Toasting a sweet new year

Toasting a sweet new year

Jennifer Smith founded Cravin' Confections wine and dessert bar in 2019
Jennifer Smith founded Cravin’ Confections wine and dessert bar in Wake Forest, N.C.

“Do me a favor. Stop what you’re doing, go back to school, and do what you love.”

These were the words of encouragement from Warren Haines to his daughter, Jennifer Smith, that inspired her to trade her corporate sector attire for chef-whites and start a professional journey infused with flour, sugar, and eggs.

“From the time I was a little girl helping my Lebanese grandmother bake pastry for Easter and other holidays, I have always loved baking,” says Smith, owner of two-year-old concept Cravin’ Confections, Wake Forest, N.C. “After my Dad died I quit my job and enrolled in Wake Tech on the same day.”

In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Smith talks about navigating from office job to her ownership of a wine and dessert bar.

Boxerbrand: How did you take the career leap from medical billing to pastry chef?

Jennifer: After my husband and I moved our family to Lake Forest nine years ago, my father got really sick. I was taking him to chemo, taking care of my husband and kids, and I got to the point where I hated my job. After my father told me to give up my job to do what I love I thought about taking night classes to learn to decorate cakes. But then my father got really sick, and after he died in June of 2019 I went home and told my family I was “done” with my full-time job. The day after I left my job, I enrolled at Wake Tech full time.

Boxerbrand: Why did you want to become a pastry chef?

Jennifer: Desserts have always intrigued me. I love to see what other people do with their creations and how they do it. I was first inspired by my grandmother, and I always loved baking with her. When I grew up baking was a hobby. My friends would ask me to do cakes for them, for parties or birthdays, but it wasn’t until 2019 that I really started to imagine myself turning it into a career.

My inspiration for a dessert and wine bar drew from my happy memories with my husband in a Charleston hole-in-the-wall. He loves dessert, I love martinis, and I always thought a cocktail bar and bakery were a perfect combination. So, after I did the 18-month program at Wake Tech I signed a lease and opened on April 20, 2022.

Boxerbrand: What was your process for building Cravin’ Confections?

Jennifer: Before we signed the deal for the Wake Forest property, I instinctively knew I wanted to maximize potential foot traffic. Our space is a 1,700 square feet property in a new shopping center.

At the time I signed the lease it was for an unfinished space with nothing but a slab floor with a roof and a front and back door. I worked with an architect who knew all the building and health code regulations, and I shaped the vibe of the design by collecting images of shops I like, from European concepts to some of my favorite places. It was an eight-month process, that started with putting up the studs, the walls, and planning the lighting.

The vibe I wanted was for it to feel inviting. We have padded benches, a big pastry cabinet, and our colors are aqua and darker blue. One of my favorite design elements is our overhead funky lighting, which my architect thinks looks like de-constructed dessert.

Boxerbrand: What was the biggest surprise in the regulatory process?

Jennifer: One of the biggest eye-openers came from the Board of Health. They made us change our lighting over the bar because they felt the lighting could collect dust, which could, in theory, fall into drinks.

Boxerbrand: How did you go to market and sustain your customer traffic?

Jennifer: When we opened we used social media, mainly Facebook and Instagram to entice people. We also advertised in school plays and sponsored community events to get our name out there. Because we’re located in a busy shopping center, there’s a lot of walking traffic that is also coming through our doors. Other retailers in our shopping center include a sushi and pizza place, a brewery and a dog trainer.

Our traffic comes and goes in waves. The weekends are busier than the weekdays and there was a frenzy before the holidays, especially in December.

January is slow because people are coming out of the holidays with their dry-January resolutions, but we’re getting ready for Valentine’s Day and the Spring when it’ll be busy again.

Boxerbrand: What are your customers cravin’?

Jennifer: My mother’s carrot cake is our all-time best seller. I make more whole carrot cakes than anything. Another big hit is our M & M cookies, and during the holidays the chocolate peanut butter cake was in high demand. And chocolate cake, no matter what the frosting, is always a good seller.

Boxerbrand: Who are your customers?

Jennifer: Our age range is huge! We attract people in their 20s on up to 80s, depending on the day. We’re popular with women’s groups, book groups, and for special events like wedding and baby showers.

Boxerbrand: What are you challenges?

Jennifer: I’m still fine-tuning the menu. I change it seasonally, depending on the availability of ingredients and on the traditions of holidays. So, for example in December we featured a lot of gingerbread, in cheesecake and eggnog. But now I’m taking cheesecake off the February/March menu because they’re not selling as well and will probably replace it with a banana pie. I have pastry chef friends who I’ve spoken with throughout this process, and they tell me it takes about two years to figure out what sells and what doesn’t.

Boxerbrand: What makes you optimistic?

Jennifer: Some days are hard. I’ve worked 16 straight hours on Fridays, and then had other days when we’re not busy at all. It’s a challenge sometimes to ride the wave. But the flip-side of that coin is the look of happiness or gratitude across the face of a little girl who’s excited to get a cookie with Valentine’s decorations on it, or of guests who come in to relax with friends and family over a drink and dessert. — Cravin’ Connections uses Boxerbrand’s Slenders menu covers in their table presentation. Thank you!

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