Truth be told, Mickey’s Cakes and Sweets isn’t the easiest place to find on the first try. Tucked well into a faceless mini mall along Rodney Parham Road, many a new customer has had to circle the parking lot a couple of times before finding the landmark Little Rock bakery. But once there, people never forget where they can get some of the best and most decadent baked goods in Central Arkansas.
Not only is the company itself a throwback to the days before independent stand-alone bakeries were a dying breed, but the array of products to come out of the kitchen are dizzying. There are 17 varieties of cakes alone that, when paired with one of 20 icings and fillings, provides enough prospective combinations to cover every conceivable occasion. And that doesn’t even count the cookies, pies, cheesecakes and miniatures of all of the above that fill the display case daily.
So, while it may take a newbie a couple of passes to get there, once you go, you know.
“The reward of being in business this long is knowing that the majority of our customers have been satisfied, and we have many repeat customers,” said Dorothy Coleman, for decades the bakery’s owner. “You know, you can’t please everyone no matter how much we try, but the majority of our customers are satisfied.
“They come in sometimes and they had their children that they were ordering birthday cakes every year from Mickey’s, and now they have their grandchildren they’re buying cakes for. I just get overjoyed at that. I really do.”
Now, if the newest generation of ownership has their way, the bakery will be a lot more visible in the coming years and not just in Little Rock. Dria Etienne, Dorothy’s granddaughter, bought the company along with her husband, Marvin, in 2019. And she’s got big plans for the family enterprise.
“Initially, my grandmother had someone who was interested in buying the business, and we had said, ‘OK, let’s get that started,’” she said. “I stepped in to help with that in May, getting it ready for sale, getting systems in place and just making sure that it was a nice clean pass to the new owner.
“Then we kind of talked about it, my husband and I, and decided that it’s been in the family for so long we’d hate for it to just kind of disappear. So, I told everyone we would be willing to kind of take over and toward the end of the summer, we stepped in as the ownership component.”
Taking over the business was not without its complications. Firstly, Etienne was not keen on moving to Little Rock from North Carolina where she currently lives and works as a real estate developer. Second, she didn’t have the gift for working in a production capacity as her grandmother had done.
“Oh, God, when I was young, I did that for two summers,” she said. “I learned very quickly that decorating was not my thing. I also had really weak wrists, and honestly you need a stronger wrist. I mean, they put braces on me and everything, and it just wasn’t panning out. I’m just not the most creative either. So, we let [decorating] go.
“Then they moved me to try to see if I could do baking. And I still can’t bake to be quite honest. We finally settled on customer service. That’s kind of where I ended up.”
However, the distance and lack of culinary skills didn’t tamp Etienne’s ambition for the company. She quickly unveiled a bold plan to transform the bakery into a national name by bringing Mickey’s signature quality to neighborhoods coast to coast.
“The only way I could step in is if there was some growth opportunity, and so we began looking at franchising,” she said. “We’re in the works of that currently.”
Under Etienne’s plan, the company will be rebranded as Mickey and Dot’s Cake Creations, a nod to her grandmother’s nickname. Each franchise location would sell and fulfill orders, assembling product components produced and shipped from centralized facilities.
“The idea is that these signature stores will only do decorating,” she said. “We will own the back-end side of production of the cakes and getting those layers shipped out. The franchises would purchase that supply and sell our products exclusively, almost like a wholesale kind of deal. This allows us to hold onto the special ingredients that deliver the taste.
“Honestly, in listening to our customers, what we’ve been known for … has been taste. We have great design, but it’s not the most extravagant. We have good creativity, but it’s not the most creative or innovative. But people do say, ‘We chose to go [to Mickey’s] and not elsewhere, because we love the taste.’”
Retaining the production side adds a layer of complexity to the plan over entirely self-contained units, as Etienne seeks to create a distribution system that locates centralized facilities within close proximity of franchise stores. However, she is quick to note, her blueprint does allow tighter quality control, with improved responsiveness to store inventory needs.
“We want to keep a production site near every franchise area. We want to try to keep everything within a three-hour radius for signature stores,” she said. “That alleviates a lot from [the franchisees] because managing quality control can be really intense. If we eliminate that for them, they can focus on the creativity side, which is what people who want to own a bakery are more into anyway. They can focus on managing the front and decorating, and not have to worry about actually making sure it’s baked correctly.”
The proposed changes are some of the most dramatic since Dorothy Coleman, who cut her teeth in Little Rock’s famed Koehler’s Bakery, joined her friend and future business partner, Mickey Young, in the latter’s stand-alone bakery. By 1997, Coleman owned the business and has run it ever since, adding her two daughters to ownership status along the way. The bakery occupies about 4,500 square feet and employs around 15 to 20 depending on the season.
Etienne said managing the company from afar has been challenging. She schedules several days per month to be on the ground in Arkansas and is quick to praise her management team for maintaining quality and customer service on a day-in, day-out basis. The family dynamic of the bakery also presented something to get used to.
“My grandmother, that’s her blood, sweat and tears of 30 years in this business. And she’s handled it so well, with lots of changes,” she said. “So, learning the ‘why’ behind things that were done and then explaining to her the things that had to be changed, that was the most difficult part of it.
“I’m naturally a Type-A person, and so I also think there was a cultural shock of me wanting to be respectful and maintain respect because I’m still her granddaughter, right? I was a little nervous because [my grandparents] were very instrumental in our lives and now, oh God, I’m going to have to start telling her some things. That was a little weird.”
Fortunately, Coleman was as eager to improve the business with modern tools as her granddaughter.
“I’m excited about it, as a matter of fact,” she said. “I’m a person that, you know how they say, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?’ Well, I’m one of those old dogs at 72 years old, but I do not have any problem with changes. It has been an easy transition, very easy. She is making me more acclimated to computers, internet, all of what she’s implementing into the business. And it is working.”
Etienne said, “I think it’s been handled really well, to be honest. Me and my grandmother have worked really well together. Of course, there’s always small things that come up where we have to really discuss why and how we have to move forward. It has created some complexity every now and then from that perspective.”
Etienne, 28, said the plan for 2021 is to finalize the many details of the new expansion, production and distribution plan. She said she hopes to have the first Mickey and Dot’s Cake Creations signature stores operational in 2022. But no matter what the new concept looks like, there are some things that will never change, at least as long as Coleman can still crack an egg or frost a cake.
“I still enjoy what I do,” Coleman said. “I went in and worked a while yesterday. Dria keeps telling me, ‘You don’t have to come in, you don’t have to come in.’ But I have to manage the employees who are there because they do not have the same feel for the business as we have, and I have to make sure they stay on track. So, that’s why I’m headed in there today, even though she told me don’t come in.
“I’m there for one reason — to make sure our customers are satisfied.”