Female merchants making their mark on Union Street

Jo-Ann Mingo arranges flowers in her shop, which will have its ribbon cutting later this month. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)Jo-Ann Mingo arranges flowers in her shop, which will have its ribbon cutting later this month. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — As empty storefronts on Upper Union Street become scarcer, female business owners become increasingly easy to find. In fact, during a short stretch this month, three businesses owned by women — all in the same block — will cut ribbons and celebrate their openings.

Shannon and Nicole Cuff were originally scheduled to see the first ceremonial snip, at Cuff’s Cakes, but it was rescheduled from June 17 to June 24. Still, the two are hustling to get ready for the Strawberry Festival on June 20 and their ribbon-cutting soon after.

Standing in their teal-and-purple shop at 1631 Union St., the pair, who live in Rotterdam, said opening a business has been a whirlwind experience.

Nicole went to culinary school at Schenectady County Community College and taught Shannon to bake. The two posted a cake they had made for a friend on Facebook, and things took off.

“All of a sudden we had people calling us,” Shannon said.

Shannon Cuff, left, and Nicole Cuff, right, are all smiles in their new teal-and-purple shop. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Shannon Cuff, left, and Nicole Cuff, right, are all smiles in their new teal-and-purple shop. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Initially, they sold cakes from their home, but the oven was small and it was difficult to fill orders in limited space. Even so, they prepared dessert for 55 weddings last year.

The pair agreed it was time to find a space to do business, but discovered purchasing equipment and working with contractors was tougher than they had expected.

“It’s not a woman’s world, that’s for sure,” Nicole said.

Shannon agreed. They had learned to walk into a room with confidence, but they still worried about being taken advantage of.

Even so, they knew there was plenty of potential in building their own customer base around their elaborate wedding cakes, rich brownies and unique cupcake flavors like s’mores and blueberry pancake. Nicole repeated inspiring advice the pair received from a mentor, also a woman who owns a bakery: “Give me a woman-owned business and I’ll make you a million dollars.”

A tray of s'mores cupcakes tantalizes at Cuff's Cakes, newly opened on Upper Union Street. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

A tray of s’mores cupcakes tantalizes at Cuff’s Cakes, newly opened on Upper Union Street. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

“We’re succeeding without men. It’s empowering,” Nicole said.

Jo-Ann Mingo, who owns Flowers by Jo-Ann right next door at 1613 Union St., will celebrate her ribbon-cutting on June 18. But like neighboring Cuff’s Cakes, the shop is already open and succeeding.

“I love the area I’m in. I’ve decided to settle down here,” Mingo said simply.

After growing up working on her family’s farm in Maine, where they grew Christmas trees and blueberries, and then managing a franchised garden store in the Boston area, Mingo said she was ready to work for herself.

Unlike Shannon and Nicole, Mingo said she hasn’t felt disadvantaged by her gender in the business world.

“I don’t really find it difficult, especially in the floral world,” she said.

“There are a lot of women in business around here. I love being a part of it,” she added.

The Cuffs agreed that all the local business owners, but especially other women, had offered warm support as they got their shop up and running. In fact, they’ve already partnered with Mingo, purchasing her flowers to use as decorations for a gravity-defying “topsy-turvy” cake, which is smaller at the bottom and wider at the top.

Along with a nearby salon, the three form a sort of wedding mini-district, and all refer each other’s services to brides and grooms.

Kathy Holtz sits in her nearly-finished dance studio on Upper Union Street. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Kathy Holtz sits in her nearly-finished dance studio on Upper Union Street. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Similarly intertwined is Dance Me at 1619 Union St., which will have its ribbon-cutting June 19. Owner Kathy Holtz said her students are almost certain to patronize other businesses on the street.

“I talked to Jo-Ann,” she said. “My recital time is big for flowers.”

She said tap shoes often have to be repaired, too, and she planned to recommend nearby Michael’s Shoe Service after her classes begin July 7.

The support network of local business owners goes beyond simple cross-marketing, though. Holtz, who lives nearby, in Niskayuna, said she loves when her new business neighbors stop by to say hello.

“Everybody seems so willing and wanting to connect,” she said. Whenever the door is open while she paints or arranges furniture, people poke their heads in to wish her well.

Other business owners act as mentors, too. Sondra Stephens, who owns Sondra’s Fine Jewelry, has given advice to Cuff’s Cakes two owners and even ordered sweets from them for a recent event.

“It’s really cool to have a business that’s been here so long show us the ropes,” Shannon said.

Most days, obstacles aside, she said the challenges are dwarfed by the pleasure of owning her own business.

“We walk in here every morning excited,” she said.

The interior of Flowers By Jo-Ann. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

The interior of Flowers By Jo-Ann. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.