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Laila Diodati never planned to own a bakeshop. With a background in political science, her intention was to become a professor. But when a cheesecake craving during her third pregnancy left her unsatisfied with the options available, she took matters — and ingredients — into her own hands.

Businesses are founded on moments of opportunity — on thoughts of ‘someone should make this‘ or ‘I would love it if someone made that for my family.’ The #OpportunityKnocks series showcases small business owners who have seized those moments to fill a market gap, solve a problem or address a new need — even in the face of adversity. Where some saw risk in an uncertain environment, these owners spotted an opportunity and made their move. Learn how these Canadian businesses opened the door to create something new, different or better. Discover how when opportunity knocked, they answered.

Based in Burlington, Ontario, Laila’s Cheesecake Co. is a thriving business in the community. While opening a new storefront in the middle of a pandemic might have appeared risky to some, Laila was able to leverage the opportunity presented by the “buy local” movement that picked up steam in social networks, growing in numbers and enthusiasm over the past eighteen months.

Thanks to neighbourhood connections, referrals and recommendations that spread the word locally, Laila’s Cheesecake Co. is delivering delicious and inventive cheesecake products to her community and beyond.

The ripening of an idea

Like many businesses, Laila’s Cheesecake Co. was born as a result of a gap in the market — a gap that was sharply exposed when Laila Diodati was seven months pregnant with her daughter and craving cheesecake. “I went to about five local grocery stores and a few bakeries, but nothing met my expectations,” she says in a recent interview. So, she ventured into baking her own cheesecakes and worked the next few days relentlessly trying many variations. “I will never forget when the recipe came together,” she says.

That’s when she got to work, setting up a home-based business in her kitchen and reaching out to people and businesses in her community to get the word out about her cheesecakes. “I connected with people at the local market and went to local coffee shops and said: ‘Hey, can you try my product and maybe sell it?'” she says. “I connected with other business owners, a lot of people in my neighbourhood, my kids’ school — I really did try to forge strong bonds with people.”

She also joined Facebook restaurant groups for neighbouring communities such as Oakville, Hamilton and Watertown — groups that took off during the pandemic as community members wanted to support local businesses. “These groups have more than 20,000 people in each of them. Someone posted about me once and I was so overwhelmed with the messages and emails I was getting,” Laila recalls. So when she opened her storefront two years later, people had already heard about her. “That really, really helped me take off and helped my store really thrive when it opened,” she says, emphasizing the importance of being online. Active on Instagram, Facebook and dipping into TikTok, Laila leverages the power of both online and offline connections. “Every customer that comes into my store, I ask them how they heard about me. Mostly, people say Instagram, Facebook or a friend told me about it.”

Managing soaring demand

When the store first opened, Laila and her team were selling out every day. “The first four months were a whirlwind, and we could barely keep up with the demand. It seemed surreal. I couldn’t believe the lines, phone calls and emails coming our way,” says Laila.

While she began by offering any flavour to any customer at any point, that turned out to be inefficient and unsustainable. So, she took a note from local cupcake bakeries, switching up the shop’s model to offer six different flavours every week in their Jarred Cheesecakes and Assorted 6-Pack. Her signature flavours, meanwhile, are available for advance, custom orders.

She also realized that she was overcommitting herself, which she recognized wasn’t a healthy approach to running a business in the long-term. “I naturally overcommit myself in every part of my life because I’m both a perfectionist and a people-pleaser. That doesn’t work out too well in my favour. I realized, however, that if I continued like this — where I wouldn’t sleep some nights — that I would be overwhelmed and the business couldn’t operate without me if something happened.”

To manage both the demand and her health, Laila stepped back and hired staff. She quickly discovered it was actually easier not to overcommit when other people became involved. “I don’t want my staff to be overwhelmed and flustered,” she reasoned. “So it’s easier for me to say no to orders beyond our capacity.”

Laila is also in the process of updating her website to an e-commerce model, where she can accept both orders and payments online. In doing so, she will reduce the administrative work of going through email orders and inquiries. “Customers will be able to quickly click the flavour, the size and the pickup date, and then pay. It will make it easier for our customers, our staff and for me.”

There are still some things to figure out, particularly given that cheesecakes are handmade and fresh daily. “It’s hard to anticipate how many cakes will need to be made in a given day,” says Laila. “But I think I have to start somewhere and will figure out some of those kinks later.”

Paying it forward in the community

“I love to connect with people,” says Laila. “I’d love to say that I took advice from all these professionals and really prioritized the business side of things, but at the end of the day, the connections I made with people helped me get my business off the ground.”

Grateful for the power of the community behind her — both online and offline — Laila takes care to pay forward her success with opportunity and kindness.

Her website, for instance, is being built by a student looking to start an e-commerce business. She loves supporting new businesses and knows how hard he will work to build something great.

And, even with high demand, a young family and a very busy schedule, Laila made the time to reach out to the community during COVID. Through her Random Acts of Cheesecake initiative, friends and customers nominated people who inspired them — whether it was someone who could use some kindness in their life while going through a difficult time or an individual who was contributing in meaningful ways to their community.

“Once I received the nominations, I would go through them — often tearfully — and select the people who would receive the cheesecakes,” Laila explains. “I completed about 25 cheesecake acts from June — October 2020.”

Today, as Laila and her team continue to sell out, they are constantly researching and experimenting to figure out how they can produce more without compromising on quality. Fortunately, she’s had no shortage of interest in roles she is looking to fill, as people are passionate about great cheesecake and remarkable owners who spread happiness through food, and delight through kindness and generosity.

Tips for other business owners

Laila’s Cheesecake Co. is a small but mighty business that is in high demand within her community and beyond. Here are some of the tips she offers other would-be entrepreneurs:

  1. Differentiate your product: To succeed in business, it’s critical that people see what makes you different than everyone else. For Laila, that’s the quality of her product. “People say to me, you don’t even need to market,” says Laila, whose customers describe eating her cheesecake as eating silk. “People post that it’s like a euphoric experience – it’s a really enjoyable treat.”
  2. Knock on doors: Building strong connections within the community enabled Laila to get her product known. By calling and emailing businesses, her products were sold both at local shops and at large retailers such as Nordstrom, which really extended her reach in the early days.
  3. Have a strong online and social presence: Laila thought she was well-known in Burlington, but after joining Facebook groups and boosting her Instagram presence, she realized that only a small portion of the population had been aware of her. Much of her business comes in through her digital presence, which she is constantly building.
  4. Expand carefully: Before Laila opened her store, she calculated how many pre-orders she would need to have and how many cheesecakes she would need to sell in a day in order to hire two employees and still succeed. “Now fast forward, I have eight employees and I tripled what I thought I would sell every day,” she says.
  5. Start somewhere: Laila knows there will be some bumps with her new e-commerce website in the early days, especially as she juggles demand. But she also knows that if she waited until everything was perfect, she could be waiting forever.

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