Sylvia Weinstock knows a thing or two about marriage. Celebrating her 64th wedding anniversary last February, Sylvia said “I do” to her husband Ben back in 1949, when women were expected to do little more than cook, clean, and care for their families. But, Sylvia wasn’t ready to settle down just yet. After marrying the love of her life, Sylvia decided to marry her life’s passion and profession to create the world famous Sylvia Weinstock Cakes.
Over scrumptious desserts and flavorful fillings, Sylvia Weinstock sat down with Dress for Success to give us the inside scoop on how she went from kindergarten teacher to celebrity cake connoisseur. Grab a piece of paper and find your favorite pen, because you’ll want to take notes on this one! Starting your own business is no piece of cake, but if there’s one thing we can learn from Sylvia, it’s that taking chances, finding the right resources, and getting creative can transform our innermost ambitions into fulfilling and flourishing careers.
Growing up in the 1930’s, Sylvia was taught from an early age that she had to fight for her rights as woman. For Sylvia, that meant creating a home she could take pride in as a homemaker and a breadwinner. “Being a housewife was just not enough. I wanted to be more. In those days, your choices were nursing, secretary work, or teaching. I became a teacher.”
Still, Sylvia’s appetite for success was far from satisfied sitting in her kindergarten classroom. Ironically, she had to go back to the kitchen to find true independence. “I loved to bake, and I thought if I started a business with a specialized-to-order cake, I could run my own life.”
In 1979, Sylvia embarked on an adventure to self-sufficiency, taking the first step in creating her own company: understanding the business. Just like her homemade recipes, Sylvia started from scratch, setting out to learn all that she could about the baking industry. But even with a little Saturday Night Fever, America wasn’t ready for the heat of a trailblazer like Sylvia Weinstock.
“I was considered a joke, because at that time the pastry department was run by men. So for a woman to come in, it was the biggest joke in the world. They couldn’t quite understand it. I asked a pastry chef that I knew whether I could come in and observe and he said, ‘sure, but you’re never going to get any place with it.’”
But Sylvia wasn’t about to let the doubts of one man discourage her from following her dreams. Like all self-made businesswomen, Sylvia took a chance on the greatest investment of all—herself. She defined success on her own terms, and encourages other women to do the same: “You have to be adventurous and you have to motivate yourself. Nobody is going to do it for you.”
So, how did Sylvia turn her favorite kitchen past-time into a thriving business? She rallied her resources and rolled up her sleeves the old-fashioned way, knocking on doors, calling up business owners, and refusing to take no for an answer. Sylvia created her own opportunities, starting her business from the ground up.
First, she started with the basics, talking to anyone who might be interested in buying her one-of-a-kind cake creations. Eventually, Sylvia struck gold. “I found these little country inns in upstate New York that would buy my desserts, so I started baking all kinds of wonderful things and I sold them to about five little restaurants.”
Sylvia’s extravagant desserts soon caught the eyes, and taste buds, of the New York social elite who wined and dined there, winning Sylvia her first high-profile client. “A number of women thought my cake was unique, different, and delicious. One of them ordered a cake and it went to the Carlyle Hotel, and the Carlyle became my first client. As soon as they saw it, they wanted it.”
Sylvia knew she was onto something special, readying her rolling pin to make the most of her big break. Quickly realizing the power of a great first impression, she decided to make a lasting one on the luxurious Upper East Side hotel. Nonstop networking and a shining personality helped Sylvia make friends in all the right places. She’s living proof that you don’t need big bucks to get your name out there, and sometimes the word of mouth is the best way to go.
“The banquet manager ordered a cake, then three cakes, and the word got out that the Carlyle had something new, beautiful, different, and delicious. Soon, the other hotels called. The Pierre called, The Plaza called, and the Metropolitan Club, and I was off and running. Before I knew it, we were in demand and the business started to grow.”
With the cake business booming, Sylvia Weinstock Cakes soon became too much for one woman to handle. That’s when Sylvia built her dream team. Today, these baking buffs and culinary experts are what keep her going– because every power woman needs a strong support system.
“It’s the team that makes it happen, because nobody can do this alone. Every area is important. Whether it’s from the baking to the filling, from the icing to the design, or from the boxing to the delivery, every step of the way is critical.”
Sylvia poses with Vilna Peters, her first-ever employee, who is still with her three decades later!
And, the Sylvia Weinstock team isn’t afraid to recognize a job well done. Gone are the days of the bashful damsel in distress! Now, women are leading their lives and their careers and taking credit for all the hard work it takes to get there. Sylvia’s no different: “We sign our artwork. Picasso signed his, and we can sign ours. I think that you should take the credit for it if you do something fantastic.”
A leap of faith, creative vision, and smart strategy led Sylvia Weinstock to the ultimate success, and now her inspiring story and business savvy advice are standing the test of time for women everywhere aspiring to marry their passion and profession.
Consider these three tips from Sylvia the icing on the cake:
1. Take an inventory of your skills. Sit down and figure out what you can do, and then go for it!
2. See where there’s a need for your talents. Talk to people who would benefit from working with you. You have a lot to offer, so make sure they know it!
3. Pull in whatever help you can get. Court the people that would give you business by writing a letter or following up with a visit, phone call, or luncheon appointment.