The Thomas family has been running Detroit-based Sweet Potato Sensations since 1987. Here’s how they are surviving and thriving during the pandemic.
DETROIT — Building a café based around sweet potatoes – a Thanksgiving seasonal treat – might seem like a hefty risk, but for Sweet Potato Sensations, the idea proved to be one worth taking.
The family-owned business, based in Detroit, has been around since 1987, when it started selling sweet potato cookies at a neighborhood garage sale. It has since become a hallmark destination – visited by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and by actresses Tippi Hedren, Shirley Jones, Pam Grier and Detroit’s mayors.
The Black-owned business continues to roll mightily along, even during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Yelp Economic Average Report, more than 132,000 businesses closed from March to July, with the greatest closures hitting restaurants.
“We have a tremendous following, and I think that’s the only reason we have survived this pandemic,” says Cassandra Thomas, founder of Sweet Potato Sensations.
The business functions as a bakery, café, store and ice cream parlor all in one. It serves almost anything, made from fresh sweet potatoes from North Carolina, including pies, cookies, cobbler, pancakes, waffles, ice cream and grits.
“The sweet potato pie is the most popular,” Cassandra says, “but we’re trying to get people to be adventurous and try other things sweet potato.”
Thomas runs the business alongside her husband, Jeffery, and their two daughters, Charisse, 39, and Jennifer 38.
Since 2014, the shop has been serving other savory foods, such as salmon croquette sandwiches, Amish chicken wings, and black-eyed peas and collard green soup. The additions helped the business grow by approximately 50%, Jeffery estimates. The Thomas family supports other Detroit-based Black-owned businesses by selling items such as T-shirts, popcorn, soaps and salsa.
“We’re kind of like the Cracker Barrel in the ‘hood,” Cassandra says. “For a Black child to see a family-run business in his community speaks volumes to that child.”
When the pandemic hit hard in the U.S. in mid-March, the company closed for six weeks and laid off its 15 employees. Since then, the family has been running the business themselves, with just one cook coming in on weekends. Business days have been reduced from six days a week to just three: Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“My typical day is about 16 hours,” Cassandra says. “The biggest challenge is doing everything ourselves.” Cassandra and daughter Jennifer run the back of the house, cooking, chopping and doing the dishes, while Charisse runs the front of the house and Jeffrey stays on top of the accounting.
Since the pandemic hit, they have had to close their wholesale accounts at restaurants, farmers markets and retail outlets, including Whole Foods, because of a staffing shortage. But the company says they have been getting more customers on the weekends this year than they were in 2019 – even with only curbside dining and carryout.
“We had lines of people down the street,” Jeffery says of their first weekend back in business after closing for two months.
The company is working on expanding its website for online orders and relying on services like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub for delivery.
“In troubling times, you have to come up with an answer,” Jeffery says. “If you don’t evolve, you’re not successful.”
Next on their plate: Cassandra and Thomas, both in their 70s, plan to retire soon and pass the business on to their daughters.
“I might not see it, but one day you will own this whole block,” Jeffery tells them. “We survived the test of time and we will continue to survive and grow.”
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