Meet Detroit’s Sweet Potato Innovators

By Lauren Hoffman on November 28th, 2016 / Comments

This story begins over 29 years ago, with a cookie. Specifically, the sweet potato cookie Cassandra Thomas finally agreed to bake for her husband Jeffery on the  very first Thanksgiving they were married. That cookie would become the foundation for Sweet Potato Sensations their soulful Old Redford bakery and restaurant that now serves as a neighborhood anchor, an incubator for other family businesses, and the epicenter of a growing brand of sweet potato-based products.

But there are two stories here. One is about the food: Cassandra’s cookies were fantastic. The greater food goal became to revolutionize the sweet potato, a staple of black American cuisine and a point of connection with their personal family heritage and the community they identify as their target audience. They began selling them in the neighborhood, famously selling 125 bags in two hours at a garage sale. In 1994, the Thomas family opened a small bakery on Lahser and Grand River, selling cookies and pies. Then in 2009 they opened across the street in a larger storefront, complete with abundant eat-in space and a kitchen they’ve renovated.

That was where I sat down to brunch with Jeffery to talk startups and small business development, over a heaping plate of fluffy sweet potato pancakes, perfectly-seasoned salmon croquettes, and grits. On my way out, I grabbed a half-pint of their homemade sweet potato ice cream, which is so flavorful and unique it could be a cult product on its own. The food more than speaks for itself.

But the other, more interesting, story is the startup origin tale that seems to provide the real motivation for Cassandra, Jeffery, and their two daughters, Jennifer and Espy, who now also work for the family business.

“We got a lot of notoriety in the last four to five years, people don’t know you’ve been around 29 years,” he said. But their 29 years of experimentation and deeply intentional self-teaching has fortified them with entrepreneurial wisdom and vision. This is not a restaurant, but the beginning of an empire.

It was evident from the beginning: well before anyone threw around “lean startup” jargon, they were testing and validating their product immediately, experimenting with names and gathering consumer feedback from neighbors and friends. They plugged away for over two decades, putting in the hours of unglamorous labor critical to any startup, learning, refining, and improving their model and constantly planning their next innovation.

“You have to constantly reinvent yourself,” Jeffrey advises, in order to stay relevant. A full kitchen, a new sous chef (to work with Jennifer, who currently oversees the recipe development and cooking) and resulting full savory menu, is on the way. Slightly longer-term, they’re interested in wholesale expansion, boosting their online sales, and opening other locations in the city.

Meanwhile, value creation begets value creation. The location has become something of an incubator for other family businesses. Sisters Espy (“Etta Flyy”) and Jennifer run Naturally FLYY (a natural hair women’s empowerment group with a national following), out of the space, hosting large gatherings within, and they have launched a retail line with edgy-chic tshirts and jewelry featuring lines like “I rock dope hair” and “honor your ancestors.” This is all part of the dream.

“Sometimes,” Jeffery warns, “you can get so into the business, that you can be working in the business but not on the business.”

Working on the business, to strategize its growth trajectory, oversee new product development, maximize revenue and positive impact, and provide fertile ground for further business development, is where the family’s interests lie.

Do they eventually want to sell the operation? No.

“Real economic power and wealth is in generational wealth. We’ve gotta keep this,” Jeffery sagely acknowledges. His vision is to build a legacy through the black-owned, family-run business, and someday to see his daughters sitting on the board of the large enterprise Sweet Potato Sensations becomes. The Thomas family believes in it so strongly that, as Jeffery says, “the how will work itself out.”

With an entrepreneurial vision – and ice cream – like theirs, it can only be a matter of time.

About the Author

Lauren Hoffman

Lauren Hoffman

Lauren Hoffman is a new citizen of Detroit, excited to explore the city. She's a 2016 Venture for America fellow and works at Castle, the property management startup. She also writes, a website and newsletter about the coolest things to do, see, eat, and support, all over Detroit.