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Susan Terranella-Hoffman

What is your official title?

Co-owner of Cakes Boutique.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

An average day has me up between 6:00 and 6:30am to get my kids going. I take my older son to school with his buddy who lives across the street, then I come home and get my little guy ready, take him to daycare, then come back home to get ready for my day so I can look “super stylish”! If you ever catch me taking my kids to school, there’s probably fleece pink penguin pants involved – and no, we do no sell those at Cakes.

A lot of times I’ll have 8:00am meetings that involve different committees I’m on or associated with downtown. Then everyday I am at my store, which opens at 10:00am. My day-to-day involves updating our social media outlets and everything that is involved in running the boutique, which is mainly helping customers who come in find what it is they are looking for.

It varies what time I get out in the evenings, but I’ll go pick the kids up, help them with their homework, and get to trying to make dinner, which a lot of times means buying dinner on the way home! And lately, I’ve been getting to bed really early; I used to stay up late, but since I have a middle schooler, I can’t stay up past 10:00pm.


What’s your opinion of the fashion in Kalamazoo?

I think that fashion in the states is significantly behind European fashion to begin with, so fashion in Kalamazoo is that much further behind. It’s not a diss by any means, but we are in the midwest – we aren’t in Los Angeles or New York where new fashion trends are consistently popping up.

So as far as Kalamazoo’s fashion – it’s a mix of lots of different things. We have to be careful when we are buying. We have to have an honest conversation with ourselves to say whether we think that Kalamazoo is ready for a certain trend. We have lots of lines out of L.A., and they’re super trendy and fashion forward there, so we go with our gut and take risks. Sometimes it backfires, and that’s OK; that’s just how the industry is.

I will say, though, that fashion has grown and evolved in Kalamazoo a ton! There are lots of really great stores that are doing cool things downtown to push people out of their comfort zone style-wise. Do we have pockets of opportunity to continue to influence the fashion around here? Absolutely! We are doing all the right things, but there are areas of the industry that have not been addressed in Kalamazoo, so we still have room to grow.


What kind of projects are you currently working on?

As far as Cakes is concerned, we are rebuilding our website. I’m trying to launch an eCommerce section of our business, which is a little scary, but we’re ready for it.

I am on the board for the Downtown Retail and Restaurant Association, and we are currently working on a “Girlfriends Weekend”, so lots of fun little events, shopping deals, etc. with your friends, and we are doing that in conjunction with a lot of other groups, like Southwest Michigan First and DKI to put on this event in the spring. It’s something that is done in a similar way in Holland, and we’ve been talking about doing it for a few years now, so we’re super excited for that.

I’m also on the Fundraising Committee for Prevention Works, and we are gearing up for our Casino Night Fundraiser, which happens in February. I help to raise funds and get donations for the various auctions that they do. And there are always little projects at home; I stay pretty busy.


Can you tell us about your background/passion?

I have always had a passion for the fashion industry; it was what I studied it in college. I did an internship at Neiman Marcus when I was in college and studied abroad in London, so that’s where my love for the industry stems from. But I didn’t pursue a career in fashion when I graduated; I went more of the business route and got my masters in Accounting, so I didn’t have the fashion industry background before opening Cakes. Fashion was just something I always loved, and I’m happy I found my way back to it.


What is the history of Cakes?

Patti, my business partner, and I have known each other since we were 11. We always talked about doing something like this, but it was just a pipe dream when we were younger and we never thought it would actually happen. Patti was a buyer and had a ton of industry knowledge and experience, so we really melded our backgrounds together when this opportunity arose.

Her sister, Kristi, told her about the Retail Incubator Program downtown and said hey, this is always something you’ve wanted to do and I think you should apply. So Patti decides she’s going to give it a try, writes up this proposal about what she would do if she were to receive the grant, and she ended up getting approved for the program!

From there she was kind of like, where do I go from here? Patti called me and asked me to be her business partner, and of course the second I heard the opportunity I wanted to, but there was a lot to think about, like my family and my responsibilities at home from a financial perspective. I knew I wouldn’t have normal hours, because with owning your own business, regardless of what you have planned, you never know what could pop up.

I really thought about it, and talked to my husband and parents to make sure that we would have help with watching the kids. During all of this I was helping write the business plan and acting like I was part of it, but still didn’t know if I could make it work.

We put our ideas together and came up with this concept to bring big city affordable fashion to Kalamazoo with an emphasis on customer service. There were other stores in Kalamazoo with similar product, and we wanted to add an exceptional customer service aspect to that. As for the name, Patti’s brother called her “Cakes” like Patticakes when she was little. We sat down to figure out names, and I had nothing! I love the name Cakes; the only downside is every now and then having to remind people that we aren’t a bakery!

It was a year from when she actually asked me to be her partner to when we opened the doors. And that’s really how this whole thing got started. There was a lot of energy and time put in, and bottles of wine, and late nights writing and rewriting our business plan; it’s been a labor of love. In February it will be four years. Some days it seems like we just opened, and others it feels like we’ve been doing this forever; every day feels a little different, which keeps it fun and exciting.


Any upcoming events that you’re particularly excited about?

Yes! I’m excited that on November 14th we have our three amazing interns from Western putting on a fashion show that they have been planning at the Union. We’ve brought Lana’s Boutique on as well, and it’s showcasing our holiday and casual lines.

