We Americans are proud of our entrepreneurial spirit. We believe that anyone who works hard with passion can take a good idea and make it a great business. Amazon, Apple, Disney, Google, Facebook, Harley Davidson, Microsoft, and Nike are among the many, many, companies that claim humble origins: a few determined people on their own, in their garage or from their dorm room.
The American Dream is not about working for some nameless, faceless corporation thanklessly groveling up the ladder of its nine levels of corporate hell. And it’s not about getting a “safe” job in some drab bureaucratic office. I have done both, mind you, to some degree of personal fulfillment. But let’s be honest, the American Dream is and always has been about being your own boss.
Almost all of us have some business plan tucked away in a folder on a piece of crumpled up notebook paper or some grand idea for the next pet rock lodged in a deep safe box within our mind. And whether you want to admit it or not, some part of you just might believe, with a little luck, that secret could be your key to incredible success.
But only a few of us can take the risk (or have the courage to take the risk) of starting a new business. Maybe it’s because we know that so many small businesses fail. But study after study shows that small businesses are essential to the health of our economy. On Grand Island, thankfully, we have numerous successful, growing small businesses that we should celebrate. Today, I want to focus on two that happen to sit right next to each other, on a little patch of ‘can-do’ over on Whitehaven Road.
Simply put, Baked Cupcakery is amazing
Jon Bondi (the proprietor of the award-winning Baked Cupcakery) is a tough looking guy. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone built quite as sturdy as Jon. The former Grand Island Viking quarterback seems to have limbs reinforced with cement and rebar. But behind his mountain man beard is a kind smile and eyes, which belie his gruff exterior. And maybe that’s why among all the choices and opportunities before Jon in life—ripping oak tree stumps from the ground with his bare hands or storming monasteries in Ireland—Jon amazingly decided to open a cupcake shop. He looks like a warrior, but deep down he's a lovely, gentle mix of warm caramel and red velvet.
When he opened Baked, “Everyone told me I was nuts,” Jon says. But he had a partner he believed in: his beautiful wife, Tara. And Tara can bake. And so the two of them, despite having three young boys, took everything they had and opened up a pink cupcake shop, decorated with pictures of some of Hollywood’s great beauties blowing out birthday candles while smiling glorious, red lipstick smiles. Whenever I walk in the place, I can't help but smile myself.
When America works best, it’s a meritocracy—meaning the best, not just the most connected, rise. Right out of the gate Baked Cupcakery, the little cupcake shop that refused to listen to the naysayers, was voted best cupcake in Western New York. The recognition was a big boost for the young family, whose third son was born with physical challenges right about the time their business took off. They knew they now had a chance at success.
This Wednesday Baked achieved another amazing accomplishment. They were named the official cupcake of One Buffalo. That means you will soon be able to enjoy a Death by Peanut Butter, Chocolate Salted Caramel, or whatever other unique creation Jon and Tara dream up at a Sabres game, at 716 or in Tops from here to Rochester. It’s a big deal!
Kim Pegula (the owner of the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres) visited Grand Island for a press conference to announce their partnership with Baked. I was honored to give Kim the key to the town—forged in our high school tech lab—when she visited. Sure, we love Kim and her husband for saving the Bills and helping us celebrate all that is good and great about Western New York. But that key was really for Jon, Tara and their three boys. I am so proud of them. And I am so thankful for how they have helped represent Grand Island in a positive light. Or as my own 8-year old son puts it, "My Dad’s friend makes the most famous cupcakes in the world."
I hope going forward every person who goes to a Sabres game or 716 buys a cupcake. And I hope each of us tries to work in a cupcake run at least once a week. Hopefully, Baked's incredible success will continue and Grand Island cupcakes will rival Paula’s Donuts, or heck, even Dunkin Donuts. Why not? With us behind them, it's possible. Please like Baked Cupcakery on Facebook and Instagram!
