The official start of the worst economic downturn in almost 80 years was three months away, just as Stephen Wilson and his wife embarked on their dream of owning a high-end bakery.
Opening in Vineland in September 2007, the Sweet Life Bakery would survive and adapt to a changing economic world, outgrowing the shell of a 700-square-foot former Jamaican restaurant, taking over a much larger storefront and adding a dozen employees.
Five years later, the bakery is among the half of new New Jersey businesses that have managed to survive -- adapting in its case by adding a lunch menu and introducing cooking classes to augment the slow times.
"This is the economy we've known," said Wilson, 31, who owns the bakery with his wife, Jill McClennen. "It's a good thing, because it forced us to do what we do in the economy we have today."
Local entrepreneurs created businesses from 2007 to 2010 even though jobless numbers were climbing, banks were tightening lending and companies around them were folding.
Some were among Americans creating their own jobs. Entrepreneurship spiked after the recession began, and the rate of new-business creation was 5 percent higher than before the recession, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity.
But surviving in this economy is not easy: Companies established for less than five years have the highest failure rates among businesses, a trend exacerbated by the economic downturn. About 53 percent of the 16,618 New Jersey establishments created in 2007 were still around by 2010, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Business Dynamics Statistics.
For those who saw their concepts come to fruition, surviving the early years required taking risks, staying determined and overcoming early missteps -- and they continue to struggle as they seek to thrive and grow.
Growth does not yet mean economic comfort for Wilson, who was able to expand to a 3,000-square-foot location.
"I was hoping after five years it wouldn't be so much of a financial struggle, but that is a component of it," he said. "It is fun. It's soul-fulfilling. It's our profession, and it sustains us. But I'm not raking in big bucks, and I think a lot of entrepreneurs ... think they'll make a million bucks off an idea, (but) the reality is most people don't."
The couple started the businesses with a $40,000 investment, a loan from the Cumberland Empowerment Zone, and a culinary philosophy of creating unique cakes and desserts from scratch -- from the caramel syrup for lattes to homemade pie crusts, he said.
The high-end and labor-intensive products generally cost more, another hurdle for a business that opened before the official start of the recession.
"It was the scariest and most exciting month of my life," Wilson said. "We put the word out. I remember us waking up at 2 the first morning to bake, and Jill and I are looking at each other, and we were like, 'What are we doing? What if nobody comes?'"
Customers did come, and Wilson said he soon knew they needed more help.
That included expanding from a bakery to a coffee shop, and adding a lunch menu to draw more traffic. The owners, both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, recently began offering cooking classes to supplement a typically slow time for bakeries, when post-holiday spending is down and New Year's resolution-fueled diets abound.
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