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Rose Zhou/MEDILL 

From bittersweet beginnings, Give Me Some Sugar gets taste of success

by Rose Zhou
Feb 13, 2014

Valerie Damlos

Rose Zhou/MEDILL 

Valerie Damlos (left) learns how to decorate a pre-made chocolate cake at the basic cake-decorating class at Give Me Some Sugar in Roscoe Village.

Alekka Sweeney

Rose Zhou/MEDILL 

Give Me Some Sugar co-owner Alekka Sweeney shows how to level a cake during a basic cake-decorating class.

Valerie Damlos’ hands are strong. A physical therapist, she is used to manipulating tight muscles, massaging away pain. But today, she needs a lighter, much more graceful touch.

Damlos is attempting the delicate task of drawing a purple daisy atop of frosted cake at Give Me Some Sugar, a cake decorating studio in Roscoe Village. Whether it’s a professional dessert-maker wanting to fine-tune her Fondant, an avid fan of “Cake Boss,” or a novice like Damlos, Give Me Sugar offers classes to fit various needs.

“I always try to decorate cakes on my own and look up ways (to do it), said Damlos. “I bought like a basic cake-decorating kit, but didn’t really know what I was doing. So it’s kind of nice to know the right way to do things.”

Give Me Some Sugar co-owner Alekka Sweeney spent years teaching private cake-decorating classes. In 2010 she decided to capitalize on the demand by opening the storefront at 2205 W. Belmont Ave.

“The biggest struggle was finding money,” said Sweeney, 42. “Because even without the build out, just opening up the front doors took about $15,000. And no banks were really giving money to small female-run businesses.”

With a $10,000 loan Sweeney borrowed from her dad and the pre-coupon redemption fund from Groupon, the ambitious chef opened up Give Me Some Sugar with her partner, Roxann Krull, during the recession.

In the first two years, three full-time and two part-time employees ran the studio up to 16 hours a day, six days a week, Sweeney said. The company’s first year revenue was less than $10,000.

It broke even in the second year and had revenue last year of $34,000, she said.

It usually takes a small business person four to five years to start paying themselves a market rate salary, said Brad Farris, the principal of Anchor Advisors, a small business consulting company in Chicago.

“But the market for small business in Chicago is improving,” said Farris. “The economy in general is improving, and most of my small business clients are having a good start of 2014.”

It took Sweeney, who lives in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood, almost 20 years to make her dream become a reality. After graduating from culinary school, Sweeney interned at a several restaurants and catering companies.

“A wedding cake got me involved in pastry,” Sweeney said, explaining that she was asked to step in to make the cake when a pastry chef at one of the restaurants suddenly got sick.

“I like how it is regimented, but also you get to be creative with the finished product,” she said

Give Me Some Sugar offers classes on weekends and weekday evenings. Besides basic cake-decorating sessions, there are a variety of classes teaching how to make and decorate cookies, doughnuts, cupcakes, pies, tarts, French macaroons, cream puffs, éclairs, and chocolate.

By keeping the classes small, Sweeney is able to have lots of interaction with students and maintain a close relationship with her clients. She enjoys that interaction more than being behind the scene and stuck in the kitchen, she said, adding that is also why she has never worked in the bakery business.

“Some of our clients come back two or three times,” Sweeney said. “The fact that we are not a huge company makes a lot of people walk in, and they get the sense of it being an unintimidating and relaxed atmosphere.”

The Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago also offers cake-decorating classes for amateurs but on a much smaller scale. Melissa Trimmer, the lead pastry chef instructor, said having a professional right in front of the student is the biggest advantage of in-person trainings.

“If you have questions, they’ll tailor their responses for everything that you need,” Trimmer said. “It’s completely different experience than just watching somebody online. And when it becomes interactive, people tend to learn more.”

At Le Cordon Bleu, cake decorating classes take place once every few months and cost $99 for a two- to three-hour class, said Trimmer.

Give Me Some Sugar offers basic cake decorating classes at least once a week at a cost of $75 for the same time span. There are also half-off coupons available on Groupon.

Give Me Some Sugar also has local competitors that occasionally offer baking training such as Wilton Enterprises, Candle College, Chopping Block and Sur La Table.

Woodridge, Ill. -based Wilton mostly teaches intensive cake-decorating courses at the Wilton School in Darien. But it also offers convenient pastry method classes at retail locations in Chicago. Typical basic decorating classes cost $45 with retailer discounts, according to Shawn Broda, a Wilton Enterprises spokesman.

The cake-decoration workshops attract different segments of consumers—from new parents learning how to decorate cakes to working professionals eager to learn a creative hobby, Broda said.

Sweeney said what makes her company stand out from competitors is the private parties. Give Me Some Sugar hosts a lot of children's birthday parties, bridal showers, bachelor parties and corporate team building events, she said.