Episode 4: Sustaining Momentum After a TV appearance with Sean Huntington of Sweet Cakes Cafe

Episode 4: Sustaining Momentum After a TV appearance with Sean Huntington of Sweet Cakes Cafe

May 22, 2024


Sean Huntington, former owner of Sweet Cakes Cafe, shares the story behind the bakery and cafe and how it developed over time. The business gained recognition after being featured on TLC's Best Food Ever TV series. Sean discusses the impact of the TV appearance on their sales and the challenges they faced in sustaining that momentum. He emphasizes the importance of providing value to customers and creating a great experience both inside and outside the restaurant. Sean also highlights the need for consistent marketing strategies and staying top of mind with customers.


  • The importance of providing value to customers and creating a great experience

  • The challenges of sustaining momentum after a TV appearance

  • The need for consistent marketing strategies and staying top of mind with customers


Shane Murphy (00:01.622)

Welcome back everybody. We are so excited to hear from Sean Huntington today. He's the former owner of Sweet Cakes Cafe in Mesa, Arizona. And his family owned the bakery and cafe and it's been through an incredible journey. It's been featured on TLC's Best Food Ever TV series as one of the top bakeries. And I'm really excited to dive into the story. Thanks for coming on to share with us, Sean.

Sean Huntington (00:27.604)

pumped to be here. Always have a love for cookies, baked goods, and sweet cakes. So excited to chat with you and see where we go.

Shane Murphy (00:41.474)

Awesome, yeah, it'll be great. Maybe why don't we start with, can you share more of the story behind Sweet Cakes and how did it all begin for your family and how did that journey develop over time?

Sean Huntington (00:53.852)

Yeah, for sure. So.

My senior year in high school, this is like 2004, my parents, food has always been a huge part of our family, from catering to like bake sales and different things. And my mom always wanted to open her own bakery. So she went into this spot in downtown Mesa, ended up chatting with the owner, like, man, I've always dreamed of owning a place like this. And he said, well, actually we might be selling, come talk to me. So they ended up meeting at like,

Denny's that in downtown Mesa and chatting and like six weeks later. She she purchased it and then started to just really kind of revamp all the recipes and Just started to really

She also has a huge network and community here in Arizona. So her taking over and all the stuff she had done prior in bake sales and catering and different things, she instantly had a huge crowd. So I started working there. I got out of school at noon and would go, me and a buddy of mine, Carl, would go drive straight from school to beat the lunch rush and work the lunch rush.

being in that, I think really was grounds for just learning a lot about

Sean Huntington (02:19.4)

being an entrepreneur of running a business of the ups and downs you know you've got days where we would have literally a line out the door and around the corner to days where you're dead and just the constant struggle and highs and lows and um so they ended up owning it for about 15 years or so uh actually i had a an outdoor brand we took it over for about three years um turned it into like

got rid of the food side of things because that was probably just the most challenging from shopping daily to Buying you know ingredients that are always up and down and different things So the baked goods were really kind of the focus like you said we were on TLC's best food ever for our baked goods, and so it's like let's focus on that and

And yeah, it was a journey. At one point I tried to, we opened a frozen yogurt side during the Froyo craze. We had to open mic nights there. I had to have concert nights. We'd, I built the stage and we'd have local shows. So having that space really like opened up a lot of fun opportunities for sure.

Shane Murphy (03:37.29)

Yeah, and you know, it's probably something that people always dream about, of getting my restaurant or my cafe on TV and getting that type of coverage is such a rare experience. How did that come to be for you guys?

