A County that Cultivates
A Sweet Endeavor
Cake cravers, cookie lovers and those with a hankering for something sweet are connected to Kelsey Smith’s rise from a one-woman bake shop to being featured on Katie Couric’s talk show and getting Facebooked by Lady Antebellum.
Smith has 60,000 followers on @kelseyelizabethcakes and uses the social media tool to connect and invite feedback. “I can go online and say, ‘Tell me what type of macaron flavor you want,’ or, ‘We’re trying this new cookie sandwich; stop by and tell me what you think,’” says Smith, who launched her bakery four years ago in Avon Lake, and opened a Rocky River location a year later.
Smith found her calling in the kitchen after several U-turns in college, where she pursued “everything under the sun,” she says. “I tried five different majors — everything from entrepreneurship to art education to management. Ironically, it all came together with owning the shop.”
Smith did earn an entrepreneurship minor at Baldwin Wallace. After three years at the university, she decided to leave to study in London at the Peggy Porschen Cake Academy, where she learned advanced decorative techniques. When she returned to Lorain County in 2013, she worked at another bakery (Tipsy Treats in Parma, now closed) and realized that, if she were going to continue honing her skills at other shops, she’d have to sign a non-compete.
“Owners wanted me to sign off saying I wouldn’t have my own cake business on the side, and I got to the point where I didn’t want to sign the next three or four years of my life away,” Smith relates. “I couldn’t find anyplace that would take me without the non-compete, so I figured, ‘This is it. Let’s do it.’”
Smith didn’t want to churn out the typical grocery-store cake, and she was looking to produce something beautiful and tasty. (Fondant has the looks, but not the taste, she quips.) “I came up with my own buttercream collection — chic cakes that can be customized with colors and themes,” she says.
Smith’s style is modern — you won’t find shell borders or plain piping. The buttercream cake collection includes about nine designs in which she manipulates the buttercream to look like petals, waves and ruffles. The cakes are adorned with punchy polka-dots or artistic roses.
She is especially known for her macarons, and there are at least a dozen flavors in her shops every day, ranging from the most popular birthday cake to s’mores, peanut butter and jelly, sour watermelon, classic salted caramel, vanilla bean and raspberry, among many others.
“The macaron business started more slowly than people realize,” Smith shares, noting that she began with two flavors and she made every cookie by hand. “It’s one of the most difficult cookies to make,” she points out. “There were lots of thrown-away shells in that beginning phase. They were trendy in Paris and London, but they hadn’t caught on in Cleveland yet. So, it took a while.”
The gluten-free goodies got a boost from Smith’s Instagram page. “We started selling out every day,” she says. “Then we added more flavors, and they really took off.” Now, Smith has a team that is dedicated to making macarons.
Like any entrepreneur, Smith has learned some lessons the hard way. For one, she started the business figuring she’d do custom, couture wedding cakes — the kind that cost thousands of dollars and require professional setup and staging at events. And that is what she did for a while.
“I had to miss doing markets and other events because every Saturday I had a wedding cake to deliver,” she says. “This was the first summer I stopped doing wedding cake orders that we deliver.” (You can still pick up a multi-tiered cake, she says.)
The business lesson: “Go with what feels right instead of trying to force something,” she says. “I love being out at events and meeting people in person. It has brought me 1,000 times more joy than wedding cakes…which can be a downer because you’re stressing all the time.”
Smith had mentors along the way. Her mom taught her how to bake “and she is super-creative,” Smith says, noting that, in the early days of the business, it was just her and her mom. Her dad brings business perspective. “When I needed advice on why the cakes weren’t baking up, I could ask my mom — and when I needed advice on how to make a balance sheet, I went to my dad,” she says.
Lorain County has been an incredibly supportive place to grow a business, Smith says. “We still have faces that come into our shop that I recognize from our very first year when I was working the back and the front,” she says. “They were instrumental in helping us grow.”
Runway to Success
His friends noticed he’d always be sketching sneaker designs during class in high school at Admiral King in Lorain. “I had a dream job in mind of working with Nike, and, having a basketball background — my dad has five brothers, so they all played, and I looked up to Michael Jordan — it was something I was interested in,” says Jevon Terance, a 2004 alum.
