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Calgary sisters prove relationships survive pressures of running bake shop
When starting your own business, how risky would it be to create, invest, and manage it on a daily basis with a family member? Would there be the chance of ruining a relationship with someone close to you?
For Calgary sisters, Justina Wong and Sylvia Kathol, going into business together, they say, only brought them closer to each other. They are owners of Bliss & Co.: Cupcakes and Desserts, a bakery that specializes in not only cupcakes but also wedding cakes and special desserts.
"We have the full support of our family — husbands, mothers, aunts, in-laws etc.," said Wong. "There is no way we could have pulled through our first year without their patience and understanding. We have survived thus far because of them and the patience and generosity of our staff."
The sisters started their company in 2009 with one location in Chinatown. Using their very different skills — Wong's business administration background and Kathol's self-taught baking skills — the company came into the market at a time when cupcake shows and shops were on the rise.
"The idea of cupcakes came from our belief that competition is healthy," said Kathol. "And another cupcake shop would be a great addition to the Calgary market. We also believe in accessibility and making it nut-free would make this possible for adults and children. It was a leap of faith and a lot if determination."
Expanding a company
Since 2009, Wong and Kathol have opened two more locations, one in Chinook Centre and the other in Bow Valley. Expanding a company can put added strain on family relationships.
Wong and Kathol have managed the stress by carefully defining their various roles in the bakery.
"We each have our area of specialty," said Wong. "We both make sure to stay within our boundaries to avoid any misconceptions [like] leadership and lines of communication for our employees. We don't ever switch off. What we do is truly a part, not all of who we are."
When asked about their age difference and whether claiming seniority is a concern, Kathol said, "With respect to age...we would rather leave this a mystery. Our age never is a factor to either of us pulling rank. We continue to strive towards equality and respect regardless of stature, age, or disposition."
Keeping the peace
The owners said that there will always be some conflict when working with family, but resolving a problem is a matter of dealing with it rather than letting it build up.
"We argue all the time and there is the occasional flying cupcakes to prove it," said Wong. "It's inevitable. We love what we do and with that comes passion—on both sides of the coin. "
"We love each other and being that we are sisters we forgive and have no alternative but to work things out," continued Kathol. "The business is simply an extension of our dealings when we were younger. This time however, it's not over clothes, whose turn to drive the car or shoes. It always turns out the same. After a day of arguing and not seeing one another, we miss each other and realize there is no one else in the world we would do this with."
To add to the pressures of running a business, the sisters have committed to making their store more environmentally friendly and effective — duties that can put additional strains on the relationship.
"Being as Earth-friendly as possible is always a struggle," said Kathol. "We use green products, recycle everything we use and try to reduce our footprint by constantly looking for biodegradable or Earth-friendly choices."
In addition to the concerns for the environment, they also run their bakery as a nut-free zone.
"Nut-free requires diligence and perseverance," said Wong. "We are constantly checking on our suppliers for nut-free products and we also make sure that anything that comes into the bakery meets our requirements. It can be tough, but we know how important it is to our clients who have nut allergies to be a bit of a safe haven."
There is no question that being in business with family members will take work and commitment to the business and the family. Wong and Kathol have taken their passion and turned it into an expanding company.
Their combined advice to those starting their own business is to:
• Believe in your product
• Invest in quality
• Be humble
• Never take you or anyone for granted.
• Success is dependent on a solid vision, so never lose sight of why you did it in the first place.