The Sweet Shop

by Tonya Dixon | May 6th, 2011
The Sweet Shop

One of The Sweet Shop's creations (Photo by Howard Gaither)

When customers walk into The Sweet Shop in downtown Greensboro they are transported to a time when life was much simpler and possibly much sweeter. All the senses are jolted to attention. It’s the smell and mouth-watering taste of grandma’s made-from-scratch lemon pound cake, the sight of an antique collector’s dreamland filled with 1940s décor and memorabilia, the soothing sounds of the era’s great singers and musicians, from Charlie “Bird” Parker and Ella Fitzgerald to Billie Holiday and the cool feeling of the retro chrome and Formica tables and chairs.

The nostalgic atmosphere is simply captivating. Happy days are here again. Approximately two years ago, Margaret Elaine, The Sweet Shop owner and operator, decided it was time she to take her delicious pound cakes to the world. She had been cooking and selling her mother’s special, secret recipe pound cakes for years on a much smaller scale, but the demand for the homemade dessert was so large she had no other choice but to expand.

The Sweet Shop specializes in good, old-fashioned pound cakes; at least 110 different flavors to date, from the ever popular lemon pound cake to flavors such as key lime and banana pudding. Elaine still uses the same 66 year old recipe but adds her own twist. Customers can purchase slices, half or whole cakes. In addition, the kosher certified store sells other cakes, pies and cobblers. Homemade cookies, bagels, international coffees, ice cream, bottled water, juices, glazed pecans and walnuts-another throwback to years past— are offered in addition to many other items and many more on the way.

The Sweet Shop’s overwhelming reception is baffling to Elaine. “There have been times when we have been closed and people have knocked on the door saying, ‘we will buy whatever you have left,’” she says. Even though the days are long and hectic she still tells her employees, her sons, to allow them in. She is grateful that people find such delight in her homemade delicacies. Elaine admits she had no experience running a business especially a specialized food service one. However, she knew her pound cakes were selling faster than she could make them. She wondered if she could take a family recipe from the 1940s and build a lucrative business.

Why would anyone take the time to bypass other merchants when she only had one thing to offer? Knowing the answer to those questions immediately, Elaine understood that if her venture was going to be successful, she had to plan and be strategic. She took two years to locate a site, renovate, and garner more than $20,000 in startup capital, (almost all of which she had to secure without the assistance of traditional banks). There were times when she felt maybe she was in over her head, but she slowly kept moving forward, all the while working a full-time job at Lorillard Tobacco Company.

“I had no idea how to run a business,” says Elaine. “I learned on the job. I had to learn to read maps and blueprints; learn all about plumbing, electrical aspects and even all the different inspections.” There were times when Elaine felt she was being unfairly exploited because of her gender, race and naivety, but she kept reminding herself to remain cool and to keep smiling. She found that in the end the same ones that intended to slow her progress were the very ones who celebrated her success, and are in awe of her professionalism and the community’s reception.

Since The Sweet Shop’s grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony on February 14, 2011, Elaine has not spent very much time or effort advertising. She doesn’t have to. Word of mouth marketing has been extremely favorable. This is a good thing because she’s so busy she barely has time to sleep. The budding entrepreneur is looking forward to hiring an additional baker, but she makes it plainly clear she and her mother will be the only ones with access to the secret recipe. Her mother, who has retired from baking, has successfully passed her mixing bowl onto the next generation.
Because the pound cake recipe was used by her mother in the 1940s and is the
bedrock of the business, Elaine decided a ‘40s theme was in order. The Sweet Shop is completely decorated and furnished from her own personal collection. She has been collecting 1940’s memorabilia since she was a teenager. She even has Barbies from the era. Her mother jokes that she was born in the wrong time.

Customers love the store layout. The black and white checkered linoleum floor, the retro tables and barstools, the antique Coca Cola machine that sits at the front of the bakery, the massive victrola that stands in the gallery/dance floor and the old wooden washing machine in the corner; each piece was carefully and meticulously placed by Elaine.

Although the store has a ‘40s theme, she was careful not to alienate customers that may not connect with that time period. The store is completely Wi-Fi, and has a flat screen television. It’s a great mixture of technology and simplicity. Elaine has noticed that each age group has adopted its own section in the store. The senior citizens love to sit up front next to the window, eat their dessert of choice and listen to the music. The middle aged congregate towards the middle of the store, and the businessmen sit in the gallery and have impromptu meetings. She is happy to accommodate the different personalities.

Elaine is taking her business plan to the next level. Live music is provided not only to entertain the patrons, but also to give that up-in-coming musician and artist somewhere to display their talents. The hope is that maybe someone with the right connections can propel them to the next level. Elaine says she has always known her infamous cakes would bring people in the door, but she has many other ideas and plans for The Sweet Shop. “God gave me the talent to create, I’m not bragging,” she says, “I’m just using what God gave me. I’m trying to take all the ideas I have and put them under one umbrella. It’s just like giving birth; if you don’t let it out you will explode, and I’m coming out with a bang.”

Elaine plans to make The Sweet Shop a one stop shop. She wants to have a senior citizen’s spotlight where she films them telling their stories. Admittedly, Elaine has a passion for the elder generation as well as the youth. The films will be featured on the in-store television. In addition, a piano bar and more food item offerings, including specialty salads and wraps are in the works. She also plans to begin selling hand-crafted jewelry, aprons, t-shirts, greeting cards, gift baskets and much more. There are even plan to offer delivery service.

Elaine is not the only star in this show. She is supported by her intelligent sons who help her with the day to day operation and have helped mastermind the entire business. In fact, her business falls under the umbrella of her sons’ venture named OOBBOO (pronounced oh-b-boo) or Out Of Bondage Because Of Opportunity. In addition to various pursuits, the mission of the umbrella company is to encourage others to create opportunity for themselves. By using their various talents and gifts others can also rise above circumstances which attempt to keep them in bondage. Out of bondage and into abundance is exactly where Elaine is going. She created The Sweet Shop to better herself, but has also created a vehicle of change for others as well. “God is in it. He orchestrated it all,” she says. “He has given me the opportunity to bring people of all colors together.” By providing a good treat, the outlook for Elaine and The Sweet Shop looks mighty sweet.

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