How This Woman Entrepreneur Found Decades of Success in Selling Cakes

Janie Clapp has perfected her recipe for a long-lasting business. By grounding herself in a love of baking, yet being ready to adapt to the times, she aims to ensure Janie’s Cakes will live on for decades to come.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Pound cake baker Janie Clapp (left) and her daughter/business partner Katherine Crow share their secret to building a long-lasting business. (Credit: Janie’s Cakes)

Janie Clapp has learned firsthand that, when it comes to running a long-lasting business, the key to success is adaptation.

The founder of Janie’s Cakes, a Tyler, Texas, baking business that’s been catering to customers for more than 3 decades, has seen plenty of change over those years. She started by making wedding cakes for her community, taking orders by phone and hand-delivering her creations. Today, she ships tens of thousands of pound cakes a year to far-away fans around the country who place their orders online.

To grow — and survive — she’s had to change with the times. She got into the e-commerce game once the internet became more widely accessible. As that part of the business grew, she brought on her tech-savvy daughter and employee, Katherine Crow, as a business partner. Now, the business makes just over half of its sales online to families and fans throughout Texas and into California, Illinois, Florida and the rest of the United States.

Clapp has navigated technological innovations, product shifts, shipping and equipment changes — not to mention family illnesses. Through it all, she has grounded herself and her venture in a dedication to simple, homemade ingredients and a corporate culture that emphasizes family and kindness.

She says the real secret to longevity is simple: true love. “You need to get involved with something you love, that you really enjoy doing,” she says.

Challenges Over the Years

Clapp’s love of cakes was baked into her at a young age. During visits with her great-grandmother — affectionately referred to as “Papu” — they would whip up all sorts of confections while others took afternoon naps. “Papu taught me the chemistry and everything about baking” on those summer days, she recalls.

[Related: Indulging Her Passion, a Baker Builds a Business — and Finds Herself]

What Papu couldn’t teach her, however, was how to build a business that could withstand the test of time. This, Clapp and Crow figured out together. In the process, they’ve navigated many challenges — the greatest among them, shipping products and maintaining an efficient and effective kitchen — to build a business with more than 10 employees that sells more than 26,000 pound cakes a year, mostly during the holiday season.

Finding a way to ship perishable products effectively became crucial, as Janie’s Cakes sought to expand its reach beyond Tyler. The challenge is to move cakes quickly in durable, insulated packaging that keeps them fresh, without breaking the bank — and it has been a balancing act without end. “We’re constantly reinventing the wheel to ship a perishable item in the least expensive, most effective way,” Crow says. Janie’s Cakes has long used FedEx for rapid delivery of its carefully packaged cakes.

Finding the right kitchen equipment has also been a challenge, Clapp adds. “Trying to decide which equipment to purchase, and how to upgrade” is not always as simple as buying the latest and greatest ovens, freezers or mixers. In fact, Crow notes, it was “shocking” to them how trading one appliance for another changed the texture of the cakes. To better understand the options before committing, the pair often attends trade shows to see potential purchases in action.

Keeping flavors consistent, meanwhile, requires consistent use of the same ingredients, Clapp says. Since they only use all-natural items to make their cakes, weather patterns have the power to wreak havoc on their supplies. Clapp recalls a time when a hurricane took out an entire vanilla crop, and a “frenzy” to buy as much vanilla as possible before prices skyrocketed ensued at the company.

And modernizing operations — improving record-keeping, creating a functional website, taking orders, printing shipping labels and creating social media pages — was “not as easy as people think it is,” Crow says. When Janie’s Cakes first launched, “we wrote everything down on paper.” The transition from physical to digital record-keeping was laborious and time-consuming.

Patience and persistence were crucial to navigating those startup twists and turns — and they continue to be vital to achieving growth goals, Clapp and Crow agree. “Lots of people go into business thinking it’ll be an instant success, and that it’ll come very easily. There are parts that do, but it is a constant work in progress,” Crow says.

The Path to a Long-Lasting Business

Clapp got her start in entrepreneurship in 1973 after graduating from college with an art degree, when she teamed up with friends to buy and assume management of a local boutique. But she sold off her share in 1981 with an itch to launch a venture all her own.

The "Italian Jane" is the most popular offering from Janie's Cakes, a decades-strong pound cake venture run by a mother-daughter duo. (Credit: Janie's Cakes)

The “Italian Jane” is the most popular offering from Janie’s Cakes, a decades-strong pound cake venture run by a mother-daughter duo. (Credit: Janie’s Cakes)

She studied at the Culinary Institute of America to refine her carving and frosting skills, and launched Janie’s Cakes as a wedding and artistic cake venture later in 1981. Clapp first ran her business at home, then moved into the second story of a relative’s antique shop in 1983. There, she crafted tiered sweets for couples and events, then carefully moved them downstairs for transport.

She quickly tired of that routine, and took out her first business loan to secure a more suitable location. So it went until 2003 — a series of loans to secure larger locations, each paid off thanks to slow and steady growth — until the reality of regularly working weekends, and missing time with her family, wore her down.

Rather than giving up, Clapp drew inspiration from her Papu once more, reorienting Janie’s Cakes as a maker of pound cakes, based on the matriarch’s recipe, for businesses hosting nearby events.

[Related: An Organization Giving Talented Women Chefs the Ingredients for Startup Success]

Building a local fanbase was easy, Clapp says, because she and her husband have deep ties in Tyler. But she figured out quickly that more significant growth would require broadening her market. In her first year making pound cakes, she worked out how to ship to all 50 states. Then, she started mailing postcards to far-flung friends and family, encouraging them to tell their local loved ones about her cakes.

The approach fits with one of her business’ slogans: “Spread a little kindness, one cake at a time.” And Clapp says “old-fashioned” word-of-mouth advertising is still the business’ most effective outreach strategy. However, Janie’s Cakes now also uses technology to share its message and makes high-profile appearances on home shopping network QVC and in publications like Southern Living.

Staying Grounded and Genuine

Clapp and her family have seen one another through personal struggles as well as professional ones. In 2007, Crow was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And Clapp’s husband has Parkinson’s disease.

Janie’s Cakes has always donated cakes and profits alike to charitable causes like the East Texas Crisis Center and the Junior League of Tyler. But its involvement with FitSteps for Life — a nearby organization that offers free exercise classes to cancer patients, including Clapp’s loved ones — is admittedly more personal.

Clapp is thinking optimistically, and envisions her venture lasting “way past my lifetime.” She dreams that her granddaughter, Jane, will one day work alongside Crow. To lay a lasting foundation, the mother-daughter team is addressing practical, in-store concerns, including buying a new freezer to accommodate the upcoming influx of holiday orders and further improving the company website.

Though some may find their all-natural, hands-on, family-first approach to be hokey or forced, “we’re the real deal,” Crow says. “We’ve been around a long time, and we really make everything here from scratch.”

That down-home simplicity is what the product is all about, Clapp adds: helping families “be together, enjoying good food that makes people happy.”

[Related: Our Series in The New York Times on Women Entrepreneurs in the Restaurant World]

Posted: October 2, 2018

Candice Helfand-RogersHow This Woman Entrepreneur Found Decades of Success in Selling Cakes