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Picture by Andriya Arances

Butter& is a designer cake shop that helps people show how much they care by making designer buttercream cakes for special occasions and milestone events. The business was founded in 2017 in Amanda Nguyen’s apartment when she was unable to find a cake that was “delicious or pretty enough” for a celebration for her nephew. She decided to make the cake herself.

“It all started in my apartment 2 years ago,” said Nguyen. “I couldn’t find a cake that I liked, so I ended up making it myself and got consumed with the craft. This melded my love of baking with the 3D art that cake making requires. After a few months, my cakes were in high demand. I realized I could make a living off of this.”

In addition to making beautiful, delicious cakes, Butter& is also on a mission to be the best employer in the food industry.

“I studied and learned a lot about the food industry, both good and bad,” said Nguyen. “The good side of the business is filled with amazing, hardworking people. The ugly side of the business is how it churns and burns out the people in it. This sparked another desire in me—to take what was good and build on it. Ethical employment is part of our mission. We structure our team as full-time, salaried employees for maximum job stability, offer ownership equity in the company as a part of the compensation package, with full health benefits, 401K portfolio management, and free lunches and snacks.”

Butter& does seem to have found a recipe for success. The business has grown from a one-woman shop into a team of 7 employees—including Nguyen’s fiancé Ted—in under 2 ½ years.

“We had about three weeks to make it work.”

In an unusual twist, Butter& is experiencing its strongest growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it didn’t start out that way.

“After COVID hit, it was pretty stark, the impact it had on the business,” said Nguyen. “Immediately, orders stopped coming in. On Mondays, we usually get a flood of orders, but when shelter-in-place was announced, the orders dried up, and we were getting a flood of emails requesting refunds.”

“As a new business, we had little capital—because we were investing our profits back into the business,” she said. “We had about three weeks to make it work.”

Nguyen sat down and started writing, assessing the lay of the land. She recognized that despite COVID, people were still having celebrations, but in smaller settings. That’s when the quarantine cake was born.

“We created a new, smaller serving cake. We scaled down the design because it’s for more casual settings,” she said. “The cakes still have the precision looks, and we created complementary stencils with phrases from the CDC like ‘don’t touch your face,’ and ‘wash your hands,’ to encourage the type of behavior we need to get through this together.”

Nguyen wrote a post on Instagram telling her followers that if they were wondering how to support a small business, they could buy a quarantine cake for a friend.

“Our community was so supportive. We were getting ready to hunker down, and then all of a sudden, we had more orders than we ever had before. And then the press picked it up,” she said.

Suddenly, Butter& was getting inquiries from all over the country, including from cake makers asking if they could make quarantine cakes, too.”

“The sudden demand helped us meet our costs and more,” she said. “We were able to put money in the bank and hire additional workers from restaurants that had to shut down. It was awesome to see this concept of a quarantine cake be re-created in so many places and the show of community and people lifting each other up.”

Looking back, Nguyen recognizes that her business was “set up quite well to meet the changing trends of COVID-19.”

Because she couldn’t afford her own retail space, she focused solely on online sales and delivery. Having a dedicated following on social media helped, too.

“A lot of our success had to do with just being set up the right way for the right time,” she said.

As a result of being “set up the right way,” Butter&’s business has tripled during the pandemic, and now they’re ready to hire another employee.

SFMade is “a great resource.”

Nguyen reached out to SFMade initially when she was looking for her commercial kitchen space. Later, she relied on the information from SFMade to navigate the crisis.

“I filled out the membership form, and Pierre reached out to me immediately,” she said. “He helped me understand the process of building out a space. He’s also been a great resource during COVID-19. His emails during March and April, when things were changing so quickly, helped us understand how to bring our team back safely.

Information from SFMade also gave Nguyen guidance about PPP loans and other resources available during the pandemic.

Asked what she would say to other entrepreneurs who are struggling to make it work, Nguyen recommended “focusing on being resilient, creating value for your clients in this new world, and staying true to your principles.”

Solid advice from a business that’s figured out how to grow and make a difference during the most challenging of times.