So Terance decided to pursue fashion design and moved to San Diego when he was 19 to “try something new,” he says. He lived with his cousin and was accepted to the renowned FIDM Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. “I was excited about it,” he says. “But art school is a lot of money, and I didn’t have the finances to do it.”
So, Terance decided to return to Lorain County and make a go of it on his own at home. He worked at a screen printing shop and, at age 21, asked his mother for a sewing machine for Christmas. That machine sat there collecting dust for about four months. “Then, my aunt came over and showed me how to thread it and do some basic stitches,” he says. “I decided to start trying different things, and I began making basic stuff like pillows. I’d go to a thrift store and buy things, take them apart and sew.”
Terance says, “I became my own fashion college.”
He spent hours in the library reading fashion books and periodicals. “My peers were in college, and I knew, if I wanted to make it, I had to be serious about it,” he says.
Gradually, Terance started sewing garments, applying appliques to outfits and adding hoods to T-shirts. “This was during the MySpace age, so I started doing fashion shows and became known around Cleveland and Lorain County,” he relates.
His first fashion show was at Call Out Church of the Almighty God in Elyria. “I didn’t even know where to get models, so I used my friends and family — I showed 14 outfits, and I was the photographer, the D.J., everything. I had to learn as I went,” he says.
One show turned into another — and many more. Before long, Terance was on the local circuit, and his social media presence helped build an audience. “Here was this designer from Lorain who was getting an opportunity to do shows in Cleveland,” he says.
Terance officially launched his brand in 2007, and, by 2012, had done about 160 fashion shows. Today, he has a storefront in downtown Lorain at 615 Broadway, and he is known for his fabric design — manipulating photographs that tell stories. One jacket showcases the chandelier of Lorain’s Palace Theater. The pictures on fabric, he says, “take the garments to a whole other level of exclusiveness.”
Terance works with a fabric printer in North Carolina that transfers his designs to textile. He sews every piece of clothing in his store — and you can watch him at work when you visit. Some of his favorite pieces to make now are women’s dresses and pants, and men’s trench coats and motorcycle jackets. “I’m always excited about new ideas for my collection — it never stops, and there’s always something fun going on,” he says.
If Terance is behind the sewing machine, you’ll probably find him sporting joggers and a hoody with a good pair of shoes, he says. Otherwise, he likes to “do more” and go beyond basic. His designs reflect that.
The business advice he learned by doing: “Take chances,” he says. “You are going to fail. And you’ll learn from it.”
Working out of Lorain has been a natural fit for Terance, as well. “I love that Lorain is an international city, and I really put that into my brand when we are doing casting calls — I try to cast people from every background,” he says. “Our history downtown is really nice; the buildings are interesting; and I like soaking that up. With the tailoring I do and making clothing, I feel like I’m bringing back an old tradition to Lorain.”
Copy That? (Think Again.)
You have an idea. But now what? (And, how do you make sure no one steals that idea?)
These questions can create a barrier to innovation for students, who might be inspired to create but aren’t sure how to protect their intellectual property. Now, students at Lorain County Community College (LCCC) can get answers. It is one of six colleges in the country — and the only one in Ohio — to offer an intellectual property (IP) curriculum through a partnership with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) and the Michelson 20M Foundation.
Community colleges are so closely connected to their local economies that launching a program at LCCC aligns with the program’s mission, says Lee Kolczun, LCCC assistant professor of business and law.
“Many times, students don’t even understand IP,” Kolczun relates. “Getting past that and understanding IP is No. 1. It’s learning the process and what it encompasses for the inventor.”
The curriculum, which includes PowerPoints, videos and assessment modules, rolled last fall, he says. “The students who have participated so far found it helpful and said it tickled their creativity,” he explains. “They felt they might look at ideas differently now that they understand how to protect them.”
LCCC was selected as a participant thanks to its great relationship with NACCE, Kolczun says. “And, we are respected in the country because of our entrepreneurial prowess and the way we try to push the envelope for students to prepare them for entrepreneurism,” he says. Kolczun points to NEO LaunchNET as an example of the county’s commitment to growing business.
“I’m excited about the IP curriculum because it’s showing students that they can do it,” he says. “They can make a difference with their ideas.”