The one thing that stands out about Ann LoParo of Annie’s Signature Sweets is how relatable she is. Take one look at her Instagram page and you’ll see her in the middle of a group of people, headband and all, ready to teach the attendees of her classes. Whether she's in the kitchen or out to dinner she wants you to recognize her for her. There are no manicured nails here - just a passionate pastry chef ready to satisfy your sweet tooth and teach you a few things along the way! Read about how Ann’s journey began, leading her to start her own business below.
Haley Mills: What were you doing before you started Annie’s Signatures Sweets?
Ann LoParo: Out of college, I was a social worker - I worked for children and family services for almost six years. I was two months shy of my six year anniversary when I decided to go to pastry school. Pastry has always been my go-to hobby and my sweet tooth craving. I didn't pursue it as a career until my late twenties.
HM: What led you to start your own business?
AL: I started in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I went to pastry school at Johnson & Wales University. After graduating I started taking seasonal jobs, so I moved around a lot. For four years straight I moved every six months - I was in Palm Beach, Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. I got the opportunity to work in a lot of different types of environments, which was great. When I moved back home to Cleveland, I started working for people here. After about 10 years, I felt like I was ready for something new and it was getting to be a little bit monotonous. There were a lot of things that made me feel like I was running around in a circle and I was not enjoying it as much. I was in a dark part of my life and I was trying to figure out what to do and where to go, and a yoga retreat at 3 Sisters Yoga came up to go to Bali. I took the opportunity to go to Bali and I kind of reset and had to refocus on what I wanted to do next. I was turning 40 the next year so I kind of took that as maybe this is a time to change - I was in my early twenties when I made the last change so I think towards the end of that decade it was like, ok what's next? Some of the people on the trip were entrepreneurs and they encouraged me to continue with pastry. I knew I loved pastry, but I was burnt out.
I was working a lot of hours - I was Pastry Chef at the Cleveland Museum of Art for two and a half years. I was in charge of all the desserts for the restaurant, the events, and all the desserts in the cafe. There were weekends where I made 10,000 desserts. I was constantly there and I wasn't getting enough help and felt like I was taking on too much. So the retreat opened my eyes and gave me the rest that I needed. I came back and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I needed to leave the Art Museum. How do you leave a full-time job and start over? I went to a fitness class with a friend, who suggested she could get me a job at Starbucks after I mentioned I needed to quit my job and start something new. I left the museum in May 2016. I was also offered a part-time position at Lola Bistro. She was looking for part-time help because the Republican National Convention (RNC) was coming and it was the Cavalier’s Championship and Indian World Series summer - so everything was crazy. At the same time, I started getting calls for my business that whole summer. I was always baking on the side but it was just an order or two a month - it was never very consistent. It was always friends or family, or people I did yoga with - not people that I didn’t know. So when I started getting requests from outsiders, I was like maybe this is the time to investigate this opportunity more.
I started exploring the Lorain County Community College Small Business Development Center for counseling. It’s a free program so I was able to take some classes and meet with a few counselors. From that point on it just became one step after the other - networking and making connections. So I finally thought maybe this is the time to start a business! Again, I was doing this by myself and I was still working - I left a full-time job for 3 part-time jobs, haha!
When I first started my business I called it Annie’s Sweet Shop, the name was never really meant to be a business it was just so I could have a business card to pass out to people that would say, “oh, I’ll tell a friend.” The first year, people would always say where’s your shop? I knew it needed to be changed so that it would be more about the sweets. So I landed on Annie’s Signature Sweets.
HM: What was the number one item that led you to your decision to start your business?
AL: I’m not a planner by nature - I’m like oh, that sounds interesting, let me try that! I’m very eager to try things out and see what happens. In a way, it’s been luck and in a huge way it’s been a lot of drive - from my passion for pastry and dessert and sharing it with people.
HM: Now you do classes as well, correct?
AL: Yes, when I started the business I was networking and getting catering types of orders. I wanted to figure out a way to expand while connecting with people. Bill Hildebrandt, was the owner of the building that I work out of (Bill passed away August 2018). He had suggested I do classes in that space. I had no idea how much that would take off. It was a slow start - I started teaching them in February of 2018 and I just taught my 36th class yesterday. I want my classes to show people that there are other things out there to bake aside from cakes. Helping people to try new things at home is really exciting and inspiring. I love it!
HM: How many people can attend each class?
AL: I try to max it out at 10-12 depending on the topic. I want them to be interactive and I want to be able to get to know and talk to every single person. I want them to be able to have fun and put their own spin on whatever we are making.
HM: What is your favorite class to teach?
AL: Cinnamon Rolls. I felt like it was a good class to let people experiment and personalize what they were baking. Even though I had to make the dough beforehand, I still felt like there was plenty of opportunities for the attendees to learn. I got a lot of good feedback from that class.
HM: What is your favorite dessert spot in Cleveland?
AL: Everywhere I eat, I look at the dessert menu. Even if it's a dive bar, I’m like where’s your dessert? Hmm…
HM: What's your favorite type of dessert?
It’s changing a little bit. I always try to find the most unique dessert on the menu. The good and the bad of being involved with the industry for 12 years is that I can tell from a menu what's new and what's frozen. It definitely doesn't mean I won’t still try it but I can kind of tell - where the average person wouldn’t know. I try to find flavors or something that's unique. Which is also how I try to do my menus, I like to put a spin on something. I’ve always been a chocolate person. Dark chocolate anything!
HM: Where is your favorite place to get dinner in Cleveland?
AL: I like to try new restaurants, but I’m a very picky eater. All I need is carbs and dessert. Definitely in the running for the pickiest eater on the planet. I just went to Astoria for the first time last week, and it was pretty cool. Right now, while trying to grow Annie’s Signature Sweets I don’t really get to go out a ton. I still work part-time to pay my bills.
HM: Is there anything else TCBL readers should know about you or your business?
AL: I want people to know that I’m very passionate. I want people to ask me questions and feel comfortable reaching out to me. It’s very hard to do this on my own, it's very stressful but the drive that I have helps. I’m learning to step back and acknowledge the things I’ve accomplished. I was on tv 3 times last year as a result of hustling and lots of hard work, My lemon lavender shortbread was featured in Cleveland Magazine last July and I won 3 awards in Cleveland.com’s most sinful sweet contest last November including my pretzel salted caramel cheesecake, my chocolate coconut tart and my pear caramel galette. I was on the front page of the paper in December and had a full feature in June 2018.
I can control what I can say yes to and that's been a game changer for me. I want people to know that I’m a real person that loves bakery and I eat it all day. I love to come up with unique things like my Apple Rosemary Goat cheese tart or my Matcha cheesecake, but I can also do everyday items as well. I don’t do cakes because there are so many other amazing desserts besides cake.
HM: I just read that blog post on your site!
AL: Haha, people take it so seriously, but for me when I first started the business that was all people called me for. I was like I can make cakes, but I don’t love making cakes. It’s not my passion. I wanted to be able to enjoy what I was making and cakes were not for me. It took me a while to feel confident and not feel like a snotty brat for picking out exactly what I want to do. I grew up making fancy finger foods and with all my pastry jobs, that is what I gravitated towards. I am best known for my Signature Lemon lavender shortbread and my pretzel salted caramel cheesecake.