Sarah Chem, owner 5 Borough Bagels


Des Moines Mom recognizes that moms wear a lot of hats. You are a mom, wife, friend, diaper changer, nose wiper, meal planner, lost toy finder, the list goes on and on!
This summer we are thrilled to feature some local moms who are thinking outside the box and making a difference in our community through the businesses they own, organizations they are involved with, and work they do. Check out the rest of the series and read profiles from previous years here.

Sarah Chem 5 Borough BagelsSarah Chem is a New York City transplant, bagel shop owner, and mom to a 5 year old daughter. 

Sarah Chem familyTell us a little bit about yourself and your family.

Sarah was born and raised in New York where she met the love of my life Toney in Union Square in 2008. Together they have a 5-year-old daughter, 6 animals, 3 bagel shops, and a slight addiction to shock value humor. She is a straight shooter and truth-teller. 

What do you consider the biggest challenge of motherhood to be? Biggest joy?

The biggest challenge of motherhood right now is not losing my sh*t when I need to and formulating a healthy response so my daughter will grow up and look back and say, “You know what? I gave my mom a hard time; I really messed with her a lot but she was always my rock and comfort.” She’s taught me that. Learning how to adapt to new challenges as she gets older and understands a lot more can be daunting but we always push through.  

The biggest joy is that inexplicable connection. It’s hard to get into words. The unconditional love from both ends. I’m now able to heal my inner child with how I raise and unconditionally love my daughter. It’s all compounded with how lucky we are to even have her here. She entered the world 3 months early, at 29 weeks and two days. 

On February 1, 2018, I rapidly developed Preeclampsia overnight and the only way to save our lives was to deliver my daughter via emergency c-section. The doctor who delivered her told us we made it by those two days; her percentage of survival and fewer lifelong complications was exponentially higher because of those two days. I get chills just thinking about it and about the road we had no idea we were going down. I was scheduled to work the next day, and that’s where my brain was.

I suffered from severe postpartum depression which drastically triggered my (slightly dormant) OCD to get so out of hand I had to seek several forms of intensive trauma therapy and multiple medications just to be able to function. Our daughter was in the NICU at Blank Children’s Hospital for 47 days. Leaving the hospital after the c-section without my baby really messed with my head. I wasn’t allowed to touch her skin for 3 days. During this time I was deteriorating at home. I blacked out from medications, couldn’t eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom. It was living hell all while pumping every 3 hours to have Toney run milk to the NICU while running the bagel shop. It was heartbreaking and scary.

I think both men and women are discouraged from talking about the trauma of postpartum stuff. Toney was and still is my rock. He and I both still think about it every day, whether it’s a smell, or a song, or a picture. It was a chapter in our life that was so sad and dark. And now she’s just a rockstar. She blows us away with how much she can handle and how much she knows.

How did you start 5 Borough Bagels? What was your inspiration?

In the early years of our relationship when we were still living in New York City, Toney and I loved getting a daily bagel with cream cheese and an iced coffee to shove in our mouths on the subway. It was like an unwritten rule—who’s getting the bagel? Who’s getting the coffee? There’s definitely a piece of comfort there… I fell in love with him during this time. When we moved to Iowa, we wanted that comfort of home (for me) and of that time in our lives together.

Moving to Des Moines was really tough. I cried for two years. I just felt so scared and alone. Of course, I had Toney and his community, but I had to rebuild my whole routine. I slowly came into my own identity, but it wasn’t easy.

One random night after baking bagels at home, I made the comment to Toney: Let’s open a bagel café. We both love bagels and the art of coffee. And he just ran with it, which is why we work so well together. We’re both crazy and there’s no way we could have done this by ourselves. We found our space that next day. It was occupied but we patiently waited for it to be available and continued working on our business plan. The night we saw it became available, we put in a letter of intent in with our broker. Shortly after, we get an email stating the landlord chose us over 12 other establishments, and we were given 8 weeks to get everything done and open. 

What’s the best part of being your own boss?

The flexibility. No matter what, if something is urgent or a crisis or I just need a good cry in my car, I have the flexibility to design that into my day. This is crucial for me as I have several chronic pain conditions; vulvar vestibulitis, pelvic floor dysfunction, and vaginismus. Unfortunately, it plays a role in both motherhood and business. It holds me back from so many things and is not well known or discussed, which is such a disservice to women who suffer from it. There are things I just can’t do due to pain, so being able to step away from a task without having to explain myself is a huge and necessary benefit of being my own boss. 

What’s the hardest part about running your own business?

It can get pretty hard being spread so thin, not being everywhere at the same time, and expected to perform at a high level at all the different parts of my life. It ends up affecting how I am as a business owner, as a mom, as a wife, as a friend. There’s a lot of instability that comes with being your own boss that you have to get used to, whether it’s financial or work-life balance. You have to really learn to roll with the punches, but I’m not sure it ever really feels easier or less time-consuming.

What advice do you have for moms who want to start a business?

If I were in that position again, I would ask myself a lot of hard questions that may not naturally occur when you’re in the exciting phase of getting a new project off the ground. Are you ready to want to rip your hair out even more? Yes, that’s right. Are you ready to get even grayer? Are you ready to go through every emotion in four minutes? Every day? All day? Are you that passionate about the idea? Do you have enough drive? If you’re a super type A person, can you live with things not always being in your control? It’s not always going to be cut and dry, and you have to learn to delegate and be okay with it and trust. That’s something that even after seven years in the business I still have trouble with.

What do you wish you knew when you started?

I wish I knew how emotional this would be. They say businesses are like a baby for a reason, and it is interwoven in every facet of my life. So many life things and mental health things that come up for me as a mom also come up for me as a business owner. I try to be as open and real with my customers and employees because I think the more authentic you are, the more respect you’ll get from the people that actually care about work.

What do you love about raising a family in Des Moines?

I love how friendly people are. I’m so used to New York City where you don’t give eye contact. You don’t walk too slow or somewhere you’re not supposed to. You’re just on edge in that environment and always avoiding confrontation. I love having a daughter in a little town that is very friendly to her. It gives me so much less anxiety knowing she is surrounded by people who value community and kindness.

Fast Takes

Best place to take kids? Spare Time! 

Favorite summer activity? Sitting in an air conditioned room with a nice icy refreshment!

Do you have any hobbies? I love coloring, watching facial extractions, and all graphic design. 

How/where do you relax? If I have 10 minutes? I like to go into a small space and meditate with bath sounds. If I have hours? I do the whole experience. I give myself a facial, I hang out in my massage chair, eye mask, and a kitty on my lap. 

If your life had a hashtag, what would it be? #imf*kingtired

Connect with Sarah Chem

5 Borough Bagels


Know a Des Moines mom we should feature? Let us know! Email [email protected] with details and we will be in touch.

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