Headshot of April Harris, founder of Keeping You Sweet.
April Harris, Founder of Keeping You Sweet, slowly built her baked goods brand while battling the grief of losing her mother. — Keeping You Sweet

Sometimes out of the bitterness of sorrow comes something sweet. When April Harris’ mother passed in 2011, the grief was so overwhelming that she wasn’t sure how she would go on. Her mother’s handwritten recipes gave her peace. “Something about seeing her handwriting comforted me. I felt like I could go on,” said Harris.

Her mom was an amazing cook, caterer, and baker. Harris found solace in making her mother’s dessert recipes, but made them healthier—with natural and low-fat ingredients, and without refined sugar and gluten. To work through her grief, she baked and baked. “I made extreme amounts of cake and started to donate them to fundraising events and participate in farmer’s markets.” Her cheesecakes, especially the sweet potato cheesecakes, took off.

It was in 2017 that things got really sweet. A friend with a contact at the newly opened Whole Foods in Newark, New Jersey, connected Harris with the grocer to sell her cakes. To make a long story short, Whole Foods became the first customer of Keeping You Sweet, which makes gluten-free and vegan brownies and cakes.

“I had no experience in the food business; I had to learn fast,” recalls Harris, who is also a recipient of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Coalition to Back Black Businesses (CBBB) 2022 Enhancement Grant. It wasn’t easy. For one thing, she said, women make up about 10% of those in food production and manufacturing, and African American women are less than 1%. However, she found mentors and her way in a new world. Harris was a former member of the ‘90s pop-dance girl group Seduction, and before starting her business was vice president of business development for a speaker’s bureau.

“I realized I couldn’t bake every cake. The business wouldn’t grow like that. You have to release some control,” said Harris.

Today, Harris, based in Hawthorne, New Jersey, is in 15 Whole Foods stores and has seven employees. When the pandemic shook up supermarkets, she pivoted to selling online—which was a blessing, especially because customers could customize sweeteners for their dessert. “It’s how we survived the pandemic,” she said. “Online sales brought tremendous growth.”

The peace she feels now came with a price tag. Her lessons weren’t cheap, but she shares them freely.

Realize that “done is better than perfect”

“I realized I couldn’t bake every cake. The business wouldn’t grow like that. You have to release some control,” said Harris.

Done is better than perfect. “I had to not go crazy if a label was crooked.”

Raise as much money as you can in advance

“The sooner you look to raise capital, the better,” said Harris. You want to have enough resources to meet opportunities. “That’s why I work extra hard. The money goes fast. You need a money plan to have options in place.”

Build a team first

Before officially starting your business, recommended Harris, get two or three key people in your corner to help you move the company along from day one. “You need help so that you [can be] freed up to pursue opportunities.”

Tie your dream to a higher purpose

Her mind is set on getting her own store in a New Jersey mall and eventually franchising. Harris is hardly exhaling, but with the pandemic woes in the rear-view mirror, she’s looking forward to diving deeper into the baking world to become a pastry chef and to keeping her mother’s legacy alive.

“I love my mom’s stuff. There’s a love note to her on every container that says, ‘Made by Georgia’s daughter.’ I love food—healthy food—and I want people to understand they don’t need sugar for something to taste good. We’re reimaging dessert. There’s a lot of room to grow in this space.”

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