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    The Story of Southern Girl Desserts and Its Founders

    For Catarah Coleman and Shoneji Robison, the proof of their business plan is in the pudding—banana, peach cobbler and bread. Or the cupcakes, pies, cookies and other homemade sweet treats served up fresh by their Southern Girl Desserts.


    Perhaps not surprisingly, business has boomed for the Los Angeles-based partners over the last year as more people have sought some old-fashioned Southern-style comfort food that reminded them of better days—the company’s special “Rona Survival Package” featuring a selection of favorites sold well. Online orders exploded too, with Goldbelly and DoorDash distribution taking their goodies far beyond their established California base.


    The pair also closed on a second physical location, with a planned fall opening for a store in Watts, about a half-hour from their longtime spot in Crenshaw. The new store speaks to one of the things they have learned about running a successful small business together— the importance of staying focused on literally the main ingredients.

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    For, while having in-store space for people to enjoy the goodies together has been a good thing, they realized that, as they expand, it is even more important that what they serve up continues to be the best it can. Hence what may seem to be a counterintuitive move for their second location: no seating.


    “We learned early that as much as we wanted to have tables and places for people to come and have coffee and read the paper, like we do in our current store, it took away from us being able to actually produce at a level that we need to, with the small kitchen we have,” explains Coleman.

    Better together
    Over the past 15 years, the two women have established a sweet-toothed niche, with celebrity customers including Mariah Carey, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington and Stevie Wonder.
    While it’s not uncommon for good friends to become business partners, Coleman and Robison did things the other way round. A mutual friend who knew them both when they were students at Florida A&M University—unaware of each other—made an introduction because she thought Robison would like to know about the baked goodies business Coleman had not long started.


    “She had some skills and knowledge that I didn’t have,” Coleman recalls of that first meeting. “So that’s why, after 30 minutes, I asked her to be my business partner. I’ve never been the type of person that says I can do something and do it all alone by myself.”


    That recognition of different strengths is at the heart of their successful partnership, which has also produced a rich friendship. They know their own strengths, and also know what the other brings to the kitchen table.


    “We respect each other’s roles,” says Robison. “We allow each other the space to soar in those areas, and we try not to diminish what the other person does because we recognize that each role is pivotal. We can’t have this business without one or the other.”


    Coleman takes a lead on the creative side, while Robison deals with more of the logistics and business details. But while they recognize they operate best in different lanes, they have deliberately not taken or given titles. “Because sometimes that’s where the ego starts to get wrapped up,” says Robison. “We’re both co-owners of this business. In terms of the roles and the things that we do, we fell into them based upon convenience and necessity, and now it’s just kind of second nature for both of us.”


    For Coleman (who says, “we’re not just business partners; we’re sisters at this point”), Robison’s calmness is an asset. “She’s able to sit back, take a look at a situation. She doesn’t act immediately and when she’s calm, I’m calm.” Robison describes her partner as “one of the most creative people I’ve ever met; she always has amazing ideas. She’s a person that allows you the space to know that it’s OK to think big and not be limited.”


    “We try not to diminish what the other person does because we recognize that each role is pivotal.”


    Keeping on
    Southern Girl Desserts began as a side hustle, with each of them in time giving up other things—Coleman had been in communications, Robison in independent movies—to focus on the growing business. With plans for further expansion and an eye on a Southern Girl Desserts kitchenware line, the pair have some hard-earned advice for newcomers to business from their 15 years together: Just don’t quit.


    “There’s a lot of people out there who give up so soon,” says Coleman. “They have this dream, it gets hard and they’re like, ‘I’m out.’ But if you continue to believe in the vision, then you will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just keep going and grinding.”


    That is spoken from personal experience; the two have faced hard times but always decided to persevere. One such challenge was early on, when they won the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” contest. Their victory was a great publicity boost, but all the attention led to them losing their first bakery location and having to scramble to find a new base of operations.


    “Things ended up working out and turning around,” recalls Robison. “The wonderful thing about having a partnership is that we’re never really in the same space emotionally at the same time. So even though it looks bleak, and one of us may really be taking it a little harder than the other, they can say, ‘You know what? We’re going to be fine.’”


    Their business isn’t just about giving people a sugar rush. Both Florida girls, who got their love of baking from their grandmothers, they hope that in some small way their tasty reminders of childhood stir memories of family, appreciation for community and a celebration of heritage.


    Those values are all sorely needed these days, they say, noting how rude some small-business customers can be—like the one who had a fit because she wanted a sheet cake, not the Bundt cake that Southern Girl Desserts specializes in. “It’s like, ‘Ma’am you can’t go to McDonald’s and ask them why they don’t do curly fries,’” says Coleman.

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    Consumers are quick to complain and post bad reviews online, unaware of the pressures many small businesses are facing, adds Robison. “We may have shortages with supplies, we may be short-staffed,” she says. “I think the biggest pandemic right now is selfishness; everybody is just really concerned about what they want and not being concerned for their fellow man. I just think that we need to take a moment to really just pause and find a little bit more empathy for people who are really trying their best to provide.”


    MY WAYMAKERS: CATARAH COLEMAN

    I’m from a very small community, and when they say it takes a village, it really does. I could have a long list of people who have in some point in my life encouraged me or inspired me to be the person that I am today. My parents are amazing people. They always told me that I can do anything that I want to do and to always put forth my best foot. The faith that I have comes from my parents and the community that surrounded me and my faith is what sustains me to continue to go on.


    MY WAYMAKER: SHONEJI ROBISON


    I would have to say my dad; he is hands-down one of the smartest people that I have ever met. Growing up, he was very stern as a father, and when I look back now on all of the lessons that I learned, I’m just so thankful for all of those things that were set in place. They really shaped who I am as a Black woman, as a business owner, just as a human being—teaching me not to quit, and what sacrifice looks like.
    This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of WayMaker Journal.

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