During COVID, Louisville Sweet Shops Find New Recipes For Success
If the Girl-Scout-inspired flavor of the month at Hi-Five Doughnuts in Butchertown isn’t what you’re craving right now, no problem.
“They can always build their own doughnut,” co-owner Annie Harlow said. “So they can pick their glaze and their topping.”
And the list of glazes and toppings is lengthy: Bourbon caramel with bacon, cinnamon glaze with Cinnamon Toast Crunch topping, the classic peanut butter and chocolate combo and more.
“It's kind of like Willy Wonka,” Harlow said. “Our imagination runs wild. Our imagination has been a little slow lately.”
If the “doughnuttery” staff’s creativity is at all stilted lately, that is likely due to business being slow because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The shop's morning traffic dropped off last year as kids switched to remote learning and many people started working from home.
Harlow said they had come to rely heavily on those walk-in orders, and as things took a downward turn, they had to cut staffing.
“We shifted our hours of operation, we got rid of our seating… and we just shifted,” she said.
Like many other Louisville bakeries and sweet shop owners, Harlow and her team sought out ways to survive in these strange times. They shifted to an online ordering system, and did away with indoor dining.
Despite the challenges, Harlow said she is optimistic. Things are picking up — after all, doughnuts are easy to grab and go — and Hi-Five takes its doughnut food truck around the city.
“We've survived government shutdowns, and now, we've been working a year during a pandemic,” Harlow said. “When you start a business, you don't put that on your line items… We're still kicking. We've seen a lot of places shut their doors. We feel very lucky, very lucky.”
She thinks people are finding comfort where they can.
“Sweets make things better. For sure,” she said.
Rethinking Business Through Forced Innovation
Sweet Surrender Dessert Cafe in the Clifton area also shut down indoor dining and moved to online ordering with curbside pick up.
But the biggest hit to the cafe’s business in the last year has been COVID derailing the wedding industry.
“Before the pandemic started, we had over 120 weddings booked for 2020, already,” owner Jessica Haskell said. “And the majority of those did postpone, a handful canceled. A few still went ahead with slightly smaller plans. But that impacted us a lot.”
It wasn’t a total bust, though.
Haskell’s cake shop adapted. They started Zooming with clients and delivering cake-tasting boxes for a fully non-contact experience.
“I've been able to meet with brides that are as far away as Arizona and California, that are still planning to get married in Louisville. And normally, in the past, I would have to wait until they were in town,” she said. “So there's actually been some perks to that, and I will definitely be keeping that as an option in the future, even once things get a little more easy for in-person interactions.”
Sweet Surrender also started marketing to the at-home baker who is getting more adventurous during COVID, selling kits to build and decorate cakes and cookies.
“Baking is a lot of fun,” Haskell said. “It's a stress release for a lot of people, and we get it.”
Plus, COVID or not, people still want to celebrate special occasions with cakes.
“We are getting more elaborate orders for smaller cakes,” Haskell said. “People can't have the large parties like they used to have. So they are going with different ways to make a more intimate party feel special. Definitely a little more work than we would normally put into such a small cake. But it's a lot of fun.”
Nyagon Amankwa ordered a cake from Sweet Surrender for her son’s fourth birthday last fall.
Only immediate family would be in attendance, but she still wanted to make it feel festive.
“He's a lover of space,” Amankwa said. “So we had time to look at pictures and Pinterest, and he told me exactly how he wanted it. He wanted all the planets.”
The entire solar system, in edible form, adorned the small, 10-person cake.
“He loved it,” she continued. “It was very detailed… and we actually got to eat all of it.”
Amankwa also ordered a cake from Sweet Surrender for her own birthday in October, something she said she normally wouldn’t do.
“It was a black cake, and it was red velvet,” she said. “It had a big witch's hat on top of it, and it said on there, ‘Have a wicked birthday.’ So simple, but it was special.”
Some Bakeries Thrive As People Seek Solace In Treats
Dawn Urrutia, co-owner of Georgia’s Sweet Potato Pie Company, did something almost unimaginable during the pandemic.
She and her husband moved their sweets business from a farmers market to its own brick-and-mortar shop off Bardstown. They opened Jan 23, with a line of customers “down the block.”
Inside, there’s a sweet aroma of browning butter and caramelized sugar, bubbling out from the sweet potato filling as it bakes.
“A creamy spoonful of just orange gold,” as Urrutia described it.
Business for Urrutia changed as well.
But in her case, it’s not just because of safety precautions. She’s also had to shift because sales have been up, double from 2019, she said.
“We have just been booming, like we have been continuing to grow,” she said.
Urrutia saw business at the farmer’s market take off early in the pandemic as grocery stores ran out of goods. Then, over the summer, demonstrators took to the streets to shine a light on racial injustices.
“I can only speak for myself as a Black business owner,” she said. “Anytime that there's social injustice going on in the world, a lot of times, sales for minority businesses pick up.”
She also believes that food can transport you. That’s partly why she named the company after her grandmother, who Urrutia said was a “giver” and “lover of people.”
“That nostalgic feeling of sitting at your grandma's, mama’s or nana’s table, just all the family around or your loved ones and you're just eating, talking, enjoying and having a good time,” Urrutia said.