Catherine Gray of Merchantville will open the doors to her new brick-and-mortar shop February 7. It’s a labor of love for the first-time business owner, who wants to add something different to the downtown mix.
By Matt Skoufalos | February 5, 2021
When Catherine Gray started baking five years ago, it was with her back up against the wall.
The stay-at-home mother of three was in a financial bind, worried about making rent, and she reached out to a friend for ideas.
“She said, ‘Bake a cake; sell a cake,’” Gray recollects.
“I looked at her like, ‘What do you mean, bake a cake?’ In high school I had ambitions of becoming a neurologist!,” Gray said.
Her friend told her, “Go on YouTube, you’ll figure it out.”
Before she realized fully what she’d gotten herself into, Gray had been commissioned to produce a Hennessy cake for a former classmate. She remembers feeling scared, confused, and staying up all night in tears because she was worried she’d made a huge mistake.
“I said, ‘I don’t even have the heart to charge you,’” Gray recalls. “[The customer] said, ‘Send me a picture,’ and she loved it.”
After her friend posted the image on Facebook, Gray became a baker overnight, whether she’d felt like one or not. The image of her cognac-infused buttercream and chocolate cake went viral, and orders started pouring in.
So every night, while her kids slept, Gray sat up with a can of frosting and piping tips, mainlining YouTube baking tips until morning. She’d gone from intimidated to determined—yet she was still holding back.
For the five years that followed, Gray kept one foot in the world of baking, and the other rooted in square jobs in retail and finance.
While she kept honing her baking skills, Gray also taught herself marketing, branding, and other aspects of business.
Friends encouraged her to find a brick-and-mortar location to launch her business as a full-time effort, peppering her phone with real estate listings, but she never took them seriously.
Eventually, however, her hand was forced.
During the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Gray was juggling remote office work and home-schooling her children.
Just when she thought she was keeping it all together, her employer terminated her; suddenly, she was back where she’d begun.
“I got defeated,” Gray said. “I found myself back in the same place: I have three kids, I have a lot of bills. Things aren’t what they were before.
“For the first time in five years I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “It was a surrender.”
Gray prayed for clarity on her circumstances. When she woke up the next day, “it was as if someone was talking to me: go look at the place in Merchantville.”
Within a couple days, Gray had been approved to rent the storefront at 21 South Center Street in Merchantville. Less than 24 hours later, she received seed money from an investor to get the business off the ground. And four months after that, she’s preparing to open the doors of her shop: Cat’s Creations.
The shop itself does not have an onsite kitchen, so when Gray looked for commissary space to support her retail operation, Park Place chef Phil Manganaro offered her access to his kitchen.
The chef, who homeschools his child during the business day as well, said the story of Gray’s circumstances and her motivation to succeed as a solo entrepreneur resonated with him.
“I hustle,” Manganaro said. “I do my own dishes, prep the food, serve the food. When I met her, I could tell she was hustling, too.
“She’s opening her business in a pandemic,” he said.
“I give her all the credit in the world for doing that. I’m glad I could help her get on her way.”
“That’s what this business should be,” Manganaro said. “You got a passion, go do it.”
“To get that type of support from a stranger as a new business owner is awesome,” Gray said. “I’ve had so many people tell me that I could not open this bakery, and it was shocking. Had I continued on that path, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Cat’s Creations is itself another of Gray’s creations, styled in a farmhouse chic décor she’s cultivated with intentionally selected imperfect wood trim and accent antiques. She wants it to be a place where moms like her won’t be worried about their kids playing with an antique phone while they shop, but will still feel comfortable sitting down for a bridal consultation.
“I wanted it to be inclusive,” she said. “I want everyone regardless of demographic or background to feel like they’re welcome here. I’m trying to give a different twist on what the typical bakery looks like.”
That goes double for Gray’s products, which begin with her custom, all-occasion cakes and cupcakes, and continue on to cheesecakes, cannoli, eclairs, tarts, macaroons, dessert bars, cookies, muffins, and other pastries.
“I try to give my customers things they’re not going to find from a typical bakery, and show them you can have the best of both worlds,” she said.
“I just want to give Merchantville what we go everywhere else for. Why can’t we have it all here?”
For as much gratitude as she shows for her circumstances, neither has Gray forgotten how recently she was mired in them.
She dedicates a portion of her tips to a fund for families in need, a nod to her interest in helping others.
“For me, this business is bigger than the bakery,” Gray said. “The ultimate goal is to help you and uplift you and put you in a better position.”
There’s no bigger believer in that message than Gray herself.
“You can’t tell me I’m not going to accomplish anything,” she said. “I really put in work. I want people to know that I can do it.”
Cat’s Creations is located at 21 South Center Street in Merchantville. Hours are 1 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 12 noon to 6 p.m. on Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and 12 noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Monday hours are reserved for consultations and by appointment only.
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