Next door to Joy Macarons is Dude, Sweet Chocolate, which specializes in gourmet chocolates with off-beat ingredients like bergamot, jasmine, black sesame and Saigon cinnamon. And across the street is Steel City Pops, the wildly successful popsicle-seller. The Alabama-based company opened the Greenville Avenue location about two years ago, when it was their fourth store. Since then, they’ve opened eight more across the South and have additional locations slated to open soon in the North Texas area.
The booming popularity of specialty shops, these places that specialize in one specific item, raises the question: How does a shop stay in business when it sells one thing, and only one thing? Especially after a food fad fades — akin to the fallout after the cupcake bubble burst — what’s a shop to do?
“I think if you do one thing and you do it really well, the customer will always be there,” says Liz Lanier, owner of Joy Macarons, whose business is growing. She opened her first macaron shop in Oak Cliff two years ago and expanded to the Greenville Avenue location this summer.
“Once people know this is all you do — this is the best thing that you do — they know they can always turn to you when they need that specific food," says Valery Jean-Bart, owner of Val’s Cheesecakes on Maple Avenue. "I do cheesecakes. I don’t do anything else.”
Jean-Bart opened his small cake shack a year ago after building a following selling his cheesecakes at establishments like Ascension Coffee. At the time he was working out of his church’s kitchen, and his cheesecakes became popular enough that the church administration had to kick him out. Loyal fans were disrupting the church’s activities, showing up at all hours to satisfy a craving, Jean-Bart says.
The owner of a specialty shop that closed down didn’t want to be named for this story, but he said building a following, whether on social media or otherwise, is crucial to staying afloat as a specialty shop.
“We have a big following on Instagram, and we post constantly,” Jean-Bart says. And nearly all of the shops interviewed referenced their social media accounts, whether Instagram or Facebook.
A bit of whimsy is also part of the recipe for staying successful. Jean-Bart makes his cheesecakes in glass jars that have a snap-closure lid. The jars are not only aesthetically pleasing and on-trend with the Mason-jar revival of recent years, they’re practical. Jean-Bart wanted to find a way to make his cheesecakes mobile, to enable people to drive up and grab one on the go. In addition, they make good gifts and party favors, he says, because people have a keepsake. If customers want to return the jars, they get 50 cents back.
And it doesn’t hurt to expand on the popularity of what you’re already doing to keep people interested. Joy Macarons sells macaron ice cream sandwiches at a steep $6. Steel City Pops does seasonal flavors and chocolate-dipped popsicles only in winter months to incentivize people to come in.
“Our menu changes seasonally and highlights the best of the season,” says Jim Watkins, owner of Steel City Pops. “We'll have pumpkin and sweet potato flavors in the fall, and we'll have chocolate mint and gingerbread on our menu at Christmas.”
It’s a testament to Watkins’ business that Steel City Pops is even busy during winter months. “We have pretty consistent sales in the winter. It's not like I expected when I went into this business,” Watkins says. “My forecasts for the winter were really flat, but that's not been the case.”
“One of the things we've heard from our customer base is that they come here because we have these crazy flavors of cheesecake," Jean-Bart says. "We have 12 static flavors that never go away, but the other day I got a batch of plum preserves from Motley County, Texas, and I went ahead and made a special flavor and topped it with marshmallow and Texas pecans. Every weekend I make it a point to make two or three crazy flavors that I don't have on the menu, so people never get tired of it.
“You have to diversify what you do best,” Jean-Bart says.
Diversifying the one thing you’re good at is one key to success, but Antoinette Lafayette of Pink Frosting Cupcakes in Irving had a different approach, and she diversified her cupcake-only bakery last year to include full-sized cakes, cake pops, Rice Krispie treats and caramel-covered apples, among other confections.
“I had so many customer requests, ‘Can you do this, can you do that?’ I said, ‘You know what, yes, I can,’” Lafayette says. “I started taking classes on how to create all of these treats that we're now providing for the customer. They used to have to go other places, but now they can get everything that they need right there at our bakery.”
Lafayette has seen the dark side of owning a specialty shop, too. Her first location, in Coppell, closed last year after three years in business. She doesn’t have a crystal-clear idea of why, only that she didn’t get the foot traffic she needed to keep it open.
“Friday we would consider a busy day, and I may have had 15 people come through the door at the Coppell location and at the Irving location have maybe 80," Lafayette says. "It was a huge difference. I had to go where my business was thriving."
She has a consistent customer base and increased sales each period at her Irving location, she says, even though a handful of competing bakeries are within a 5- to 10-mile radius. Her next endeavor involves expanding the business online, making her business “mobile," much like Val’s Cheesecakes.
“I'm trying to work smarter, not harder,” Lafayette says. “A lot of our treats can be shipped, even our cupcakes can be shipped in glass jars.”
The business owners who haven’t diversified their products cite that as their greatest advantage but also their greatest challenge. Lanier agrees that selling only one thing is tough.
“We’ve put all of our eggs in one basket, so we have to make sure we’re making the best possible product and keeping customers interested,” Lanier says of her macarons.
Jean-Bart says his biggest challenge is people asking for dishes that he doesn’t sell. “You have to focus truly on the demographics who need and want cheesecake," he says. "And you can’t collaborate with everyone — for example, I can’t be at a health fitness event."
Most of these shops have cornered the market in their respective foods (there’s not much competition for cheesecakes in a jar or macaron ice cream sandwiches yet), but what happens when the market becomes saturated by competitors, or by your own stores?
When asked if he was worried that popsicles are a fad that people will get tired of, Watkins seemed unfazed.
“I ate pops when I was little, and my parents ate pops all their life," he says. "Something sweet on a stick is not trendy. We feel like people have loved our product for a century, we're just putting a new spin on it.”