In this installment of Meet the Merchant, we speak to Imaria Fakinlede of Neron Cakes & Decor in Brunswick, New Jersey. Imaria shares how leaving her corporate job created space for her to do more of what she loves, and, ultimately, open her first storefront in 2021.
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Clover: Do you personally have a background in cake decorating and your business expanded into event planning more generally? Or did you start on the event planning side and then get your way into cake decorating?
Imaria Fakinlede: I have never been to any event planning school or cake school before in my life. My background is in human resources. Back home in Nigeria, I was a stockbroker for seven years before I came to the United States. I got into cake making and event decoration when I first arrived in the United States in March 2016.
My husband’s friends wanted to throw a party to welcome me. I said ‘OK’ but didn’t want anything big or fancy, so I put up something in my living room – baked a cake and did a sweets table. When guests walked in, one of them showed interest like, “Oh my God, this is so beautiful. Who made this for you?” I said, “Oh, I put it up myself because you guys said you were coming down and I thought I was making all of these friends.” She then asked if I could do a setup for her bridal shower. I questioned whether I should seize the opportunity at first, but with my husband’s support, I agreed to do it. That was my first paid opportunity providing event decorating and cakes at the same time. I still have that picture to date.
Clover: Wow. Is that when things took off for you?
Fakinlede: Well, this particular lady, whose name is Grace, started telling other people about me—how nice my decorating and cake baking were, and I considered it but decided that I would continue pursuing my master’s degree in human resources. At the time, I still felt like I wanted my hands in the corporate world. I didn’t want to bake cakes and decorate full time. When I finished my degree, I got my first job with Macy’s, where I worked for two years in human resources. Then I moved around to a few jobs that were mostly in the medical field. More recently, I worked with Apple Inc. as an H.R. Generalist—100% remote due to COVID. This is when I realized that I should really be self-employed. My kids were getting demanding. I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old and working from home was very difficult.
When I was full time in the corporate world, I did my cakes and decorations only on the weekends. I spoke to my husband about focusing on this cake and decorating business fully so that I could be more flexible to pay attention to the kids, while he continues in the corporate world. He supported me with that decision, and in April, I chose to leave Apple. Nearly five months later, I opened in this new location solely with what I’ve learned on the Internet and with natural talent.
Clover: Wow, that’s so wonderful. Let’s back up a little. Prior to making this a business, did you bake cakes beforehand? Did you plan any parties for your family and friends back when you were younger?
Fakinlede: Occasionally, I would bake cakes for fun at home, never for friends, just family. I’m only interested in baking because I’m always very skeptical of what I eat, and I really love cakes. So, when my husband told me about the welcome party, I didn’t want to waste money paying someone. I love cooking, so baking was kind of an addition to my cooking. I never organized parties. Everything I learned was because of my interests, passion, and the flexibility to control my time.
Clover: Tell me about the types of events that you’ve planned.
Fakinlede: I have planned every type of event except corporate conferences but I’m trying to get there one day.
Clover: Excellent. So, you just moved into a location in August. It must be nice to have that workspace separate from the home.
Fakinlede: You’re right. Working from home was very tedious in my small kitchen. But people didn’t really care. In the past five years that I’ve been baking, I’d let customers know that I was a home baker and ask if they were okay with that. They’d always say they didn’t care. Now I have my display room, I have my office where I do all my crafts for my cake toppers and event planning, and talk with people, and I have a full-blown kitchen.
Clover: Do you have employees? Who else works for you, or is it just you doing everything?
Fakinlede: It’s just me for now, but I’ve been interviewing people to see how they can fit into my line of work. I’m looking for someone who can do what I do — not exactly like me, but at least 70 percent there. It’s difficult because these are customized cakes that require strong calculations. You must be very, very patient because it takes a lot; sometimes it takes six hours to work on one cake. It’s overwhelming, I must confess.
Clover: I imagine if you put that much energy into creating a cake, you’d want someone who will do the same. Are you also hoping to hire someone on more of the event planning side or in a management position to take care of logistics? Or are you just looking for help with the cakes?
Fakinlede: Whoever I hire will need to be able to learn all the things that I know how to do in case I’m not available—both the event planning and cake baking. A couple of people have shown interest in both and don’t mind being flexible. Planning is a little easier but could get complicated. I will train whoever is willing to do it and has the passion for it.
Clover: Clearly being a mom and a wife is a big part of your identity in this business. Tell us more about how family and your family values play into the business.
Fakinlede: I left the nine-to-five job to make sure I had more time for my family. I might be making good money in those jobs, but I never choose money before my family. I also realized that I was quite negative at my job because I had a large workload. I was losing touch with my kids because of it. My mom helps me out and my husband is very supportive, but there’s nothing like having your mother there. I enjoy the flexibility too. I can decline a job to take vacation or take my kids out.
