If you think building a business around sweet-potato-pie is a pie-in-the-sky idea, you haven’t met Gay Wheeler-Smith (left) and Kecia Palmer-Cousins (right). The dynamic duo runs G&K Sweet Foods, a Peekskill-based company that manufactures traditional Southern-style desserts such as sweet-potato-pies and tarts (based on Wheeler-Smith’s great-grandmother’s recipe) and chocolate-chip and oatmeal-raisin cookies.
The women, who’ve been friends since meeting at a book club in the ’90s, decided to launch G&K in 2007, with the ultimate goal of canning the sweet potato pie filling to sell in supermarkets. “We knew before attaining that goal we needed to get our name and our product out there first,” says Wheeler-Smith, a registered nurse whose full-time job is in healthcare IT/informatics.
An early alignment with the Women’s Enterprise Development Center (WEDC) helped them establish a commercial kitchen and scale up production. And they’ve grown the self-funded business little by little ever since. Today, their baked goods are sold through their website (www.gksweetfoods.com) and in several local specialty stores (plus the Westchester County Airport), and they are close to fulfilling their initial goal—a frozen filling mix will be on the market by early 2015.
Wheeler-Smith, who grew up cooking and baking with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in the Bronx, always dreamed of taking her family’s traditional recipes to the marketplace. And Palmer-Cousins, who holds an MBA from Long Island University and spent 25 years at Verizon, most recently as a senior project manager, was just the right partner to help her. Raised in Mount Vernon, Palmer-Cousins was surrounded by small, family-owned businesses started by her entrepreneurial parents, uncles, and cousins. “I learned so much from them about the technicalities of how to run a business,” she says.
Wheeler-Smith and Palmer-Cousins have smartly steered G&K’s growth efforts toward the commercial market. Armed with both state and county minority-owned and disadvantaged-business certifications, they are aiming for contracts with large food-service organizations, assisted-living facilities, schools, penal institutions, catering services, and event planners—“basically, any places that order large quantities of food,” Palmer-Cousins explains. In 2014, they increased profit margin by 40 percent, and secured three contracts, including a vendor contract for the VIP Tailgate Party at the Super Bowl.
“We need several different revenue streams; that is key to our sustainability and success,” adds Wheeler-Smith.