SPARTA, Mich. (WOOD) — A cluster of shipping containers in downtown Sparta is giving entrepreneurs a shot at success during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Saturday, Sweets 4 Days Bakery & Creations became the next shop to open in Sparta Town Square at 201 E. Division Street in the heart of downtown Sparta.
“We offer smiles and I think very good desserts,” co-owner Passion Ganaway said.
The menu includes cake pops, fudge and Oreos and Rice Krispie treats coated in chocolate.
Sweets 4 Days also serves up standard and gourmet cupcakes in a variety of flavors, from salted caramel and cookies and cream to chocolate lovers and chocolate sundae, which co-owner Alesha Bout-Murphy says is her mom’s favorite.
“(They are) all flavors that we created off the top of our brains, so everything we make, you’re not going to find it anywhere else,” Bout-Murphy said.
The owners agree the current fan favorite is strawberry lemonade, which they dreamed up after Ganaway’s brother requested it for his birthday.
“We actually put Simply Lemonade in our mixture, so it tastes exactly like taking a drink of it,” Bout-Murphy explained.
“We kind of just went for it and boom! Everybody started ordering them,” Ganaway said.
Sweets 4 Days also offers custom-ordered cakes and seasonal treats, including apple cider and pumpkin spice cupcakes in the fall.
SWEET SMALL TOWN SUCCESS
Ganaway and Bout-Murphy tried once before to launch a bakery when they lived in Grand Rapids.
“But Grand Rapids has a lot of bakeries, so it didn’t take off,” Bout-Murphy said.
When the couple moved to Sparta and bought a home last year, they decided to try again.
“And it took off fast. Honestly during a pandemic, I didn’t think it was going to take off like that,” said Bout-Murphy.
While life in Sparta seemed slower than the “big city” of Grand Rapids, business through their Facebook page moved swiftly.
“Within the first two, three weeks, we were booked every day,” Bout-Murphy said.
The women originally planned to keep their side jobs with Shipt, DoorDash and Postmates. But as their bakery grew, they quickly realized that wasn’t necessary. Their hand-delivered, individually wrapped treats filled a niche within the Sparta area.
“I think people were waiting on this. I think they need this, for real,” Ganaway said.
After passing by Sparta Town Square several times, the owners of Sweets 4 Days researched the program and reached out.
It was a match.
“Specifically for the downtown, it’s really nice to have that walkable treat — something… delicious to snack on (while you) walk by the Creekside, some of our pathways, that type of thing. We have a lot of community events that focus on our downtown area so it’s going to be interesting to see how the sweets really play into what goes on downtown,” Elizabeth Morse, director of the Sparta Downtown Development Authority, said.
Now Ganaway and Bout-Murphy are holding the keys to their first storefront, no business loan needed.
“I love it. I think it’s a great start, a great start for people that own small businesses. This is the spot where you want to be at when you’re first starting up,” Ganaway said. “I think it’s just going to make us bigger.”
FLOURISHING DURING A PANDEMIC
Six months after the Sparta Town Square retail incubator welcomed its first business, the pilot program already appears to be paying off. Morse says Sparta has added a dozen new businesses downtown over the last year, which is “absolutely” more than non-pandemic year.
There’s a waitlist of budding businesses ready to take over one of the remodeled shipping containers.
“It’s really flourished downtown Sparta,” Morse said. “Between the Sparta Town Square, the Marketplace 201 which is adjacent to it, and the rest of downtown, we’ve seen a ton of new businesses open, which is a really good sign for Sparta.”
Sparta Town Square started as an idea pitched to Consumers Energy in 2019 for a chance at a community revitalization grant. Of the 50 rural communities vying for funding, Sparta took third place and a $2,500 grant to help make it happen.
Sparta partnered with a local commercial developer to transform four shipping containers into 150-square-foot shopping spaces startups could call home for about $300 a month.
Morse says the program is piquing the interest of home business owners considering a jump to brick and mortar.
“This idea is really filling that gap for them to try it out, especially right now, because things are a little uncertain. And it’s really a comforting feeling, I think, to know this is an easy way to start up and test the market and see if it’s successful,” she said.
“This (program) made it to where something felt possible. We’re going somewhere now,” Bout-Murphy said.
More feet are also walking along downtown streets as locals and visitors show their support for pandemic-challenged businesses by shopping local “now more than ever,” according to Morse.
“Small independent businesses… we like to say they do a little cheer every time they make a sale, unlike maybe a big-box store or somebody who doesn’t even recognize when a sale is made. These are people who work here, who live here and it’s impactful for them every time somebody does come visit our community,” Morse said.
“The community is who builds us. Our family was a big part of it, but the community, I mean, a business is nothing without the community,” Bout-Murphy echoed.
KEEPING IT LOCAL
The village’s goal is to grow those new businesses into places ready to fill vacant brick-and-mortar storefronts downtown — a vision already shared by Sweets 4 Days’ owners.
“When we grow, we do get a storefront, I want to stay in the area. You know a lot of small businesses, they start up in small towns, they get big and they leave, and they go to big cities. I want to stay local,” Bout-Murphy said. “I don’t plan on leaving Sparta.”
Morse says if the program proves a success, the DDA will consider expanding Sparta Town Square at the end of the year by adding more shipping containers-turned-storefronts.