The girls are loving planning it. I’ve loved giving them something that’s tangible that they own; it’s their show, and they’ve really done everything for it. We do our own fashion show at Skydeck every summer, which has been really fun, but this is something a little bit different, and I’m just so proud of the girls for what they’ve put together.

Having interns is something we’ve done from the get go. Community engagement is so important to us, and both Patti and I have good connections at Western, so it just made sense. It wasn’t technically written out in our business plan, but it was something we thought about from the beginning; we just couldn’t get this notion of engaging our local students in our store out of our heads.

Having interns has been amazing for us; we love working with them, and opening their eyes to what we do every day. I wanted there to be some added value to their internship, so planning this show has been good experience for them. They could go anywhere to intern; they could go to Chicago or work a summer up north and get paid, but they’re choosing our store and to be in Kalamazoo, which I love. I want them to take something away from their time with us.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that I love the most; I’ve lived here my entire life, so there’s lots of things I love. If I had to narrow it down, I think that the passion that people have for this city is amazing, and there’s not a lot of other places that have that passion. I’ve been fortunate enough, even though I haven’t lived anywhere else, to travel the world, and you don’t find a place like Kalamazoo very often.

I love the people who love this city and what they are doing to invest in it. There’s so much to offer from the arts, music, theater, food; and every place is locally owned!

I grew up by Kalamazoo College, so coming downtown is always what my family did. I remember going to Jacobson’s, and that huge staircase, and I remember in high school when Fourth Coast Cafe opened; I thought it was so edgy and cool.

It was tough, then, going to college at Western and seeing the downtown area dying because businesses left. However, I got the chance to then see the upswing and the positive growth start to happen after I graduated, with restaurants like Olde Peninsula and Food Dance opening; those two spots, I think, were instrumental in spurring growth from a restaurant perspective.

Places like Earthly Delights, V&A Bootery, and Gazelle Sports have all invested from a retail perspective, which has been inspiring for other retail shops to pop up. I’ve seen the up and down, and seeing downtown come back on this amazing upswing has been so great. Cakes is happy here; we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.


What has been one of your biggest learning moments?

I had my son as a single mom when I was still in college. I think just navigating our lives at that point; being young and on my own was such a huge undertaking all at once. I was a college student and wanting to work in the fashion industry, but having a child put those dreams on hold.

Fashion isn’t huge in Kalamazoo, and 11 years ago when I had my son, if I were to jump back into the industry, the mall was the only opportunity to do so. I had to put my dreams on the back burner, but I never say that I had to give up my dream – my dreams just changed a bit.

It was hard; I wanted to get out of Kalamazoo and start somewhere new, but I knew that having stability was what my family needed, so we lived with my parents, who are the most amazing people.

It was definitely a huge learning curve of coming into my own, and having this little person who was dependent on me. I’m still learning, every day, and continuing to focus on helping mold him into the wonderful person he is!


What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?

Music is one of my passions; I have a very eclectic playlist. There’s this hip-hop artist out of Detroit named Danny Brown, who I’m kind of obsessed with. I really like hip-hop music; I have one of Dezert Eez‘s first albums.

I have a country bone in me as well. The funny thing with that is that I hated country music, and I mean hated, but during my freshman year in college, I fell in love with one of Alison Kraus’s songs. My roommate was like ‘Susan likes a country song?’ I do have to say it’s great music to listen to with my kids.

Besides Danny Brown, I love Justin Timberlake. I listen to XM radio, so I try to keep up on the new stuff.


What is next up on your reading list?

Music, reading, fashion – those are my top three loves, besides my family, of course! I’m a little obsessed with my Kindle – you never know when you’ll have some down time to read! I got that from my mom; she always has a book with her!

Currently on my Kindle is Dan Brown’s Inferno. Sometimes you have to go back to a physical book; as much as I love my Kindle, there’s something about holding a physical book and flipping through pages. I tend to read physical books about topics that I’m not going to just whip through. I’m reading Purple Cow for business reasons; it’s one of those books you can come and go from when you need some business inspiration.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

I take my coffee with more cream than coffee. I’m not as bad as I used to be; I used to add sugar, but I’ve kicked that habit. I really like flavored coffee; I love Something’s Brewing and get my coffee there virtually every day.


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

I do love the Union. Antonio makes a killer extra dirty martini with blue cheese stuffed olives. I don’t like olives, but blue cheese stuffed olives are the best.


If you could bring any national or global event to Kzoo (infrastructure aside), what would it be?

I would like to see some type of music-related festivities. A Lollapalooza-ish type event would be awesome. It would be great for the city, and awesome to draw people from other places to bring them into our awesome little town.


What is your dream for Cakes?

We opened a second location in Ft. Wayne, Indiana in May. I hate saying it out loud, but having Cakes be a regional chain would be amazing. I don’t like the franchise aspect, but having several stores would be the dream. It’s a lofty aspiration, but I think it’s definitely doable down the road.


Where do you look for inspiration?

I follow a lot of blogs, and fashion magazines are still in; those are our two big areas to look. Reading magazines is a big part of what I do, but it’s mostly looking at the ads. The industry is so far ahead of itself in a way. We’ve already bought all of our stuff for Spring 2014 based on what’s trending. We have to do our research, and when we go to trade shows, we tie what we see in with the culture of our audience.


Susan, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Susan on twitter and be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.