West Oak Lane bakery and café Sweets by Sonya is the result of what happens when two dreams collide.
Owner Sonya Akines had always dreamed of being an entrepreneur, while her 17-year-old son Darnell envisioned a day when he would own a coffee house. For Akines, the type of business wasn’t as important as the opportunity to be a business owner.
“I always wanted to open a staffing agency because they seem busy,” she explained, admitting she had no idea how busy she’d be as a bakery owner.
The first step for Akines, however, was turning those dreams into reality. Two years ago, she took a very practical approach to making this happen: “I called the city 311 and I told them that I’m opening a business and [I asked] if they had any organizations that could help me with things that I don’t know.”
What’s the 311?
Philly311, the City of Philadelphia’s information hotline, provides easy access to city government services for residents. What it’s not known for is making people’s dreams come true, unless your dream is to report an abandoned vehicle or request trash removal. Yet, Akines credited 311 with opening up a world of resources for her.
The hotline put her in touch with business development associations such as the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. and SCORE, a non-profit geared toward nurturing Philadelphia entrepreneurs, both of which have been instrumental in helping her with everything from filling out funding applications to securing a location. She called SCORE President Larkin Connolly a mentor.
It’s also abundantly clear that Sweets wouldn’t be open today without her own commitment, hard work and ability to quickly learn the skills necessary to make her business a success.
From business owner to baker
Initially, Akines didn’t set out to bake her own desserts. Her original idea was to serve baked goods from Denise’s Delicacies in North Philly, having been a longtime fan of that bakery’s pound cake. That model didn’t prove to be very cost effective, however, and Akines realized that she’d have to begin baking her own creations.
She approached Denise’s as well as Oteri’s Italian Bakery in Northeast Philly and they agreed to help her learn the skills that she would need to dream up and execute her own recipes.
The ability to adapt has kept Sweets afloat since it first opened last June, just before the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival, which proved to be a great way to introduce the bakery to the community. It also provided what every business owner dreams of: Instant crowds.
After the festival, however, the crowds dried up and Sweets settled into its first year as a fledgling business.
“Small business the first year is horrible,” she admits. “That was the one thing no one expressed to me.”
Building a reputation
While Akines’s mentors have been extremely generous with time and advice, none spoke directly to the stark realities of Year One for small businesses, when entrepreneurs try to fine-tune their product and operations while struggling to build customer awareness and loyalty.
“People don’t want to take a chance on spending their money,” Akines said. Small businesses “have to build up their reputation, and it’s hard to build up your reputation when you’re new.”
In response, Sweets by Sonya, three quarters of the way into its first year, has adapted in its efforts to win customers.
Akines has expanded the menu to include soups, paninis and breakfast sandwiches in addition to the cakes, pies, cookies and coffee that started it all.
Now that she’s attuned to her customers’ needs and buying patterns, she hopes to anticipate their wishes with the addition of specialty coffees and unique menu items in the coming year.
Akines is happy to share the biggest lesson learned from Year One, something she might one day pass on to a future mentee. The key to being a successful dreamer and an entrepreneur is that “you change the plans as you go.”