Meka Phillips knew she wanted to start a baked good business. But she didn't know the ins-and-outs of the market or exactly in what direction she wanted to take her business.
Then she came to the Can-Do Kitchen
where the nonprofit commercial kitchen and food business incubator helped her narrow her market and a speciality cake business, Dessert First
, was on its way.
She was the recipient of a Business Builder Scholarship in 2013. Since then she has developed a special occasions custom cake design and specialty dessert business.
She describes them as "Cake Boss"
style cakes, those carved or tiered cakes created by design for her customers.
Phillips built her business by selling her specialty desserts at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market. She took her cupcakes and cheesecake bars to the market and showed prospective customers pictures of the types of cakes she could create. Her business started to build and through marketing and word-of-mouth it has continued to grow.
"I got so many orders can't do the Farmers Market anymore," Phillips says. "I miss it."
Thanks to the help she received at the Can-Do Kitchen she built her brand, met with marketing experts, received training on finance, and received advice from experts at WMU that she continues to see today. "You make friends," Phillips says. "I learned so much on how to run a business successfully."
The business has grown to the point that she has been able to move to part-time at her job at PNC so she can focus on her cakes.
Phillips is so thankful for the encouragement, advice, and support she received at the Can-Do Kitchen she now serves on its board. She adds to the board the perspective of the small business owner and what they need to get started.
"I can help them tweak their program by letting them know what worked for me. I can suggest they add this or focus on this a little bit more. I can offer my point of view so they don't waste time on things that don't really help your business."
What would have happened with her business idea if it were not for the Can-Do Kitchen?
"I think I would have been able to do it, but not without the support of someone," Phillips says. "You need someone to support to move forward and assist you. I would not have been able to do it in the timely fashion that I have."
And she can't say enough about the support she received from the Can-Do Kitchen Staff, Lucy Dilley and Sheena Foster.
"They are like family to me. They are like my sisters because they really want to see me be successful. I could have done it, but not without their support and their continued support." Today they still inform her of workshops and ways to learn best business practices.
They provide not only the business know-how, but the belief in her ability to build a business.
"It's important to surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed," Phillips says. "They understand this business is really important to you -- it's not only about the financials and the branding. It's about people supporting you. It's about people who believe in you. Who know you can do it. It's so important to have people who understand your mission and want to help you see it through."
The Can-Do Kitchen wants to help more business owners like Phillips succeed. So it has launched a crowd-funded campaign, "Unlock the Future for Food Entrepreneurs." The goal is to raise $16,170 through the end of 2017.
The $16,170 figure is what it takes to fund three $4,200 scholarships plus administration costs that are part of the campaign.
And while this campaign will end with the new year, "Our goal is that it becomes an ongoing fund," says Lucy Dilley, executive director of the Can-Do Kitchen. Some local businesses are already giving. One is PFC, the food co-op, which has designated the Can-Do Kitchen is as their featured October organization for its Change for Change initiative. Tthe dollars raised when customers round up their bills go directly to the kitchen's crowdfunding campaign for its scholarship fund.
The Can-Do Kitchen's campaign is on Generosity
, a division of Indi-Go-Go. Dilley says they chose it because it allows participants to get rewards at certain giving levels. Posters, postcards and a T-shirt are all being developed for donors to the scholarship campaign.
"It doesn't take a large donation to make a difference. If enough people give $25, we're there."
The first scholarship program, the one that Phillips was a part of, was originally launched with Community Development Block Grant funds made available through the city. Those funds went to support small food businesses and the program expired. Now the Kitchen is seeking donor support to fund the scholarship program.
The idea is that those who receive funding will be able to get their business to the point that they can participate in the next Can-Do Camp
Each Business Builder Scholarship recipient will work with the Can-Do Kitchen to create a startup budget.
Startup expenses covered by scholarship funds also include ingredients, packaging supplies, graphic design work with the Can-Do Kitchen partner Mazawi Design
, label printing, small equipment, farmers’ market supplies, and food safety expenses.
Scholarship recipients will also receive a Can-Do Kitchen membership, invitations to business workshops, and half-price kitchen rental for one year.
The goal is that businesses will then be ready to apply for Kiva Zip
loans, a partnership between LISC and various "community trustees" such as PFC Natural Grocery & Deli, Edison Neighborhood Association, and others. The way it works is a food entrepreneur would initially contact one of the partners, such as PFC and go through an application process, which would lead to PFC endorsing them for a loan. Then the entrepreneur would proceed down the path to working with LISC and Kiva.
The Can-Do Kitchen has been helping food businesses grow for nine years and nine businesses have successfully grown there. All but one of those continue to be in operation.
Those who are on the fence about giving can take heart in the work already being done at Can-Do Kitchen.
"We have a good track record for supporting businesses," Dilley says. "People can feel good about the entrepreneurs being in good hands and getting the support they need to achieve their goals. We customize the kind of support that we give to offer what works best for them."
There are more reasons to give.
"People don't like inequality and inequity," Dilley says. "If you look around at the people who are able and going to start businesses, a lot of times it's the start-up capital that makes the difference. So we're trying to fill that missing piece and create more equity in the community."
And if those don't convince you, consider the tasty food coming out of the Can-Do Kitchen.
"I think other people just really want to see what delicious foods are going to be created," Dilley says. "They say, 'I won't be able to try these delicious foods if these people don't get to start their businesses.'"
Community members can learn more and donate to the crowdfunding campaign here
Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.