Despite Bester’s love of baking that had started with her first Easy-Bake Oven, she was sceptical. Without a support system in place, and limited funds to guarantee a business loan, her future looked bleak.
“I was on my own, my kids were in university. I was really struggling financially, and a close family friend graced me with a private loan to open my shop. I realized, ‘okay, I need to make this go,’” She said. That was a very stormy February morning in 2014. “I signed my lease April 1st, for the location I’m at today, and Sweet Bakery opened the doors June 2nd. Nobody has opened a bakery faster than I did. I had a couple months of free rent, and I was going to take full advantage of that.” Bester didn’t want to disappoint her friend nor her family. In her words, she “ate, breathed and slept” her plans to make it successful. “Failure was not an option,” she adds.
“Our motto is, ‘if we don’t make it we don’t sell it.’ And that’s always been my way...I only use a hundred per cent butter. Pure vanilla. Just the finest quality ingredients I can get my hands on. To me, taste is everything. There’s nothing worse than somebody saying, ‘it looks too pretty to eat.’ I want it to look good, but they have to want to eat it.” Bester’s eye for Instagrammable desserts comes in handy for fundraising. “We also provide free cupcake decorating to local kids every week during the summer in a local park.” The cupcakes that Sweet Bakery sells on National Cupcake Day support the local SPCA.
It’s Bester’s gratitude that makes her pay it forward to youth in their hour of need. Bester and her husband, Justin, are involved with a Rotary Club group that provides meals for children and teens, makes blankets and helps to raise funds for the Why Not Youth drop in centre. She helps youth at risk of homelessness in Brantford. The name is inspired by its slogan, “Some people see things and say, ‘Why?’ We dream things that never were and say ‘Why not?’”
She helps run the BRAugust campaign that provides bras and feminine hygiene products to young women.
This former home baker who turned professional feels that “it’s really important to give people in life a hand up.” She reached out to help Becca Vandekemp McLellan’s month-long August fundraiser aptly named, ‘BRAugust.’ For some girls, buying one of Sweet Bakery’s famous pecan squares is an affordable luxury. For underprivileged girls, dessert is not only unaffordable, but basic necessities like brassieres are unattainable. “Those are expensive items. Bras are luxury items, to these girls. These girls need feminine products every month. And if it comes down to food or hygiene, you don’t want to put them in a position where they might feel vulnerable.”
Bester helps raise funds for feminine hygiene products, gently used bras and cash donations for underprivileged young women. In some cases, none of the donated bras fit, and can cause discomfort and social awkwardness. That’s where Bester comes in and takes them to get fitted with a speciality bra. Bester describes the experience glowingly. “It was a treat to bring this young woman shopping and make her feel special…to have the women in the shop treat her with dignity. That’s really what these young women need to experience. They deserve that, they deserve the dignity.”
“These are young people that still have every chance to make something of themselves. I think it’s important for them to be surrounded by people that care about them, and I want to see them succeed in life, not just give them handouts and say, ‘goodbye’, but hopefully to mentor and inspire them to do great things regardless of their current circumstance.” Her charity work is not limited to working with homeless women. She works with another initiative called Socktober, which is a similar program, that collects socks, underwear, hats, mits etc., to keep our homeless warm through the colder months. They have collected and distributed thousands of items each year.
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Bester knows that business, like life itself, can be precarious. She is quick to expresses gratitude for the hand up she had when she was down, and shares some advice for bakers who are also launching a second career for another shot at a better life. Bester knows the first three years are the hardest to establish a business and build a clientele. “The first few years will always be your biggest challenge. I was very fortunate for great staff when I first opened. My head baker was a friend of my daughter’s who needed a coop placement for Niagara College. She helped me convert my recipes from home baking-sized batches to more commercial sized ones. Of course, you build a great staff, but then, they have other dreams they want to pursue, so you lose that great staff member and then you’ve got to find and train a new one.”
“You also have to stay current with food trends,” adds Bester. “Knowing you have that sellable product, brings them in the door once and makes clients become regular customers that can’t get enough of what you have to offer.”
Clearly, her strategy works: Both the bakery and BRAugust will be celebrating their sixth year of operation. While Bester has been treating her community to good deeds, her bakery has been treating the public with house-made goodies. What is the bakery’s speciality? “We cannot open our doors if we do not have our pecan squares. They are synonymous with Sweet Bakery itself. They a very big square, probably 4” by 4” in size, they’re really thick, they’re homemade shortbread crust with homemade gooey caramel and tonnes and tonnes of pecans.”
Quality of life is key to Bester. She clearly puts a lot of love into her goods as she does into her town. “As a small business owner, I felt that my community has supported me...therefore I wanted to make sure that in return, I supported my community.” She laughs as she adds, “I am extremely blessed! I have love, laughter, happiness, and fulfillment in my life. How could I not want to share that with those around me? You never know who you might be an inspiration to, or what small deed you do can impact another.”