Sean Huntington (03:48.084)


Sean Huntington (03:51.776)


Sean Huntington (03:55.3)

It honestly was crazy. We got a phone call, I swear, I'm pretty sure it was like during the lunch rush or right after. And, um... I think they originally asked for the owner and you get calls, as a restaurant owner, you get a call... You get five calls a day from someone trying to sell you... Uh, something. Half of them yelled trying to get you to pay for something, but... As soon as I started talking, so I ended up grabbing the phone and talking to them, and they're like, hey, we're... You know, we're...

we want to have you on the show." I was like, oh no, like I think this is, I think this is like a real thing. It's like, I went back to the office part of the bakery and was like, hey mom, like I think you need to actually take this one. Talk to them. So, they had found us. I think we had, we had received a few awards. We were in kind of like the local food scene. We had been, my mom had been in like Phoenix magazine for her

brownies and cinnamon rolls and so there's a few things that kind of just like stacked up and then this was just like, felt like a call out of the blue and at first we literally almost hung up on them and then it's like oh shoot, like let's keep talking and then still we didn't know, it was like well we're looking at a few people and then...

All of a sudden we got a follow up, hey, in how many weeks we're going to be there, here's the workflow, here's how it's going to go down. Get all prepped, make sure everything was dialed. Me and my sister, my mom, we're all on the show. It was a full day of, I think they were there probably four or six hours filming, just different stages of the baking process.

Sean Huntington (05:46.27)

we made sure to like invite some of our regulars like hey this thing's coming through so come post up and get on TV so it was it was quite the day a lot of fun and just an insane journey during that like kind of process and yeah and then it just like

And then it was probably a couple months later then it aired and then it was just like we were busy for probably six months straight. I think that year it was like 2010. That was probably the biggest like 12 months we'd ever had. I mean literally we'd have lines out the door around the corner like just wild.

Shane Murphy (06:32.846)

Do you think for those people coming in and like that wave of extra business that you had, did that come from like people who were coming out of town and just like passing through and they'd heard about it, or was it a buzz locally that just caused everyone to say, oh, I have to go over to Sweet Cakes?

Sean Huntington (06:54.476)

That's a good question. I feel like I feel like it was a mix of both like a lot of people who like Already loved it. We're just like coming more consistently and really just excited to support and place orders and come in but also Mesa is very much a you know like a Spring we have spring training baseball we have

a lot of like uh summer winter visitors and so that winter it was just I think a mix of people in town, visitors, people for spring training and people who'd heard about it and then local people like we'd get people for sure they'd be like I just drove from you know from northern Arizona I just saw the episode and we'd get called like every time it would air re-air

hey when you open when can we come down and yeah it was crazy

Shane Murphy (07:58.683)

How did that impact the future? It sounds like there's at least, that next year was just an incredible year sales-wise. Did that have staying power as time went on?

Sean Huntington (08:06.741)


Sean Huntington (08:11.904)

I feel like yes and no. I think we definitely rode it for probably 12 to 18 months. And then every time it re-aired or got picked up, definitely there was a resurgence. But I think part of, honestly, the challenge was just like, one, how do we optimize? What are the best ways of like...

getting these people back in here or like we just, I mean, we had, I think we had a website, we had a Google listing, we had a couple, we had the essentials, but we definitely, I feel like...

weren't necessarily able to take that momentum and like bottle it up and then like really reengage or retarget those people or have a lot of staying power beyond kind of the excitement or seeing it or that sort of thing. I mean, you had definitely like the staple people and the consistent people, especially on the cookie ordering side. I mean, we did during the holidays a huge like,

holiday orders and gifting and gift baskets and that's honestly where we towards the end of owning the business where we were trying to push a lot of our energy in like corporate gifting world and selling more out of the back door than the front door because you could just there's just much more like just much more efficient in like price point and the

workload we need to take and people who need to like run the front, you know, register and all that. So I feel like, yeah, it taught us a lot. We, we gained a lot of momentum. And then I think we,

Sean Huntington (10:10.056)

then tried a lot of things to replicate it. I think probably a year or two later, we opened the Froyo part and then we expanded. We had only one side of where we were at and we ended up breaking through the wall and expanding our dining area to seat more people, which was good, but there's also that balance of the small. I don't know that we ever, I mean, we would definitely fill the additional space.

But I don't know that it was ever as crazy. It was like we started to expand, but didn't really have a strategy to keep it consistently over capacity.

