Free rent in a Michigan downtown and new classes help small bakery to grow
LANSING — A group of 10 young girls gather around the counter of a commercial kitchen, watching as Nikki Thompson Frazier details how to create mango sushi, taco hand pies and churros with chocolate dipping sauce.
As the owner of Sweet Encounter Kids Culinary Academy gives directions, each group of two girls follows along carefully, cutting vegetables, making taco seasoning and stirring chocolate ganache while answering questions involving measurements and fractions.
Although the cooking lesson now takes place at Allen Neighborhood Center in Lansing, that’s going to change this fall. The new business will soon have its first retail space when it moves into 3,000 square feet at 228 S. Washington Square.
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The storefront, which used to be a Hallmark store, will become home to the culinary school and Sweet Encounter Bakery, which Thompson Frazier also runs.
The move represents growth for Thompson Frazier and for downtown Lansing’s business district after the entrepreneur won the first Lansing Built to Last Competition, which includes a year of free rent.
The business, even as it emerges during the pandemic, “has all of the different elements to make it sustainable no matter what the environment is,” said Cathleen Edgerly, executive director of Downtown Lansing Inc.
Thompson Frazier got her start with Sweet Encounter Bakery in 2015, specializing in gluten free, soy free and peanut free desserts.
Thompson Frazier’s daughters, Melia and Madison, both have food allergies. For birthday parties, she would bring cupcakes for her daughters that they could eat even with their dietary restrictions.
She soon started bringing extra cupcakes for other children. Eventually, she realized she wanted to help other kids struggling with these issues in a bigger way.
“As a mom I want to give my kids the best. Then I started thinking, and I wanted other kids to have the best,” Thompson Frazier said. “I’m not the only family that has these challenges. One in 13 kids have food allergies and so it's a real thing and it's increasing.
“I feel like every kid deserves a cupcake.”
The bakery also operates out of Allen Neighborhood Center and out of Thompson Frazier’s home kitchen. Thompson Frazier was ready to find a storefront for her bakery in 2017, but her mother’s death and later the COVID-19 pandemic affected her plans.
Sales dropped during the pandemic, prompting her to launch the Sweet Encounter Kids Culinary Academy in December 2020. That timing also allowed her to enter the Lansing Built to Last Competition.
The academy offers “pandemic proof” ways for children around the country to cook. Besides cooking classes that can be held in person or virtually, there are options to enroll in monthly subscription boxes that give out ingredient lists and can be mailed anywhere in the country.
“I’m excited because with the pandemic I was able to pivot and kind of create this whole new business model … the subscription boxes, the classes and then the bakery,” Thompson Frazier said.
A downtown competition
“Built to Last” called for Michigan residents to submit business proposals that could hold up through troubling times like COVID-19, and could help the economic development in downtown Lansing.
Applicants had to be from a business that had been established for two years or less, and 58 applied.
Michelle Massey, director of marketing and business development at Dewpoint in downtown Lansing, created the idea for this contest to benefit the struggling downtown.
“My idea was to have a new business brought to Lansing that would be supported by businesses and the community at large. There are a lot of great ideas in the community, but there are many barriers to creating a viable business,” Massey told Bridge in a statement.
“Amazingly, every single business I contacted was willing to participate.”
With Sweet Encounter Kids Culinary Academy winning, the business received use of the storefront, along with a full year of business services and expenses. These expenses include things such as free legal counseling and free branding, marketing and website creation.
Edgerly, of the downtown Lansing business group, says Sweet Encounter Kids Culinary Academy really is “built to last”.
“What stood out with Nikki’s (presentation) and all of the finalists were the ability to be very flexible and nimble in response to the COVID pandemic,” Edgerly said.
As the business’ opening date gets closer, Thompson Frazier is now renovating, with a budget of between $100,000 to $150,000.
Customers entering the new location will be greeted with bakery cases full of sweet treats from the bakery. Then a little farther back, the cooking school will operate in a teaching kitchen complete with an area for Thompson Frazier to demonstrate, and plenty of cabinet space.
The designs just need to receive approval from the city, Thompson Frazier said, and then the building should be completed this fall.
Edgerly said she is excited to welcome Sweet Encounter.
The business model is something downtown Lansing doesn’t have and is going to be a ‘“game -changer” with the three different components the business offers.
“There are some businesses that offer delicious, homemade baked goods, but I think the difference from this model is it’s not solely one thing,” Edgerly said.
With just a team of three, Sweet Encounter hopes to expand staff, too.
The business has a goal to give at least 10 percent of earnings back into the community.
“There’s some kids that can’t pay $60 to come to this class, but guess what, I am going to have opportunities for them, too,” Thompson Frazier said.
This expansion allows Thompson Frazier to look ahead toward the future of the academy and the bakery. She hopes to get into wholesale sales so that she can make gluten free products more widely accessible to grocery stores and event venues.
Thompson Frazier also hopes to add more classes and to expand her class age groups. Soon, she’ll host classes for occasions such as bachelorette parties.
Until then, Thompson Frazier will continue preparing for her storefront’s completion, leading her bakery and teaching classes. She hopes to continue to leave an impact on different children through her teaching.
“Whenever (a child) learns something or tries something new it really just expands their world view. I think that’s so important for all kids no matter how smart, how rich, how poor,” Thompson Frazier said. “I feel like any kid can grow whenever they try something new.”
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