Bakeries across the region cope with COVID-19
By Krishnan Collins
Delta Digital News Service
Jonesboro, Ark. – When the pandemic started, locally owned bakeries around the region felt the blow of COVID-19 and those businesses in Northeast Arkansas have had to continually adapt to keep producing delicious sweets for the community.
Deep in the heart of downtown Paragould
Looking at cake decorating supplies at an overseas military base, Tracy Mothershed answered yes when a woman approached her and asked if she was a cake decorator. Although she did not have a shop at the time or much professional experience, Mothershed always had an artsy side and liked to decorate cakes for her children.
“I don’t know where that answer came from,” Mothershed said. “So she asked me to help her with her daughter’s birthday cake and it just started from there. I just started doing cakes for people and I feel in love with doing it. Gosh, that was almost 30 years ago.”
Born and raised in Paragould, she swore she would never return home after she left. Mothershed did just that and eventually started her own bakery in 2011, Something Sweet, in downtown Paragould.
“To me, downtown is the heart of your community,” Mothershed said. “You have to have a thriving downtown to create that community and I just always wanted to be a part of that.”
When Mothershed returned from overseas with her husband, she made cakes for friends and family out of her home. Although she also worked full time, Mothershed’s cake production kept increasing. Eventually, her husband told her she had outgrown the house.
“I had cakes on the kitchen bar, had them on the kitchen table, had them on the dining room table,” Mothershed said. “He was like, ‘We can’t even sit down and have dinner because it’s everywhere.’ (I was) getting over the fear of opening your own place and just jumping in with both feet and (I) haven’t ever looked back.”
In the first year Something Sweet opened, sales were so good they shocked Mothershed’s accountant. The business grew every year since opening, but when the coronavirus hit in March, things got a little rough.
“Up until this year, it has grown every year since. I’m not going to lie, this year has been rough,” Mothershed said. “You know, we’re doing enough to keep the doors open and doing OK. I haven’t had the nerve to look at all my numbers. My accountant just sent me my quarterly reports and I haven’t even looked at them yet.”
Throughout the pandemic, Mothershed said she’s had plenty of low morale moments. Although she is someone that usually does not stress, the pandemic definitely produced some harrowing days.
“I was just telling my girls this morning I’m mentally and physically just exhausted,” Mothershed said. “In August my mom passed away. Not from COVID, she had a stroke and didn’t recover. Just all of this, I’m physically and mentally exhausted. So those low points, yeah I’ve had those.”
Despite those low points, Mothershed said she’s too stubborn to throw in the towel and give it all up. Although the store folding crossed her mind, Something Sweet is her baby and her stubbornness persisted.
“My husband just says they’re going to have my funeral in here,” Mothershed said. “I’ve always been of the mindset as long as the bakery is paying for itself, I don’t have to pay myself. As long as everything is paid for and taken care of then no, I’m not shutting the doors. I’m not going to lie, there’s been a few times the past couple of months I’ve been like, ‘How much longer can we keep going?’ Right now, we seem to be at a good point.”
Something Sweet misses the income that came from wedding cakes. With many weddings canceled and postponed due to the pandemic, one of the shop’s biggest income sources has not been as prolific as it was in a pre-pandemic world.
However, it’s not just weddings that the store lost potential income from during the pandemic.
“Life events are postponed,” Mothershed said. “Birthday parties have been canceled. Custom designed cakes are the biggest portion of our profit. That’s where our profit margin is. That side of it has taken a big hit.”
The store also lost income from walk-in traffic. The store’s lobby remained closed throughout the pandemic but reopened in November. Before reopening, those non-regular customers who would have stopped by just for a look and happened to leave with a dozen cupcakes did not get the opportunity to do so from March through October. However, the store did allow curbside delivery and customers could call ahead to order.
With walk-in customers not allowed into the store and the baking business being such a visual thing, Mothershed said advertising increased across social media, the store’s website, print and radio to keep the brand of the store going strong since the start of the pandemic.
The store made many preparations before reopening its lobby, including hand sanitizing stations, social distancing dots on the floor, multiple tongs, gloves and other measures to make sure the reopening is safe.
“I really wanted to be open for the holiday season,” Mothershed said.
