Starting with making her daughter’s first birthday cake and then a cake for a friend, Nguyen’s skill began spreading to the community by word of mouth before she opened the bakery, she said.
“People started handing out my phone number, so I ended up teaching Monday through Friday and then working Friday, Saturday, Sunday, no sleep and delivering cakes out of the back of my car,” Nguyen said. “I was doing this double life for like two years.”
A defining moment for Nguyen was when she was on maternity leave watching Ace of Cakes on the Food Network.
“I was just watching it in awe,” Nguyen said. “I want to be that mom that makes those types of cakes for my kids because we're an immigrant family, and I didn't have that kind of experience with my mom and dad growing up because they worked so hard when they came here.”
Nguyen’s love of the Food Network ended up landing her a spot in the cast for the network’s "Spring Baking Championship" last summer. The casting and application process took about four months, and then the show filmed for about three weeks in Los Angeles, where Nguyen made it into the top five out of 11 competitors.
“My goal was just to not get sent home the first day,” Nguyen said. “It was scary, but it was the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had.”
The show aired shortly after the coronavirus pandemic set in in the U.S., Nguyen said.
“I was hoping that this [show] was going to help my bakery, and then when pandemic started, it was kind of a bubble-burster,” she said. “When the pandemic started I thought I was going to close shop. Everybody was—all the restaurants were and are still hurting right now.”
However, Nguyen’s mochi doughnuts, a dessert she makes for her five children at home, ended up saving The Sweet Boutique. Mochi doughnuts are similar to regular doughnuts, but they are baked instead of fried and made with rice flour, making them gluten free, she said.
“I couldn’t sleep for weeks when the whole pandemic started because I knew that we were going to have to shut down. If this mochi doughnut thing didn’t happen for us, we would have been closed a long time ago,” Nguyen said. “It was our saving grace. Mochi doughnuts saved our bakery.”
Nguyen made mochi doughnuts on the second week of the Food Network competition and decided to make some for fun for customers during the pandemic, she said. On the first day, she made 200 and sold out in 15 minutes. The second round, she made 500 and sold out in one hour and 15 minutes.
“That’s when we were like, ‘We’re onto something. I think this is going to save our bakery,’” Nguyen said.
Nguyen trained all the pastry chefs to make the doughnuts, and front sales staff members became doughnut dippers, she said.
“That’s been our bakery ever since,” Nguyen said. “We were just trying to survive, and now things are getting a little bit better.”
Nguyen said The Sweet Boutique’s mochi doughnuts have been attracting people from as far as The Woodlands and Galveston. She was actually able to hire more help to keep up with demand and host “roundups” at different locations in the Greater Houston area to reach more customers.
The Sweet Boutique has also been partnering with other local restaurants during the pandemic to help bring more foot traffic to these businesses.
“We're partnering up with other restaurants and doing pop ups like once a week so that customers can get to that location and get their doughnuts and help the other restaurants,” Nguyen said. “We’re all in it together. You know, we just need to support each other.”
Nguyen, like many business owners, had to apply for Payment Protection Program funds from the Small Business Administration during the pandemic to keep The Sweet Boutique afloat, she said.
“It's really helped us because we had to hire more staff during the pandemic to keep up with the doughnuts," Nguyen said. "We didn't have to fire anybody or lay anybody off, which was wonderful. We are all a family here, and they really depend on us staying open, and we depend on it too because it's our livelihood. My husband works here, and I work here. We don't have any other income. This is what feeds my children.”
Nguyen said the shop is slowly working items such as cake pops, French macarons, cupcakes and cakes back into the rotation. The bakery has remained open offering curbside pickup during the pandemic, and up to three people are now allowed inside at a time, she said.
“It's beginning to kind of feel a little bit normal, but not really,” she said. “It's just weird. We can't plan for anything, so we're just trying to take things one day at a time.”