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Bakeries Overcome Challenges to Sell Sweet Treats

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Sugar & Salt bakery is owned by Sara Ayyash. (Photo: Aaron Royce)

This article by Aaron Royce is posted as part of VPM's partnership with Capital News Service

Local bakeries are rising to meet obstacles and setbacks produced by the coronavirus pandemic.

The year was marked with numerous restaurant closures, but most local bakeries remained open due to customers’ affection for sweets and through some strategic reinvention.

When Gov. Ralph Northam issued a lockdown in March, events were canceled and many businesses had to reduce operating hours.

One bakery that depends on events was hit hard but quickly adapted. Sweet Fix, located in Richmond, was threatened with massive financial losses when COVID-19 reached the U.S. Advance payments were postponed or gone entirely as customers downsized or canceled large event orders. The losses totaled over $40,000, Sweet Fix owner Amanda Robinson said.

Robsinson said five employees were laid off. She said non-refundable deposits helped keep Sweet Fix in business. The bakery implemented a policy requiring a 50% deposit for each order up front to help maintain revenue while facing a decline in orders.

“Trying to run a business with one person was a nightmare,” Robinson said. 

She worked 14-hour days and counseled couples whose wedding cakes she would have been designing.

“One of the challenges was trying to coordinate a date change with dozens of vendors who are also trying to coordinate date changes with dozens (if not hundreds) of their clients all eagerly seeking new dates,” Robinson said. “Some clients lost vendors who they were excited to work with as it was impossible to reschedule everyone on the same date.”

Robinson was able to bring some staff back in part-time roles. Without the typical flow of spring wedding orders, she began more curbside sales for birthdays and other events. As lockdown restrictions lifted, a steady flow of business—including weddings— returned to Sweet Fix.

“Oddly enough, the wedding inquiries are just as high as they’ve been,” Robinson said. “It’s hard for me because I know where we are still in the midst of this pandemic, so to think that people are just moving along as usual, like nothing’s going on, expecting 2021 to be absolutely normal,” Robinson said. She said she is concerned for a second coronavirus wave.

Whisk, in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, is still providing customers with cakes, cookies and various sugary treats. Owner Morgan Botwinick said there were minimal employee losses despite the initial lockdown, and the bakery stayed open with reduced hours and customers.

Botwinick believes Whisk operates by bringing customers positivity through food. She said it is “helpful for morale to be able to treat yourself, or treat someone else.”

“It brings a little bit of joy to their day,” Botwinick said. “You know, pastry is not something you have to eat, obviously, but it is—it’s a treat.”

Whisk also got a boost through online ordering, which Botwinick didn’t use before the pandemic. Now, it’s become a convenient way for bakeries like hers to more safely serve customers.

“I think the online ordering has really been the biggest new innovation that I see almost everyone doing,” Botwinick said.

Reinvention has helped bakeries stay open with menu changes, revised hours and adapted business plans. Sugar & Salt, in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, opened its storefront in February. Owner Sara Ayyash said a lack of staff and supplies posed a strong threat to the new business. Despite those obstacles, Ayyash added new products. She started selling at-home baking kits with help from her brother and husband. 

“So, it was more of a, let’s try and think of new items with what we have to work with, and sell those,” Ayyash said.

One innovation came from a yeast shortage near the beginning of the pandemic. Ayyash replaced her menu’s donuts and cinnamon rolls with coffee cake and quiche—now Sugar & Salt staples.

Another adversary to the bakery business is that people are baking more at home during quarantine. Despite this, consumers have favored specific sweets that can’t be easily homemade. They appreciate “having the ability to just pick something up when they’re in need,” Ayyash said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.