Still frosting obsessed
By Nick Walden / Towns Correspondent
When Andrea Ballus opened the first Sift Cupcake shop in Cotati back in 2008, it was based on a good idea that filled a niche. Six years later she has found that the niche just keeps growing to match the creativity and drive she and her husband still have for the business idea that started because she wanted to move home to Sonoma County.
If you have spent five minutes in one of Sift’s stores with a few people around you will more than likely hear, “Oh my god, I love those,” or “Mmmmmm that is my favorite…it is so delicious,” or some similar variation.
That excitement over their products is one of the things that owner Andrea Ballus enjoys most about her business.
“We are a happy, fun place to work,” she said.
Ballus, 36, who calls Santa Rosa home, launched her business in Cotati in 2008 along with her husband Jeff Ballus. As the story goes, the idea for the gourmet cupcake and specialty dessert business came to her when she was planning her own Sonoma wedding and couldn’t find what she wanted.
Before she became a cupcake entrepreneur, Ballus worked in radio and TV doing marketing and sales. From there she transitioned to working for San Pellegrino, the maker of sparkling mineral water. She lived in Las Vegas, and her job entailed promoting goods to chefs in the upscale restaurants.
“I had my dream job in Vegas, but I was sick of Vegas,” said Ballus.
Unfortunately this was during the recession and there was a hiring freeze within the company, including transfers.
“I was stuck in Vegas,” she said. Then in preparation for her wedding she saw an opportunity.
“I’ve always been entrepreneurial, so I talked my husband into it. It was a whirlwind. We signed the lease in the Cotati space and opened six weeks later.”
While one might think that the choice of a bakery-style business had to do with a personal love of baking, that wasn’t the case for Ballus.
“Baking was totally foreign to me. Luckily my dad and mom are amazing bakers. My dad is an incredible artisan bread maker.”
After the initial opening, the business growth and success is directly related to how well Andrea and Jeff function as partners in both marriage and business.
“We make an amazing team because we have two different strengths,” she said. “He is the CFO, and I want absolutely nothing to do with that, but he loves it. I am marketing, branding and ideas. We definitely complement each other and never step on each other’s toes.”
When good friend Corey Fanfa came on board, the business became even stronger. Fanfa competed with Ballus on Cupcake Wars in 2011, a show that brought the company more into the spotlight both locally and nationally.
Fanfa is now the operations manager of Sift and has helped represent the company in subsequent returns to Cupcake Wars in episodes such as “The Assistants” and “Cupcake Champions.”
While Sift has not taken home the trophy a second time, “All of the times we have been so close we can taste it,” said Ballus.
With 65 employees and five locations, the business has certainly grown since 2008. So how do you keep a specialty store special after a few years?
“We never wanted to be just one thing,” said Ballus. “While we started with cupcakes, we changed our whole brand in 2011.”
The name changed as well in 2011 becoming Sift Cupcake and Dessert Bar, although recently they dropped the ‘Cupcakes’ because according to Ballus, “It’s too long of a name.”
Ideas for new desserts and treats are homegrown with lots of employees providing great ideas that then go to the drawing board. They have regular “Tasting Tuesdays” where they gather around the kitchen to turn ideas into desserts.
“You really can’t eat anything that day,” Ballus said with a laugh. “It’s fun. Everyone crosses their fingers that they get on the list for tasting Tuesdays.”
While the business still has plenty of cupcakes, they also have an assortment of other treats like the cake shake, fundaes, whoopie cookies, ice cream sammies and petite pies.
“The best part of our business model is we can ebb and flow with trends in the market,” said Ballus. “Desserts are based on our fun factor for what customers will have fun with and enjoy.”
Ballus noted that pies are huge right now, so they have a petite little pie modeled after the old “home run” pies found in stores. “I was never allowed to have those as a kid,” she chuckled. “We can create these desserts with a fun nostalgic twist, then we add our own gourmet style.”
“The cool thing is we aren’t just a dessert shop. We are a gift shop and ship nationwide to people, along with doing wedding and events.”
Even with the success they have found so far, Ballus and her husband are still looking at growing more.
“We get daily requests on Facebook from Sacramento and other places nearby for a store. There is also a shortage of spots on the South Bay.”
For the employees, there is plenty to like about working at Sift. RaeAnn Dennison, who has been with the company three-and-a-half years, working in management at the Santa Rosa, Cotati and now Petaluma stores, loves the customers and environment.
“You can’t have a bad day with cupcakes,” she quipped.