Mother-daughter team Geraldine Keough and Lindsay Smith were living their dream of running their own bakery, The Dessert Ladies in Stirling, N.J., when the pandemic hit. Focused on creating dessert bars for corporate clients—such as Goldman Sachs, Mercedes Benz, the NFL, Prudential and Northwestern Mutual—they suddenly saw orders slow to a trickle, as business events all but shut down.
“Initially, it was a big shock to our system—we had events being cancelled every day, every hour,” says Keough. “The early season of March to June is almost as big as Christmas for us. We bring in a lot of our revenue during that time frame.”
That put them in a similar situation to many other small businesses struggling in the pandemic—and their creative approach to staying afloat holds inspiration for entrepreneurs in many other industries.
For the Dessert Ladies, the cancellations started in mid-March. They had prepared thousands of St. Patricks’ Day products for an event at a financial services company to be held on a Friday when, the Thursday before, they got notice it was being cancelled. They donated the treats to a veteran’s group.
By Monday, they made the decision to close their festive brick-and-mortar store for the time being.
Thanks to a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, they were able to continue paying their small staff, which had grown to seven people since they started the business in 2012.
The graduates of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program realized it was a good time to shift their focus to e-commerce and quickly put up an online store. “We had a pretty robust Easter and Mother’s Day,” says Keough. “There were still celebrations going on, but revenue was down.”
They started brainstorming ways to bring in additional cash. “We said, ‘How can we plan our way out of this?’” recalls Keough.
Keough stayed active in every business network she belonged to, soaking up information about any loans and grants available to small businesses and sharing any leads she found with others in the group. “We’re all in this together,” she says. “Everyone is doing everything they can to survive.”
Thanks to another loan under the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program—second quarter revenue at the bakery was down 71%—they were able to pursue a new way to bring in revenue: Manufacturing.
With more time to focus on research and development, they introduced Biens Chocolate Centerpieces. These are customizable mail order chocolate cake truffle towers, which they designed for displays at celebrations and have patented.
“We thought ‘If we don’t have it and it doesn’t exist, we’ll just make it,’” recalls Smith.
There was one challenge: They didn’t have the right space for production. “We decided to get very brave and pulled the trigger on renting an additional workspace,” Keough says.
The soon found a production center in Denville, N.J. “It was perfect for us,” Keough said. “We signed the lease very quickly. We accelerated everything we did.”
Soon they were advertising the Biens Chocolate Centerpieces at virtual trade shows. “Lo and behold, we got a call from 1-800-FLOWERS,” says Keough. “They said ‘We’d love to feature you on our Simply Chocolate website. We have started the process to be one of their distributors. It’s very exciting.
The Dessert Ladies don’t expect a full financial recovery at the bakery until the second quarter of 2021, but in the meantime, they’re staying focused on the opportunities in front of them.
“We’re seeing tremendous growth with Bien,” says Keough. “We’re leaving nothing on the table.”