Right off campus in Jonesboro
Just a seconds drive away from Arkansas State University, right in the reach of students, Bliss Cupcake Cafe on Red Wolf Boulevard actually got its start in another part of the state. Bliss originally opened in Fayetteville in 2009, but Pocahontas native Breanna Walton wanted to bring something that gave her so much joy in college at the University of Arkansas back home with her.
“My roommate and I, we loved Bliss,” Walton said. “We would go there on a good day, go there on a bad day. It was like, ‘Hey we need a cupcake to feel better’ or ‘Let’s celebrate and eat a cupcake.’”
Walton, a nurse, ran down to the Fayetteville store before college graduation in hopes of winning a giveaway and the owner of Bliss happened to be there. Walton told him she was moving back home and that he should open a store in Jonesboro. He responded by telling Walton she should open it herself.
“It was just kind of a real nonchalant conversation that turned into a reality,” Walton said.
Bliss opened its doors in Jonesboro July 12, 2014.
When the pandemic hit in March, Walton said the hardest thing initially was dealing with the uncertainty of the situation. In the beginning, Walton and her mother, who was also instrumental in bringing Bliss to Jonesboro, decided they would not take a paycheck from Bliss to ensure Bliss’ employees could continue to work and be paid.
In terms of social distancing, Bliss’ very wide cupcake case made social distancing almost automatic in the store between the person behind the counter and the customer. Bliss was already mostly a takeout business anyway, so the store was naturally acclimated to pandemic procedures.
Despite the pandemic, Bliss found ways to maintain its brand and give the community fun options.
“For Easter this year one of the fun things we did was we delivered boxes from the Easter bunny to people’s doorsteps just so they didn’t have to get out,” Walton said. “So early Sunday Easter morning my mom and I got up at 3 a.m. and literally drove all over Jonesboro to deliver treats on people’s doorsteps. It was pouring rain that morning so that was interesting.”
The store also made cookie decorating kits that people could use at home so they did not have to get out to have fun.
Walton said Bliss has always placed a pretty big importance on giving back to the community. The community reciprocates that energy.
Back in May, a customer ordered a large custom cake ahead of time but did not want to pay until she could pay with cash in person, Walton said. The customer never appeared to pick up the cake, but when Bliss posted the situation on social media many people reached out to the store saying they would purchase it despite its very custom nature.
“Without their support, we wouldn’t have made it through the last three months,” Walton said. “I think people realize that especially now more than ever, with the tornado and the timing of it all, that kind of all we have is each other. We’re local people owning local businesses. So if we don’t support each other, then our community doesn’t rise as a whole.”
A-State alum Drew Roberson liked Bliss from the first time he tried their products.
“I first went to Bliss Cupcake Cafe because I just wanted to visit my friend who worked there,” Roberson said. “I left with two cupcakes and a coke in my hands and loved every bit of it. After that, if I ever wanted to surprise a friend with something sweet, I would go to Bliss because I knew their cupcakes, and presentations of them, were always impressive. They’re really good and I don’t even like sweets.”
The pandemic came at a terrible time for the store. Bliss saw a decline in sales initially, and the pandemic happened during what would usually be one of Bliss’ busiest seasons around Easter and Mother’s Day. Also, just like Something Sweet, Bliss lost a lot of income from canceled weddings. Despite those tough times, just like Something Sweet, the idea of going out of business never gained much traction.
“It was never a thought that was given any kind of fuel or action,” Walton said. “As soon as that crossed our minds, it’s not going to happen. We’re not going to let it happen.”
The baking community
Mothershed said she knows she cannot bake enough cakes for everyone in Northeast Arkansas no matter how much she wants to, she has to sleep.
Even with a good amount of bakeries across the region, Mothershed said there is room for more bakeries in the region.
“Everybody loves sweets,” Mothershed said. “They make you happy. (Bakeries) just create part of your community, part of that family feeling.”
Walton emphasized how Jonesboro is a hub for all the small surrounding towns in the area, so there are plenty of customers to go around for all the bakeries.
“My favorite thing to say is, ‘We’re a mouth full of happy,’” Walton said. “Just for the same reason I fell in love with Bliss, is what I want to provide for other people.”
NOTE: Featured photo by Krishnan Collins: Something Sweet decorates custom designed cakes at their store in downtown Paragould.