Leigh Growney of The Short Giraffe Catering

It’s okay to overindulge in desserts when they’re mini, especially when baking extraordinaire Leigh Growney is the girl in the kitchen. As the owner of The Short Giraffe Mini Confections and Catering, Leigh is dreaming up new recipes and bringing them to life in Sarasota, creating cakes and bars and truffles and everything in-between. The previously untapped market of minis appeals to people of all ages; Leigh bakes for events ranging from grandiose gatherings to children’s birthday parties. Always, her two-bite pastries are fresh and fabulous.

At 25, Leigh has already experienced and surpassed the world of less-than-perfect jobs. She’s now exactly where she wants to be, covered in buttercream and pursuing her true passion: baking.

Becoming the owner of a small business was far from easy, but Leigh had her culinary blueprint ready. This dessert diva is one smart little cookie, and today, she shares her story of how she crafted a business plan, stuck to her Southern baking roots, and dove spatula-first into all things miniature.

And be sure to check out her treats in our Backyard Bridal Shower and The No Fuss Dinner Party!

Full name: Leigh Elizabeth Growney
Age: 25
Current title/company: Owner of The Short Giraffe Mini Confections and Catering

Educational background (school, training, majors, degrees, etc.): Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, Minor in Sociology from the University of South Florida (go Bulls!). I have no formal culinary training, unless you count growing up in a Southern kitchen with a baking Mother and a very “style savvy” Grandmother! I attended a series of pastry classes 4 years ago with a professional pastry chef, where I fully developed my passion for baking and the intricate details of pastry decorating.

Year you started The Short Giraffe: 2012

What was your first job out of college, and how long did you hold that position? I was a substitute high school teacher (I know, it seems horrifying) for two years during college, and I continued it full time for about 6 months after I graduated, not knowing what the heck I was going to do with my very “open-ended” (my mother Grandmother said meaningless) degree in Psychology. I had done a brief internship during college for my local United Way, doing online marketing and events, so I figured I was destined to be a success in the non-profit world. I finally scored an interview from the 500 millionth Craigslist job posting I applied for, and I landed a gig as the Regional Event Coordinator for a local healthcare non-profit. $26,000 a year, 3,500 miles per month on my car, and hours of uncompensated time later, I paid my dues and decided it was time to move on.

What were you doing prior to opening up The Short Giraffe? Prior to the official launch of my business, and after the failed attempt at saving the world in my non-profit job, I took a position working for a local publishing company doing ad sales and handling their event coordinating. I was wary of a “sales” job (gross pictures of greasy used car salesmen and cheesy pitch lines were all I could imagine), but I decided to take it on the recommendation of a friend, the promise of a larger salary, and heck, I already had the background in event planning.

How did you overcome the financial hurdles that come with starting your own business? I would say “overcome” is a term not yet fully applicable when discussing financial hurdles in my business! As new as it is, I still struggle regularly with the financial challenges that come with new business ownership, but things are growing rather quickly and the profits are definitely showing! I have been beyond blessed to have a boyfriend with a LOT of local connections in the business world, and being a homegrown native myself has helped me to build a quick following and steadily growing business with lots of local events and regular customers coming in. But it’s hard, I can’t lie. I am still in a bit of an in-between phase in my branding, my expansion and my marketing. I have so many grandiose ideas, but many times a less-than-spectacular budget with which to make them happen. My Mother ALWAYS taught me how to save and invest my money wisely, however, so I have tried to make the smartest decisions possible and am taking things one step and a time. I am lucky to have an amazing support group of other local business women who have jumped on The Short Giraffe bandwagon, promoting the heck out of me, recommending clientele, and just being genuinely supportive of another local business and a young woman with a vision. It’s beyond amazing, and I am so grateful.

