Andrea Sutton Lee Traded Textbooks for Cookbooks When She Started Her Boutique Bakery Sugar

The former educator faces the challenges of building a new boutique bakery while dealing with COVID-19.

Illustration by Chris Danger

Four years ago educator Andrea Sutton Lee took a leap of faith, trading her textbooks for baking tools, and started her own boutique bakery. Despite setbacks from COVID-19, she’s reemerged with a new line of products and a delivery model to sustain the business in the meantime.

As a “boutique” bakery, what sets Sugar apart from other bakeries?

Our shop is really small. We sell a variety of cookies and cupcakes, usually, and dessert jars, pudding, Rice Krispies treats, brownies, you name it. The biggest thing is we don’t mass produce anything. We value freshness and quality, so everything is available on a preorder basis.

You had a circuitous path to baking as a career.

I was an educator for almost 10 years, and it was all I knew. Baking was a hobby. It was something I could do while my kids were small, and they could be playing and I could watch them [and bake] at the same time. I was working at a charter school in Hamilton, and it wasn’t a good place. I was there for about [six months], and I observed a lot of predatory practices. I made a decision [in 2016] to leave, because I felt like every day I was in there I was giving a stamp of validation. In education, unless you’re going to be a substitute, you can’t just jump into another job in the middle of the school year. I spent a lot of time baking as a release—as a form of therapy, so to speak. I posted a couple things on Facebook, and people had inquired about me baking things [for them]. It took off. I was looking for work, and I had intended to go back [to teaching] the following school year, but the business had picked up in such a way that I thought, Hey, why don’t I try to make this into something and ride this wave? And here we are. I never looked back.

What was that career change like?

After you work that hard in one particular field, it’s hard to pick up and leave it all behind. For me, as a mom, my kids were really small, and it was an opportunity to have the freedom and flexibility I always wanted with them and still be able to work at my own pace and be able to establish something I could ultimately leave behind as a legacy to my children.

When did you decide to take your business into a brick-and-mortar?

We’ve been in [our store in] OTR since August of last year. We were online only for quite some time. You get to a point where you either take the leap or not. And for us it was time. We had built up a nice clientele through word of mouth. I felt like this was something that—to do what we did in such a short amount of time—it was worth taking that risk to be able to allow other people to enjoy our products.

How have your skills as a school administrator translated into running your own business?

[In education] there are a lot of back-end business-like [operations]. You have to be able to anticipate certain things before they happen and plan for it. Prior to being an administrator I was an education consultant, and so I worked with Hamilton County and CPS was my client. I was in and out of 12 elementary schools at a time training staff. Being able to come in and assess problem areas and being able to develop solutions—those are all things that helped to make me more successful on the back end of what I’m doing with my business.

How has COVID-19 affected Sugar?

Some [other businesses] were able to stay open and do curbside. But for me, I just had a baby on December 30. So I was off in January and had just gotten back in the groove in February, right before Valentine’s Day. Then shortly thereafter all of this went down. So for us, we had already taken a hit when this happened. With curbside and pickup, it was a tough decision that I had to make, but I just had to stop [for the safety of my family] and plan my pivot. I don’t want my business to die. I want it to continue to work for us and grow, but our family and our lives are more important. We made the decision to reopen every other weekend [for delivery]. Even though things are opening back up, we know it’s still out there. We’re doing the best we can.

Has changing the business model affected your products?

Our products have changed, though not entirely. I’ve moved a little bit away from custom cakes. We offer cakes in a jar and we still offer cakes by the slice. And our cookies have taken off. Things people want to have as a treat at home. Very quickly when we started selling them in the store the demand for them grew.

Sugar, 6 W. 14th St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 884-0787

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