Test tube retail: Van Aken District launches program for retail and food entrepreneurs

Eight years ago, Stefanie Lenor found herself addicted to the baking challenge television shows airing on stations like Food Network—watching the intricate detail the bakers incorporated into complex designs.


Soon, Lenor decided to get off the couch and make her own attempt at one of those cakes. “I said, ‘I’m going to try it and see if I can bake a cake,” she recalls. “I enjoyed it, and it was therapeutic for me.”


Lenor then moved on to YouTube cake videos and taught herself how to make her own ornate cakes. About five years ago, launched Cakefully Delicious—her home-based specialty cake company.


And this weekend Lenor will give Cakefully Delicious a trial run as a bricks-and-mortar shop when she runs a pop-up shop in a stall at Van Aken District’s Market Hall, 3441 Tuttle Road in Shaker Heights, as part of the District’s Food Incubator program.


“I’m just doing it this weekend to try it out,” she says. “If it works out, I’m looking to do it permanently.”


That’s exactly what officials at the District want in those who join the Van Aken Entrepreneurial Initiatives program, which includes the food entrepreneur incubator program and a retail program for makers. Megan O’Donnell, marketing and events manager for the District, says they the food incubator launched outdoors this summer with food entrepreneurs selling creations like barbeque, cake pops, and popsicles.


Lenor will be the first food entrepreneur to sell inside at the food incubator stall with her three-day pop-up shop beginning tomorrow, Friday, Oct. 9. The Corner Pop-Up Retail program launched yesterday, Wednesday, Oct. 7. Both programs are designed to encourage and foster local small businesses.


“What we envisioned with the Entrepreneurial Initiatives is we knew we wanted to help scale businesses and remove that barrier to entry,” says O’Donnell. “Leases are normally five years, and that’s a long time if you don’t know if it will survive.”


With the Food Incubator, the stall is set up with a kitchen and everything a food entrepreneur needs to test out a business idea. The stall is considered a level 2 kitchen by the Cuyahoga Board of Health, so it is not equipped for entrepreneurs who need to cook raw food, but it can accommodate cooks who need to bake confections or warm food.


“You don’t have to lease for a long period of time—you can get in there over several days,” explains O’Donnell. “Hopefully, folks can be there for 30, 60, 90 days and get a feel for what people like.

In Lenor's case, = her pop-up event runs tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 10 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 11 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. “I’m so excited about it,” says Lenor, who will sell slices of her specialty cakes in a mix of colors and flavors, including caramel apple and pineapple passionfruit cake flavors. “Ideally, I’d like to open [permanently] in Market Hall.”

The Corner Pop-Up Retail program At The Corner, O’Donnell says 17 local makers comprise the initial list of entrepreneurs who have rented a section of the stall. Monthly rental prices range from $12 for a shelf on a rolling island, up to $100 for a seven-foot wall section. The entrepreneurs also pay the Van Aken District a 30% consignment fee on all sales in exchange for support services like marketing plan help, programs on business development, and marketing support.


Like the food entrepreneurs, O’Donnell says she expects the makers to rent for one to three months. “The idea is to not have anyone to have a shelf there for a year,” she says. “We do hope they become future tenants and we hope it’s something for the community.”


The initial 17 makers include companies like Sweet Bean chocolate company, Funktini, Lotus Candle, and Rocket E3 T-shirt company, as well as stationery and notebook makers and cookie bakers.


O’Donnell says they have seen a lot of interest in both programs. “They typically would’ve been a part of the Cleveland Flea or other makers markets,” she says. Makers interested in applying for space at the Corner can do so here.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.