Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in food and beverage but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Katarina Poletto, founder and CEO of Dolled Up Desserts Gluten Free and Vegan Baking Inc., located in Hamilton, ON, Canada.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Dolled Up Desserts is an award-winning bakery and ingredient manufacturer in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. We challenge the boundaries of what gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, and vegan treats taste like. We prefer to call our products "inclusive dessert," as they are treats that everyone, even the pickiest of people, can enjoy.
We specialize in cakes, wedding cakes, cookies, bars, macarons, and some bread items, as well as have a full range of baking mixes for our customers to bake quality inclusive dessert at home. Our customer base primarily comprises those with multiple dietary differences: people following a gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan diet. Half of our customers have a dietary difference. The other half are people buying something to accommodate those with a dietary difference but usually do not have any allergies themselves. What is great about serving the latter half of our clientele is the positive response and reviews we receive. Many assume a gluten-free cake for their allergic relative will taste like sandpaper or cardboard, but they end up coming back to order more for their own celebrations because the quality of our treats is unmatched, even to bakeries that use all the allergens!
Tell us about yourself
My name is Katarina, and I am the sole founder and Chief Dessert Designer of Dolled Up Desserts. I started Dolled Up on a whim right as I graduated from pre-med at McMaster University. I received a $2000 grant from the City of Hamilton to promote entrepreneurship in students over the summer break and decided my city needed better quality baked goods that suited my diet at the time (I was avoiding gluten, dairy, and eggs). I was supposed to attend the University of Chicago that fall to start my Masters in Social Service Administration, but at the end of the summer in 2016, I decided to hold off on school and see where this little unplanned bakery could take me. Nearly six years later, we have the flagship store, but we have spent a lot of time growing our business in food service and the legal cannabis space in Canada.
Running a start-up, especially in food where margins are slim to non-existent, is a job that requires a founder to wear all the hats. 70% of the time, I have my boots on the ground, hands in the dough, and the rest is trying to innovate, pivot, or scale. What kept me motivated all this time despite the pandemic, and other struggles we faced, was my team. The employees I attracted are incredibly loyal (I still have our first employee working for us), hardworking, and talented individuals. I try to create a very open, inclusive, and self-directed culture at work that enables my team to make high-level choices for the sake of the company (i.e., helping innovate new products, deciding how to manage their time, letting them solve day to day problems, getting them involved in planning bigger projects that are outside their scope). I truly believe this was the key to our success, as I not only care deeply about my team, but they care deeply about their workplace and what we stand for. They put their faith in me and my little bakery, and that truly is what powers me every day.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
My biggest accomplishment would be opening our flagship store. Until 2020, Dolled Up Desserts was strictly a foodservice bakery. Our focus has always been to make the world more inclusive for those with dietary differences. I always believed having just one store would prevent us from reaching our goal of having inclusive quality options everywhere someone with an allergy may go. 2020 was supposed to be our hockey stick growth year, with three multi-million dollar contracts in the works. We were building out a 6000 square foot commercial kitchen from January to March of 2020, working with private investors that were banking on our contracts coming through. Unfortunately, these contracts were with large companies that were hit hardest with lockdowns: an airline caterer and a foodservice company that provides cafeteria services to all the colleges and universities across Canada. Within a month, our contracts were now no longer confirmed, our investors paused funding due to fears of the pandemic, all my employees were on CERB, and our landlord, unfortunately, attempted to sue us for not continuing construction and asking to delay the commencement of our lease until this pandemic cleared up...
In April of 2020, I was close to closing the entire business and calling it quits. However, the community support and brand equity were too strong just to give up. So, as a last resort, I signed a six-month lease in a small bakery in Downtown Hamilton to try and ride out 2020 and make it to 2021. We opened a retail storefront on July 1st, while many of my colleagues and other food establishments on the same street were closing.
I am proud of this move because within a month. Our core employees were back at work, we were continuing to serve our community, and we grew in brand presence. Opening a store in a time when main street businesses were closing was risky, but it paid off in keeping us afloat during this uncertain time.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
The most challenging aspect of being a business owner is taking care of yourself. I have sacrificed many aspects of my life in order to give Dolled Up Desserts my full focus and energy. Some aspects, such as social aspects, were easy to sacrifice as I had my goal and was lazer focused on achieving. However, now being diagnosed with chronic health issues due to the immense stress I have faced running this business alone, I now have to stop trading off my personal wellbeing for the perceived betterment of my company and emphasize self-care and healing. I now understand that I could have done a few things to ease my stress during the growth and pivots of Dolled Up Desserts (which I discuss in the next question). Wherever I go next, I will be prioritizing my well-being over the complete achievement of my goals. I've learned that you can't fully achieve your dreams if you're not well, so managing both will be the next challenge I will navigate in the coming years.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- Consider a partner or upper-level team to help you grow more sustainably. I started Dolled Up on my own, and anything beyond just baking was done by yours truly. From building the website, building our social media, being a photographer, a baker, an R+D specialist, chief of sales, contract writer, bookkeeper, contract negotiator, in-store demo girl... I did it all. And it was exhausting. Knowing what I know now, I feel having a partner, or at least a small team of people that had equity in the company with different skills than myself (i.e., someone to 100% focus on sales or marketing) would have set up our company for significant rapid growth versus the bootstrapping I did for the last five years. Any company I start in the future will involve partners, as I have learned that even though I can do it all, the greatest value I have to offer is not in being a jack of all trades but to own what I do best: building, leading and motivating teams, as well as product innovation and representing the company.
- Have a business plan. I started Dolled Up not knowing what a business plan canvas was and really did not have any solid goals or visions for the company until I was two years in and had to make my first major pivot. I can't get mad at myself, as I had no idea my life would go down this path when I finished school. Still, whatever business I start next, I will ensure a solid business plan with well-designed goals, financial runway, and defined KPI's will take priority before I do anything to reach those goals.
- Have a personal runway of savings, or a partner that works and can pay your bills because there will be a period of time where you may not pay yourself. You need to remove the stress of bills and rent to focus on growing your vision. Worrying about a consistent paycheque in that first year (or five years) will prevent you from being creative, taking risks, and ultimately, causing more stress.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solopreneur that you'd like to share, then email email@example.com; we'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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