Grace Ramirez chose the right state, albeit unwittingly.
Technically, a friend chose Wisconsin for her.
But “Forward,” Wisconsin’s motto, could be Ramirez’s as well: It’s the direction she always heads.
“I want to break the same, boring concepts that you see of cakes in Walmart and all those places,” she said. “I want to bring something to the public that’s bigger than they can see. That’s why I make the name ImagiCakes. ‘Cause you can bring me an idea, you can imagine your cake however you want, I can draw it, you can see it, and if you want it, I can make it.”
Her dream is big, bold … and becoming reality.
The path she’s been forging, however, is made of thousands of baby steps — plus one giant leap from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Glenwood City, WI.
Four years ago, Ramirez was in San Juan, selling her cakes door-to-door to supplement the $70 her husband was able to bring home every two weeks.
“I was selling 5×4 cakes for $5. I was selling chocolate, vanilla, and then I was selling carrot cake. Those are my main three flavors. So I was selling those and I would gain that money and I would use it for more materials and then I would buy diapers or stuff for my baby.”
Her business grew, with requests for birthday, baby shower and wedding cakes.
But then a friend’s husband got a job in Wisconsin — and following their friends north was an easy decision.
“Throughout our friendship, we always say, ‘If I move to U.S. to get a better life, I would help you move. If you move to U.S. to get a better life, you help me.'” Ramirez said.
At $13.50 an hour, Ramirez’s husband would be making nearly twice his Puerto Rican hourly wage.
The family moved up to northern Wisconsin in 2015, with infant daughter Sayuri and Ramirez’s baking supplies in tow. (Glenwood City is halfway between Eau Claire and Minneapolis-St. Paul.)
“Everybody was super sad back in Puerto Rico. We were trying to figure out, like, ‘They were asking me, ‘Can you send me the cakes through mail? I’ll buy (your) cakes through mail.'”
That wasn’t feasible. Instead, Ramirez hoped to relaunch her home-baked business, from her
new Wisconsin home.
And then she learned she couldn’t.
State law at the time forbade the sale of home-baked goods, requiring bakers to use a commercial kitchen and obtain a special license.
“When I found out that I needed to do all that stuff, I’m like, ‘I’m trying to get my business started, to get money out of it.’ … So when I saw that, I’m like, ‘We’re going to spend a lot of money getting a kitchen rented, getting a license, getting this and getting that, so I might as well go (to) work.'”
She started working for Goodwill in Hudson and worked her way into a management position.
Meanwhile, three Wisconsin women were suing the state over the home-baked goods ban. Last year, a judge ruled the ban unconstitutional, and Wisconsin home-bakers are now allowed to sell their goods.
Ramirez promptly started an ImagiCakes relaunch.
But she faces several challenges:
— Her recipes have a Puerto Rican flair — for example, she prefers an icing that is less sweet than the butter creme Wisconsinites are used to. Distinctive flavors help distinguish Ramirez from other bakers. But that also means convincing Wisconsinites to try something new. Finding her special ingredients also is a struggle.
— She does encounter racism. When Ramirez’s daughter Sayuri, now 3, was playing with a neighbor and Ramirez started speaking to Sayuri in Spanish, the neighbor told her child, “I don’t want you playing with that girl” and took her child inside. Another neighbor tried to get the police to remove Ramirez’s sister’s medical-assistance dog. And officials keep giving Ramirez immigration forms — despite the fact that, as Puerto Rico is an American territory, Ramirez and her husband are Americans.
— There are cultural differences. In San Juan, where everyone in the neighborhood knew everyone else, Ramirez built her business selling door-to-door. In northern Wisconsin, she’s not sure of the protocol.
Still, she’s been routinely bringing baked goods for her fellow Goodwill employees, and one of them then ordered a cake from her. She also has a few other people who have said they’re interested in buying from her when they need a cake.
Ramirez has been on maternity leave for three months, following the birth of her son. But she’s heading back to work this week, just long enough to train her replacement. And then she’ll focus full-time on growing ImagiCakes.
It is, she admits, scary.
“But it’s something that I want, that I dream about, because I have so many ideas that I would like people to see. I have so many creative things that I know could make people happy,” Ramirez said.
And so she’s pursuing clients, buying business cards, advertising her Facebook page.
She’s taking the next steps.