What inspired you to open a bakery that exclusively creates mini desserts and confections? In the past few years baking has changed from a specialized skill of the few, to a media-crazed phenomenon and a business venture for many. I knew this going in to it. I was a little late in the game. But it wasn’t just an “idea” I had to make some money or try a “popular” trend. I genuinely love baking, and cooking, for that matter, so I wanted to give it a go and follow my passion. That being said, I am no fool, and I was not even going to attempt to open up the millionth “Cupcakery This” or Cake Palace That” in my city. I needed some sort of angle to set myself apart. I found that in minis. The city of Sarasota, where I live, is an interesting mix of older retirees, young families just starting out, and funky 20-somethings with money to burn and a taste for extravagance. An all-mini baking business seemed like the best choice to cater to elegant parties and charity events with small finger-foods, yet still be able to turn around and make an amazingly delicious mini birthday cake for a two-year-old’s special day. People like small bites, not only because they don’t make you feel QUITE so guilty for eating them, but also because they are fun and can offer a variety of choices in larger quantities for any type of occasion. I grew up in a home where baking was a skill and flavor was most important. Many bakers today sacrifice flavor for design, which is what I wanted to avoid. Flavor and freshness are most important to me, so offering a variety of mini desserts with delicious, fresh, and local ingredients was my goal. No one around here had the idea, so I figured, heck, make the move before someone else does. I have found that the results and popularity have spoken for themselves!

How did you learn the ins and outs of running a business? Budgeting, filing taxes, marketing, web development, store planning, etc.? My business is very new. It has been a personal venture that I have been on for years independently, so being quickly drawn into the legitimate world of business ownership and all of the “behind the scenes” things that come with it has been quite a whirlwind. I referenced my wonderful partner, my boyfriend, earlier, and his great business savvy. He has been a tremendous help and source of guidance for me in building this business professionally as well. I consider myself to be a fairly adept person when it comes to basic business principles, navigating the online world, and marketing. I do have a Mac, for goodness sake! But he has been through it all, and he just seems to always know the “right” thing to say or do whenever I have a question, and that has been a TREMENDOUS resource. I have had to learn on my own, as well to become more independent and self-sufficient when it comes to making the big decisions on my own (finances, investment, business filing, etc). I have navigated my way through filing the appropriate paperwork, standing in endless lines at the tax collector’s office, and learning to be a maniac note taker with every phone call or email related to my business development. It’s strange how it stops being scary and intimidating when you realize you just HAVE to do it, for yourself and for YOUR business. Then it’s actually just pretty gratifying to see what you have accomplished.

I have found a great deal of success with online marketing through my own site and blog, and especially through articles, mentions and tags from my fellow friends and business referrals on their respective sites (The Everygirl included!). Social media and marketing is such a huge part of any business, and it certainly is not something that is easy, free or quick. It takes time and attention, but I have seen the return and it is well-worth it.

Tell us a little bit about the process of starting your business. After you decided you wanted to do it, what was the first step you took to make it happen? What were some of the biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them? My decision to start my business came from my desire to have a job where I could combine what I loved (baking) with the creative, “something-different-everyday” desires that I had for a career. Monotony terrifies me, but so do giant leaps of faith. I decided that the latter choice would pay off much more in the long run, so I went for it. My first real step that I took was to buy a website domain, as boring as that sounds. I am a planner, and I like solid, concrete decisions to be made before I take the next step. I felt that I could not move forward with anything until I had a name, and that name had to be meaningful, personal, fun and catchy. That night, after sitting in front of GoDaddy.com and choosing a name, I knew there was no going back.

My biggest challenges at the beginning were actually planning out my menu and what I was going to offer to my clients. I have SO MANY recipes, ideas and crazy concoctions that I am always creating, and I had no idea where to start to present them publicly. What should I include? How many flavors should I offer? How many types of mini desserts should I post? Do I change up my menu options? Do I offer seasonal choices? Its was very overwhelming, because I had so many ideas constantly flooding my brain, but stopping myself from spilling them all out onto my site and overwhelming people was tricky. I still struggle with this (note the 40 current flavors on my site, which change regularly), but I have narrowed down a lot of my options, and it is constantly a work-in-progress.

How have you handled marketing for The Short Giraffe since you began? My two main sources of marketing have been online promotion and word-of-mouth referrals. I have a rapidly growing, regular clientele base who are WONDERFUL about spreading the word for The Short Giraffe and recommending my dessert catering to other clients. My online marketing has been an excellent, but challenging tool, as well. It is AMAZING exposure on a much larger scale, bringing in big orders for events and catering functions, which I LOVE to do. It is a constant, regular effort, however, to keep up with (updating the site, blogging, posting, tagging, etc), in order to get the most out of my online marketing, but definitely well-worth the effort.

