One Harlem summer while I was on break between college semesters, I found myself the owner of my family’s bakery, Make My Cake. After years of knowing my family business as a bakery squeezed into our fifth-floor, walk-up apartment, change was well on its way. It was my mother’s home-based bakery that she started when I was a little girl. When she decided to shift to a corporate position, I suddenly found myself in the driver’s seat of our family business. The task of bringing sweet treats based on rich cultural heritage and family recipes to our customers was now mine to maintain. Looking back, it was old family traditions mixed with modern business perspectives that led to our once small bakery officially taking off.
My grandmother and my mother’s famous recipes were traditionally southern, offering a dash of Harlem soul in each bite. I knew her cakes were enough to keep clients around, but I’d need a brick and mortar location to expand operations, grow clientele and establish our family business in the New York City bakery scene.
For years, I had saved almost all my money, anticipating growth in the business. If I earned $500 from making cakes, I'd put $400 away in my rainy-day fund and spend the rest on the ingredients for cakes. My mother taught me very early that my entrepreneurism wouldn’t unlock opportunities without a permanent habit and mindset of saving. Funneled savings, Small Business Administration (SBA) startup loans, and generous short-term investments from friends and family led me to opening my first storefront and commercial bakery.
Now that Make My Cake is up-and-running, I know that a successful business isn’t possible without a strong team working together. We have 10 full-time workers plus part-time employees and interns from local schools, and it’s my mission to make sure everyone feels empowered and accountable through training and open book management. I shared goals of helping my co-workers become ‘intra-preneuers’ – people who grow with the success of the company they are working for. We set projections based on location and time of year, and we listen to our customers throughout the decision-making process. Together, we should be growing the business every day because if the business succeeds, we all succeed.
This mindset has served our team well. Having just opened our third location, we are already starting the search for a fourth location to expand our offerings of southern sweets. My team has risen through the ranks and, together, we have learned countless, invaluable lessons. Make My Cake thrives thanks to hard work, determination, and smart decisions. Organizations like the SBA and my banking partner, Chase for Business, have been instrumental in this success as well. New York City is a tough place to start a business —about half of small businesses do not even make it past five years – so it’s vital to have organizations that you can trust to support and guide you. The ability to always have key information at my fingertips is vital when making deals, and a bank that listens, like Chase, is crucial. Surround yourself with people and organizations that value your business and growth just as much as you do.
For anyone looking to take their personal or family business to the next level, my advice is to expand thoughtfully along the way. Remember not to lose sight of why you started your business or what made you successful. When we started looking to open a new location, I was approached by customers pleading with me not to lose our mom-and-pop feel in the growth process. We’re always listening to our customers and making conscious decisions that ensure the culture of our company doesn’t change, even when our footprint does.
Each of our bakeries feels just as homey and inviting as the day we opened. Maintaining that culture goes beyond décor and paint color, though those are important too. It’s about listening to customers and making them a part of the process in a way that happens naturally. It takes the whole team, internal and external, to maintain the values of your business and remember why it all began in the first place. Find employees, support and financial resources that are the right fit from the inside, out.
As a creator of jobs, baker of sweet treats, and owner operator, I have my work cut out for me. Owning a small business is rewarding, but it’s also constant work. As bakery owners, we should be looking for ways to grow our business each day, but understand there isn’t a set, cookie-cutter way of doing so. Whether it’s saving for the future, opening a new location, finding innovative ways to help run my business, building my staff or discovering new recipes – there is no job that I would rather do. The journey of a small business owner is never easy, but it’s so worth it.
Aliyyah Baylor is the owner and Chief Baking Officer at Make My Cake in Harlem, New York.