Baking takes a certain level of skill to make sure things always turn out right. There’s a lot of experimenting and testing of new recipes. But for the truly talented baker, whipping up delicious treats is never really work – it’s just pure joy, especially when you see the look on a customer’s face. That is, until a pandemic comes along – and then that joy is replaced with stress and uncertainty. That’s exactly what faced Jannell Eason and her year-old Nikki’s Chocolates WNY, LLC.
As a wife and mother of four, and having worked for 12 years as a supervisor in the corporate world, she was accustomed to her share of challenges. And starting a business is filled with challenges – but she was well on her way in 2019. And as her business began to take off, Jannell decided to expand operations in November 2019 – but there’s no way she could have predicted the difficult road ahead. Like so many woman-owned businesses in Western New York, she was faced with unexpected closure, cancelled events and more challenges as 2020 wore on. But, thankfully, the Women’s Business Center (WBC) and their free Covid Recovery programs helped her stabilize and reposition her business.
Established in 2018, Nikki’s Chocolates WNY initially made and sold only chocolate candies and chocolate dipped treats. She ultimately wanted to expand into bakery items as well, which is when she opened the space at 27 Chandler Street in Buffalo. The products included amazing concoctions such as cheesecake waffle cones, trifles, brownies, carrot cake and much more. Jannell made them available to event planners, businesses and pre-orders for parties and other events. But just a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Jannell to close for six weeks and also cancelled every event she had scheduled for 2020.
Whipping Up A New Plan
After a number of restless nights, Jannell shifted her strategy and began to offer retail sales through curbside pickup. But the challenge was improving her online and social media presence so potential customers would know about her business and change in retail approach. That’s when she began working with the WBC and their E-Networking program.
“With the help of the WBC, I started marketing to families with school age children and offered a variety of affordable products,” Jannell said. She has since expanded into online ordering and appears at markets around town, including Roswell Cancer Institute Courtyard; Johnnie B. Wiley Stadium and the Kenmore Market. For a full list of days and times, visit the Nikki’s Chocolates WNY website.
And even though the pandemic has eased a bit and WNY has slowly reopened, the challenges facing Jannell haven’t ended. Like so many businesses around the country, staffing is now the biggest issue she faces. “Juggling retail hours, events and pre-orders has been very challenging because payroll expenses are not affordable,” Jannell said. To help combat some of these issues, she began working with interns from the Mayor’s Summer Youth and the WAY program offered by Father Baker Services in Lackawanna.
Never Go Off Half-Baked
When she is making her amazing treats, Jannell is always careful to plan exactly what she needs – the perfect blend of ingredients, baked for the precise amount of time, is necessary for the perfection she achieves. But as it relates to running her business, Jannell has learned to stop worrying so much about perfect planning. “Being flexible and possessing the ability to adapt to change is how you become successful,” she stated. “The food industry is very competitive. Staying the same and not responding to your customer’s needs can really hurt your business. My advice to a new business owner would be to do your research to gain knowledge of your industry. Know your competition and work to fill the gaps in demand for your industry.” But, most importantly, she recommends working with the WBC to help overcome any challenges that come your way.
“My advice for any woman-owned business is to contact the WBC and use their networking and knowledge to help you get through the pandemic or anything that comes along,” Jannell said. She said the networking, relationship building and sharing of knowledge she received from the WBC was the difference between success and failure. “Starting a full-time business in the midst of a pandemic was very challenging. My willingness to make changes, connect with like-minded individuals who were more experienced and redeveloping a strategy is how my business survived it.”
And for Jannell, getting back to the pure joy of baking is the sweetest revenge for a year gone haywire for so many people and businesses.