A corporate accountant by trade, Tina Salvatore always had a passion for baking. She took several cake-decorating classes, fell in love with the art, and began instructing through Wilton’s—a well-known cake decorating supplies company.
When her accounting job was cut, Tina’s husband encouraged her to follow her dream. She opened her startup bakery Tina’s Cake Emporium in 2015—within a year she was the owner of an award-winning bakery.
Tina spoke to Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about her entrepreneurial journey, her commitment to community, and the challenges associated with launching a startup.
NAN PRICE: Did you always know you were going to launch a startup?
TINA SALVATORE: Yes, I always wanted to open a business. I always loved baking—I’ve been baking since I was 10 years old.
NP: Tell us about transitioning from a full-time accountant to an entrepreneurial role owning a startup bakery.
TS: Layoffs are stressful. I remember talking to my husband, Mike, about what to do. There was the option of going to Florida and continuing to work for the company that had let me go. In the meantime, my son who was in the army got hurt and was coming home, so I decided I would stay here in Connecticut. I figured I’d start looking for another accounting job.
Mike encouraged me to follow my dream. He told me: I don’t want you to live with regrets. I see how much love doing this, I see how much you love teaching. We will figure it out.
I remember asking: Are you sure about this? He told me: If you fail, you fail. At least you tried. And then we’ll just deal with all the bills. We’ll just start over fresh and go from there.
So I took his advice and I’m here. Six weeks and six sinks later Tina’s Cake Emporium was open for business.
NP: Tell us something we don’t know about entrepreneurship.
TS: It’s a lot more hard work than I thought. I don’t know why I thought the cupcakes would just bake and frost themselves. I never realized the shelf life of cupcakes was so short.
I never realized the hours I’d have to put in. I figured I’d open at 10:00 a.m., so I’d show up around 8:00 a.m. and maybe roll out there at 6:10 p.m. But I put in 12 to 14 hour days—and even some 18 hour days. I never expected that.
NP: Still, or when you first opened?
TS: Still. Because during the week it’s only me but on weekends, I’m swamped with cake orders.
NP: How are you marketing and getting your name out?
TS: It started with Erica Giroux, my daughter-in-law who started the business with me. Erica has a degree in marketing. She is the one who designed my logo. She’s was on top of my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, so she did a lot of social media.
Erica spun off and launched her own startup, the Playful Peacock & Friends. She’s focused on creating an artisan community in downtown Windsor Locks. So I’m doing all the social media myself now.
With regard to Windsor Locks, I have been very lucky that the town has recognized me. Tina’s Cake Emporium has made the cover of the Windsor Locks Journal a couple of times.
And marketing is also word-of-mouth. Windsor Locks is a very small, close-knit town, you never know who you know or who they know.
NP: Let’s talk about the community.
TS: I have to say that Chris Kervick, who is the new first selectmen, is awesome! All the Main Street businesses have a monthly meeting called Meeting on the Main. Jen Rodriguez, who is the town planner, puts it together. A lot of our small business support each other.
For example, at my grand opening in May, I said: I think even though it’s my grand opening we should have a sidewalk sale. I wanted everybody in the plaza to ride my coattails. Yes, it was my grand opening, but I really wanted to drive traffic to our town. That’s what we’re trying to do.
I’ve also joined the Bradley Chamber of Commerce. Chris said: In your spare time, why don’t you start a subcommittee for all the Main Street businesses? I said: Sure Chris I’m right on that!
So the town has been very supportive and I like to support my town.
NP: What’s the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a startup?
TS: The biggest challenge has been allocating my time. Trying to get structured. Trying to make sure all the bills get paid. Trying to make sure I have enough supplies.
The first couple of months I was open, I was constantly sending my husband and my son out for supplies. I kept running out of stuff. So that was the hardest thing.
And having the funds to do it. I remember my first sales thinking: This is great! Let’s celebrate! But no—
NP: Let’s go buy butter, flour, and sugar.
NP: Do you feel like your accounting background helped with the business?
TS: Well, they say the cobbler’s children have no shoes and the carpenter’s house is falling apart. The corporate accountant has her books half done.
But seriously, I try to get all my paperwork done on Monday when I wake up.
I have to say, my background actually has helped me. I have done some trend analysis. It’s very hard to do a profit margin though because I buy 15 dozen eggs at a time—does one batter go to five or six different cakes or does it go to a few dozen cupcakes?
So it’s kind of hard to do a little bit of a cost analysis. It’s easier for me to do an analysis where I can do sales trends. I can try and figure out how I’m doing based on my food budget and my receipts for my food. Did my food go up with my sales? Approximately how much was my gross margin from that?
NP: You recently won a Flavor Right nationwide contest for which you had to write an essay about what inspired you to open a bakery, who inspired you, etc. Tell us about your essay.
TS: I basically wrote that my husband is the one who inspired me to do this. He supports me. He works 70 hours a week at his regular job and then he comes to my shop and works two or three more hours. I taught him how to pipe cupcakes.
My family really encouraged me. They started the business with me. When I was teaching the Saturday classes for Wilton, I would bring my youngest daughter, Angela and she picked up everything I taught. She’s actually one of the founding members of the bakery, too. My son, who is a disabled vet, his wife and new baby had come home to Connecticut and they have been so supportive. There was no way I was going to leave them.
With the essay, you had to be very detailed about how you would use the funds—of course they had to go right back into the business. I had very specific plans. First thing I bought was a fondant sheeter. My rolling time is cut in half now.
So I just wrote the essay and sent it in. And then in November I got an email saying I had won. I forgot I had even entered the contest!
NP: What a happy surprise!
TS: It was! I won the grand prize!
Windsor Locks is working on revitalizing all of Main Street. Chris Kervick wants me to expand. My little 500 ft.² bakery is a little tight. His vision for me—which is kind of my vision too—is to be a little café.
NP: That leads into a question about the future. Where do you see yourself in a year?
TS: In a years’ time I want to be in the back. I want to be doing birthday cakes and wedding cakes. I want be like the Windsor Locks Cake Boss.
I want to have someone else on staff, someone reliable to run the front and make sure the case is full with pies, cupcakes, and cookies. I would also like to be able to expand where I can have a seating area. I would love to have outdoor seating for my customers. They are awesome! I live for my customers. I love the smiles I put on people’s faces. That warms my heart.