Shane Murphy (10:52.918)

Yeah. Yeah, and so, you know, obviously that momentum is awesome. If you can catch lightning in a bottle, like catch that, ride that as long as you can. Can you speak to maybe some of the other experiences that like outside of TLC, what were some of those extra marketing strategies that you found did actually work? You tried a lot, some worked, some didn't. What were some of those things that did actually

Sean Huntington (11:02.325)


Shane Murphy (11:22.302)

move a needle and that you did notice.

Sean Huntington (11:25.04)

Yeah, I mean, I think anytime that we really focused on...

providing value to our target customer. So when we really started to emphasize like the corporate gifting, we'd take gift baskets around or little sample trays or cookies with a note and like give it to the front office person and try to create an experience with it and try to like, and we'd always see like, you know, them placing those orders or doing those things. I think the challenge is always like having someone that was dedicated.

I definitely worked there a bunch in high school and then really on and off at various stages while going to school, community college, and then eventually I went to BYU and left Arizona. And so I'd always kind of try to give advice or, you know, hey, we should try that, we should do this. You know, and there's only so much that my mom could do and execute on her own. And so I feel like we would test a lot of things, but we also.

wouldn't consistently like implement. It would start to work, but then you get busier and then you gotta focus on delivering the value that you reach. And so I think a lot of, anytime we really focused on providing value, creating experiences, like doing...

you know, showing our process, showing, you know, what we were doing, I think, and in a lot of ways was a proving ground for, you know, things we tested there and things we applied in my future businesses. Like people really crave cookies for sure, but a great experience. And I think that is one of the biggest things that I learned in the food industry and in the bakery was like, people want to come in, yes, for a sandwich and a cookie and the food is definitely a huge part of

Sean Huntington (13:19.942)

the experience is so much. And it doesn't mean it has to, every experience has to be fancy or whatever, but you look at these companies like Crumble or that have really dialed in the boxing and the entire experience is just seamless. And

and a great experience every time. It's that consistent experience. And I think that's something that I really learned through the journey was how to really emphasize the experience, how to provide value to the customer so that they felt like, yes, I'm coming in to buy a cookie or a sandwich or whatever, but really I'm coming back for that experience. I'm coming back because they treated me well, they took care of me, they delivered on their promises. And I think that's something we always

we're really good at and consistent at, and then not very consistent at like executing strategy for new customers or keeping that fun kind of going.

Shane Murphy (14:22.186)

Yeah, and you know, you mentioned one thing that you were doing when you were trying to really focus on the corporate gifting side and get that off of the ground. A lot of people aren't willing to do the work to get some of those things off the ground. They'll put some stuff up on the website or on social media, but it never really catches traction and often it's that basic of I'm actually going into a business. I'm giving them a sample. I'm...

Sean Huntington (14:39.42)


Shane Murphy (14:49.074)

I'm talking to them and getting this face-to-face interaction. Can you speak to that a little bit and how you guys went about that and how, why that worked?

Sean Huntington (15:00.052)

Totally. I think there's this interesting, I've experienced it as well in what I'm doing now with Honey House, my agency. I think my mom experiences this for sure and I think restaurants experience this. Especially when you have good food. When you have a good quality product you kind of just...

I don't know what you kind of just assume like people should know that it's great. Like it tastes good. Like we're getting good feedback when people come in. Like everyone should know that it's great. And I think that's probably the biggest challenge of any restaurant owner, business owner, especially if you have a good product or service is like almost.

like forcing yourself to be humble or I don't know that's necessarily like pride or humility. It's more just kind of like, I know something's like, oh, it's great. Like people will tell people and that's that. Like I think when you have a product like we had, Keep Nature Wild, our apparel brand, when you're selling a product, it's like, oh yeah, we need to market and advertise and get that in front of people so that they see it and then they want to buy. It feels like with a bakery, because I think it's so with food, it's such a

like an emotional attachment. It's such like a, it's very much, you know, like, yeah, this is me and I'm putting myself out there with this food and this experience that I think a lot of restaurant owners just kind of get stuck in, oh, people should just know, and I don't need an advertiser, I don't need to push this out there, or, you know, or just don't know where to start. And I think that like...

