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A small business timeline: from a pandemic pivot to sustainable growth

Tres Lecheria in Seattle has firmly established its niche. Not only does the bakery offer up to 15 flavors of tres leches cake—a sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk—but you’ll find no other baked goods on the menu.

If it seems odd for a bakery to specialize in only one kind of cake, you’d be partially right. Today, Tres Lecheria’s colorful, individually packaged slices are sold in more than 50 grocery stores and local businesses across the Pacific Northwest. But just two years ago, Tres Lecheria looked entirely different—in name, concept, and business plan. A lifelong baker, Kevin Moulder first launched the business as Cubes Baking Company, a purveyor of square-shaped desserts, before pivoting to a tres leches-only bakery to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the small business world, where you start is rarely where you end up. But Tres Lecheria’s trajectory surprised even Kevin himself. How did the business go from square one to sustainable growth? Below, Kevin shares the timeline that helped him ditch survival mode and instead make incremental changes to launch himself toward a more resilient business. 

2017-2020: Making a pandemic pivot

In 2017, Kevin opened his first business, Cubes Baking Co., selling square-shaped versions of wedding cakes, birthday cakes, and more. As the concept evolved, Kevin also sought to honor his Mexican heritage by baking tres leches cakes, a subtly sweet dessert popular in Mexico. “I grew up with Mexican bakeries on every street corner,” he said. “Seattle, I felt, could use a little bit more of that.”

Then the pandemic hit, and Kevin and his business partner, Vince, had to make major changes to the menu in order to survive. “I remember it vividly,” he said. “We were sitting at the bar next door to our bakery. And [Vince] was telling me, ‘Hey, things aren’t looking so good, Kev. What are we gonna do?’ We had a tiny, tiny fridge at the time that had four flavors of tres leches cake. Nine out of 10 customers were coming in for that. And nine out of 10 reviews that we were seeing on Yelp and anywhere else online were about that.”

“So [we thought], let’s give that a shot. Let’s expand the options of our tres leches cakes, and let’s just become a tres leches-exclusive bakery and see what happens… It’s been the best decision we could have ever made.”

August 2020: Rebranding the business

Within a few months, Kevin and Vince cut the bakery menu and expanded the roster of tres leches cakes to 10 flavors, including matcha, sweet corn and honey, and Mexican mocha. But such a drastic change also requires a rebrand—a way to communicate the new business mission to regulars and potential customers alike.

Especially in a takeout-only or wholesale model, when you can’t talk to customers in person, your branding must tell the story for you. “The branding is important,” Kevin said. “People are gonna take photos of this. They’re gonna take it home, they’re gonna share it on Instagram, they’re gonna share it on Yelp. They’re gonna tell their friends about it. They’re gonna send pictures to anyone that they know if they like the product.”

Kevin enlisted his then-partner, a graphic designer, to design new labels for his tres leches cakes so they would stand out on the shelves of a grocery store. At first, Kevin envisioned a black and white color palette—until a grocery buyer suggested using different colors to differentiate the flavors. “I was resistant because I was like, this is just more money,” he said. “And when we’re just trying to survive, why should we make this change right now?” 

But the right investment, even if it seems like the wrong time, can be a game-changer. “I remember the day that the colored labels came in, and I did a mock up on all of our flavors, and I put them in a line in order of the colors of the rainbow,” Kevin said. “And I was like, yeah, those pop. This was definitely the right decision.” 

The shift in branding was simple, but impactful. Sales doubled, and the product became more recognizable, which resonated with Yelp reviewers like Audrey C. “I thought their packaging, their branding was really unique, and it stood out to me because with food being such a close interaction with people, you’re touching the products, you’re touching the packaging,” she said. “I feel like that plays really into it and it adds to your overall experience.” 

2020-2022: Adjusting for rapid growth

While a strategic pivot saved the bakery, it was Kevin’s ability to take advantage of another lucky circumstance that allowed Tres Lecheria to expand beyond its storefront and into grocery stores: A former employee got a job as a bakery buyer at a grocery store, which led to more orders and another revenue stream.

“Nobody was having parties, but everyone wanted an individual portion of something that was pre-packaged so it would be safe for them to consume,” Kevin said. “And that’s what we were making. Our sales tripled overnight because our product was the perfect product for people at that time.”

Still, the shift to a wholesale model required careful planning and the willingness to accept change as a part of business growth. “I think a lot of business owners get stuck and they’re afraid to make changes,” Kevin said. “They’re afraid to abandon a certain concept. It’s hard sometimes, especially when it comes to a passion project. It’s hard to give it up and say, you know what? I really wanted this to work 100%. Sure it’s working fine, but we are just spinning our wheels, never getting anywhere. We need to make that change.”

To make the process more approachable, Kevin broke it down into smaller, incremental changes. “We would always give ourselves these short-term goals between three and six months of how to make it happen,” he said. “The facility that we’re in wasn’t even equipped to produce the amount of cake that we were gonna have to produce. So at every stage, along the way of potentially getting a new grocery store vendor or acquiring new accounts, we’d really have to sit back and [plan].”

For example, when the team needed more freezer space, they rented a small freezer in an adjacent work space until they could afford a walk-in of their own. “We found our own mentors,” Kevin said. “We talked to our distributor to get answers to our questions. We talked to anyone that would listen and give us the time. And now this is where we are.”

July 2022-beyond: Staying flexible and creative

Many people associate the growth of small businesses with brick-and-mortar locations. But with online e-commerce platforms and shipping optimizations, you don’t need a new physical location to increase sales and revenue. 

For Tres Lecheria, next steps include expanding their wholesale business into grocery stores up and down the west coast—from Seattle to California—as well as another unexpected pivot: a food bus. “Let’s say you’re having a quinceanera or a wedding, and you want a unique dessert offering for your party,” Kevin said. “We could just roll up the bus and serve all of your guests cake, and who else is doing that right now?”

Kevin also sees this growth as an opportunity to share his love for a traditional dessert, while expanding the possibilities of what tres leches cake can be. Just this month, Tres Lecheria debuted three Vietnamese-inspired flavors. The creativity and flexibility of this business model keep the business running—and also keeps Kevin feeling inspired.

“I’ve never looked at myself as a role model for anybody, but having customers come in and [tell] us stories—I have so many people that have heard about us and their family lives in Mexico and oh, their parents are visiting Seattle and they just had to bring them into the shop,” he said. “Those moments are like, wow, this sort of goes beyond just making a good product. There are so many other layers here, and I’m forever grateful for that.”

Interviews by Emily Washcovick

These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear more from Kevin and Audrey, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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