For years, Ann Davis has wanted the chance to move her Belleville cake and candy supply store downtown. After years on the east end of town, on North Belt East, Davis has relocated to a more roomy locale downtown on East Main Street. She invited business writer Will Buss last week to visit the new store:
Q: How long have you been wanting to make this move?
A: “I have wanted to be in downtown Belleville since I bought the store 11 years ago. I’ve looked at space after space after space, and what drew me to this space was the huge public parking lot behind it. I have a customer who will come in for two boxes and two boards and I didn’t want them to be in a position where they had to circle the block or pay a meter for a dollar sale. So the huge public parking lot in the rear entrance is what drew me specifically to this space.
“As far as downtown goes, I worked here when I was a young lady. I worked for three different retail stores back in the day when everybody had their own store charge. I worked as an accounts receivable clerk for three different businessmen and I would just go from store to store and do their accounts receivable. So I got the bug of being downtown when I was a teenager. I’ve always loved being downtown. I just love the atmosphere downtown. It went through some rough times, but I’m so encouraged by how it has progressed.
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“At my old location on the Belt Line, it was on the east end and I lived on the west end. So twice a day I would drive past downtown Belleville. I want to be a part of this. I want to be a part of Diva Night, I want to be a part of the street fests and things like that. I just really wanted to be a part of it and I’m just happy to be here.”
Q: When did you go into this business?
A: “I started decorating cakes when I was 18. I took a cake-decorating class and got the bug. At different times in my life, like most home decorators, you burn yourself out and you put it on the back burner for a year or so, but you always come back around. There’s always that family member or that friend that says, ‘Hey, I need a cake for...’ I’ve never done it for a business. I have always just done it for friends and family. Forty years ago, when I took that class, Toots (Margaret “Toots” Schilling), my predecessor, she and I just hit it off. We are identical personalities, and I felt like she was a second mother to me. I lost my mom, and (Toots) was always encouraging, always interested in me and my life.
“I was there one Friday night saying, ‘I would love to own a place like this.’ And she says to me, ‘Annie, are you serious?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know.’ And she goes, ‘Bob and I want to retire.’ And she said, ‘We would love if you would buy the business.’ But it was a deal where for a year I kept my daytime job and I worked here on nights and weekends. And that after a year, they decided, Bob and Toots, decided whether or not I could do it. They wanted me to know all aspects of the job, not just waiting on customers. They were very patient with me and taught me all of the ins and outs of the business. And then after a year, we met again and then, along with my husband Mark, decided yes, this is what we would do. So I took over in January 2005. And after 29 years in it, Toots retired. So I’ve had it since then. (Toots and Bob) are wonderful, wonderful mentors. So I just feel very blessed to have them in my life.”
Q: How does your business compete with others?
A: “Forty years ago when they opened the store, there weren’t big-box stores where you could buy some of the product I have. They didn’t exist. So at the time when they opened the business, they tell me that in the Yellow Pages there were like three pages of cake decorating shops in the metro-east and St. Louis area. As those stores opened and you could go there and pick up some of the things, the smaller stores, like any independent, they started closing their doors. When I took over in 2005, there were three around in North County, South County, myself and there’s one out in St. Charles, but I’m not sure of the name of that store. Since that time, the one in North County has closed.
“I have people who travel from Mt. Vernon, Carbondale and Litchfield to my store. But what separates me from big-box stores is I have the things they have, you can buy it off the shelf, but then how do you use it? Because it’s always just a bake-and-decorate-type thing. There are questions about covers and tips, and you can’t always find someone in those stores who can help you with that. So I kind of feel that the draw to me is our customer service. We try very hard to always give one-on-one service.
“Another draw that I have is chocolate. We sell a whole lot of chocolate around the holidays. It’s a big gift-giving item. It’s Mercken’s, and they don’t sell to the big-box stores. They sell to the independents. They want the independents to have that privilege. And so we sell that type of chocolate and people will drive for miles to buy that.”
Q: What else does your new location offer your customers?
A: “The room. It’s hard to believe, but everything in this room was in that one room (at the old store). We’re kind of spread out here so you can look at things without saying ‘Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me.’ And even with a box or things like that, you would buy a box and you couldn’t get it back down the aisle. So I think the space is what drew me to this. I just feel like everything can be displayed better and viewed better.
“I have also partnered with Jessie Bostick, and she owns a business called Sugar Doodles. Her business is she does sugar art, any type of sugar art. So at my old shop, we didn’t have a classroom that we could use while it was open. Now, we have a classroom that we can be open and she could do a class. The classroom was the second draw for me.”
Job: Owner, Toots’ Cake & Candy Supply at 314 E. Main St. in Belleville
Outlook: “I’ve always loved being downtown. I just love the atmosphere downtown.”