As business slowed as his father’s famous Georgetown deli in Washington, DC, Chris Furin, who worked full-time at the restaurant, started revving up his side-business in custom cakes. “I knew at some point the restaurant was going to close, so I was slowly cultivating and building [my client list] and thinking about what would happen next,” says Furin, 41.
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Then, when the restaurant shut down this summer, Furin was ready with his customer lists, website, and professional kitchen at his home in Rockville. To prepare financially, he shed his debt and minimized his expenses, while saving up a cash cushion to prepare for the inevitable dip in income as he builds his business. We spoke with Furin about how he turned his custom cakes venture into a full-time job. Excerpts:
How did you first get the idea to launch a custom cake business?
A year and a half ago, I saw a need for cakes that were a little different. I was told by our chef at the time that somebody wanted a cake in the shape of the United States. He’s say no, but I’d say, ‘Wait a minute, our economy is heading down, how can I say no?’ So I would say ‘yes,’ and I would stay late. I got the chef to bake a sheet cake, and then I would shape it at night, and charge more money for it.
You can go to Safeway and get a round cake. I can’t compete with that. But if you want a special anniversary cake, or your kid loves Power Rangers, then they’ll pay for that.
How did you learn how to create custom cakes?
In the restaurant, I was waiting on people and taking orders, not so much baking or decorating, but as customers’ needs started coming in, I’m a creative person, so I enjoyed doing that. As for the artistic part, it takes the most time. It was nice to have a chef who could do the raw materials. He’d bake the cake and make the icing, and then I’d put it all together in the vision of what the customer wants.
How did you build your client base?
My fiancé is in the marketing business so I used some of her skills in making a website. She knows the way Google works and how to get higher placing when people search for custom cakes. I’ve been asking people to link to my site and it grows from there. I’m not a big Internet-savvy person, I don’t have time for Twitter, but I will try to do more and more.
I already had a good group of clients from Furin’s. Anytime somebody wanted a cake, all the staff would say, ‘Talk to Chris,’ so I had a database in my computer of all the people I’d been talking to. I haven’t even taken on new clients yet and my phone rings all day long. But I will start advertising with pamphlets and brochures to get the word out more.
Did you take any steps to minimize your start-up costs?
I set up my garage into a commercial kitchen. That’s the biggest thing I’ve done to save money. I had opportunities to get a lease in Georgetown, but I don’t want to sign a lease for $5,000 for five years. I just tell customers that I have a commercial kitchen in Rockville and all cakes are delivered. I was lucky to get equipment from Furin’s, including a cake mixer, but I had to buy a fridge, which cost $2,500. I did all the work myself in setting up the kitchen. I didn’t have to hire anybody.
How’s business so far?
I haven’t made much money yet, but I think the stress level of knowing I’m doing my own thing and that I don’t have to answer to a boss and ten other employees is worth it, even if I make half as much. I saved money knowing the restaurant was closing and lowered my bills and got rid of stuff I didn’t need, so I’m okay. I can take on business if I want it, but if I want to take a day off to ride my motorcycle, I can do that, too.