Many customers walk in with ideas to surprise their children. It helps that I can relate as a mother. I put myself in their shoes because I’d want my daughter to feel the same way; to feel like Mommy cares and pays attention. I might seem like a pure businessperson, but I do have feelings for my business operations, especially when it comes to family. People come here because of their wife or their kid or their mom turning 70 or 60 years old. I take all of that into consideration to add a personal touch.
Clover: That’s so sweet. That must really stick with your customers. They’ll want to come back because they’ll remember how you pay attention to those personal details. Let’s shift gears to talk about Clover. How did you decide to go with Clover?
Fakinlede: Clover came into play when I was searching the Internet for the best merchant to use. I decided to give them a chance because all other merchants were using this Clover system. I had a few conversations with banks and third-party sellers who were unable to provide some of the details I wanted to know regarding customer fees. The Clover salesman I spoke with, Chris, was able to answer a simple question: “What are your transaction fees, and are there any hidden fees?” He explained that there were no hidden fees and broke down the transaction and monthly fees for me. With Clover, I’m only paying for my apps, a monthly fee and the transaction fee—which I can pass onto clients who don’t mind if I’m transparent about it.
Clover: Tell us about your app usage.
Fakinlede: Yes, I use the Customer Engagement Suite, which allows me to offer promos and rewards. The more customers come [and spend money to earn rewards] and reach a certain point, I give them six cupcakes or a six-inch-sized cake for free. Occasionally, I offer 15 percent off for two-tier cakes and five percent off a one-tier cake. I also use the Virtual Terminal and the Invoicing platform. My business has always been managed online only, and I kept it that way when I opened the store. Landlines are pointless so I use a mobile phone to connect with customers or they can use the online order form, which is easiest when you’re sharing ideas for an event or cake. The Virtual Terminal helps with this because it allows me to take payments immediately. In my line of work, I require payment at the order confirmation to ensure that the customer shows up to pick up the cake.
Clover: Tell us about how the pandemic has affected your line of work. You were operating out of your house when the pandemic first hit. And we all know a lot of weddings and similar events were canceled. How did you keep your business going during that time, and how have things been for you more recently?
Fakinlede: My business picked up much more during COVID, more than I expected. People were locked up in their houses with nothing to do so I posted on Facebook, “Celebrations are not canceled. If you or your loved ones still want a cake, we can deliver it to your doorstep. We will leave it by your door and walk away and you can still celebrate your birthdays on Zoom.” That was it. That was all I did, and a lot of people started ordering cakes. I got so many orders. At that point, I could not keep up because I was working alone, and still working my nine-to-five from home. I could only bake on weekends. I stayed up until 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m. sometimes, baking and decorating. For those who wanted to pick up, I would send an email ahead of time instructing them to remain in the car, and to wear a mask so that I could drop the cake off on the passenger side of their vehicle.
Clover: That’s great. Are you transitioning back to more in-person events now?
Fakinlede: I’ve done a few in-person events, but I’ve had more cake orders than event decorating requests. The minute people search online for custom cakes, I pop up. I’m still trying to figure out how to best let people know that I also do event planning and decorations. I recently had two weddings and two showers. I take about two hours to set up and then head back to my location and open for the day because I’m still working alone.
Clover: That must be hard to do. Do you bring your kids with you a lot when you’re in the store?
Fakinlede: No, no, no. My mom watches them. They only come here to visit when I know that it will be a light workday.
Clover: That makes sense. One last question: Your website talks about wedding cake trends, which made us wonder: Are you noticing that people want different things for their wedding cake compared to the traditional approach?
Fakinlede: Yes. So, this is just me trying to sell my own idea. [laughter] A lot of people still stick to traditional wedding cakes. But I’ll tell you the latest trend I’ve sold to a couple of people. Some want this massive, giant castle kind of cake. That’s a lot of cake, and at the end of the day, nobody really eats it. It’s a waste of money and wasteful in general. I offer to put a false cake at the bottom and the real cake on top so that it still looks gigantic but isn’t as wasteful.
And then we use sugar flowers instead of artificial ones. The new trend is sugar flowers. The sugar flower designs give the cake an entirely new look, but it’s more expensive. All I need to do is ask what a customer is willing to spend, and then I might introduce that concept to them. If customers come to the store and I feel they’re not ready to do anything, or they just want to stick to the regular wedding cake, I don’t push. But I still must put something on my website that attracts people.
Clover: So you’re saying sugar flowers are decorations that last longer? What are they made from?
Fakinlede: They are made from gum paste.
Clover: Oh, that’s interesting. We’ll have to go back and look at some pictures on your website.
Fakinlede: It’s beautiful, trust me.