Is it harder to start a business as an immigrant? You bet it is!
“It’s very difficult,” says Lorena Lock, with the help of her husband Johnny as translator. But Lock, owner of Million Cakes, was also able to use it to her advantage. Last year, she partnered with BakerRipley, an organization that connects low-income individuals to opportunities that can stoke the fires of their businesses. And for Lock, the flaming success of the last three years has made the progress of previous years look like, well, candles on a birthday cake.
In 2016, she won BakerRipley’s Entrepreneur Academy Pitch Event. With the $750 check in hand and the knowledge gained from the academy’s 10-week Spanish-language program, she had raised enough funds to open her first brick-and-mortar bakery by the end of the year. This year, she added her second location.
She’s now a successful businesswoman with eight employees, but it was less than a decade ago that Lock was a full-time stay-at-home mom to two daughters, now 21 and 16. The family left Lima, Peru for Boston in 2001 so Johnny could attend an MBA program there. They moved on to Houston in 2003. At that point, Lock had no thoughts of building a business. “I had to take care of my priorities,” she says.
But back in Lima, she had become passionate about baking. Though it’s now recognized as one of the world’s great food cities, at the time, there was no opportunity to study at a high-end culinary school, Lock says. Still, she was able to take classes to get her to a point that she was baking like a professional. Needless to say, when she began making friends in Houston and crafting them cakes just to pass the time, she (and her pastries) became increasingly popular.
“All our friends started to ask Lorena to sell her cakes, but the answer was no,” Johnny recalls. But nine years ago, as her girls got older, she started to change her tune. “I love doing it, it’s special to me,” she says of baking. And her background in marketing couldn’t lie dormant forever. She baked on a small scale, just for friends and their connections, but demand kept growing. Lock registered the business name Million Cakes in 2014 and says she got serious about expanding the business the following year. Before long, her home had five refrigerators to store all the cakes customers requested, but she still had to turn down orders.
The title “Million Cakes” quickly became more of a prediction than a pipe dream. Why did she choose that moniker? “Because it’s a strong name,” she says. “And I want to sell a million, million, million cakes. It’s a powerful word.”
Though Johnny says the flavor of his wife’s cakes is a “more homemade style,” the quality of both the flavors and the decoration is unquestionably that of a professional team. Fresh ingredients play a part in creating the reliably moist layers, whether it’s strawberry cake with cheesecake filling, lemon-Champagne cake with lemon mousse, or dark chocolate cake with amaretto-blueberry filling. But no matter if it’s a multi-tiered wedding or quinceañera cake or a kid’s birthday treat made to look like perfect 3-D images of the stars of Monsters Inc., Lock’s pastries are definitely something you want to eat with your eyes first.
Lock says that the greatest challenge she faced was getting bank loans, not only as an immigrant, but as an unproven business owner. “We were new to the market and the industry,” she explains. A close second? Finding good employees. But now that she has a stable team, she says that she’s proud to help put food on the tables of eight local families.
Her two stores are currently in Southeast and Southwest Houston. In the future, she dreams of hitting every corner of the city, with stores in the Northeast and Northwest, too. That will come, but more immediate plans include offering baking classes, passing on the skills that she learned back in Peru. Someday, she also hopes to sell mixes that will allow distant customers to make their own cakes and alfajores (crumbly, dulce de leche-filled cookies) just as she would.
But for now, she’s proud to be a representative of a successful Hispanic business owner. She’s appeared on Univision and in Solo Mujeres magazine, trying to inspire other immigrants to fight for a place in their adopted country. And for Lock, the payoff of all her efforts has been delightfully sweet.