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Home-baked business

From resident’s passion for baking, LaLa Cookies & Cakes is born

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published April 4, 2011

 Rose Elaine Clay of Hazel Park, better known as “LaLa,” holds a tiered plate of themed cupcakes at her new business, LaLa Cookies & Cakes.

Rose Elaine Clay of Hazel Park, better known as “LaLa,” holds a tiered plate of themed cupcakes at her new business, LaLa Cookies & Cakes.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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HAZEL PARK — When her husband lost his job a year ago, Rose Elaine Clay had to find a way to help her family make ends meet.

But the 46-year-old Hazel Park resident, known to locals by her childhood nickname “LaLa,” didn’t want to simply scrape by doing work she didn’t enjoy.

So when the opportunity presented itself, LaLa leveraged the support of her family and turned hard work, natural talent and a metric ton of passion for baking into a brand-new business: LaLa Cookies & Cakes.

Opened March 10, the budding baked goods boutique is located at 21930 Vassar, Suite B, off the northbound Interstate 75 service drive between Eight Mile and Nine Mile.

Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, with special order pickups Sunday and Monday, the shop sells all-natural, freshly-baked, homemade, pre-made and custom-order cookies, cakes, cupcakes, cheesecakes, brownies, lemon tarts, chocolate éclairs and more.

They’re also art, made of soft, flavorful dough intricately painted with dyes that don’t taste bitter. In some cases they’re arranged in “bouquets,” such as a box of roses where the flower-shaped cookies are affixed to sucker-stick stems. Themes can be tailored for any occasion, like rubber ducks for baby showers or superheroes for birthday parties. Currently, LaLa is even working on an edible Easter basket.

“Her artistry is hand-painted, freehand,” said Paula Peltan of Center Line, a patron. “I showed my boyfriend, Ken Van Etten, a cookie — I had a leprechaun — and I said, ‘Look at this. Look where the eyes are; look at the cheeks. They’re all in perspective.’ It’s a work of art.”

Peltan also raved about the lemon tarts — “just the perfect balance of sweetness and tart, and the texture of the custard is correct, with no over-processed aftertaste” — and said the brownies are “full-flavored,” not too wet, not too dry, “just right.” Her boyfriend, she said, was particularly smitten with the fresh raspberry swirl cheesecake.

Everyone who walks through the door gets to sample the items, LaLa said. Her hope is that positive word of mouth will help her fledgling start-up take flight. This is fitting, since word of mouth is what helped her business begin.

Before the store
LaLa’s entrepreneurial journey began at her niece’s baby shower in April 2006. She had prepared cookie bouquet boxes at each table there, and they were a hit.

“Everyone was freaking out,” LaLa recalled. “‘Oh my God, these are so cute! Will you do these for my son’s birthday? I have a wedding shower next week — can you do them for that?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’”

Encouraged by all the requests, LaLa decided, at her friends’ urging, to make her goods available online. So she tried selling them on eBay, but hit a couple obstacles: first, how to ship cookies without them breaking; and second, how to market cookies people couldn’t taste or smell beforehand. Aside from a few devoted customers, her eBay venture didn’t lead anywhere.

That’s when she tried craft shows, hitting up two or three a month, giving out 300 to 400 samples per show. She’d also hand out her card in magnet form, telling people to place it on their fridge and call her when the time was right.

“And it worked,” LaLa said. “I’d get calls 11 months later, and they’d go, ‘OK, I’m ready now. I still have your magnet.’”

She began to make a reputation for herself on the craft show circuit in this fashion. Then, at last year’s Clawson High School Christmas Craft Show, a fateful encounter set her on the path to running her own business.

A lady walked up to her table, asked if she could take the samples home — she preferred the miniatures to full-sized cookies — and LaLa told her she’d give her any she had left over at the end of the day. As it turns out, the lady lived on LaLa’s street, East Harry, in Hazel Park, and is a pharmacist at Marinco’s Pharmacy. The lady shared the cookies with her boss, the building owner, and he was so impressed he offered to rent out an empty space, so LaLa could start a business.

“I thought I didn’t have the money,” LaLa said, “but then I went in and actually talked to the guy, and he said, ‘Look, I just need this little bit of money; as long as you renovate it, you can do it.”

LaLa’s husband started fixing up the place, a former beauty salon, while LaLa herself got approval from the city and spoke to people in state government about what it’d take to operate a bakery.

At first LaLa was dismayed to find there wasn’t enough room in the store for the five types of sinks required by state law. But then she learned about former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Cottage Food Law, passed in 2010, which allows a person to make goods at home, but sell them out of a store. So that problem was solved.

One major problem remained, though. Since the Clays had filed for bankruptcy, no banks were approving LaLa for a business loan. LaLa knew her stepmother-in-law in Florida had repeatedly offered to help however she could, but fiercely independent as she is, LaLa didn’t want to lean on family. Her husband said it was her call, though.

“It took me about three weeks to get the nerve up, but I finally called Mom, told her about everything that was happening, and I asked if I could get a loan,” LaLa said. “And her reply: ‘How much do you need?’ God, I’m going to tear up again. She’s a very special lady.”

A good-humored one, too; when LaLa promised to repay her, she was told not to worry, as it’ll come out of LaLa’s inheritance when she dies anyway.

Open for business
Now that LaLa Cookies & Cakes is a reality, LaLa is baking around the clock, living the motto that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

“The shop is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then my husband picks me up and we get home, and if he hasn’t cooked dinner, we don’t eat dinner,” LaLa said. “I start baking at 6:30 p.m., and I go to bed about 1:30 a.m. You gotta do what you gotta do to get started.”

Her drive is clear, but that doesn’t mean this entrepreneur is fearless.

“I have those (existential) thoughts almost every minute of every day: ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” LaLa said. “But then the customers come through the door and I see the smiles, and I think, ‘Yeah, I’m onto something.’”

LaLa Cookies & Cakes is located at 21930 Vassar, Suite B, off the northbound Interstate 75 service drive between Eight Mile and Nine Mile. The store is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, with special order pickups Sunday and Monday. For more information or to place an order, call (248) 941-3561. Facebook users can also find LaLa by searching “LaLa Cookies and Cakes.”
 

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