Small Business
3:40 pm
Fri January 21, 2011

Gracie Mae's Kitchen Takes Off

This year, WNPR’s Small Business Project is taking apart what it means to be a small business owner. As part of our coverage we’re showcasing the huge diversity of the state’s small businesses and what they’re accomplishing. Most businesses start very, very small—even at the kitchen table. For the first of our small business profiles, WNPR’s Harriet Jones visits a tiny commercial kitchen in Griswold.

Jennifer Chominski is spending the morning pressing out piecrust for her baking business, Gracie Mae’s Kitchen.

“For two years we did all of our piecrust by hand and everything. And just this past year we got this pie press. You take the ball of dough and flatten it a little bit, just so its shaped a little bit more for the tin, and you put it a little bit back of center, and just press it down, pop it back out,” 

“I love to feed people and make people happy. That’s just the most important thing to me. And if I can do that in some way, I’m good.

I always wanted to be in business. I’ve always wanted to be my own boss.”

Chominski went to catering school, but she also has a tax background and she works in the accounts department at Mohegan Sun. Then three years ago she realized her small business dream, starting Gracie Mae’s Kitchen in partnership with her mother.

“And my mother and I were very proud of ourselves that we spent an entire day to make a dozen pies. And now we’ve grown to over 200 pies a week during the summer time.”

Finding that initial market can be tough for a microbusiness like Chominski’s. When her first retail customer, a local general store closed down in the recession, she says she was lucky to pick up a second account supplying a summer farm stand, and the business took off.

“I was working all day, baking most of the night, sleeping for a few hours, delivering pies in the morning and then going back to work. It was not a very good time.”

She now has four part-time employees in the summer to lighten the load, but the business is not yet self-sustaining, and she still needs the benefits that her day-job currently supplies.

“I at the very least need a very minimal insurance for my husband and I.  I still work part time at the casino, the business can’t afford to pay me – I’m working on that. And here I am trying to do the numbers for my business as well as the baking for my business.”

For any start-up enterprise, keeping up with the paperwork can be daunting.

“I didn’t have the money to deal with payroll, you know with hiring someone to do it. So I researched it and figured out how to do it myself and calculated everything out in Excel.”

For the moment, Chominski rents space in a commercial kitchen operated by a caterer in Griswold. But three years in, her business is at a crossroads.

“I'm at a point where in this kitchen, I've grown as far as I can grow. What I'd like to do is have a storefront. I want to keep my wholesale pie business. I want to go into retail baking--I want to have muffins and cookies and cakes and pies, everything make from scratch as much as possible."

The task of borrowing money to fund that expansion is her next challenge.

“I haven’t tried yet, because I’m afraid. In my mind it’s tough. I believe that if I have a good business plan and a good location I’m going to be able to get funding. If I can’t get it through a bank, I’m going to reach out to friends and family and see if I can get money that way, because I need to make the jump.”

The early triumphs and challenges of Gracie Mae’s Kitchen are a familiar story to many across the state. At the beginning of 2010 there were 50 thousand businesses in Connecticut with fewer than five employees. How well those businesses grow and prosper is down more than anything to hard work and a large slice of luck.

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.