Melissa Stefaniak

Melissa Stefaniak, a student at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, will graduate in May with her startup dessert business, Single Baked Sweets, well underway.

When you’re pushed for time, cramped for space or keeping an eye on the scale, one is often better than a dozen, a few is better than many and more than enough is way too much.

That’s why Melissa Stefaniak is in business.

Stefaniak’s struggle with serving sizes and kitchen space spawned Single Baked Sweets, which sells pre-packaged, ready-to-bake single-serving sweets for singles and couples.

“I grew up baking, my mom is a great cook and a great baker and I was spoiled by that as a kid,” the student at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business said. “I enjoy baking, but if I made a cake, we’d be eating it for a week. We don’t like to waste food, so we’d wind up giving most of it away. I thought there must be a way to make one or two servings.”

Living with her husband in a small New York City apartment added impetus to experiment. Stefaniak found cooking in a closet-like kitchen with shoebox-size counter space required circus-quality juggling techniques.

“Most of my countertop was taken up with a sink and I just didn’t have room for the mixer and the bowls and the ingredients,” she said. “If I wasn’t careful, there was a mess.”

A business analyst by trade, Stefaniak put her analytical skills to the cookbook test, seeking a way to make one tasty pastry out of a recipe for a dozen.

It became a fixation.

“I’ve always been oriented to achieving a goal. It just feels natural to me. But after a while, it was like, ‘why am I doing this?’ I kept working at it, trying to take a regular recipe and see if I could reduce it to make one or two servings,” she said.

“I thought maybe I could do it by using ratios and working a new recipe that way, but it didn’t always work that well, and sometimes not at all,” she said. “I finally asked my husband, ‘why am I doing this?’ He said, ‘isn’t it enough that you enjoy it? If it brings you joy, keep doing it.’ So I kept on trying.”

The harder she tried, the more she succeeded and soon she was distributing goods to coworkers.

“I found a few recipes that worked and I went to Michael’s [craft store] to get some packaging materials, and it started taking form,” she said. “That’s when I thought that maybe this could be something.”

Stefaniak, a 2009 graduate of Virginia Tech, decided to apply for grad school and hooked up with the Darden School to work on her master’s degree.

“I had started a nonprofit while an undergrad so I knew a little bit about starting a business and figured I’d go ahead and go back to school and get the resources and confidence to see if I could really make this something,” she recalled.

Stefaniak enrolled in a Darden MBA program that allowed her to continue working in New York City while studying, with occasional forays to Charlottesville for in-person classes.

Working with Darden lecturer and angel investor Damon Devito, she directed her ideas into the makings of a small business.

Each individually baked sweet comes complete with ingredients and a small foil baking bowl. The customer only need add butter.

“It’s baking on scale. Nothing is processed. The ingredients are things you recognize,” Stefaniak said. “You get the satisfaction of putting it together yourself and, most important, it tastes good.”

Stefaniak gave up her day job and made Single Baked Sweets her full-time gig. She’s toted her wares to the Charlottesville City Market and other locations for sale.

She also sells her sweets at singlebakedsweets.com.

Her product has found favor among singles, couples and kids. Brides looking for wedding favors also have discovered her sweet kits, opening up to her what theweddingreport.com estimates to be a $26.5 million market in Central Virginia alone.

“Melissa’s idea really resonates with people,” said Devito. “It’s sweet, but not guilt-inducing, which seems to be what American consumers want right now — high-quality, tasty products with real ingredients, in reasonable amounts. She’s figuring out that balance.”

Devito said Stefaniak’s gregarious and quick-to-laugh nature and her goal orientation are part of the early success of Single Baked Sweets.

“No product is going to go anywhere unless the person behind it can navigate all of the challenges and still come out with a positive attitude for the customer,” he said. “It’s not easy to do, but Melissa just keeps accomplishing things, keeps moving forward with a smile. She keeps staying in love with her business, and that’s the best way to do it.”

“It’s easy in some ways, because this is something people get,” Stefaniak said. “I don’t have to explain the how or the why of the product. It’s simply, ‘do you like baking? Do you like to eat sweets?’ People understand it, and that makes it even more fun.”

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Bryan McKenzie is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7271, bmckenzie@dailyprogress.com or @BK_McKenzie on Twitter.

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