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January 9, 2024

No Cakewalk

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Not uncommonly, part of someone’s success story includes the fact that they were the first person in their family to graduate college. Jordyn Gaines reversed that pattern when she dropped out of school after a year to become the first member of her family in recent times not to earn a degree.
But in following her dream, the self-taught baker and young mother of three has carved out a creative niche for her JordyCakes business through a mix of innovation and hustle. “I am living proof that you can do it all,” she says, though “it doesn’t always feel good and it’s not always easy to balance.”
With a decade of small business life under her belt at a young age (she’s still not 30), she’s catered for celebrity clients like singer Chaka Khan and basketball player Dwyane Wade and expanded her offerings. As well as creating elaborately designed $600 custom-made cakes for weddings and other special events, she also sells $9 mini cakes in a jar and even through a vending machine.
In addition to honing her baking skills, she has learned a bunch of other ones. “I’ve made my own websites. Every marketing thing in the shop, I’ve done it. I’ve decorated the entire shop. I make all the merchandise, every T-shirt, every everything. If I ever needed to write a resume, I have some things to put down.”
‘Edible art’
Gaines learned she had a flair with flour and fondant in high school. She grew up in an artistic home in the south Chicago suburbs, though the others expressed their gifts in a studio not the kitchen. “My family is full of artists,” she says. “My brother is a painter. My mother writes calligraphy. Everybody has their artistic niche and mine is cake. . . I like creating edible art.”
Discovering her gift while still young, she started her own business at just 16. When “most people are doing sports and chess club, whatever people do, I was making cakes and building my clientele.” She wanted to go to culinary school, but the cost made it out of the question, so she ended up at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville studying a different kind of mixing (science).
She met her now-husband, Dez, and they both dropped out after a year (he has since finished his degree). Shortly before leaving for Southern she had been featured on Windy City Live, a talk show on the Chicago ABC affiliate. Gaines decided “it just really didn’t make sense to be at college, being a broke college student, when there were people asking me to make cakes at home.”
She told her family she wanted a year to go after her passion, and if things didn’t work out she would return to school (“I got that from Will Smith”). She didn’t have to honor that pledge—business took off and by the time she was 20 she had opened her own bakery.
One challenge has been scaling up. Though supporters have told her that her cakes should be in grocery stores she doesn’t want to have to add the preservatives that would give them the necessary shelf life. “It’s a quality thing for me.”
One way she has grown her business is by going small. “I was only able to make so many [large] cakes every week; it’s very limiting.” She had assistants, but they couldn’t produce the quality she needed. “You have one big old cake covered in fondant,” she remembers thinking. “What is a better way of breaking it up? You take that sheet cake and break it down and put it inside of jars, and now we can ship it nationwide.”
People started lining up outside her shop for her small JordyJars, which has led to other business: “Being able to allow people to taste the cake before buying a $600 cake makes it really easy to convince people that they should shop with me.”
There has been a secondary benefit to the jar-sized servings—no more waste. “When you have cake scraps, you throw all that stuff away. Not no more; it’s all in the jar, baby.” Next, she created an outside pink vending machine for 24/7 purchases when she isn’t open (patent pending). She wants to see more placed in airports and malls, one day.
‘A gift from God’
While she has broadened her reach, she has stayed in her lane, which is cakes. “Cake is the only thing you can make pretty. You can make the best soul food dish, but it’s just going to look like Thanksgiving dinner. It’s going to look delicious, but you can’t make it beautiful. So, cake art, like I found my niche… I can look at a cake or look at a picture and make it into a cake, which is why I knew this is a gift from God that I have.”
Gaines recognizes the help and encouragement she has received from so many different people.
“I always want to make sure people that have helped me know I appreciate every order, big and small,” she says, “because it’s paying for me to eat and my children to eat and keeping me going as a person that is dealing with things that people don’t even know about… you know, every day it’s a constant battle…”
Much of Gaines’ name recognition has been built through social media. “A lot of people have watched me get married and have kids and add to my family.” They have followed as her husband quit his job to help her at the bakery when she was dealing with postpartum depression. “These are really big moments that my customers are able to build a relationship with me [through] and they can continue to support you because they know that them supporting you is going to help your kid to go to basketball camp or something like that.”
In addition to her Instagram account (@exjordynary), Gaines has also launched a podcast, Mommy’s Anonymous, which offers straight talk on issues about parenting, relationships and mental health. She created it to be “a safe space for moms to feel seen, heard and felt while sharing real motherhood experiences.”
Though she has earned a name for herself, it hasn’t been easy. Indeed, there have been times when she has been tempted to throw in the towel, but she has persevered. Just recently an order came in after she had been praying for a sign that she was right to keep going. “It’s not going to solve all the problems, but it solves some for sure.”
And more importantly, she believes, it was “a sign from God, like, ‘You’re OK.’” Speaking of faith, the past year has been about “letting go and letting God… truly walking by faith… having three kids, running a business, being in a pandemic and being married, being young, being Black, my husband being in the army…” It has been hard, she goes on, “but I’m going to be on the other side of it.”
Gaines doesn’t seem old enough to be asked what she would tell her younger self, knowing what she does now, but given her decade of experience, it’s a valid question. Her answer: “I would really just say, ‘Don’t give up. Your little ideas are going to be big ideas. Your little business and your little hobby is a big deal and you’re going to be a big deal. Don’t give up.’”
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.