As owners Debbie Hamilton and Ali Price work in the kitchen, they make cooking seem effortless. Given the success of their business after its first year, they make starting a business from scratch look easy, too. The women behind Sweet Things started without any advertising — or even a long-term plan — and they have come out in the black. So far, so good.
“Our biggest challenge is controlling our growth because we both have responsibilities outside of the business, and we want it to be a fun thing,” Hamilton says. “It really could be bigger if we wanted it to be. We have just been overwhelmed at the response of the community.”
Hamilton and Price, both of Columbia, began their enterprise last May. They make baked goods such as breads, cakes, pies and cookies and deliver them to their customers.
The idea came from Price’s friend in Miami, who had started a catering company. Price was in Miami for Christmas, and while she was delivering food with her friend, the two began discussing how easy it would be for Price to do something similar in Columbia. Price said she started thinking about how much she and Hamilton enjoyed baking. When she got back from Miami, she pitched the idea to Hamilton, who was all for it. Sweet Things was born.
The two bakers wanted to make their entrepreneurial effort a little different from a mainstream bakery or catering company.
“It was originally going to be more of a gift-giving thing than a business because we didn’t want our friends to feel pressured to support us,” Hamilton says. “But then it worked out that our friends heard about it and really started to support it and spread the word.”
The pair started donating their goods to local charities and fund-raisers. They also marketed themselves to local bed and breakfasts to get the company name out. The women have participated in fund-raisers for Columbia Independent Schools, Big Brothers-Big Sisters and Tailgate Mizzou and make treats for the Missouri Manor Bed and Breakfast.
Ultimately, their marketing strategy is not to have one. The business is just where they want it without a campaign.
“It is fine the way it is right now, with the occasional cake needed,” Price says. “I don’t really want it to ever turn into a retail store. Right now we are doing what we want. If we could develop in the gift-giving market more, I would like to see that.”
Hamilton described the strategy development as more of a “let’s just see what happens” approach than something that is planned out.
The one thing they did need to get started, however, was a menu. When they first began planning it, they looked to their respective heritages for ideas.
“I’m Hispanic, and Debbie is from the South, so we used that for a jumping off point and then began to expand our menu,” Price says.
“Now the menu offers some cultural things but mostly just a variety of sweets.”
The selection includes white ripple fudge pound cake, Mizzou tiger stripe cake and angel food cake, along with breads such as pumpkin, banana chocolate chip and zucchini. They also offer coffee cake, pies and bar cookies called “Little Sweet Things.”
“People seem to find their niche in our products. For example, the carrot cake: One gentleman ordered one, and we delivered it to him in the morning. By the afternoon he had called and wanted three more for tomorrow,” Hamilton says.
The women say that while business overall has been fairly steady, there was a much-appreciated lull in their requests after the holiday season.
“We opened in March and had steady business through the summer, then in the fall holiday months of October, November and December, we’re very busy,” Hamilton says. “January was pretty slow, but that was great for us because we were exhausted, and it was nice to have a reprieve. I am very happy with it. We were profitable in our first year, which I think is really a good thing.”
To cook its products, Sweet Things uses the commercial kitchen at the Root Cellar, 21 N. Providence Road, since the grocery store has an on-site certified kitchen that it rents out to entrepreneurs.
The women cook their goods early in the mornings before Root Cellar opens. They say this convenient assistance has helped them in their success. Without the use of the grocery store’s commercial kitchen, they would not have been able to become a registered business.
“We decided to make it a legitimate business and go to the city and get a license to cook,” Hamilton said. “We started to use the Root Cellar because you have to cook in a professional kitchen and neither of our home kitchens would work.”
Ideally, both women would like to make an impression on the gift market. They want their products to be used the same way floral arrangements and cookie bouquets are, only more personalized.
“We wrap it real specially so that the food can actually be a gift,” Hamilton says. “We package it in a way so that it can easily be used as a gift. We also deliver instead of having a retail store, so that makes it easier on the customer. Our stuff is fresh.”
They both say the thing that makes their endeavor different from a regular bakery — or even an extended bake sale — is their form of presentation and delivery. No matter what happens, they won’t have it any other way.
“I like delivering things to people because they smile,” Price says. “Who doesn’t like getting a delivery like ours?”