Sweetbox Delivery: Bakery to doorstep
Treva LindApril 27th, 2017
Clay Cerna easily whips up a batch of cheese-stuffed bagels to sell for an office meeting, but as owner of Sweetbox Delivery, he sees more growth potential in providing a service that brings baked goods to clients’ doorsteps.
Cerna handles delivery of edible treats both from Sweetbox Delivery’s kitchen as well as delicacies made by other Spokane bakeries: Just American Desserts, Boots Bakery, Desserts By Sara, and Cyrus O’Leary’s Pies.
The business model is twofold, first offering a variety of baked goods at retail cost for gift delivery, office functions, and business events. Secondly, serving as a wholesale supplier to deliver food items from Sweetbox and other bakeries to cafes, schools, and coffee shops.
“From the beginning, it was always delivery,” says Cerna, 31. “That’s mainly because Spokane doesn’t have many delivery services.”
He adds, “We also partner with other bakeries. I buy wholesale from them, so basically, I’m a vendor for them. I sell their product for a slight markup, but essentially for wholesale to all my wholesale accounts. I work with them on an order-by-order basis.”
Sweetbox, located in a rental kitchen space at 120 N. Stevens downtown and employing Cerna full time along with two part-time bakers, makes a variety of stuffed bagels, cinnamon rolls, scones, and other treats. The company started with just cinnamon rolls, then added items and delivery for other bakeries. Sweetbox also delivers Tom Sawyer Coffee to offices on a retail basis.
Popular items made by Sweetbox are its bagels, such as a raspberry-cream cheese stuffed bagel that’s a top seller, Cerna says. Others are the “cheese bomb” bagel made with cheddar and Monterey cheeses on the inside and Asiago cheese on top, and one called “CheddarPeno” for a cheddar combo with sliced jalapenos.
A conversation with the owner of Just American Desserts led to the idea of partnering with other bakeries, Cerna says. “She talked about customers who wanted delivery, and she didn’t want to do that herself. I said, ‘It’s a win-win; I’m already delivering.’”
The company website explains, “By working with our competitors, we don’t waste time making items that we know other people make better.”
Cerna says the business derives income from multiple sources, including as a wholesale supplier, direct sales to customers through office and event delivery, and a new subscription service for clients who receive regularly delivered boxes of baked goods weekly or monthly.
For subscriptions, a customer signs up under a reoccurring payment schedule, to receive such options as a cookie or bagel platter, or corporate gift packages.
From options listed on Sweetbox’s website, retail customers can order on an as-needed basis. Foods from partner bakeries can be included in retail delivery boxes, too. For example, Cerna gets regular orders to include chocolate chip cookies from Just American Desserts delivered to a client along with Sweetbox bagels.
“From the client’s perspective, it all comes in one box,” Cerna says.
He adds, “We’ve done events for people for large breakfast buffets. People order for a sales meeting or internal event, and they just don’t want to go outside and get bagels, so we’ll bring them.”
The ingredients seem to be working. “Our income is four times what it was last year, so we’ve grown,” Cerna says. “Our business has been cash-flow positive since six weeks in.”
Cerna, who started the business in November of 2014, got some entrepreneurial experience from an early real estate career, but he also did marketing and was general manager for Dawn of the Donut in Spokane until it sold and changed names. When that job ended, he decided to launch his own bakery operation.
He began baking in Kitchen Spokane, a commercial operation where he paid an hourly rate for use. Today, he rents space shared with a catering company using a basement kitchen at Nectar Tasting Room. The space isn’t a storefront, though, just a base for baking and delivery.
Consistent volume is about 30 dozen to 40 dozen bagels made in one week, along with other baked goods.
Cerna says another popular item purchase is a box of birthday bagels. He gets orders from people who live outside the region to deliver bagels to a Spokane resident. Those customers find the Sweetbox website searching online. “It kind of surprised us.”
Wholesale customers include Hold Your Grounds Espresso, Tom Sawyer Country Coffee, Urban Nirvana tea shop, Full O’ Beans, Shotzy’s Coffee on Pines, The Service Station, Coeur d’Alene Casino, Southside Christian School, and Riverside High School.
“Most of our clients are wholesale,” he says. “I sell baked goods to them at a wholesale price.”
Wholesale customers provided a good revenue stream, he adds. “Having a baking storefront requires some guesswork on how many people will come through the door, especially for donuts that have a short freshness threshold. With wholesale, we knew we could bake a certain number.”
In delivering for Cyrus O’Leary’s Pies, Sweetbox mostly takes those to Coeur d’Alene Casino. Cerna offers delivery seven days a week, and the casino can spread out smaller orders to control inventory and freshness.
Sweetbox delivers within a 200-mile radius from downtown Spokane, but farther if an order is large enough.
Cerna grew up in Connell, Wash., then attended Spokane Falls Community College. He paid for his first year of school by working in the chemistry lab, when he switched his major from architecture to chemical engineering. However, Cerna decided he enjoyed the lab work more than classes, so he entered the workforce.
After working, he earned his real estate license by age 20 in 2007, “right before the bubble popped,” he says. “I had six months of a good thing before reality set in.” The experience paid off, though, because he mainly bought property for investment.
“I’ve had about seven properties bought and sold since 2007. I still dabble in it. It’s one of those things I appreciated learning at a young age, the value of investing money where you know it will work.”
About three years after his venture into real estate, Cerna moved to Seattle and ran operations for Seattle Pedicab, later doing that work in Chicago before moving back to Spokane and working for Dawn of the Donut.
When that job ended, it spurred ideas he’d already thought about if he owned a similar business.
“I have no shame saying I am a classic case of ‘bake it until you make it,’” he says. “My chemistry background helped; this is one very edible chemistry project. I approach baking very methodically.”
He stops at defining himself as a great baker, but one good enough to create tasty products. While focused now on growing Sweetbox here, he’d like eventually to open secondary locations in Seattle and Denver.
As another pursuit, Cerna serves as an organizer for Startup Weekend Spokane, an entrepreneurship competition each November. He hasn’t entered the contest himself but attended one of the weekend events and received help from leaders with ideas for Sweetbox. Now, he likes to help with the event.
Cerna also got advice from the Washington Small Business Development Center in Spokane and the SNAP Women’s Business Center.
“Some community leaders were kind enough to mentor me and help me get started,” he says. “There’s no place like Spokane to start a business. There’s a lot of support here.”