Union Kitchen, a food incubator in Washington, hums with activity day and night as nearly 50 food companies prep, cook, bake and package their wares.
Working diligently in the upstairs bakery layering cake cutouts and frosting is Haley Raphael, the 23-year-old founder of Pops by Haley, a baked-goods company that specializes in push-up cake pops. (The Flintstones push-up ice cream pops Raphael recalls from her childhood served as inspiration.)
Raphael, who grew up in Owings Mills, was graduated cum laude from the University of Maryland’s business school last May with a double major in marketing and supply chain management. She took a job with Sweetgreen and began working on her cake pop creations as a side project in November 2014 with her boyfriend, Jesse Mates — whose family founded Katz’s kosher supermarket — handling social media.
Less than a year into the corporate world, Raphael took the plunge. She quit her job, wrote up a business plan, found financial backing and began to pursue Pops by Haley full time.
Given the explosion of business, it appears that Raphael made the right move. She’s catered events for Washingtonian Magazine, Macy’s and the Fillmore Silver Spring. Her customizable labels and delectable flavors — vanilla birthday cake, cookies ‘n cream, s’mores and chocolate peanut butter — are a hit at bar mitzvah parties, weddings and baby showers.
Though she has a reciprocal relationship with another baker who rents space in Union Kitchen, Raphael knows that “every CEO has to do every job.” For her that means baking, creating custom labels, building the website, taking and fulfilling orders, making local delivery runs and shipping her goods across the country.
Already she has received requests from international Instagram followers requesting international shipping and franchising opportunities, not realizing that Pops — the product is available online at popsbyhaley.com — is largely a one-woman show.
Building a successful business at a young age can have its challenges.
“There are always going to be people who don’t take you seriously. When you’re straight out of college they think you don’t know what you’re doing,” she said.
“But,” she continued, “there are people who are impressed that I’ve started right out of college and they take me more seriously because they see I have taken the initiative.”
Jonas Singer, co-founder of Union Kitchen, is among the impressed. Each business that rents space in Union Kitchen, located in a converted warehouse in the NoMa neighborhood, must first go through a thorough vetting process.
Singer was impressed by the creativity of Raphael’s product and its potential to find a “vibrant niche” market, and was further impressed by her “hustle, heart, and grind.”
“Haley does a great job marketing and promoting her product and exploring creative ways to expose consumers to her brand,” Singer said via email. “More than anything, Haley was going it. She made the commitment to invest in herself and her business and to believe in her own success.”
She eventually hopes to expand into permanent retail space and is taking the steps – updating labels, printing nutrition facts – to make her dream a reality. More immediately, she has her eye on an expansion into three Washington markets this summer.
Of her drive to develop her business and be her own boss, she said, “Everything you build is your own and if you do well, you’ll be amazing. … It’s a roller-coaster, but it’s mostly fun. Hard, but good.”