Sweet Potato Sensations: Black, intergenerational business credits success to small biz support

This is part of a reporting series, supported by BUILD Institute, that chronicles businesses and entrepreneurship in Detroit. 
Espy Thomas. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Research shows that Black women make up less than 10% of the country’s population, but they’re the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the nation. But taking a leap into entrepreneurship isn’t easy, even if it’s stepping into a family business that’s already been established. Such is the case for Espy Thomas of Sweet Potato Sensations. 

Sweet Potato Sensations started as a home business in 1987, but the Thomas family will tell you the real story started when Jeffrey and Cassandra got married in 1976. To satisfy her husband’s sweet tooth, Cassandra created a recipe for sweet potato cookies. They were a hit with Jeffrey, and soon, friends and family. In 1987, they sold out 125 bags of cookies within hours of offering their sweet potato cookies at the Rosedale Park 30-block yard sale. 

The demand spurred the start of a long entrepreneurial journey. In 1994, the business grew with a quaint storefront in Old Redford, next to the Redford Theater. Over the years, they expanded their menu options, and were featured on popular shows and programs on The Food Network.  They moved across the street into a space on Lahser Avenue, which allowed for increased production and a bigger dining space for customers. In 2017, the business celebrated their 30th anniversary. 

Cassandra Thomas, founder of Sweet Potato Sensations. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Today, the multi-generational business continues with the Thomas daughters, Jennifer and Espy, at the helm. The sisters have been involved in the business since they were 5 and 6 years old, labeling cookies. When Espy Thomas moved back to the area from Connecticut in 2013, she became even more involved in Sweet Potato Sensations.

“We make and create everything out of fresh sweet potatoes,” Thomas says. “Pies, cookies, cheesecake, cake, ice cream, candy yams, muffins, cupcakes, cornbread, chicken and waffles, pancakes, grits, black-eyed peas and collard green soup. We’re a sweet potato lover’s heaven-on-earth, revolutionizing the way the world tastes sweet potatoes and keeping the legacy of George Washington Carver alive.”

Keeping that legacy as well as her family’s legacy alive and thriving hasn’t always been easy, says Thomas. The pandemic shuttered so many local businesses, especially in the food industry. In order to remain relevant and successful in that ecosystem, Sweet Potato Sensations has relied on many for support and resources. 

“The support we have received from people that live here and people that don’t live here, who have been very intentional about supporting us on purpose so we can stay around is overwhelming,” Thomas says. “I remember during the pandemic, people just saying, ‘I just want to come here and buy something because I have to make sure y’all stay around.’”

Thomas says that a level of support is everything to the small business, which continues to scale. 

“You can’t do it without your people, people who believe in what you’re doing, people who support what you’re doing and making an effort in any type of way,” she says. “Whether it’s telling someone about your business, showing up on their own, advocating for it in rooms you haven’t even put your feet in yet, all those things have been major reasons why we’re still here.”

Another level of support has come from educational courses through BUILD. Thomas recommends fellow micro-entrepreneurs and small businesses to look into the resources available to them. 

“I think BUILD’s programs are a great place to launch your business ideas and get support on your journey and next steps,” she says. 

Regina Ann Campbell

Regina Ann Campbell, president and CEO of BUILD Institute says Sweet Potato Sensations represents how one family’s dream can help shape an entire community. 

“Sweet Potato Sensations underscores the ability that micro-entrepreneurs have to transform neighborhoods and have tremendous community impact,” Campbell says.

“The success of the Thomas family business demonstrates how laying a strong foundation through classes, such as those offered by BUILD Institute can support entrepreneurs to launch, grow, and sustain their businesses. Espy, her sister Jennifer, and family represent how a dream born in one generation can have longevity into the next.”

It’s important for the business to remain in the neighborhood, Thomas says, helping unite both the gritty and pretty areas of the city. In the same corridor, there are plenty of small businesses that have a long history, investing in the area too. 

“We have Blight Busters over here, Motor City Java House, The Redford Theatre and other people who have made investments in the area,” Thomas says. “It’s super dope to watch this block really come together and support his neighborhood as a whole.”

Sweet Potato Sensations considers itself a stakeholder in the neighborhood, helping to inspire other entrepreneurs and business startups too. After all, it was through other networks for entrepreneurs and small business owner resources that the business has been able to get this far. 

“When I first moved back to Detroit, the very first program that I was in was D:hive. I was in one of the first or second business classes, and being able to sit in and flesh out what I think I should be doing in the company was very important,” Thomas, who studied at an art school, says.

BUILD Institute began as a program of D:hive back in 2012, offering BUILD Basics classes and entrepreneurship education. Today, they serve as a downtown hub of resources and expanded classes featuring topics like digital marketing, BUILD Impact, and more throughout metro Detroit and statewide. The goal is to empower people, especially Black, Latinx and under-represented and under-resourced folks who have ideas and can foster their businesses. 

Thomas is happy and proud that many programs like BUILD, TechTown Detroit, ProsperUs Detroit, and Goldman Sachs exist in the local community. 

“I think Detroit really has some of the most innovative and great programs for startup businesses and those mid-level people who are going from ideation to making it happen,” she says.

“I love that we have so many programs that give people the opportunity to see if what they want to do is actually going to be sustainable, and be able to take their ideas from one point to the next. There are so many programs that help flesh out their ideas, and link them up with coaches and potentially even mentors that can help them take their ideas to the next step.”

Throughout the business journey so far, there have been many standout moments that helped launch Sweet Potato Sensations to the ‘next step’ via different platforms. Thomas says some highlights include national coverage on T.V. programs like “Cake Boss” and regional news segments in Detroit as well. Political figures have even made it a point to stop in on their travels for a taste. Although those moments are nice, Thomas says the sweetest support really does come from the locals.

“The standout things happen, but the people that live in the city are the ones that support you every single day,” she says. “It’s really crazy when you think about it. We have been able to be open for 37 years off of sweet potatoes. Just that alone is pretty cool.”

Thomas enjoys being an example of representation and inspiration of generational wealth within the small business ecosystem in Detroit.

“It shows other families that they can do it too. A lot of the time, people need representation,” she says.

“Some people do need to have an example so that they can say ‘I can do this’ or ‘I have this idea I didn’t think was possible, but now I see that it is possible.’ Some people always think that’s for other people, even as Black business owners, they think that’s for somebody else. They haven’t seen it happen for themselves. Representation for me is super important to know that us as a family can show somebody else that they can actually do something.”

Photos by Nick Hagen
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.