Experimental small business incubator hatched a sweet success story in downtown Farmington

We’ve been keeping track of Nakija Mills and her inspiring story for almost two years now. There’s a reason for that. Mills, the creator of Lekker Chócó Treats, first appeared on our radar in January 2022. The Farmington Downtown Development Authority (DDA) had just launched an innovative partnership with the owner of the temporarily-shuttered Browndog Barlor, utilizing the storefront as a small business incubator on a 90-day lease. Farmington DDA Director Kate Knight tapped Mills for the opportunity and Mills has been running with it ever since.

[Related: Learn more about Nakija Mills and her story on Metromode.]

That pop-up lease would come to a close, and Browndog Barlor would make its return. Despite her no longer having a storefront in downtown Farmington, Mills, a Farmington resident herself, would maintain strong ties with the downtown community here. She regularly operates as a vendor at special events, like September’s Harvest Moon Celebration, and offers a specialty line of chocolate bark at Dolcetto Cheese & Specialty Goods.

In late 2022, Mills would go on to open her first physical storefront at Laurel Park Place mall in Livonia. It’s the first of what Mills hopes will be many Lekker Chócó Treats locations throughout the region. And though her dream to return with her own Farmington storefront may not be realized (just yet), she has recently reached another significant milestone in her own hometown.

Lekker Chócó Treats is now being sold at Fresh Thyme Market in downtown Farmington. You can find her array of chocolate barks near the bread section.

We caught up with Nakija Mills and asked her about her entrepreneurial journey thus far.

Nakija Mills in Downtown Farmington in 2022. (File photo: David Lewinski)

Metromode: Catch us up. What have you been up to since your pop-up in downtown Farmington?

Nakija Mills: So, after the pop-up in Farmington, I was walking home one day and on my way home, I actually met someone that had known me from Lekker being downtown. And they said, “Oh, my God, I was just thinking about you. I have a spot that I think will be great for you.” So, I decided to take a chance. And, you know, they showed me the space and as soon as I saw it, I had the vision in my head. I saw four different locations in the mall and as soon as I saw the one across from Olga's – it was the old Mrs. Fields – I just saw my vision. It’s perfect. It's not too big, and it's not too small. Coming from the pop-up, I didn't have a lot of products to show, just my little treats, like my chocolate Oreos, pretzels, and strawberries.

Once I got into the location, I started getting more ideas; I wanted to expand my line of chocolate barks. Originally, I spoke to [Farmington DDA Director] Kate Knight about my products and that I wanted to go into Fresh Thyme and have my store there. And I remember her saying one thing, that even if you can't be in there, maybe your products can be in there. And that clicked for me. I have a location now. I can make use of this opportunity, expand on my products, and try and get my products in Fresh Thyme.

Metromode: And how were you able to get your products into Fresh Thyme?

Mills: Originally, I wanted to have a pop-up shop in the market. But because that process takes a while, I just didn't want to put my business at a standstill. Once I got my location at the mall, I went to the director [of Fresh Thyme] and I spoke to him. I was like, Well, what do you think about me getting my products in here? And he said, I think that's a great idea and the process will definitely be faster [than opening a location here]. So, he introduced me to the system director who explained to me everything that I needed to do. And we applied to be in a Fresh Thyme location in downtown Farmington.

Obviously I want to be in downtown Farmington because that's my home. And when I got an email about being accepted in the store, I broke down crying. Because not only was I approved to be in one Fresh Thyme location, but I was approved to be at all of the Fresh Thyme locations in Michigan.

(Editor’s note: Mills has opted to only offer her products at the Farmington location for the time being, and will eventually scale up to additional locations.)

Metromode: What has that experience been like so far?

Mills: With grocery stores you have to take into consideration packaging. The first week that we were in there, I lost three boxes just by people touching them and dropping them and cracking them. So you have to make sure your packaging is right. I plan on offering samples at Fresh Thyme every Saturday for the next coming months, so that people can get to know the products and sample the product and know that it’s great quality. I think that's very important. I feel like if people don't taste it, they won't buy it, you know?

Metromode: You’re really putting in the work.

Mills: I will tell you this. I got a call the other day from someone and it made me so emotional because I put the products at Fresh Thyme, but I'm not there to talk about my products, right? So, I'm a little nervous, like, Oh, my God, they’re not going to sell because I'm not there [to talk about them]. But I got a call from someone and they said, Hey, where are you guys located? I tell him we're in Laurel Park and he said, I just bought this bark at Fresh Thyme and I'm trying to get some more. And I promise you that just made me feel like I achieved the world. It made me feel like I was being seen without being there.

Metromode: All of these moments keep adding up to bigger things.

Mills: It's definitely been a growing and a learning process. But I do want to say that when I do feel discouraged, someone or a customer of mine always comes in and without them even knowing that they're doing this, they keep me encouraged. They bring me flowers, they bring me gifts – just randomly – and it does keep my spirit alive. You know? I keep in contact with the people from downtown Farmington and I definitely plan on still participating in their events. Because that's where I started. That's where my whole dream started. And the people in downtown Farmington and the DDA, they saw a bigger vision for me than I did for myself. My goal one day is to have an actual storefront in Farmington. I don't know how I'm gonna get there, but I'm gonna get there someday. Someday.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Find Lekker Chócó Treats online, at Fresh Thyme Market in downtown Farmington, and at Laurel Park Place in Livonia.
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Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.