Cathie Anderson

Owner of Devine Gelateria struggles to keep fledgling East Sac bakery afloat

Elizabeth McCleary, owner of Devine Gelateria, is struggling to keep her fledgling Devine Bakery in East Sacramento afloat. Here McCleary holds a blood orange and mascarpone gelato from her gelateria in midtown Sacramento.
Elizabeth McCleary, owner of Devine Gelateria, is struggling to keep her fledgling Devine Bakery in East Sacramento afloat. Here McCleary holds a blood orange and mascarpone gelato from her gelateria in midtown Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

In March, Elizabeth McCleary came close to closing the East Sacramento bakery she had opened just six months earlier with the hope of extending her Devine brand into pies, cakes and other pastries.

McCleary, whose midtown Sacramento gelateria has won a devoted following, said she posted a note March 26 alerting customers that Devine Bakery wasn’t making enough money to keep its doors open and that it would close April 1. A customer saw the note, McCleary said, took a photo of it, posted it to the Nextdoor.com social media site and wrote an appeal to East Sacramento residents to patronize the business and change the owner’s mind.

“Man, I tell you, the floodgates opened,” McCleary said. “We have sold out every day.”

After a week of getting the minimum returns she needed to keep her doors open at 3610 McKinley Blvd., McCleary decided to give the East Sac market more time. Her struggles, however, offer insight into the hurdles that can trip up even a seasoned business owner with a well-known brand.

Looking back, McCleary told me that she now sees delays she faced in the city’s building department as an augur of what was to come: She spent a big chunk of the money she’d put aside for the bakery during the city’s review of her building plans. They had to hire engineers to rework and reprint plans, and she couldn’t open in June as she had planned.

“The simple request from the city is not a simple request. It means getting a lot of people involved and a lot of reworking,” McCleary said. “When you add that up, along with three months of rent when we weren’t in business, it took all my winter money.”

McCleary opened the bakery on Sept. 9, she said, and business got off to a good start for the first two months. Then came the rain and more rain. Not many customers braved the downpour for baked goods – or for gelato at her midtown shop.

“I was looking at our bank account (in March),” McCleary said, “and I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to make payroll, and I’m going to be able to pay my bills. Then I’m going to be out of money. … If I go into April and we don’t pick up, I won’t have enough money to make payroll.’ 

By then, McCleary and her husband Brian McCleary had borrowed from his 401(k) and used up a small inheritance from his father in an attempt to keep the bakery afloat until sunnier weather coaxed out shoppers. People think that you’re making a mint as a business owner, Elizabeth McCleary said, but her husband’s salary from a local auto dealer is what really supports their household. She had collected only a small paycheck at the gelateria. Most receipts went toward employee pay, taxes, suppliers and other business expenses. Every year, she said, she reserved much of the summer sales surge to cover expenses during the winter, when traffic slowed to a trickle.

“I was shuffling money from the gelateria (to cover expenses at the bakery),” McCleary said. “When I looked out to September, if I kept shoveling the money from the gelateria over to fund the bakery, I wasn’t going to be able to dig myself out of debt.”

An East Sac resident since 1993, McCleary said she opened the bakery because she had listened for years to complaints from neighbors who mourned the closure of Philipp’s Bakery. McCleary had offered baked goods at the gelateria since she opened in 2011, she said, and they were popular with customers. She thought she could make a pastry shop work at a location she frequently passed.

It wasn’t until after the bakery’s sales fizzled, until after McCleary posted her note and after that customer made the impassioned plea on Nextdoor.com that McCleary realized her business faced other impediments.

The Devine Gelateria brand is so strong, McCleary said, that some neighborhood residents thought the new business specialized in the Italian-style ice cream rather than in baked goods. Others comments came from residents who thought Devine produced baked goods for dogs, confusing it with Healthy Hounds Kitchen, the dog food business next door. Still others simply didn’t know the business had opened.

McCleary said she’s doing more now to get the word out and improving her signage.

“If the bakery can make it, we think we should keep it open,” she said. “I posted on Nextdoor that we have changed our minds with the overwhelming support from the neighborhood, and I hope everyone continues at this level because this is the minimum level I need sales to be in order to support the business.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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