How bakery and catering business Sugar Bliss broke into Walgreens:

  • Former equity research analyst Teresa Ging founded cupcake catering and bakery enterprise Sugar Bliss in 2007, leveraging her financial savvy to secure a bank loan and bootstrap the business.
  • Getting Sugar Bliss officially certified as a woman- and minority-owned business granted Ging entree to industry events spanning the travel and hospitality to retail sectors, connecting her with supplier diversity managers and retail buyers.
  • During a program at the Women’s Business Development Center to help SMBs tap the mass retail market for growth, a Walgreens buyer approached Ging about working together. That meeting led to Sugar Bliss’ expansion into packaged goods this year, with the launch of four cookie flavors in 40 Walgreens stores.

In 2005, Teresa Ging was six years into a high-powered career as financial analyst working at Wall Street firms like Credit Suisse. But she’d grown despondent by the glass-ceiling inequities she faced as a woman of color in the world of investment banking.

So Ging did something radical: She quit her job to follow her baking muse all the way to Paris, enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu’s patisserie program.

Two years later, Ging launched Sugar Bliss, a cupcake catering business, and in 2009, a Sugar Bliss bakery in downtown Chicago followed.

This year, Sugar Bliss made the big leap into national retail with the launch of a cookie line in 40 Chicago-area Walgreens stores, selling flavors like sea salt chocolate chunk.

Here, Ging unpacks how she funded and scaled Sugar Bliss — which today boasts 200 products from cupcakes and cookies to cake pops and macarons— by leveraging its standing as a certified woman- and minority-owned business, and by tapping her background as a financial analyst, too.

 Storefront of a Sugar Bliss bakery location.
For cupcake catering and bakery enterprise Sugar Bliss, getting certified as a woman- and minority-owned business led to landing its products on Walgreens' shelves. — Sugar Bliss

The ‘lightbulb moment’ that turned disappointment into a newfound business opportunity

Ging was working as an equity research analyst covering the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) and food service industries when she was passed up for a promotion along with several colleagues, all of them women.

Afterwards, a disappointed Ging, over a visit with a colleague and friend at their company’s New York office, found herself baking cookies. She had never baked before, and the repetitive motion of sifting powdered sugar proved therapeutic. “That was my lightbulb moment,” Ging told CO—. “I needed a break from finance — so I left the industry,” she said. “I went off to Paris to learn how to bake.”

After training at the Cordon Bleu, Ging returned to Chicago with an eye on securing funding to lease a space to open Sugar Bliss as a catering business.

As “I couldn’t just go into a bank and say, ‘I need $200,000 to build a cupcake store,’” Ging worked with the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) in Chicago to devise a package to present to three banks that included her business plan, credit scores, and personal financial statements, which proved invaluable. She scored offers from two banks, ultimately financing Sugar Bliss with a bank loan while also bootstrapping the business, forgoing investors to skirt a financing model with “too many cooks in the kitchen,” Ging said.

[Read: How WOC-Owned Startups Are Tapping the Multitrillion-Dollar U.S. Women’s Market for Growth]

 Headshot of Teresa Ging, founder of Sugar Bliss.
Teresa Ging, Founder of Sugar Bliss. — Sugar Bliss

I ended up getting certified 10 years after I started. I wish I had gotten certified from the very beginning.

Teresa Ging, Founder, Sugar Bliss

Leveraging financial savvy and industry expertise to launch and grow

Sugar Bliss finally launched in 2007, maximizing the skills Ging honed as a financial analyst covering CPG and food services, the very industries she was navigating as a new business owner.

That industry savvy made its way into Sugar Bliss’ business plan, which Ging organized as a pitch book—how investment banks present their advisory services to clients—complete with competitive market analysis, financial models, and organizational structures.

“While as entrepreneurs we’re passionate about what we do, it’s all about making money,” so understanding the numbers is critical, she said. “With my background in finance I was able to figure out what the costs are, what we need to charge,” and more.

Competitive analysis meant studying the 10-K filings (annual reports) of then-public cupcake business Crumbs Bake Shop —noting factors such as “how much they were spending on rent to their profit margins,” Ging said.

And while every small business might not have as direct a competitor, Ging’s lesson for entrepreneurs is to know thy industry: Track like businesses via documents such as companies’ annual reports, and conduct market analysis by reading trade publications, monitoring economic indicators, and by spotting real-time trends — like following competitors’ hashtags on Instagram, for example, she said.

 Line of bagged cookies by Sugar Bliss.
This year, Sugar Bliss developed its first shelf-stable packaged product for Walgreens, which launched four cookie flavors in 40 stores. — Sugar Bliss

Certification as a woman- and minority-owned business lands Sugar Bliss on Walgreens’ shelves

But it was getting Sugar Bliss officially certified as a woman- and minority-owned business that turbocharged its growth opportunities, opening the doors to national retail.

Certification by organizations such as the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) — the largest and most prominent certification body for minority-owned businesses — not only landed Ging a grant, but also connected her to major corporations like American Airlines, as well as government agencies.

Certification also granted Ging entree to industry events spanning the travel and hospitality to retail sectors. “When you attend these events, you can meet supplier diversity managers that will put you in touch with retail buyers so you can get your products in front of them,” she said.

Sugar Bliss’ big break into big retail came after Ging completed Top Shelf, a six-week program from the Women’s Business Development Center designed to help SMBs tap the mass retail market for growth. “During the Top Shelf program, sponsored by Walgreens, is where I was approached by the buyer to be in Walgreens,” Ging recalled. “Not everyone that participates gets in the store.”

From there, Sugar Bliss developed its first shelf-stable packaged product for the drugstore chain, which launched four cookie flavors this year in 40 stores. Next year, the line will roll out to 300 Walgreens locations and make its Kroger debut. Ging is also developing smaller Sugar Bliss snack-pack sizes for distribution in airlines and food companies, she said.

[Read: How to Get Certified as a Minority-Owned Business]

Ging urges women and minority small business owners eyeing partnerships with big companies, and who qualify for certification (a woman-owned small business must be 51% owned and operated by women, for example), to get certified fast. It’s an affordable and straightforward process that can yield big dividends, she said.

Just as big companies increasingly seek partnerships with SMBs from underrepresented groups (as a walk through the aisles of Target or Nordstrom these days can attest), consumers are also voting with their dollars for these brands, she said.

That’s why “woman-minority owned” is prominently featured on Sugar Bliss’ cookie packaging. “It’s been very beneficial for us,” Ging said. “I ended up getting certified 10 years after I started. I wish I had gotten certified from the very beginning.”

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