City Paper is not for tourists
April Richardson wears many hats: mother, attorney, baker, entrepreneur, and co-owner of Maryland-based DC Sweet Potato Cake—a cakery and baked goods line created from homemade recipes using sweet potatoes.
Richardson is motivated by a simple yet profound credo: “I remember that life was given to me to maximize and every day I make an effort to do so,” she says.
It was this positive energy and determination that Richardson brought to DC Sweet Potato Cake in 2010 when she partnered with original owner, Derek Lowery. The business wasn’t very profitable at the time, and it was staring down possible eviction. Richardson used her business law expertise to reorganize and restructure the company. Under her leadership, and with the full support of Lowery, they quickly watched their financial health improve.
Large retailers such as Starbucks, Nordstrom, Safeway, and Wegmans saw potential and began carrying their popular baked goods products. Richardson appeared on QVC and sold 1,400 cakes in eight minutes.
Richardson’s success with DC Sweet Potato Cake led to new ventures. She expanded into the Baltimore market with Baked In Baltimore, a retail baked goods shop, and then she purchased property in Brentwood, Maryland and opened the 8,500-square-foot Savor Food Hall, which she says is the second African American-owned food hall in the country.
“The Savor project is important because it gives minority chefs an opportunity to participate in a food hall,” Richardson says. “Shopping small matters. Online and big box stores make it so easy [for customers] to not shop local or small.”
Her business acumen is being tested by the COVID-19 crisis. Savor Food Hall is operating with only 30 percent of its staff and Richardson had to lay off 90 percent of the DC Sweet Potato Cake workforce. Even worse, Richardson reports that many of her laid off employees have yet to receive their unemployment benefits.
Richardson is frustrated by the Paycheck Protection Protection loan program administered by the Small Business Administration. She views it as preferential towards large restaurant groups who received millions from lenders. “All my company needed was $23,000 and we got zero,” she said. “We could have remained open at full staff if we received the PPP funds. We had an 11,000-cake order from Safeway to fulfill.”
In recent weeks Richardson has emerged as a spokesperson for the small business community. She’s been interviewed on CNN, BBC and MSNBC, where she spoke passionately about the economic challenges that all small businesses are facing right now.
She’s tried to place her sweets with big brands like Shake Shack—which initially received a $10 million PPP loan intended for small businesses, but later returned it—and hopes to form a working relationship with the company, not only during the COVID-19, but after the pandemic is over.
“It would be great to have my products in their stores once they reopen their locations,” Richardson says. “It would be cool if both companies supported each other and a new partnership emerged.”
Ever resourceful, Richardson has also formulated a mutually beneficial strategy to help first responders while putting as many of her employees back to work as possible. Through “Cakes For A Cause,” Richardson’s company will bake and deliver 5,000 free DC Sweet Potato Cakes to local nurses, doctors, emergency personnel, and essential workers.
National Nurses Week begins May 6th, and Richardson hopes the community will pitch in and make $5 donations to help cover the cost of the cakes. “I envision major restaurant chains reaching out to us to partner, and corporations and organizations asking how they can help,” she says. “I have faith in everyday people creating movements.”