Shane Murphy (16:17.751)

I'm there.

Sean Huntington (16:43.84)

So with the corporate gifting was really, okay, what's something that we can do differently? What's something like, at the end of the day, that was the clearest thing that, you know, these office managers or customer experience managers at these insurance companies or law offices or schools that wanted to like, give or dental offices like that wanted to gift and did a lot of like,


like referral business wanted to send a gift and a thank you. And I think they ended up a lot of times going with just whatever they knew. Like it wasn't that the product was great. It was just like someone had a good enough website that they could order and reorder. And they knew it. And that's just like, was their default. So when we'd go in, show them that one, you could do corporate gifts and it actually tasted good. That wasn't just this like hard tack cookie that had a smiley face on it.

Shane Murphy (17:42.728)


Sean Huntington (17:44.582)

actually tasted good and looked good and so I think it was it was really kind of breaking our own kind of bias and recognizing oh they just need to know they need to have a simple thing that they know here's some packages we could order

like especially at certain times of the year, definitely the end of the year, but even different stages throughout the year, was really like being top of mind for them and creating an easy experience for them because at the end of the day we weren't competing with other great tasting cookie. It wasn't like their cookie, our cookie definitely tasted better and I will stand by that and not

Sean Huntington (18:30.742)

this is amazing and so it was it was recognized like oh it's not that we're competing necessarily even on taste or that our cookies aren't good enough to get in front it's just more of an operational and efficiency and like being top of mind for these people and so dropping those off on a consistent basis and taking some and reminding them like hey we're here we want to make this a great experience for you like honestly eventually there's still this like tech

cookie CRM that I want to build up. Maybe we'll talk about it at Boothly. But this idea of like...

you know, creating a database of people, not only for the restaurant, but for the insurance companies, the legal offices of like, they've got their 10, 20, sometimes 100 people. My father-in-law owns a construction company and my wife used to do it for them every year. They give out these like chocolate nails and it's this whole process and they've got to verify that the company didn't move and their phone number and their address and they have it like, it's literally like a three month process.

leading up to the holidays. And so I'm going on a tangent here, but I think it's recognizing the need of the customer. And even if you're a restaurant.

Like I think that was something that we really learned is like, where's the value we can provide? It wasn't necessarily in a great tasting cookie. And that was extraordinarily valuable. It was helping be efficient for whoever the office manager was so that they could place that order when they needed it. And so I think that was a big thing that we recognized and started to lean more and more into is was solving the problem of the office manager, not just having a great product.

Shane Murphy (20:19.83)

Yeah, that's an interesting concept because I think you're right. Most restaurants, they know they have good food and good product, and they just believe everybody should know this because it is a fact. But the human brain, you know, goes in so many different directions and we forget very quickly. I obviously run...

Sean Huntington (20:35.841)


Sean Huntington (20:44.884)


Shane Murphy (20:48.01)

run a tech company here in Utah. And we have, at least on a monthly basis, there is some restaurant that comes in and they drop off like a card of like, we do catering. Here's our menu.

Sean Huntington (21:01.308)

Yeah. Totally.

Shane Murphy (21:05.25)

But that happens frequently enough that when it actually comes time for us to get a catering order, it's like, what's the most recent one that came in? Which one do I remember? And staying top of mind is crucial. And it's easy to forget that we have to be in front of people more often. I had an experience at a prior company that I had and we were like,

Sean Huntington (21:15.136)



Sean Huntington (21:23.028)


Shane Murphy (21:34.138)

in this office building and we would have people do the same thing. They drop off the menu for catering and ironically there was a Chick-fil-A like kitty corner to us and that Chick-fil-A operator, it was like clockwork. Once every three months he came in and it was like, the whole office was like, Hey, it's Chick-fil-A and

He'd give out these little cards to people, like, hey, come and get something. Here's a stack of like free chicken sandwiches. And we ordered a lot of Chick-fil-A. And it wasn't because like Chick-fil-A itself was so much better than all the other alternatives. It's because we saw them frequently and regularly. And eventually we built a relationship with Carlos. And like, if Carlos hadn't been in six months, somebody's going in and...

