When you walk into Sweet Mary’s on Mill Street in downtown Akron, you are immediately greeted with a blast of warm, fragrant air. The smells of flour, sugar and spices sometimes reach you before the heady aroma of freshly brewed coffee can make its way to you.
The room, full of wood and brightly colored paintings, feels a lot like what your grandmother’s kitchen might have felt like if she were one of those old souls hell-bent on cooking, baking and cleaning all day long. It’s a cozy place where you can sit at a table by the window and enjoy a solitary breakfast of quiche and tea or at a table for four splitting some biscuits and gravy with your friends.
Most of the ingredients she bakes and cooks with in her shop are locally sourced. Her sausage comes from Brunty Farms, a sustainable, pasture-based farm specializing in pasture raised eggs and meats. For those few things for which she has yet to find a supplier, she depends upon the Mustard Seed Market, the largest locally owned retailer of natural and organic products in Ohio.
The place has been buzzing along quite nicely since it opened in December. Business is brisk, which isn’t a problem for Mary Hospodarsky. She is used to taking made-to-order food requests with tight deadlines. She’s been filling rushed orders since 2006.
Mary has been cooking and baking delicious food for the better part of her life. She learned a lot of her culinary tricks as a child while watching her mother cook. Even though she learned her skills at her mother’s elbow, she doesn’t have many heirloom recipes. “Most of them (recipes) don’t go much further than my mother. My mom didn’t have a lot of recipes from her mother. Her mom died when she was 13. She learned to cook because she had to take over (cooking for her family).” This means that most of the recipes Mary uses in her bakery are her own creations.
As a child, under the supervision of her home-schooling father, she and her siblings were responsible for creating family menus, budgeting for groceries, shopping and cooking most of the family’s meals. “It was cheaper to cook from scratch: at least if you wanted to feed your kids well, so that’s what we did. I can remember standing on a chair in front of the stove helping my mother cook dinner when I was probably six.”
An early entrepreneur
While other children ran their lemonade stands, Mary figured that it made better sense to sell food at her stand rather than compete outright with all the other neighborhood children’s lemonade stands. “When I was eight I set up a cookie stand in front of my parents’ house. Everyone else was doing lemonade stands but I was like ‘You gotta have something to eat with this lemonade.’ So, we did lemonade, but I made cookies and we would sell them.
“I have always been entrepreneurial,” she adds. “When I was little, whenever we would get Halloween candy, I would save mine until my sisters ate theirs and then I would sell them mine piece by piece at 25 cents a piece. I was always doing stuff like that.”
She started to bake using her mother’s formulas but started to formulate her own recipes when she was in her 20s. “I looked at my mom as the world’s best cook. I could never make anything better than my mom. How dare I alter any of her recipes? When I started getting into it I was like ‘things might be a little better if I did this’ and I started changing things. I was was like, ‘I think I like that.’ The way that my mom taught us how to cook, especially with spices, she was like ‘Smell it. What does it smell like? That’s what it goes in. Smell oregano. It smells like spaghetti sauce, so it goes in spaghetti sauce.’ We would smell things to figure out what they would go into.”
Mary was always the girl who sold the most during fundraisers. She sold her own pies to kids in high school and used the proceeds from her sales to buy trees to grow the fruit she and her family would use in their baking and cooking. The vegetables that she used in her baked goods, which she and her mother sold, then would buy more seeds and plants to keep the cycle going, making a profit along the way.
The bakery itself is quite cozy. It sits around 40 people and Mary has made a real effort to help out her fellow merchants. She stays open late some evenings to host small concerts and for the Akron Artwalk, which runs every first Saturday of the month.
Life in Downtown Akron might have been quite different if she had followed her original career path. Mary had an appointment to the Air Force Academy but decided against attending after she broke her collar bone two weeks before basic training when she took down a nearly 300-pound man during an ROTC training exercise.
She also studied Microbiology and Russian in college. In 2004 she was working with women who also liked to bake. “We heard a lot of people in the office talking about how they were working so much they couldn’t bake cookies and cakes for their families and I was like ‘Hmm, maybe we can supplement them with cookies,’” she recalls. “And so we started to take orders around the office for cookies at Christmas. “We sold so many that we were baking for three days straight. Everybody got their boxes and we ended up each making 500 bucks spending money. I thought that maybe I had something there.
“I would make cookies all the time and he (her husband Justin) said ‘I can’t eat all these cookies.” Mary was used to baking 10 dozen cookies at a time, especially after getting a craving for a certain kind of cookie. After baking her way through dozens upon dozens of cookies in her tiny apartment, it was time for her to seek out a larger space.
She licensed her first kitchen at a church and started to sell her baked goods through Seven Grains for about three months. When they asked her to sign an exclusivity contract she decided to seek out professional advice. She connected with Stephen Cook at the New Business Legal Clinic at the University of Akron. He advised her to get a different job and that if her products were that good then she needed to sell them on her own.
A spousal credit
She gives her husband a lot of credit for helping her solidify her decision to start her own bakery. “He’s really good at seeing the end goal and thinking ahead, and being the outcome of things. ‘If you want to do this,’ he said, ‘first you have to go to business school.’ He knows that if he challenges me to do things I’ll do it. He says my motto should be ‘Oh, yeah.’”
Mary taught herself a lot about running a business early on. She knew enough about it to seek out help from SCORE where she took their Business 101 class. This one class made her realize that she could indeed start her own brick and mortar business. This gave her the impetus to take all the other classes SCORE offered for free. “I would go after work. Some classes I took twice, like finance. It helped that I was working in an accounting department. I got pretty familiar with Excel and financial formulas.”
Under the advice of family friend Ann Burton, Mary donated a cake to Akron Community Foundation. They forwarded her name and information to a lot of organizations, one of which was the Akron Urban League. They started using her to cater desserts for their events. Because of that she became acquainted with the Partnerships for Minorities Businesses Accelerator.
With a lot of help from her mother, sister, husband and some of the Akron business boosters that exist today, Mary started her business in the heart of downtown. “I grew up in West Akron. I went to St. V. I took dance lessons for eight years at the University of Akron Dance Institute. I love downtown. It was really sad to see all these boarded up shops.”
When pressed as to why she didn’t go to Cleveland or New York City, she gets a stern look on her face and straightens up her back. “Well, they already have all that. Why would I? To me it didn’t make sense. Downtown is an open market. There isn’t anything (like this) downtown.
“I started thinking, we want people to move into downtown. We are all talking about getting residents downtown, of building some apartments. No one is going to want to move into downtown if there isn’t anything there for them. Someone has to stick their necks out first.”
That is exactly what Mary has done. By opening a bakery in downtown Akron, she is helping to anchor other stores. A few months after opening Sweet Mary’s Bakery, Rubber City Comics moved in next door, and soon a cryptically named Apotheclaire will open next door to Carmen, a Photographer’s Studio. As for Mary, she is still creating her own recipes, increasing operational hours and hiring new helpers, as well as adding more variety to her menu of Akron delicacies.
To learn more about Sweet Mary’s, go to https://www.facebook.com/SweetMarysBakery/?fref=ts.
SCORE is the nation’s largest network of free, expert business mentors dedicated to entrepreneur education and the formation, growth and success of small business nationwide.
Akron Community Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity composed of more than 520 charitable funds.