WWR Article (Tl:dr) As Christina Tkacik reports, “Some of Baltimore’s most dynamic entrepreneurs and small-business owners in recent years are owned and operated by young couples, as devoted to their work as they are to one another.”
While Sumayyah “Mya” Bilal had long enjoyed baking for family and friends, she hadn’t considered making a career of it until she served a slice of her favorite cheesecake to her now-fiance, Chris Burgess. “He came along and said, ‘We’re going to sell this,’” Bilal said. And he would help.
A few years later, their bakery, Codetta Bake Shop was featured on “Good Morning America”; recent customers include Odafe Oweh, outside linebacker for the Ravens.
Running a business together is “almost like raising a kid,” said Burgess, who has two children of his own from a previous relationship. “We’ve each seen it grow and change. It’s a built-in commitment.”
Some of Baltimore’s most dynamic entrepreneurs and small-business owners in recent years are owned and operated by young couples, as devoted to their work as they are to one another. Some are professionally trained, others aren’t. Their assets go beyond their bank accounts.
“Businesses run by couples are born out of passion and love,” says Manuel Sanchez, who owns Fells Point bakery Sacré Sucré with his husband, Dane Thibodeaux. “There is an extra layer of care making sure both the relationship and the business do well.”
As a regional director for the Maryland Small Business Development Center, Jennifer Smith Funn says she’s seen a growth in entrepreneurship during the pandemic as people — particularly women and parents — seek more flexible career paths that allow them to balance work and child care.
“Being an entrepreneur can be a very lonely place,” says Funn, and going into business with family or intimate partners can make the going easier. “When you’re down, you have someone to encourage you. When there’s a crisis, you have someone you can talk to.”
When working together, she encourages clients to respect their partners’ expertise and to divide labor accordingly.
Running a business as a couple is “about knowing when to take a back seat and knowing when it’s your turn to drive,” says Brendon Hudson, 28, who opened Allora, a Roman-style bistro, with his boyfriend, David Monteagudo, 25, last year.
When they first met, while attending the Culinary Institute of America, Hudson says, he was attracted to Monteagudo’s ability to stand up to him. “I’m a bit of a bulldozer at times,” he concedes. They’ve learned how to make joint decisions, whether choosing abstract art for the walls of their Mount Vernon restaurant or adding tripe pasta to the menu.
Hudson, whose family owns Casa di Pasta, an Italian food wholesaler in Little Italy, says he’s learned from Monteagudo how to separate work from their personal lives. One thing that’s helped: Monteagudo instituted a no-work-talk-after-work-hours policy. “As soon as I leave [the restaurant],” Monteagudo said, “don’t text me anymore about work.”
Though they’re business partners, Hudson said, “You still need to be a couple at some point.”
Four years after opening their Fells Point bakery together, separating work from life remains a challenge for owners Thibodeaux and Sanchez, who are self-taught pastry chefs. “There is no ‘outside of work,’” says Thibodeaux, 40.
Still, both are proud of the company that they say has “blossomed” during the coronavirus pandemic as neighborhood customers have rediscovered the joys of regular pastry intake.
Their days begin just after 4 a.m. in the kitchen of their shop at Fleet and South Washington streets. During a recent visit, Thibodeaux sprayed egg wash onto some croissants headed into the oven, while Sanchez, 35, artfully layered bright pink apple slices onto some tarts. They operated in serene silence. After all, there’s not much to talk about when you see each other all day, Sanchez said.
The couple hope that eventually they will be able to delegate more of the baking to employees — allowing them both to expand their business and to take a break. “That’s the main goal, to get to the place where the business can run without us being here all the time,” Thibodeaux said.
For some of Baltimore’s modern “mom and pop” shops, the business has outlived the relationship. One of Baltimore’s largest restaurant groups is run by exes: chef Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman, who seem like amicable co-parents to their six-eatery empire. The two continue to co-host a weekly radio show on WYPR-FM about food and wine. “We have a great bond and a great trust and enjoy it,” Foreman said. “We each know that the other makes our work better.”
At Codetta Bake Shop, Bilal is “the creative,” she says, while Burgess is “the organizer.” They began their business as a side hustle, marketing slices of cheesecake to Burgess’ co-workers at the U.S. Postal Service, where he worked as a mail carrier at the time.
“We basically used his job as a test market,” said Bilal, who was then baking cheesecakes in the kitchen of her efficiency apartment. They tried out flavors that customers requested and came up with a logo and the name “Codetta,” a reference to a “coda” in music.
Looking for ways to promote the brand on a limited budget, Burgess contacted local food bloggers and Instagram influencers who posted about their cheesecakes in exchange for samples. But most importantly, they say, they created a delicious product that customers talked about, shared with others, and wanted to buy again and again.
“It’s really the dedication of the owners to each other that spills over to the customer,” Bilal said.
Their dedication had its first major test during Thanksgiving 2020, when they were working out of a shared commercial kitchen that had two ovens fail. They spent 38 hours straight together, baking cheesecakes. Bilal figures if they can get through that without killing each other, marriage should be a piece of cake.
Last year, they received a $50,000 grant from Baltimore’s Downtown Partnership to open their own storefront. While Bilal and Burgess look for their own space, they’re working out of a church kitchen on Light Street where customers can pick up online orders.
The week before Valentine’s Day, Bilal piped blue frosting onto a birthday cake while Burgess pulsed cookies in a food processor for cheesecake crust. In the corner sat stacks of 48 black boxes, all needing to be filled with goodies by the weekend.
Nearby, Burgess’ daughter alternated between doing homework at her laptop and placing stickers on plastic containers for cheesecake slices. “Sometimes it gets really boring,” said Sofia, age 9. “The more we help, the faster it goes.”
But the situation is not without perks. For her recent birthday, Bilal made Sofia a decadent Oreo chocolate cake.
“That’s one of the best things about having a daddy that owns a bakery,” she said.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.