How has The Short Giraffe changed since it opened? Has your team expanded, or have you added any additional services or products since it began? In what ways would you still like to see it evolve? The Short Giraffe has most changed in the short amount of time since I opened by the size and amount of orders that I do for events. I always had this idea in my head that I would FIRST open a storefront for everyday passers-by to come in and have a few desserts with a cup of coffee. In reality, it quickly expanded into a catering and specialty dessert business with large-scale events, private parties and business partnerships for regular ordering. I have had to quickly adapt to handling big orders with large quantities of desserts, the process of delivery, and most importantly, efficiency in production. Planning for an event is not the same as baking for a day to fill a dessert case. Its a different kind of effort.

I would love to NOW see the Short Giraffe return to the original dream of private storefront ownership WITH a catering department for special events. I will need to expand by hiring staff and designing a space to fit this need as well. I can’t WAIT for this second half of the journey to begin!

Tell us about the process of obtaining a commercial kitchen space? (we assume you are renting?). Did you rent it as is? Did you need to buy appliances? I was, again, very lucky to have a great personal connection who was willing to allow to me rent a portion of his commercial kitchen space in his already functioning and flourishing restaurant. This was a really good move for me, because it required minimal equipment purchasing/renting. I have had to make several equipment purchases on my own, just to stock up on some things that I needed specifically for a baking business, but all major appliances and counter space were readily available for me to use, which was a huge help and cut down on a lot of extra expense.

What advice would you have to other aspiring business owners, especially those in the culinary industry? My biggest piece of advice for a new or aspiring business owner would be to take a “planned” leap of faith, as odd as that sounds. Take the leap by starting the planning of your business—the leap is that first step into actually DOING it, and it is what will separate you from all of the “should haves” in the future. But be responsible, be smart, and plan. Jumping blindly without a solid business plan only creates a recipe for disaster (pun intended). Know your business and know your product inside and out before you put it out there. I learned this lesson the hard way at the beginning, and I had to take a step back and re-evaluate a lot of things. Your business ideas can always evolve and change (as they should in a culinary field), but your base plan should be solid, and your decisions firm.

What is the best part of your job? The most challenging part? The reactions that I get from my clients when they taste my desserts is the most rewarding part. The lucky times when I am still around at an event or party and I get to see or hear the reactions of someone tasting one of my minis makes me feel awesome. Baking truly is an art, so to get it right and create a flavor that someone adores and asks for over and over again is a skill that I am very proud of.

The most challenging part, currently, is handling the growing demand. Late nights of baking and multiple orders can be overwhelming, so learning how to manage my time and make decisions about when and how to expand can be tough, but they are necessary to continue growing in a positive direction.

Describe your typical work schedule. What does a day in the life of a bakery owner look like? How much time do you usually spend at the shop? A typical day in the life consists of lots of prep work. This is the behind-the-scenes stuff that many people don’t think about when they think of a bakery or a catering business. Baking for large quantities of people takes a lot of time to plan, shop for, prep for and often design for. A huge part of my time is invested in this. I typically do most of my baking at night. All of my desserts are made fresh, baked and delivered within a day, so much of the baking for an event is done the night before or even the morning of, then frosting and decorating are done just before delivery. Freshness of my desserts is THE MOST important thing to me, and I will not put out a product if it doesn’t meet my standards. My days are spent delivering, decorating, frosting, taking orders and managing the business end of things. It is physically very tiring but also fun, and I look forward to every new order and each new project. I love creating “custom” desserts to fit a theme or event, and the planning custom orders is one of the things I enjoy the most.

What one piece of advice would you offer your 23-year-old self? My 23-year-old self was only here two years ago, so I am still rather attached to her. I know what she was thinking and dreaming of then, and how difficult it was to decide what it is she wanted to do and when. I would tell her, now, to take that “planned” leap sooner, and to push that confidence further to make her dream happen. I was very unsure of many of my life decisions then, just two short years ago. The people, experiences and decisions that have come into my life since have forced me to become confident today, and I make a constant effort not to doubt myself. Sometimes the 23-year old still creeps in from time-to-time (usually at 4am when I’m tired and covered with buttercream), but I’ve learned how to manage her pretty well.

Click to the next page to get the recipes for S’more Truffle Cups and Lemon Shortbread Minis!

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