Island Ship Center is the most welcoming place in town
Everyone knows Fahim and his lovely wife Seema from the Island Ship Center—the little (but getting bigger) white shipping and packaging (and everything else) store right next to Baked Cupcakery. Fahim's personality is like a beacon of warmth and enthusiasm. It's the big smile, the gratitude for your business, and the boundless energy. If you think I’m intense, next to Fahim I’m like a slow paced European art film and he's a hyperactive Jim Carey movie.
Fahim (the father of five) has been a Grand Islander for almost 20 years. But he grew up on Long Island. His Dad, an immigrant from India who he often channels through his hilarious impersonations, was exemplary of many immigrant fathers. He worked . . . a lot. And through his work he built a small empire of convenience stores, all the while pushing the then beardless (hard to imagine), young Fahim to study harder and do more.
For the most part Fahim did as his father wished, studying well and thriving. But as is the case with all of our lives, some tragedy crept in. When Fahim was 24 he suddenly lost his father, and the pastel colored dome of protective light where Fahim had thrived burst. Fahim, had to survive on his own, without his Dad’s help. And to do so he had to work . . . a lot.
Fahim decided to emulate his Dad and began operating a small business of his own. But Fahim did not have immediate success. “We failed many times,” he told me. After a series of outright disasters and near misses, Fahim found himself operating a small online leather goods store on Grand Island. Still struggling, one brutal winter Fahim wondered, “Where am I, and how did I get here?” But he was determined to make it all work.
It was still the early days of the Internet. And Fahim was learning quickly that to survive he needed to do more than attract customers off the Boulevard. Online, the world was his marketplace. To serve this marketplace, he needed to ship and receive items efficiently. And bit by bit, that shipping and receiving, became his actual business. Eventually he moved to his current location on Whitehaven next to Baked Cupcakery. And with that move, Fahim, for the first time, started to taste actual, independent success.
Today his little store has expanded. There is a full warehouse, a store where you buy Grand Island-branded merchandise, and a business center. Wall murals feature wonderful scenes from Grand Island both past and present. And in that business center you can set up your own mailbox so you don’t have to receive packages for your home business on your actual doorstep. Further, the business center is climate controlled, monitored by security cameras, and allows for 24-hour access for screened customers. Thus, on Grand Island, even if you are doing deals on your laptop, you can have a mailroom capacity rivaling that of a major company.
Fahim has also started to market his story and his smile on the Internet. Fahim has become a well-known internet celebrity as well as the Director of Social Media at AMBC, which is the Assoc. of Mail & Business Centers. He regularly shares his brand of unique insight, gratitude, motivation, and humor in public lectures and to viewers online. Check out his YouTube channel – search Fahim Mojawalla!
Let’s help the spark grow into a blaze
People often say, “Why don’t we look more like Lewiston? Why is downtown East Aurora so nice?” I then think, “We are different. We do not have the ‘bones’ of those places. But we can create something special and unique here too.” But to do that, we can’t just push it from Town Hall. We need our citizens to spend more, and do more, on Grand Island. And we need to encourage our off-Island friends to come visit us and drop a few dollars.
Baked Cupcakery and the Island Ship Center are an inspiration to small business owners of Grand Island. But we need more. You can’t create a bonfire by throwing a massive log on a spark. You need to use kindling to grow that spark into a flame. And then you need to continue to work on it, giving it air, and space, and larger sticks for fuel. Eventually, the flame will catch. The fire will rage.
We have little embers burning all over Grand Island, which need our fuel and support. I'm talking about the many great restaurants, the up and coming farmer’s markets (stay tuned!), marinas, eco tours, international motorcycle tour companies, graphic designers, event planners, jewelry design and art shops, florists, beauty salons, contractors, dance studios, car repair shops and the many other small businesses. If we work together, the glow of prosperity will eventually benefit us all! Let’s feed the blaze!
GRAND ISLAND: Let’s eat local! Shop local! Ship local! Cupcake local!
With warmest regards,