Shannen Leahy didn’t expect her bakery business to take off like this—but it has. The Caloosa Kitchen has been on the upswing ever since she sold out of offerings at her first farmers market with LaBelle Downtown Revitalization Corp. in October 2019.
Most recently, Leahy earned a $1,000 grant from Bank OZK for creating the best business feasibility plan among participants in a Goodwill MicroEnterprise program. “I thought, whatever the outcome is of this class, I just want to be ready to have a business plan, so if I wanted to reach out to a lender or anything like that, I’m prepared,” she says.
Leahy’s using that grant to help bring her micro-bakery from a side hustle, when she’s not working at U.S. Sugar in Clewiston, to a full-fledged operation within two to three years, she said.
The Tennessee transplant was already working full-time with her current employer when she entered the farmers market. Still, she couldn’t shake her experience of working in a bakery while in college. “I’ve always been really into baking. My career was in science, but I had that passion,” Leahy says. “I had a lot of energy from doing that event and a lot of positive feedback from people who attended.”
She kept at it until spring 2020, right before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the U.S. “I was just kind of preparing myself to say, ‘OK, 2020 is going to be a wash,’” Leahy says. But the opposite happened. She began offering delivery options over Facebook to Hendry, Glades and parts of Lee counties, fulfilling the orders with her partner, Chris King.
“When most businesses either had limited hours or were shut down, I started offering [delivery], and that helped me to really pick up a customer base of year-long residents,” she says. “It really just spread through word of mouth.”
She conducted market research via Facebook to see which sweets buyers wanted most, deepening customer connection in a highly digital time. “I try to get a lot of feedback from customers. I took note of what people responded to. It’s varied in what they like, but what they like I made more variation on,” Leahy says.
Her cinnamon rolls are always a hit, she added, as is her artisan sourdough bread. She makes the culture that’s used as the leavening agent herself. “The sourdough is special because everything comes completely from scratch. It’s literally flour, salt and water.”
Leahy also likes to treat buyers to flavors specific to this region, saying, “I want my products to represent the seasonality of Southwest Florida.” Local brands she uses include Harold P. Curtis Honey, Blueberry Bunch Farm, Mama Bear’s Herbal Pantry LLC and Muse Pottery. “I think people like seeing small businesses support other small businesses,” Leahy adds. “In the end, it benefits both the customer and me because they’re not only getting something seasonal, but I’m getting something when the price is at its best.”
Leahy currently operates The Caloosa Kitchen under Florida cottage food guidelines and is looking to expand to a commercial-grade kitchen, possibly on wheels.
“I’ve seen what happened [to businesses] with COVID, and a mobile-based business may be something that’s more feasible and could survive something better than a brick-and-mortar would,” Leahy says.
It can also help her reach a wider crowd, and she’s glad to give back to the region that’s embraced her. “I’m extremely grateful for the response I’ve had from this community,” Leahy says. “I grew up in a very rural part of Tennessee. It’s a very tight-knit community the way it’s structured here in Hendry and Glades, so for me coming as a transplant for work, it’s been nice to be welcomed in such a way by the community, as a business owner and personally.”
Shannen Leahy got more than a grant out of the Goodwill MicroEnterprise program she attended this spring. “I could not recommend that program more to any small business owner in Southwest Florida,” she says. “Whether it be somebody already in business, thinking about starting a business, or just has the idea of what they would like to do, it’s the perfect place to get started to help you build a base.” The class covers many entrepreneurial aspects, such as financial, legal, marketing and more, she adds. “Anything you can think of, they cover it in the classes.”
Catch The Caloosa Kitchen at farmers markets in the fall, including:
LaBelle Downtown Revitalization Corp.’s downtown Saturday market, LaBelle
The Market on Bond, Clewiston
Order online at Facebook.com/ TheCaloosaKitchen