Little Owls Bakery Founder Stephanie Barnes turned her love of baking into a thriving business making custom themed cookies. She spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about what it’s like to step into business ownership.
NAN PRICE: Have you always known you wanted to own your own business?
STEPHANIE BARNES: No, absolutely not. I never thought I would be doing this now.
NAN: What changed?
STEPHANIE: When the pandemic happened in 2020, I had been working part-time at our church for 10 years. Like everybody else, I didn’t know what was happening next and there was a lot of uncertainty.
One day my sister-in-law asked me what I wanted to do. I had always made themed cakes for my daughters, and I had just finished making a cake for one of them. I told my sister-in-law I just wanted to make cakes. And she said: Okay, do it.
Before I knew it, one of my daughters had helped me create a Facebook page and post pictures. I just ran with it and here we are two years later. Three months ago, I left my part-time job and now I’m doing Little Owls Bakery full time.
NAN: Tell us about getting started.
STEPHANIE: I put the cart before the horse. In April 2020 I started putting myself out there on my personal Facebook page to see how it would be received—and it was received well.
By August 2020, I had become fully certified with the state and the town. I had to take a food safety course and then I went through the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection and got certified. I also had to get insurance and figure out the rules of cottage food operation.
NAN: Do you have any business experience?
STEPHANIE: I have zero business experience. I’m one of those people who just jumps in and asks questions later. I knew cottage food operation was something new to Connecticut. Coincidentally, my husband was part of the West Hartford Town Council when they approved cottage food operation in the town. But at the time it wasn’t even on my radar. A couple of years later, here I am doing it!
NAN: Have you utilized any local resources?
STEPHANIE: I’ve been working with Beth Bolton, who used to own A Little Something Bakery and now provides business advising. We connected after she commented on one of the pictures I’d posted. We decided to meet for a cup of coffee, and I’ve been meeting with her about once a month since the beginning of the year.
NAN: What are your biggest challenges for you stepping into business ownership?
STEPHANIE: One big challenge is, when you’re a small business owner, you do it all. I’m the baker, the decorator, the accountant, the marketing person. I do lean on my family a lot for certain things. One of my daughters takes care of my website and the other one helps me with Instagram. I couldn’t do this without them.
The other big challenge is stopping work and keeping normal business hours. Because the work is always here. I’d say that’s my biggest challenge right now.
NAN: You’ve been in business for two years. How have you evolved and found your niche?
STEPHANIE: I started off making cakes and cupcakes. But I realized there are a lot of cottage food restrictions for things like frostings and ingredients. Not only that, but cakes were also causing me a lot of anxiety because so much can go wrong with a cake.
About a year ago, I taught myself how to make sugar cookies—before then, I had never made a sugar cookie in my life! Now I have that down to a science and custom themed cookies are my entire focus.
NAN: How are you marketing and building your clientele?
STEPHANIE: I started building a following with my personal Facebook page. Then, once I had my Facebook business page, I did some Facebook and Instagram ads for a month. I’m also on Google. Recently, a woman from New Jersey called me after she’d Googled “cookies near Burlington, Connecticut” and Little Owls Bakery popped up.
A lot of my marketing is word of mouth. I’ve been blessed. The people in town have been so supportive. They’ve been great customers.
NAN: Any advice, tips, or lessons learned?
STEPHANIE: If I can do it, anybody can do it. And if something’s not working out for you, you can always reinvent yourself.