How Jessica Kercher used ingenuity to grow her business
By Jeremy Angione
As a mom of two with one on the way, and the owner of a one-year-old cheesecake shop, Jessica Kercher’s business was heading into the pandemic on shaky ground that was already sinking more developed businesses.
According to the National Restaurant Association, roughly 90 thousand restaurants either temporarily or permanently closed due to the pandemic.
Simply Vanilla Gourmet Cheesecake was born in Kercher’s kitchen in 2018. She recalled opening the first Simply Vanilla in Forest, and how her previous experiences and education prepared her to have a solid first year.
“I had a business plan. It was printed in a binder.
It was beautiful. And then the pandemic hit, and I literally burned it,” Kercher said.
Kercher’s willingness to adapt to the situation kept Simply Vanilla’s doors open, in a time where cheesecake was unlikely to be considered essential.
“I think what really helped me throughout the pandemic is that we were grassroots to begin with. I had a relationship with the community before we even ran into the pandemic.”
Simply Vanilla’s origin has that American dream, folky feel that we associate with all of our favorite, old-fashioned brands.
Kercher is from a small “three-mile town” in Pennsylvania and a large family. “I wasn’t expecting to really make anything of myself,” Kercher said.
She was the first of her family to attend college, studying at Penn State University. Throughout her life, Kercher received mentorship in leadership, and technical education opportunities, to which she attributes much of her success.
Kercher’s journey into business began when a friend urged her to start marketing her homemade cheesecake. She only meant the small, peanut butter cheesecake to be a token of thanks to her friend, who’d helped her run errands while she and her daughter were stuck in the house, each with a broken leg.
It turned out her friend’s advice had legs of its own, and the demand for her cheesecakes forced Kercher to customize her kitchen with commercial grade baking and storage equipment to meet the rising orders.
Simply Vanilla quickly outgrew the Kercher kitchen which would lead her to opening her first official location, custom designed for her needs.
During the pandemic, Kercher recalled how she remained proactive in reaching the community to keep her business afloat and her employees paid.
“I was the only sacrifice that the business needed at that point. It was my time and my energy. It was rough.”
Kercher says the extent of her sacrifices still bother her to this day. She recalls Christmas mornings that she could barely keep awake for as her kids opened presents.
Kercher managed to open a second Simply Vanilla location in the River Ridge Mall in 2020. Before opening the mall location, Simply Vanilla held several successful pop up sales there, which Kercher admits could have sunk her business if they failed. One make or break weekend she prepared 800 cheesecakes that fortunately all sold out.
Kercher fully attributes her ability to open in River Ridge Mall to the close relationships she was able to form there through those pop ups. Her emphasis on relational business extends beyond keeping customers happy, but also to the close ties she maintains with her vendors and partners.
“We have a good relationship with all our product ordering. We do not have to change any of the ingredients we have coming in. We monitor our products. I stay on top of them personally.”
During the cream cheese shortage last year, Kercher claims she remained keenly aware of a possible shortage as much as 60 days prior. She made sure to alert her provider, and in return, her business was prioritized and given the two tons of cream cheese that remained.
Kercher is in no rush to expand beyond what she and her brand can handle. She says that she is still doing research on ways to effectively manage cold chain transportation and storage to make any further growth feasible.
Her commitment to the quality of Simply Vanilla’s products is also a motivating factor in keeping growth gradual. According to Kercher,
many people actually think Simply Vanilla is a franchise, which can sometimes affect the way people view her products.
“We are such an artisan product. So some of our marketing always has to be pushed towards making sure that they know we’re an artisan product; that we are local.”
Ultimately, Kercher’s love for her craft and the people who enable it are the keys to her continued success.
“If you’re gonna ask me what my favorite part of this job is, first and foremost, it’s going out to the local school districts and being able to speak with some of the students. Secondly, I love getting my hands dirty! I love that my shoes are covered in flour. I feel the most successful when I work with my hands. That’s where I started.”