love baking, I love interacting with customers, I love working with my employees. And then, when I'm not here doing this, I'm usually hanging out with my dogs, doing stuff - I have a house in Bend - so I work on the house. I go out skiing. I go out biking. Kind of standard-issue Bend person. I feel like I bring a little bit of East Coast mentality and work ethic and style to the West Coast and to Bend and to the environment at Fearless.
What brought you to Bend?
The community is what drew me most to Bend. I looked at moving to bigger cities. I was looking at Portland and Seattle and I thought I really wanted to have that big city experience. And then when I drove through here, it really made sense. It was laid back enough but it still had all the amenities and the access to the outdoors. And I think, really, it nurtures entrepreneurial spirit and that was so cool to see. I didn't necessarily move here thinking that I was going to open a business. I initially tried to get into the industry - my background is in marketing and business management and product management. And so I looked at that stuff and it kind of made sense to be in this town and in a little bit of a smaller, tighter-knit community, with all like-minded people. Definitely a lot different than Buffalo (laughs), which is kind of standard-issue East Coast. You know? You work your day job, you go home, take care of the house, and that kind of thing. I wanted to be outside more. And I wanted to have that work/life balance. I feel like I was in an environment that everyone else was kind of thinking that way as well.
What does community mean to you?
Like-minded people, having that. You know I think about tight-knit neighborhoods and people supporting one another. I definitely feel that in terms of the business community. I have a lot of friends that own businesses or have started businesses or are working for other small start-ups and it's really cool. We're able to collaborate and support one another. It enables us to kind of have this lifestyle. My sense of community was different when I was in Buffalo and then when I moved here, it evolved into probably a little bit more tighter-knit, like-minded, kind of like choosing your own family situation. I think right now we're experiencing a really big change in community and I think some of what I moved here for and some of what our mentality is... is being challenged. I think it's interesting right now to see how to maintain that through this influx of new people coming into town and having so many more people here. I hope we can try to maintain that identity we have of being in touch with the outdoors, taking care of one another, kind of leading by example, and have it still feel like a small town even though we're growing. That's something I've been thinking about lately.
What motivates you to want community?
The quality of living. I don't know. It's just really nice. I always relate it to having come from Buffalo. The community there is wonderful. We always joke about how we have really terrible sports teams, but there's no bandwagon fans. You just stick with them. Moving out here and having community and like-minded people, it's just different. I realize how fortunate we are to have the things that we have and I don't think we can have that without being connected to one another. And connected to what's going on in the community, but also on the trails and things happening for us to maintain it and for us to maintain that quality of life. Just the ability and the flexibility to be able to go these amazingly well-maintained trails - there's whole groups of people behind that. I think it just gives life more meaning and the more connections you can make with people and how things happen, you just appreciate more. We can help each other through these different obstacles. I've had plenty of times - whether it's just an ear a friend is lending me, a fellow business owner, or if it's someone that we team up with to do events and races, or if someone's trying to get something off the ground - community is connection and support and having that has brought so much more fulfillment and joy in my life. And for me to be able to do that for someone else is really fulfilling.
Do you have thoughts regarding Bend's growth?
I do. I definitely see both sides of the coin. When I'm on a trail I'm like, Oh man, it's so busy! or when I drive over the Colorado bridge and I see everyone in the water I'm like, Oh man! and I sense an inconvenience because it takes a little bitter longer to get around. Are people respecting the trails? Are people respecting yada yada yada? I see that end of it, but I also see the positive end, which is culture. We've got a four-year college now and that can only improve community. We have educated people coming in. The things that draw people here and the types of people that are drawn here are generally pretty active and fiery and passionate people. So what a great community to harness to make those improvements and continue growing. Every time there's change, I think it's natural for people to feel a little bit hesitant about things. I do that in my life. It's always a little bit uncomfortable. For me, I just look at the positives and the negatives. Obviously, positive, it's great for business. I think I worry about some of the infrastructure, like whether or not we have the capacity to continue to maintain this growth. And that includes the streets, but also the trails and people going out in nature and making sure they're respecting where they are and being safe and carrying out what they're carrying in. So, I guess I see both sides of it. And it's going to happen. It's happening and it's been happening. Kind of just like lean into it and stay positive and lead by example. Instead of snuffing people off, kill 'em with kindness. Just try to be there to guide them in the hopes that they will pass that on to the next person they run into and I think that will continue to foster a really great culture in our community. I think that's the only thing we can really do. Instead of crumbling because the influx is happening - trying to fight it - just lean into it. Inevitably, people might stay here, they might be long-term residents, they might be short-term residents, the winters might scare them away, but I don't know. Why not? It's better than being in a community like Buffalo where it's like Rust Belt City - suffering, and nothing ever gets done. They have debates about what color to paint the Peace Bridge for like years and it doesn't get done. Or dilapidated buildings stay standing because there's people fighting to keep them and then it just stunts community and creates poverty. There are definitely two sides to the coin. I live in this little utopia. And I feel really lucky and fortunate. I definitely have days where I'm grumbling, but for the most part, it's pretty cool. And I think it's great - the ideas and the people that are coming to this community. Some may stay and some may go, but it's kind of a cool thing to be a part of.
What do you most look forward to here in Bend?
Skiing. I think I would ski 365 days of the year if I could. Yeah, that snow is just the best thing ever. The town gets a little bit quieter usually. I like going up to the mountain and I like backcountry skiing - getting away from larger groups of people. That's an area that's starting to get busier that I notice quite a bit. But, it's fun! In Buffalo, I'd bring my stuff to go ski to work with me and then I would go night skiing. So I'd have all my stuff with me and bring my boots inside and people were just like, Oh, what are you doing? Oh, man! You know? It's cool to be amongst people that have the same mentality. I look forward to winter all the time. I'm getting into mountain biking, which is fun, but for sure the winter - everything about it.
What do you wish for the future?
Especially now that I've sold Fearless but am on to run it, I want to bring it to a place where it can have continued success and growth with Thump. Personally, for my career, I look forward to that. I look forward to transitioning Fearless into a bigger kitchen - teaming up with Thump and seeing what else we can do. And for me personally, I just got a house in town and so I'd like to continue to be able to maintain the lifestyle that I have. I don't know, just continue to take my dogs out on the river and just kind of live simply. And be able to have the freedom to be able to travel a little bit more, for sure. I moved here six years ago and I've basically made trips back and forth to Buffalo and that's about it. I feel like it takes a few years to get your groove in a community and I'm kind of at that point where, I don't know, it's more like home and not just a place I moved to. And so I want to continue to establish that and hang out with friends - nothing too fancy (laughs).