Since I’ve set out to open my own shop, I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people curious about how to go about starting a cake design business. I am referring, of course, to the real-deal-legit-business-in-a-commercial-space cake design business, not the one run out of your kitchen like I did for many years. (What? You thought you were the only one baking in your home? Don’t worry…everyone starts out of their home kitchen.) Since many of the rules, laws, standards, and codes that apply to commercial kitchens differ from state to state, I can’t give specific advice. I can, however, share my own personal experience opening up shop (well, it’s almost open) in Hamden, CT.
First, you should know that I do not come from entrepreneurs. My mother was a teacher and my father a social worker. Both earned a predictable and steady salary and retired with sizable pensions. My mom ingrained in me from a young age the importance of having health insurance and saving for retirement, so the thought of opening my own business–with unpredictable income, no retirement plan, and no company-supplied health insurance–essentially scares the shit out of me. I probably would not be doing this were it not for two people. Brian Smith of Ample Hills Creamery has been hugely inspiring to me. He is married to one of my best friends, Jackie, and for years we both talked about opening up our own respective shops. I didn’t realize he was serious, since no one I had ever known actually started their own business. I just thought it was something we both dreamed about. Then he actually went out and did it, and he’s wildly successful. That was the first indication that maybe it was something I too could actually do. I also would not be here without my sister, Jessica. We are sharing the kitchen at my new space (the front will be divided between my consultation space and her soup and salad retail area). She is just as scared as me, but we encourage and support each other, and it all seems okay.
We signed our lease on December 15th and expect to be open February 15th. Here is a brief (and in no way comprehensive) outline of the process, which is still very much in progress.
1. Write a business plan. I know this is something you don’t want to hear and don’t want to do. I didn’t want to do it either, but I’m so glad I did. Writing a business plan helps you focus on your goals and form a business philosophy, anticipate potential pitfalls, analyze the competition, and take inventory of your finances. It’s not fun, but in the end it is vitally important. I needed some ass-kicking to get started, so I took an online business plan course that was structured and gave assignments with deadlines (I need deadlines) so that I got the bulk of my plan written. I still needed help with the financial section (See Step 2).
2. Meet with advisors. Your local SBA and SBDC have advisors who can help you write your business plan, obtain financing, create a marketing plan, etc. Most of their services are free of charge. The SBDCs also offer inexpensive and worthwhile classes in everything from promoting your business using social media to Quickbooks.
3. Obtain licensing. A few of the local agencies in your city or town you’ll need to get to know could include the buildings department, health department, water department, water pollution authority, zoning department, and fire marshall, to name a few. You might also need a city-issued business license (in Long Beach I did; in CT I don’t).
4. Contact your state. The state might require additional licensing (in Connecticut the Department of Consumer Protection oversees bakeries. This is in addition to the local health department). Also contact your state taxation or franchise board. If you want to incorporate, it is done at the state level. You might also need a food handler’s license.
5. Obtain a federal Tax ID. Easily done online.
6. Obtain financing. Do this before you sign a lease. The SBA provides low-interest rate loans to small businesses. Many startups have recently opted to fundraise instead of taking business loans using websites like kickstarter.com
7. Find the right location. A pre-existing space that needs only some renovation is the most cost effective. My sister and I, because of our unique needs, could not find a space that worked for us, so we are doing a complete buildout.
8. Get contractors who are reliable, punctual, licensed, and insured. Get at least three bids for each job. Your contractors (plumber, electrician) will pull the appropriate permits and schedule inspections of their work. Other inspections, such as the health department inspection, you might need to schedule on your own.
9. Signage. Most cities regulate the maximum size of your sign and other design elements. Work with a sign company familiar with the regulations that can guide you through it.
10. Prepare to work your ass off. If you’re not willing to put the blood, sweat, and tears in to get your space off the ground, you’re either super rich or you might want to reconsider. This is your baby. Treat it as such. Be there every step of the way so you know what is going on and know that it’s done right and to your specifications.
Here are some photos of our progress.
Pendant lights in the front window are up:
Dry wall is up, taped, and mudded on Jessica’s side:
All the brick is exposed on my side. Walls and pendants are up. We still need to install the floor:
I painted the hutch I bought at a thrift store. I’ll be using it display my cakes and stands:
We have almost all of our kitchen equipment, but it’s not all installed:
My consultation space still needs floors and paint, but I just had to see how some of the furniture would look:
The tin ceiling is completely exposed, primed, and painted. I love it:
View from my studio to the front door:
I wish you the best of luck.