Micro-Baker with a Big Following
How Jess Nguyen whisked a donut craving into a full-time business.
Celeste Percy-Beauregard, September 05, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioJess Nguyen, owner/operator of Joosie Sweets with some of her creations. Photo credit Paul Smith, Photohouse Studio.
When the pandemic disrupted life as we knew it, social media gave a platform for largely self-taught bakers to share their home-baked creations on an ultra-local level. For folks staying closer to home, these micro-bakeries satisfied a craving for comfort food and connection.
Joosie Sweets was one of the first to take off in Brantford, with her gourmet donuts, and her success – and candor about her challenges – has helped pave the way for other local micro- bakers.
It all started when 25-year-old Jess Nguyen was moving out of her Etobicoke student apartment, post-graduation from Humber College, and a craving for Krispy Kreme donuts hit. It was April 2020, the pandemic had just taken hold, and seeing the line-up wrapped around the parking lot of the chain’s Mississauga location – the only one west of Toronto – she kept driving.
Back at her family home in Brantford, Jess took matters into her own hands, searching YouTube and Pinterest for donut tutorials. “My dad was a chef at The Olde School Restaurant, so we had all the equipment, we had a stand mixer and deep fryer,” she says, and she shared her first batch with friends, who encouraged Jess to start selling them.
When she started her Instagram account @joosiesweets, in May 2020 to showcase her creations, she had 1,000 followers within the first two weeks. "I think I got really lucky with when I started this online business, because everyone was just at home,” she says, “So it just grew incredibly fast."
A delicious variety of decadent treats by Joosie Sweets. Photo credit Paul Smith, Photohouse Studio.
With a degree in biochemistry and forensics, and no real business experience – other than a short venture selling jewelry during school, also over Instagram – the early days meant a steep learning curve for Jess, and on one especially busy day, she turned out close to 500 donuts over a 15-hour shift.
"I worked really hard in 2020,” she says, “It was a lot of pressure, because the demand was very high. I was working probably five, six days, minimum, a week, and I just didn't know how to deal with the large incoming orders." Since customers came to her door to collect their donuts, taking orders through direct messages on the social media platform allowed Jess to get to know customers from a safety standpoint, but it also helped her build personal relationships, aspects she felt would be stripped away with a website.
With close to 40 indulgent flavours, like cinnamon toast crunch, white chocolate strawberry and coconut cream pie, Jess’ donuts are so aesthetically-pleasing that they just beg to be re-grammed. This quickly garnered her lots of attention, but not all of it positive. In January 2021, she was shut down by the health unit for operating without a business license – an obstacle micro-bakers face when they start informally as a hobby, and may not be aware of restrictions.
Jess has always been open about her challenges, even though she was warned not to come across as too emotional if she wanted to be seen as professional. “I understand that. But also, this is my business, I want to run it how I am,” she says, and as a result of the personal connections she made with her customers, many gave her emotional, and in some cases practical ("There was a point where I was asking my followers very specific questions like: ‘What do you guys know about commercial vent hoods?’”) support throughout the challenging process of becoming a legitimized business.
“It was very hard to get that all done," she says, of the procedure, which involved going through four departments: buildings, zoning, health and fire, and at various points over the four-month process, Jess thought it might be the end of Joosie Sweets. “I was so sad because I am very attached to this business,” she says, “I wasn't ready to open a storefront because I'm still so young, I have so much learning to do.”
Feast your eyes on two of Joosie Sweets' popular flavours. Photo credit Paul Smith, Photohouse Studio.
It’s been nearly a year and a half since Joosie Sweets reopened, and in that time, Jess has found her rhythm, developed a solid process and continues to create exciting new donut offerings, like her apple fritters and crème brulée – two concoctions she is especially proud of.
Although she has grown to over 10,000 followers, Jess is still firmly rooted in her community, and still authentically herself, using her platform to help bring awareness to causes she cares about, including donating proceeds from certain donuts. "I just want to make a difference in the world whenever I can."
Paving the Way for Other Local Micro-Bakers:
Jess’ success, and her candor, helped set the scene for other locals, like Gennaro and Lidia Battista, who started their gourmet cinnamon bun business, Lidz.Cinabunz, over social media in August 2020, and Grace Yu, who began offering her Mochi Muffins on the “Food-to-go in Brantford/Brant & Area” Facebook group in July of this year.
“Everybody was talking about Joosie Sweets and she took the world by storm,” says Gennaro Battista, who started selling his cinnamon buns via Instagram in August 2020. “Much credit is to be given to her. [Seeing her success] it was kind of like: OK, this could be done."
When Gennaro, who worked in sales for a helium and balloon wholesaler, experienced a temporary pandemic layoff, he began making cinnamon buns with his wife Lidia to pass the time, and his sister encouraged him to start selling them. Called back to his job, he continued filling orders for his enticing flavours like earl grey, maple bacon, and peanut butter cheesecake on weekends, until demand increased to the point that he quit his job in May 2021 to bake full-time.
"Called back to his job, he continued filling orders for his enticing flavours like earl grey, maple bacon, and peanut butter cheesecake on weekends, until demand increased to the point that he quit his job in May 2021 to bake full-time."
After converting his townhouse garage from a beloved cross-fit zone to a health-inspected and licensed kitchen space, Gennaro used his sales background to get his treats into shops and markets both locally, and in other nearby cities, which now makes up the bulk of his business. Although this success has him working 60-hour weeks and some days getting up as early as 1:30 am to prep, Gennaro says, “I wouldn't trade it for anything.”
In a similar fashion to Jess, Grace Yu made her first batch of Mochi Muffins to replicate a treat she’d been dreaming of since trying it on vacation in San Francisco, but couldn’t find locally. A riff on the Japanese mochi made from sweet glutinous rice flour, the muffin version has a cookie-like texture on the outside, with a soft and chewy centre. Unable to source even a recipe, Grace experimented and created her own, customizing them with traditional mochi flavours, like black sesame, ube, and matcha, and local favourites like cookies and cream and birthday cake.
When her boss at a local restaurant allowed Grace to use their commercial kitchen off-hours to make a large batch of her Mochi Muffins to bring to a party, her co-workers tried them and fell in love, prompting her to gauge community interest.
Since her first post on the local Facebook group, Grace says “The response has been amazing! Lots of people have been very supportive,” and she has since started an Instagram account @_missmochii and is in the process of sourcing a more permanent commercial kitchen space.
“Seeing such great reactions made me so proud to be Asian, (something I struggled with growing up) and being able to spark some interest and joy from my culture with strangers makes me so happy.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Celeste Percy-Beauregard’s first form of storytelling was as an actor, and her eager curiosity and interest in a variety of subjects led her to writing. Her work has appeared in Toronto Star and Today’s Parent, and she is enjoying exploring Brantford and learning about the people and places that make it such a special city.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Paul Smith has been shooting photos professional for the past eleven years. After graduating from Applied Photography at Sheridan College in 2008 he returned to Brantford and opened Photohouse Studios with his partner.