April Richardson and sisters Deborah Wilson and Tamekia Dorsey of DC Sweet Potato Cake drove 17 hours from their home in Hyattsville, Md., to pitch their sugary confections to Wal-Mart buyers at the retailer’s Open Call for U.S. Manufacturing in Bentonville.
DC Sweet Potato Cake was one of out about 100 entrepreneurs to get the green light to proceed toward a business relationship with Wal-Mart at the annual event.
On the long car ride to Bentonville, the sisters said they joked and sang songs most of the way. But Richardson, president and oldest sibling, told Talk Business & Politics-Northwest Arkansas Business Journal there would be strategizing and business planning to do on the return trip since getting the go-ahead from Wal-Mart bakery buyer Kinna Thomas.
“The meeting was wonderful. When we told Kinna Thomas we were pitching a sweet potato cake she told us that she was the yam ambassador,” Richardson said. “That was great for us because yams are the main ingredient in our signature cake that is topped with a cream cheese, vanilla and pecan frosting.”
Thomas is also the buyer who brought Patti LaBelle’s Sweet Potato pies to the retail giant’s bakeries two years ago. The product sold out in days at Wal-Mart stores after a consumer video of the product went viral with more than 8 million views in November 2015.
No one is predicting the same results for DC Sweet Potato Cake, but Richardson said the small commercial bakery is willing to gamble big with Wal-Mart.
DC Sweet Potato Cake is located in the Washington, D.C., metro, but the DC stands for “Delectable Cakery,” according to Richardson. She is a business lawyer by trade with a focus of rescuing troubled companies from failure.
In 2013, Richardson was contacted by Derek Lowery, who then owned the bakery. Lowery was on the verge of eviction and sought her help in turning the business around. The sweet potato cake recipe is an adaptation of Lowery’s mom’s recipe, which was handed down through his family for decades. Lowery, who is now a business partner, started the commercial bakery in 1988.
“When I became president in 2013 my plan was sell more cakes, and that’s what we have done. We grew sales from $75,000 to $1 million,” Richardson said.
The company’s first big break came a few months after Richardson took control of the business. She sought to get the cakes sold in Starbucks because it’s a complement with coffee. She began emailing Starbucks and to her surprise received a response with a request to send them a cake to the company’s corporate offices in Seattle.
“I had no idea how to send a cake via UPS or FedEx, so I came up with another plan,” Richardson said during a recent motivational speech to other small businesses in the D.C. metro area.
Richardson purchased a one-way ticket and jetted off to Seattle with an expired coupon for a hotel, but had no reservation. Once in Seattle, she called Starbucks headquarters and told them they might be expecting a box from FedEx, but they were getting her instead. She hand-delivered the cake to the company headquarters.
Two Starbucks stores in the Washington, D.C., area were first to sell the cakes, and within two weeks they were in 11 stores. The cake is now sold in 300 Starbucks locations in the Mid-Atlantic region. Several months after the Starbucks deal, Richardson attended a small-business forum and began talking with a lady who worked for Safeway. It was no time before the cake was also sold in Safeway and Wegman’s grocery stores in that region. She also got a spot selling the cake on QVC during the holiday shopping period and Richardson said she sold more than 1,000 cakes in one short airing.
By the time Richardson and her crew arrived in Bentonville for the June 28 Open Call, they had amassed a sales record that impressed the retail giant enough to give them a spot on the bakery shelves. Richardson said there are many details to work out but getting the green light to continue negotiations was a major breakthrough and perhaps can help catapult the company to a new phase of growth.
Richardson told Talk Business & Politics-Northwest Arkansas Business Journal she has plans to expand bakery manufacturing into a 20,000-square-foot facility within the next year. The company is now about maxed out of space. She plans to grow sales and add more jobs as well.
Richardson said in about a year’s time they should be in the larger facility employing more people, and also mentoring other struggling businesses, which is her passion. Richardson said Lowery allowed her to bring on her own management team which included two of her 14 siblings. Wilson’s expertise is in marketing, and Dorsey works on the food science part of the business, Richardson said.
The sisters said they enjoy working together, but Richardson, who is the oldest and tallest, joked they have no choice but to listen to her and follow along. The night before the Open Call event, the sisters said they hung out in a local Wal-Mart store shopping for shoes and jewelry. They bought shoes and wore them to the presentation claiming afterward they were lucky shoes.
Richardson confessed she wasn’t expecting to hear “yes” from Wal-Mart so soon. It was in her longer range plan for sure, but she is happy that Wal-Mart sees the potential in her growing company.
“It’s important to do business with partners that want to see you grow and Wal-Mart is surely one,” she said. “We don’t know how many stores just yet. We will likely go in as a branded product, but there is room for private growth as well. I am sure it will be regional to start until we get our expanded manufacturing online, but then who knows, maybe it will be 4,500 stores.”
Richardson said DC Sweet Potato Cake could be a household name in five years, but more importantly she hopes to continue growing local jobs in her home region and mentor other entrepreneurs.
“It’s not about who will let us. It’s about who will stop us. We want to inspire other small companies who might have fallen on hard times,” she said. “Our story transcends not only business but also life. It’s not about how many times you fall down. It’s how about how you get back up.”
Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.