As crushing, long-term uncertainty looms for small businesses across the country, one Brooklyn bakery was able to savor a sweet moment.
For its 10th anniversary, Ovenly rolled out a new chocolate cherry cake with brown sugar caramel filling and amaretto cherries — offering co-founder Agatha Kulaga a taste of happiness after a devastating spring and summer.
“I haven’t felt that true joy since before the shutdown,” she said.
The past several months have been anything but a piece of cake for the confectionary, which sells cookies, muffins and its signature Brooklyn Blackout Cake. Kulaga has been in the process of renegotiating leases on her four retail locations and trying to recoup as much business as possible in a city hit with one of the earliest lockdowns.
Pre-pandemic plans for a new location inside the JetBlue terminal in JFK International Airport have been stalled, and their kiosk in Urbanspace Vanderbilt, a food hall in Manhattan, has been shut down until further notice.
Still, Kulaga was able to celebrate the bakery’s milestone last month, and she and co-founder Erin Patinkin have welcomed back local customers after a long summer during which New Yorkers quarantined and fled for less cramped pastures.
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“People still want to have that moment of joy,” Kulaga said. “They are willing to treat themselves to coffee and a cookie, and it’s not going to break the bank. So there is this element of feeling like we are recession-proof and potentially pandemic-proof.”
After the bakery was shut down for seven weeks, Kulaga hired back about half of her 67 employees, and business at two of her retail locations has returned to near-pre-coronavirus numbers. But wholesale business is down about 75%, she added.
“People are operating at limited hours and limited menus and limited resources, so they’re not spending extra money on high-quality pastries,” she said.
She received and spent a Paycheck Protection Program loan as well as an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and now she is dipping into the byzantine process of forgiveness applications. She said she has received confusing — and conflicting — information.
“If this loan is not forgiven, it will be detrimental for our company,” she said. “Every single small business is banking on the notion that the PPP loan will be forgiven for them.”
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The fear that keeps her up at night? That, after a decade growing her mouth-watering cookie and cake empire, her bakeshop will take a giant step backwards.
“After having led this business for 10 years, I had finally found a true balance of personal and work life, and that is obviously all gone,” she said. “I really feel like I’m in a startup company right now.”
She is facing down a tunnel of uncertainty that is shared by thousands of other small businesses that are trying to survive during the pandemic.
“Do we raise more money? What kinds of funds do we raise? Do we seriously explore ecommerce given the state of the economy and how people are spending money?” she said. “There are so many unknowns right now. I’ve felt more paralyzed making big decisions.”
She also acknowledged that taking risks — a hallmark of the industry — might not be a smart business decision right now. Tried and true is likely the best route — like her best-selling black-out cake, a chocolate bomb filled with Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout and smothered in dark chocolate pudding buttercream.
“Otherwise, in three years we’ll be back to where we were last year, and that’s the piece I refuse to accept,” she said. “That’s where my motivation comes from. I want to rebuild this company in the next year back to where it was.”
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