When the pandemic hit, Eileen Pawlicki was working at a local family services organization, helping people in crisis.
“Helping them get connected to local resources in the community, which I absolutely love that job,” she says.
“But I started baking before I got that job.”
As a baker with a twist on her mom’s carrot cake recipe, she ended up taking care of herself to get through the pandemic.
In the kitchen over a summer, she created a deeper relationship with her daughter. She got to know her neighbors better, and built connections with others in her industry.
She began cutting down on her days at her day job so she could fill the cake and muffin orders of her company, Love Muffins.
As of a few weeks ago, Love Muffins is her day job.
“I did need to make sure that I could pay myself right. So it was, you know, using my head and my heart at the same time to balance that decision out,” Pawlicki says. “But once I knew that I could pay myself, you know, this minimum amount, I said ‘alright, I’m going for it.'”
She sells her four variations of carrot cakes – including a fusion with cheesecake – in muffins that border on being a cupcake, as well as full double-layer cakes. They’re sold at a dozen coffee shops, restaurants, and markets in Kalamazoo and Portage, as found on the company’s Muffin Map, as well as via special order on the website.
Love Muffins recently moved into the commercial kitchen at Can-Do Kitchen, the shared space within the local business incubator Can-Do Kalamazoo. This has increased some efficiency with her processes, Pawlicki says. Business is growing and she hopes to bring on staff to satisfy future demand, as well as expand with a food truck. This week, she’ll start selling a carrot cake cookie at the Night and Farmer’s Markets.
It’s still a family business, down to its roots
Love Muffins’ tagline – “Better When Shared” – predates the company.
In 2020, Pawlicki made a cake for a friend’s son’s birthday. The response from the friend: “you should sell these.”
“That was the first time that anyone’s ever offered to pay me for it,” she says. “I would bake it once or twice a year when I wanted it. And then I would have a big piece and then maybe one the next day and then give the rest of the cake away.”
Pawlicki said she made two changes to her mom’s recipe – one was lowering the sugar content in the frosting; the other is a secret. The result is a masterful juxtaposition of homey and decadent. A beautiful mound of cream cheese frosting is tangy, sweet, and savory, laid on top of a moist, rich cake of fresh carrots and a subtle spiced batter.
In many ways, Love Muffins is an homage to her own mother, who passed away six years ago.
“It really makes me think of my mom every time I’m in the kitchen,” she says. “My parents were always giving to other people. I had that example, like doing volunteer work or just, you know, not being selfish, giving more than you’re taking.”
Pawlicki started baking in her apartment until she began taking wholesale orders, when she needed to move to a commercial kitchen in order to be code compliant with state food laws. The regulatory restrictions forced her to temporarily pause on the cream cheese filling, and she tried other recipes like blueberry lemon poppy seed muffins, until her licensing was upgraded.
She isn’t an entrepreneur by training, but an educator, always asking questions. She credits her success in part to the mentorship provided by a consultant with the local office of Michigan’s Small Business Development Center, John Schmitt, as well as within the local chapter of the national business mentorship organization SCORE.
“I’ve had some people help me along the way. Even one of my friends worked for me for free. Finally, I’m like ‘I need to start – let me pay you.'”
That support has helped her navigate a path from turning a passion to a side hustle to a full-time business – from crunching the numbers, to limiting the length of her kitchen shifts because of an aching back, to strategic in-person sales at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market and the Friday summer events at Bronson Park called Lunchtime Live.
Last month, the Red Tricycle Ice Cream Company launched a new carrot cake flavor collaboration with Love Muffins.
Love Muffins is plugged into the ValleyHUB, a program at Kalamazoo Valley Community College that helps connect area farmers with consumers. Crisp Country Acres in Holland delivers carrots to ValleyHUB’s campus on Crosstown Parkway, where they are processed into the shredded product she needs.
“The best thing ever,” Pawlicki says, eliminating the need for her or an employee or volunteer to prep the carrots.
Pawlicki has shared this journey with her two daughters. They’ve helped with aspects of the business like pricing and marketing, even setting up the website. And, in the summer of 2020, a lot of time baking in the kitchen.
“Her and I were actually baking together as a way to – my friends were saying you should sell this, and then also something for her and I to do.”
When that summer ended, Pawlicki took a long walk, partially to shake off the depression of missing her youngest child, and partially to let her mind wander through the possibilities of names for her new company – and it came to her.
“My kids have been a huge motivating factor for me continuing this business, to show them that I created something in my lifetime, and it’s something I might be able to pass on to them.”
Her daughters inspired her passion for baking as a business. Her niece helped with the logo and came up with the tagline.
Two of her neighbors were her first taste testers.
“I have a connection with customers, too,” Pawlicki says. “Even when I was selling and people would come to my apartment, they would just start talking to me and we’d, you know, have full blown conversations.”
This wasn’t just the beginnings of the business, but survival at the beginning of a pandemic where each day was uncertain.
“I wasn’t the only one that was lonely,” she says. “They don’t know or realize how much them buying the product from me has helped me in my mental health too.”
“I have to keep finding ways to stay connected to other people. That is why I started doing this,” she says. “Selling it was just a benefit of doing it. But the real reason deep down was first, baking with my daughter, and then from there, connecting with my neighborhood.”
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