Knowing firsthand the struggles of culinary entrepreneurship, Norwalk resident Renata Papadopoulos set out to open not just a commercial kitchen of her own, but also a resource for budding bakers.
From her 1,700-square-foot Stratford custom dessert studio, Lovely Cakes, Papadopolous creates everything from tiered wedding cakes adorned with floral designs and bows to miniature iced cupcakes for birthday parties or anniversaries. Along with serving as the headquarters for her business, the bakery at 195 Charles St. also affords up-and-coming chefs the chance to rent time in a commercially licensed kitchen.
“When I was looking for a space, I couldn’t really find a kitchen,” Papadopolous said. “There are definitely kitchen rentals out there, but they make it very hard. There’s no storage, the prices are very high, to the point that I couldn’t rent somebody else’s kitchen. But I knew there were a lot of people in need of a kitchen.”
Papadopolous’ business started more than a decade ago as a hobby of crafting elaborate birthday cakes with buttercream and fondant art for her three children. Her talent for creating edible art, one she credits both to her muralist mother and her grandmother who taught her how to bake, later turned into favors for friends and family before it expanded to include custom creations for hire.
“It was by accident,” Papadopolous recalled of how she started her business. “I just really enjoyed it, so I started buying (cook)books.”
To hone her craft, Papadopolous attended the French Culinary Institute in New York City before launching Lovely Cakes in 2005. The business, initially operated out of a home studio and rental kitchens, grew steadily in the coming years, with Papadopoulos deciding in 2013 to begin the search for a kitchen of her own.
“From the very beginning, I decided that once I was going to take this step, I didn’t want to rent,” Papadopoulos said of opening her own bakery. “I actually saw a couple cake places close because they couldn’t afford (the rent). I wasn’t going to be in that spot. Either I’m going to buy it or I’m not going to do it.”
In order to afford a studio of her own, Papadopoulos needed to come up with a way to generate extra cash — one that didn’t include counter service.
“I didn’t want the commitment of having to open the store and close the store and have no flexibility whatsoever,” said Papadopoulos, who designs cakes and meets clients by appointment only.
Knowing she would only spend two to three days per week using her kitchen and recalling the difficulties she faced when searching for an affordable place to work, Papadopoulos decided to make her kitchen available for rent to budding bakers.
“What’s the point of having an empty kitchen?” she said.
To bring her business plan to life, Papadopoulos designed her bakeshop, which occupies a former storage facility in an industrial area just off Interstate 95, specifically for that purpose. Half of the building is dedicated to Lovely Cakes, with a decorating studio, front office and a tasting and consultation room, while the other half houses a commercial kitchen that renters can access by a key code.
“It helps them and it helps me, so it’s a win-win,” she said.
Three Fairfield County businesses — Drunk Alpaca, Pie Baby and Granola by Jen — each split time in Lovely Cake’s commercial kitchen during the week, with some venturing to the bakery late at night or on the weekends. All three sell their products at farmers markets and pay between $15 to $25 per hour to rent the kitchen.
“When I was looking, there were kitchens starting at $50 per hour,” Papadopoulos said.
Lovely Cakes also provides shelf and storage space for renters, something Papadopoulos said was lacking when she was searching for a commercial kitchen.
“How are you going to bring every single ingredient every single time you come?” she said. “You’re going to have a pantry in your car?”
For Papadopoulos, who said a 60-hour week with 10 to 12 cakes is her norm, the days not spent baking are dedicated to decorating her sweet creations — from perfecting the details on a miniature race car for a child’s birthday treat to constructing an elaborate bouquet of edible roses for a couple’s wedding cake. She and an employee she hired in September can spend up to 15 hours embellishing a single dessert.
Since opening Lovely Cakes more than a decade ago, Papadopoulos has drawn attention from a variety of sources. She has received awards from wedding websites The Knot and WeddingWire, was honored for entrepreneurial excellence by Stamford’s Women’s Business Development Council and even created an assortment of desserts for NBA superstar Lebron James. But her crowning achievement, Papadopoulos said, came just one week before her brick-and-mortar bakery opened when she took home a $10,000 grand prize for creating an elaborate, towering Valentine’s Day-themed cake on Food Network’s “Cake Wars.”
“Winning ‘Cake Wars’ brought credibility to the brand and business,” she said. “It was also confirmation that even though I am self-taught, you can still rise to the top if you work hard.”