Small Businesses, Big Results: Generations Cakes

by Ryan Miller

By Angela Blue

Owners: Marvin and Octavia Townsend
September 2014
6892 Main St., Gloucester
Number of Employees:

When a customer tastes a sweet morsel of pound cake created by Generations Cakes, they’re not just eating a decadent treat; they’re experiencing over three generations of love, baked into every bite.

It all started in the 1950s when Marvin Townsend’s great grandmother, Lucie Martin, became well known for her pound cakes and pies while cooking for the family of Lloyd Symington, governing board member of St. Albans school in Washington, D.C. Upon retiring, Martin passed her recipes on to her daughter, Mamie Garnett, who served as a cook for the Ambassador to Romania. Once she retired, she handed the recipes over to her oldest daughter, Gwendolyn Townsend, who enjoyed baking for local churches, civic groups and community functions.

It was Gwendolyn who influenced the love of cooking in her son, Marvin. Through the years, he kept up with his cooking, even taking the passion with him into the military by baking cakes as gifts. When his mother realized how serious he was about baking, she shared with him their family history, as well as their recipes.

Marvin and his wife, Octavia, began their business by selling pound cakes at the Yorktown farmers’ market and eventually joined Virginia’s Finest. One day, they heard about a “casting call” from Whole Foods and brought their cakes for a local team to sample. Marvin was told that he would need to change three ingredients of his cakes to a natural version—a suggestion that Marvin was hesitant to take. “You’re talking to a guy who’s dealing with great grandma’s recipe, my grandma’s recipe, my mother’s recipe,” he explains. “I didn’t want to change anything.” Marvin almost said no because he wanted the world to taste the true version of his family’s recipe, but Octavia advised him to talk with his grandmother, who told him, “Change the recipe. You have my blessing.”

Generations Cakes can now be found in five Whole Foods locations, and they’re preparing to enter their sixth. They’re also in the NATO Café and The Farmer’s Daughter. “We’re proud of what we’ve done,” Marvin says. “The future looks bright.”

The journey hasn’t all been a piece of cake, however. The Townsends faced obstacles with marketing their product in the beginning. “I could always bake a great cake. But the marketing aspect … no one knows you,” Marvin says. At farmers’ markets, they discovered that people are creatures of habit, typically frequenting the same businesses they would always buy their desserts from. The Townsends learned that they needed to get people to sample their cake to make an impression. “It’s getting people to try your product when you’re the new guy on the block,” Marvin says.

Generations offers regular-sized pound cakes by special request, but mostly, they sell mini pound cakes, a decision made by talking to their customers to learn what they wanted. They bake in a commercial kitchen in Gloucester but decided against having a storefront. With their wholesale business, they can focus on the quality of the cakes (most importantly) and the manufacturing. “We can build that without having to worry about replenishing display stock every day,” Marvin says. “We’ll keep some stocked for our online orders, but by concentrating on the wholesale aspect of it, we can expand our sales way past our brick and mortar location.”

Photo by Jim Pile

Marvin has two pieces of advice to share with others looking to start their own business: “Find a mentor if you’re just starting out. Their experience and expertise is invaluable, and they can help you avoid a lot of mistakes along the way. If you cannot find a mentor, then join the local Chamber of Commerce and get around other business owners as much as possible. They will teach you a lot.”

He also says, “Do something that you love—something that you would do if you made no money at all from it. That’s going to propel you through any obstacle that you have.”

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