COURTESY OF KARA NEWMARK
Kara Newmark is finding new ways to connect with her Sweetology patrons.
When Kara Newmark thinks back on her decision to go to law school, she understands that she was on autopilot. Her dad was a lawyer; so was her husband, her mother-in-law and her father-in-law. Naturally, it seemed, she was headed down her intended path — but it didn't take long for her to realize something was amiss.
"I started my life doing very little reflection," Newmark says. "I went to Wash U law school, became a lawyer and hated it. I hated it right away, so I left very early on into my career. I realized that I did not like arguing; I liked building."
Everything she's been up to since law school has involved building — building startups during the first dot-com bubble, building her consulting profile with such clients as Monsanto and Boeing, and now building her DIY sweets brand, Sweetology (multiple locations including 1232 Town and Country Crossing Drive, Town and Country; 636-220-3620)
. Born from a desire to throw herself into work that she truly loved, Newmark founded the company after years of soul-searching for something that spoke to her.
"I knew I wanted to start a company," Newmark says. "I didn't know what it was, but I knew I wanted to love it. I had enough miles on my moccasins to know that, if you are going to be away from your kids in that push-pull of being a professional woman, then you'd better love what you are doing. Otherwise, it's not worth it."
Newmark's years of helping grow startups gave her the know-how she needed to start and run a successful brand, but they didn't necessarily give her the idea. That would come while chatting with a friend one day, who asked her a simple question: What do you love doing? Newmark realized that she was at her happiest when she was in her kitchen with her kids, baking and just having a low-key good time together. When her friend mentioned she should check out a make-your-own chocolate bar shop in New York, a light bulb went off.
"I thought, 'Oh my god, I want to do something around cookie and cupcake decorating,'" Newmark says. "I couldn't get it out of my mind, and I came home and wrote a business plan."
Newmark opened her first Sweetology in Ladue in 2014 — a gorgeous, whimsical space that served as an edible art studio for parties, get-togethers and just-because occasions. She moved the operation to Town and Country three years later, then eventually expanded to a second location with a commercial kitchen in O'Fallon in 2020. Though she admits it wasn't all easy, she was getting into the groove and working to launch Sweetology nationwide, bustling along until the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything on its head.
Newmark shut down her two stores on March 5 last year and scrambled to figure out what to do. When she wrote her original business plan years back, she laid out an e-commerce component to Sweetology. Drawing upon that, she quickly transitioned her business to an online-only operation with virtual classes and camps and DIY kits she shipped across the country. The response was overwhelming, and before she knew it, she was doing virtual parties for huge companies — and shipping 10,000 kits in a quarter.
"It was the perfect storm, because at the heart of Sweetology is the why — why do we decorate a birthday cake for somebody, and make cupcakes to celebrate graduation, and get together every Christmas to decorate cookies and gingerbread houses?" Newmark says. "It’s connection. I was providing something during the pandemic that really provided that piece, because people were desperate to connect with each other and they couldn’t do that in person. However, they could get online in a virtual room and be together, giggling over a glass of wine, decorating cupcakes."
Newmark isn't quite sure what the future will look like for Sweetology. Though she sees the online component as here to stay in some fashion, she knows that, when it is safe to do so, people will want to return to in-person gatherings. She's approaching the future of Sweetology that way, not just because she wants to be prepared from a business perspective, but because it's what she finds the most fulfilling.
"What I always got joy out of prior to the pandemic was anytime I was in the store and people were decorating," Newmark says. "Kids were so excited when Grandma took them there, and people would come into the store and say, 'God, this place is so happy and pretty.' I’ve missed that. Because of the virtual world, we haven't gotten to see that as much — even building this thing together with my team has been very rewarding. I enjoy it, but I do miss seeing people in the store. It feels so affirming when I can see that they love it."
Newmark took a moment to share her thoughts on the state of the food and beverage industry, how the pandemic has fundamentally changed her business, and why, when she's feeling especially stressed, the answer is always ice cream.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I am not a great decorator, but it doesn’t matter. Art is a subjective experience. Cake and buttercream always taste good regardless of the presentation.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Butter. I get along with anybody.
If you weren’t working in the sweets business, what would you be doing?
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I am adapting, finding resilience and creating new opportunities.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
I miss the people. Sweetology is about connecting people through the fun of cake decorating. It was such a buzz to be able to see the excitement and happiness when guests were decorating in the stores, and it was such a daily affirmation that I had created something really special.
What will you miss least about operating during the pandemic?
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Ice cream makes everybody feel better.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
For me, my business has fundamentally shifted. I’m scaling for a national audience.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
It will end. People will be craving connection again and, having weathered the storm, it’s going to feel great.
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