Nicole Cummings has learned a lot about business since she and her mom began selling homemade pound cakes from their Stafford County home earlier this year.
The precocious 9-year-old even has a practiced answer to a question she gets all the time: How did the business get started?
“We had gone to the post office to send a package,” said the youngster. “A nice lady who works there, Ms. Michelle, heard about my cooking and challenged me to make her a lemon pound cake for $20. I did, and the rest is history.”
That history took a while to come together, as she and her mother, Tonya Cummings, realized that by combining the elder’s baking knowledge with Nicole’s youthful energy, they had the components of a home business.
Tonya Cummings grew up in Chicago and learned to cook by watching her grandmother, Katie Brown. Cummings and her daughter decided to name the business Katie’s Cakes, as Katie is also Nicole’s middle name.
“She knew how to feed an entire block with her meals, cakes and cookies,” Cummings said. “My granny started me off cooking in the kitchen when I was 8 years old, frying chicken and fish. On holidays, she put me in charge of baking the desserts.”
Nicole said the family had been casting about for an idea for a home business, but hadn’t found something that seemed right.
“But when we got such a positive reaction to the Bundt-style pound cakes we shared with neighbors and friends, and at the post office,” Nicole said, “it hit us that we had something unique.”
The mother and daughter put their heads together and went through some of the family recipes that had been handed down, and researched recipes for other flavors.
“I’d come up with the recipes and Nicole helped me come up with interesting names for the cakes, all of which are pound cakes made in Bundt cake pans,” said Cummings. “That’s why we have names like ‘Apple Dance,’ ‘Happy Strawberry,’ ‘Pineapple Party’ and ‘Lemon Love,’ the favorite so far.”
While the mother does the heavy lifting—everything from sourcing ingredients to measuring to baking—Nicole does most of the mixing.
“I like wearing my apron and getting a little flour on me,” she said. “And I’ve gotten pretty good about cracking eggs and keeping shells out.”
The family business also includes Nicole’s aunt, Ebony Duff, who helps with promotions and scheduling events for Katie’s Cakes.
By taking part in events like a recent Black Business Expo, they began to see a market for their $40 homemade cakes.
“We just made dozens for a recent event, and sort of learned as we went along how to produce that many,” said Cummings, noting that they only have one oven. “We put in a few long days.”
The business has reached the point where the family sets group curbside pick-ups at area shopping centers and also mails cakes in specially designed containers.
“They’re going all over the place right now, and we’ve got some customers who order one every few weeks,” said Cummings. “We’ve been taking orders for Thanksgiving and will continue that for Christmas.”
She said that while much of the early profits have been put into the business, some proceeds will benefit the family or be set aside for Nicole.
“My daughter has been watching cooking shows since she was able to know what they were,” said Cummings, “and for years now has said that she wants to study French and to go to Paris and become a French chef.”
That dream could change, but the family is committed to setting aside enough money from the business to get Nicole to Paris in the not-too-distant future so she can see it for herself.
Nicole has begun to learn French, and her mother and aunt getting a kick out of hearing the young baker occasionally address the cakes en français.
If sales continue to grow, the family might need to find an off-site kitchen or bakery space to expand.
“We’d like to begin selling cupcakes, and I’d like to someday add the sweet potato and other pies I grew up making,” said Cummings. “Cookies might he another option. But to seriously expand, we’d need to have something besides our home kitchen.”
While there were four flavors initially, the website reveals a list of regular and limited-time flavors: Lemon Love, Always Almond, Grandma Katie’s Old-Fashioned, Pineapple Party, Happy Strawberry, Apple Dance and Blueberry Stars.
Cummings said she thinks customers like their cakes because of their quality ingredients, which don’t include the products commercial companies are forced to add to give cakes a long shelf life in stores.
“We use real butter, organic sugar and the best of other ingredients to get the best flavors possible,” she said.
The family is using the experience as a way to teach Nicole about the realities of life and commerce by slowly exposing her to different aspects of the business.
“I like the idea of making money, but also want to bring joy to people with our cakes,” Nicole said. “Some people out there are alone in their houses. I think our cakes remind them of when they were young and had lots of family around.”
For more information on Katie’s Cakes, visit tonyacummings.com.
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415