A sweet story on entrepreneurshipJan 18, 2021 02:33PM ● By Linnea Lundgren
Traditional honey walnut baklava. (Photo by Aubrie Cornelius)
By Linnea Lundgren | [email protected]
Sit with Rita Magalde for an hour and you’ll notice her cell phone buzzes and beeps a lot. Baklava orders from her business website, www.SheerAmbrosiaBakery.com arrive in her inbox and one local customer texts, “Hi! The walnut cranberry is to die for! It might be my favorite. It has a nice balance of tart, sweet and nutty flavor with a hint of cinnamon. You are the baklava queen!”
Such compliments are appreciated by Magalde, a Draper resident who has been making varieties of this honey- and nut-filled Mediterranean delight for 30 years. “It makes me so happy that I bring light into people’s lives,” she said.
Her love affair with baklava started at age 16 when she worked for a Greek family in North Carolina, where she grew up. She recalled how visits to Greek homes were never rushed and always involved sitting down for a Greek coffee and pastry, usually baklava. That warmth and hospitality resonated with her as she pursued travel and education abroad to Mediterranean countries, among other places.
Making baklava started as a hobby—a special treat for family and friends. Baklava also proved to be an icebreaker when Magalde brought a tray to parties. “People would be amazed and say, ‘You’re not Greek! How did you make this so good?’” she said. Her hobby turned into a business after she found herself divorced with two young children to raise. Since 2008, Sheer Ambrosia has sustained her family and allowed her to be a stay-at-home working mom.
As far as desserts go, making baklava is truly a labor of love. In her home-based commercial kitchen, she hand-layers 45 sheets of phyllo dough for each pan of baklava, brushing each sheet with butter and adding a honey-infused, nut-based filling in the middle. Flavors include traditional honey walnut, chocolate almond and blackberry walnut, a summertime favorite. In all, Magalde makes 12 varieties, many recipes inspired by her mother who was a pie maker.
In the first part of 2020 business wasn’t too sweet. When COVID restrictions went into effect in March, customer and restaurant orders stopped.
“The last thing on people’s mind was baklava,” she recalled. “People were concerned about getting [the essentials].”
For three weeks, Magalde watched TV and waited, and then decided that with two teenagers to support she couldn’t wait for orders to start up again and found a full-time job outside the home, grateful for the opportunity to find employment in a pandemic. While at work one day in late May, her phone started buzzing continuously. People were suddenly following Sheer Ambrosia on Instagram and placing orders.
“With what happened with the murder of George Floyd...people said this is not right and wanted to help support Black-owned businesses,” she said. “People wanted to show support but might not have wanted to go to a protest. But they protested by putting their money into Black-owned businesses.” Someone on Instagram had shared a list of local Black-owned businesses, one of which was Sheer Ambrosia. Her “very supportive” boss noticed her phone lighting up and told her to go home and make some baklava.
Magalde hand delivered each order, thanking these new clients for supporting her business and for their concern for the Black community.
A few months later, her phone started buzzing again after a 3-minute story about her aired on NPR’s “Marketplace.”
“The day the story aired, I was working at my day job and all of a sudden the orders started dinging on my email. You could tell where the show was airing, because all these East Coast orders would come in, then the Midwest, then our time zone and then the Pacific time zone.
“I’ve never had that many orders, even in the holiday season,” she recalled, adding that she hired five people to help make baklava, working around the clock for two weeks.
Since June 2020, she has been “ridiculously busy.”
She still works her day job because it offers stable health care coverage. Baklava production happens after work and on weekends, often into the wee hours of the morning. “I basically have two full-time jobs,” she said.
In between making baklava, she wrote and self-published a book “From Mrs. to Ms.” She calls it her “shout-out” to other women and “an example to other divorced women on what to do (with their lives).”
“Sheer Ambrosia saved my life. This is how I reinvented myself after my divorce,” she said.
“All those negative thoughts I had turned into how to build my business. That became forefront in my mind…I can help divorcing women by having them read my book. By telling them, ‘You got your whole life ahead of you now, sister.’ By running Sheer Ambrosia, by being able to raise my family with this business...this brings joy to my life and joy to other people.”
www.SheerAmbrosiaBakery.com or 801-891-6242.