Two sisters on divergent career paths came together in pursuit of entrepreneurial dreams. It’s been a tasty ride.
Landscape architect Amy Nichols was relatively content being told what to do by her bosses, so she rarely dreamed about starting her own business.
But then the recession hit. Nichols, a single mom, had moved from Sarasota to Boston to find work, got laid off and moved back to Sarasota. That desperation became her motivation to become an entrepreneur.
It helped, too, that Nichols’ older sister, Erin Zolner, was in a similar position. Zolner wanted to get out of the financial services industry. With an M.B.A., Zolner had worked for Morgan Stanley, among other firms, for a decade.
“We wanted to do something together,” says Nichols, 36, “but we never had the flexibility.”
The sisters soon settled on a business: lollicakes — part lollipop, part cake. The final product, tied in a bow, is handcrafted in a variety of flavors, from mint chocolate chip to caramel. They named the business the Lollicake Queen.
The pair began out of their homes in 2010. The national cupcake craze was rolling at the time, both on reality TV shows and in bakeries. “But there was nothing like this,” says Nichols. “We wanted to be the first, and we knew we had to be the best.”
That competitive spirit tested the sisters’ resolve. “We were prepared to work a lot of hours and do a lot,” says Zolner, 39, “but that first year we never stopped working.”
They initially baked lollicakes for local schools, including the preschool class Zolner’s daughter, Ryan, attended. The treats were a big hit: Parents and teachers loved the lollicakes because each one was less messy, had less sugar and contained less calories than a piece of cake or a cupcake.
Within a year the sisters had their own store, a 425-square-foot space in Southside Village, a trendy neighborhood south of downtown Sarasota. Two years after that the sisters, along with Zolner’s husband, Keith Zolner, opened Perq Coffee Bar, an artisan coffee house connected to the Lollicake Queen store on Hillview Street. The Perq expansion cost into the six figures, funds from saving and financing.
Now the trio, all under 40 years old, runs a 15-employee business. They also have a website that sells and ships lollicakes nationwide. They decline to release sales figures.
The sisters share ownership of the business 50-50. Zolner tends to do more of the accounting and back office work, while Nichols is more the up-front sales face. That, says Nichols, is somewhat of an irony, because she is unfailingly shy. “I’d rather do the dishes than work the counter,” quips Nichols. “I’m such an introvert. But this has been good for me.”
One of the ongoing challenges the sisters face is a common one for startup entrepreneurs: How to give up day-to-day control of every aspect of the business. Their biggest mistake, says Zolner, is they waited too long to hire people three years ago when the business took off. Says Zolner: “We didn’t need to work ourselves as hard as we did in the beginning.”
— Mark Gordon