Sean Huntington (22:22.26)


Shane Murphy (22:27.33)

Chick-fil-A and be like, hey, tell Carlos hello. And then guess what? Carlos shows up. And the importance of having that CRM of like, who are my customers? And who are my most valuable customers that I'm going to stay in front of on a regular basis so that when it comes time for a gift order or a catering order, I just think of Sweet Cakes because they've been in, and they've not only been in once, they've been in multiple times and I know them.

And of course I know their product is good because they've brought me a sample multiple times.

Sean Huntington (23:00.71)

I think I think it's so true like even just thinking about it in this way of like you know when we when I built my

My apparel brand, like day one, every bit of our focus on how to provide value to our end consumer. Like we're gonna build this community, we're gonna provide value, we're gonna build this beautiful like Instagram and inspire people and provide like hiking tips and we're gonna pick up trash and do good in the outdoors. And it was like so value-centric. And I think back at Sweet Cakes, it was so value once they were there, we focused on, the product was great, the experience was great, the environment was great,

didn't necessarily figure out a way to extend that value outside of the four walls, right? Like once they were there, you're gonna have a great experience. And I think a lot of restaurants, I know a lot of friends who own restaurants and who have kind of that same, it's like, I just got to get this recipe perfect. I got to dial in the food and the taste and that is extremely important. But it's like they're so, it gets so hyper focused on.

the experience that really is, like if they're showing up and they're already there, like the food should be good because that will create reprieve business and things. But I think the challenge is how do you provide value to someone before they even step foot in the door? And there was a, I can't remember if it was a TED Talk or YouTube or something, but I remember watching this video, this guy talked about.

the process of, and you may know this, but this guy had a whole process around every restaurant he works with where if it's someone's first time, the owner comes by, gives them this little card that's like the next time, come in and get a free slice of pie.

Sean Huntington (24:51.336)

then they come in the second time. The next time come in and get a free, and it's like this leveled up of like, because once you get like the fourth or fifth time of repeat, then it's like, they're gonna come more consistently. I think a lot of restaurants overlook that piece of like, oh, they came in once and they loved it, but it's just, you forget. Like even if you had it, even some of my favorite meals, you just get into your normal rhythm and grind and you do your thing and then all of a sudden, six months later, oh, why haven't we gone back to that restaurant?

back and so I think that's something that I definitely learned at Sweet Cakes of just like the value of creating a great experience but then applied it differently and recognized like the value also has to be provided on the front end. You have to be top of mind. You have to engage people like before they even walk through the door to buy the cookie you've got to like be providing value all along the way so that you're top of mind and

come back to and bring friends and come and have like that was I mean we were definitely a lunch spot for you know you know moms who lunch or friends or even business meetings or oh you've got people coming to town like you got to take them to sweet cake so it's definitely kind of this destination once you were there and we understood that

But I think we missed a lot of opportunity in like, how to educate more people about what the experience is. How do we get in front of people? Because people tell us all the time that like, oh, this is on my, like when I come back to Arizona, if I'm away for school or whatever, like Sweet Cakes is one of the top places on my list. And I think that's similar for a lot of restaurants I've talked to or seen or experienced. The ones that I think push through and really become long-term, like very successful, very profitable,

out how to not just create a great like recipe great experience but how to like market how to engage and how to like interact with their customers outside of the four walls of the actual restaurant

Shane Murphy (26:57.346)

Yeah, that is absolute gold right there because there are multiple pieces to the business. And sometimes the greatest learnings come from looking back and saying, man, if I had done X, Y, or Z, it would have changed the trajectory of the business. And you've gone through that learning process and really appreciate your willingness to share both the good times and the learnings that you've had through some of those hard knocks.

