In this installment of Meet the Merchant, we speak to Terri Rhodes Littleton of Terri Does Desserts, in Sacramento, California. Terri shares her story about how she transformed her brick-and-mortar bakery into a successful pop-up shop that sells 600 slices of cake at each event! She also talks about how her work helped her get through some difficult personal challenges, including divorce and the loss of her daughter.
Clover: Hi Terri! Can you tell us about how you started Terri Does Desserts?
Terri Rhodes Littleton: I learned to bake from my mother and baking has always been my passion. After my kids were grown, I thought, “I want to have a little cafe.” I had always done baking as a side hustle and I wanted to do it full time. I was able to take a buyout from my previous job and in 2011, I opened a little brick-and-mortar store.
We just did desserts and coffee and somehow we were able to make it work. We were open for five years. At the end of my five-year term, the landlord doubled the rent and I realized we had grown out of the place and the costs were really high.
Clover: So tell us how you pivoted to running your business as a pop-up?
Littleton: My daughter Niki had passed away suddenly in 2013 from an untreated blood clot from sickle cell anemia. When she passed away, that was the worst of the worst things that ever happened. I still opened my shop the day after she died, because we had orders to fill.
After all of that trauma, my heart wasn’t in it any more. Due to my daughter’s passing and the doubled rent, I decided to close down the store. But we still had commercial accounts and around that time, I heard about pop-up shops from a baker in Mississippi.
Clover: So you started a pop-up?
Littleton: Yes, I still had a lot of restaurant accounts ordering whole cakes. When I heard about this pop-up concept, I thought that would be perfect, because in addition to orders for whole cakes, I knew individual customers would want to be able to buy slices, too.
We found this little old kitchen that was in the back of a restaurant and that had a huge oven. So for the past four years, I’ve been baking out of there. Until COVID hit, I would do pop-ups twice a month. I use social media to share my location and to say, “Come and get your slices!” And you know, a couple hundred people would show up. Things were going well and then I went through a very difficult divorce, and then last year my ex-husband was killed.
Clover: That’s terrible. How did you continue with your business, while coping with the pandemic and so much personal loss?
Littleton: The amazing thing is, since COVID, I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been before. I shut down for the first two months and then everyone started asking, “Are you baking? Are you baking any cake? We need cake. We need cake.”
So I kept baking. When someone orders a cake, they drive up and we take the cake out to them. And I have a very, very loyal customer base. Even during a pandemic, we would get lines of 70, 80 people waiting for an hour, socially distanced, to get a slice. We sell about six hundred slices of cake during a pop-up shop event. We’ll have about 17 or 18 different varieties of cake, cookies, cobbler, and pie. And our customers come and stock up!
Clover: What COVID precautions do you take?
Littleton: We did COVID cupcakes. We package them individually and put them in a bag . We put a bow on them and make them look pretty. It costs a little more, but people are willing to pay for it. And it’s COVID-friendly too.
Clover: What is your most popular flavor?
Littleton: My best-selling flavor is my German Chocolate Cake. People will say, “You can taste the love in this. It reminds me of my grandmother,” or “My mother used to make these for me before she died.” When people taste it, they don’t only taste a good cake, they taste memories. It’s just a good, big cake. It’s my favorite, too.
Clover: Thank you for sharing so much of your personal story with us. No one else has spoken to us about loss and trauma the way you have. How do you find a balance between the challenges of your personal life and work?
Littleton: I am a woman of faith. I pray a lot. My faith, absolutely, is number one. But I also think that immersing myself in work is what has brought me through everything. It’s like, “I got to do this, I got to do this,” so work has kept me occupied. If I had had too much free time, I may have just imploded.
I did get to the point where I realized I’m working too much. Over the last year, I’ve learned self-care, so I take little trips to the beach and I’ll drive down there for the day. I took off a week during this last anniversary of my daughter’s death. I went to Santa Cruz and just sat on the beach; that helped me decompress.
But honestly, I do think that working has really saved me, along with the support of a very loyal customer base. A lot of them have become friends and they keep me lifted up. I can’t speak enough about how wonderful people have been.
Clover: Can you tell us about how you discovered Clover?
Littleton: I had a customer who used to come in all the time. She was a banker and she said, “When you’re ready to switch to our bank, just let me know.” I would just ignore her. Then, after my daughter died, she came in one day, and I said, “You know, I get a good feeling from you. So let’s do this.”
The Clover representatives at the bank showed me what Clover did and I said, “This is just wonderful.” So now, when I do my pop-ups, I can take the Clover Flex wherever I go. And that’s just made a world of difference. It’s a very easy machine to use.
I also love that you can print the receipt directly from it. I put the Clover Flex in my apron pocket when I come out to bring a cake to someone’s car and I can ring them up right then and there.
Clover: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Is there anything else you would like to share?Littleton: I’ve always been willing to tell my story because you never know who you’re going to help. It’s been a journey. I don’t think I give myself enough credit. Sometimes I wake up and I think, “You know what, Terri? You’re doing a good job. Keep it up.”
Read more of our Meet the Merchant stories for real-life stories of small businesses in action all over the country. Want to be featured in this series? Fill out our questionnaire, and if we can include you in a future interview cycle, we’ll send you an invitation!
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