Sean Huntington (27:13.513)


Sean Huntington (27:24.672)

Totally. Yeah. Yeah, I think, I mean, it's, I think we, this happens in every industry. There's a few outliers.

that the food is so incredibly good, the experience is so incredible, it's so unique that like, they basically don't have to do the other things because they're just so booked up. And I think a lot of restaurants or people get caught up in like, oh, if I just make the food good enough and then it'll just go viral and everyone will just show up. And it's, I mean, you look at, shoot, What's His Name is the perfect example. It's the dude in Vegas that has the TikTok that's like,

Sean Huntington (28:08.392)

Oh, it does like food reviews and this whole thing is like

Is the food bad or is their marketing just terrible? And so he goes into these restaurants and does these food reviews. And if the food is great, like literally changes the trajectory of these, because I mean he has millions of followers now and on TikTok and we'll roll in. He actually came to Arizona like two months ago and featured my buddy's empanada restaurant. And they were on, like six months ago they were on,

Guy Fieri show. And it was like, it had an impact, but this TikToker.

They literally had to like close every Saturday to give their team rest because they were working like doubles and they were just like slammed and were just like playing catch up. I think they're still playing catch up like six or eight weeks later. Just crazy. And I think it's like, I think that's where a lot of restaurants are is like their product is great. Like the food is great. It's just recognized like there's a few outliers that I think we like, oh, I like, I'm going to be this pizza restaurant. Like in Arizona. It's pizza.

of Bianco and that dude, his pizza is well known and now he's been on so many shows and things where it's just like they probably but they probably are smart business people they still have processes and outreach and things but it's like that's the outlier you know the businesses that do well are ones that I think consistently figure out good ways to engage their customers and provide value.

Shane Murphy (29:45.006)

The the ticket to the dance is having a good experience and good food and product But once you have that You then it becomes a matter of how do I get as many people as possible? Engaging with this experience. We know it's awesome. We know they'll tell their friends, but we have to get them here and there are plenty of strategies to get in front of those people bring them in and do that over and over and over again so that

By the time they've been there three or four times, they're gonna be a customer for life.

Sean Huntington (30:17.492)

100%. Yeah, I think that's so true. I think it's that.

You know, I think we're seeing it with social media, we're seeing with content, just this consistency of organic content being more and more viral and connecting with people, just really providing value, I think is the thing that cuts through the most. And I think restaurants can really look at where can they provide value. Like at a restaurant, obviously it's the experience, the food, the atmosphere, but what are ways

people do these really unique like crossover collaborations like a restaurant and a jewelry shop will do this like collab or like these very like disparate like

industries but have definitely an overlapping audience will do these collabs and provide extraordinary results for both brands because it's all just about overlapping audiences, building awareness for what, you know, someone who buys jewelry probably shops at this or wants to eat at unique restaurants and try different things and so it's like finding ways to collaborate with

Sean Huntington (31:35.458)


Shane Murphy (31:38.918)

I love all of this. People are gonna get so much from this conversation. Thank you for sharing your story And it's more than just hey, how do we get on TV? It's how do we get on TV? How do we you know try different things? How do we go out and actually let corporations know about the gifting? How do we increase that awareness and add value to your customer base? There's a lot that people can learn from that. So thank you so much for coming and sharing your experience

Sean Huntington (32:06.368)

I'm gonna take your picture anytime, yeah. Yeah, so much fun. I mean, I know that someday I'll get back into the food world. It's just a matter of when, because it's such a core to my family and who we are and what we're all about. I'm actually trying to convince my dad to open up a little breakfast spot, because he kills it with breakfast, but.

Shane Murphy (32:07.734)

You know, all the listeners are really appreciative.

Sean Huntington (32:34.509)

the food and restaurant world have a special place in my heart for sure.

Shane Murphy (32:40.062)

Well, Sean, thanks again for coming on the podcast today, and I'm sure we'll hear more from you as time goes on. Once your dad opens that breakfast place, we'll have him on and hear that story.

Sean Huntington (32:48.916)

That's right. There we go.

Shane Murphy (32:53.71)

All right, thanks again, Sean.

Sean Huntington (32:55.368)

Thanks dude.

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