Bakery founder shares story with business students

When Cotton Roberts and his wife decided to open a bakery, the skeptics were many.

Starting a bakery in a down-trending economy was a pipe dream, said some.  But Roberts told students a dream is often the best start to any business.

“It takes a dream first,” Roberts told the class. “But you got to put some feet under that dream.”

Roberts spoke to Professor Dr. Garry Grau’s business management course this week about his experiences doing a business start-up in a depressed economy.

Family Bakery co-founder Cotton Roberts talks cupcakes and tax rates with Dr. Garry Grau’s business class.

Roberts retired from Eastman Chemical Company before opening Family Bakery three years ago in downtown Gate City, Va.   The bakery idea came from Vicky who had experiencing in the catering field.  Needless to say, they received plenty of discouraging words about taking on big name stores with in-house bakeries.

“We wanted to do this a unique way,” Roberts said.  “We didn’t want to offer things that everyone else had.”

What they had were baked-that-day cinnamon rolls, muffins, scones, and the undisputed pastry star of the Family Bakery, the Cupcake.  Not just any cupcake, mind you.  A couple dozen varieties all branded with names to fit the flavors.  Devil in a Blue Dress.  Wedding Cake. The Dark Side of the Moon.  The Dirty Snowball.

“It’s not a cupcake,” said Izzy Leonard, a business management major and would-be entrepreneur who attested to the Family Bakery. “It is a little piece of heaven.”

Armed with knowledge, strong faith, and a pretty sound business plan, the Family Bakery opened in May 2009.  The opening proved a resounding success.  The workforce jumped from two employees to eight including Roberts’ sons and daughter.  The bakery added specialty cakes to the menu.  Lunch service began a few months after the grand opening.

“It is an extraordinary story of doing business right,” Grau told his class. “To make it work in this economy is phenomenal.”

Representatives from a Scott County Economic Development Authority guided Roberts through the drafting of his business plan and advised him on tax and business issues.  He urged future entrepreneurs to draft a business plan.  A business plan mapped out a business operation and future.  It was also a necessity to secure financial assistance from any reputable lending institution.

“Forming a business plan is one of the biggest steps you can take,” Roberts said. “If you don’t have a business plan on how you are going to do it, you will fail.”

Roberts dispenses some advice about starting up a small business.

The business plan enabled Roberts to secure a low-interest loan to purchase equipment and to outfit the bakery. However, he also pointed out no plan was immune from setbacks.   Roberts said the grand opening plans were pushed back several times.  He recalled one of the most frustrating moments occurred when the building flooded when a water pipe burst only days before the scheduled opening.

“Don’t be discouraged,” he said. “Whatever happens you got to be able to push through it, that’s usually the difference in failing or making it.”

Students peppered Roberts with questions about his experiences on everything from advertising to property use.  He explained the finer points of accounting and banking demands for operating a small business.

“He pretty much confirmed the suspicions I had about how hard it would be,” said Leonard.

Roberts also walked students through the necessities of securing a tax identification number with the Internal Revenue Service, acquiring a business license, and get a state and federal sales tax numbers.

“I got a good feeling for how he went about planning for it,” said Bryce Salyers, a small business management major.

Roberts urged future business owners to carve out their niche with a business identity that set them apart. He illustrated the point with a verse from the Song of Solomon.

“There are 60 queens, 80 concubines, and countless virgins,” Roberts said, “but my love, my perfect one, is unique.”

Northeast State hosts open house Feb. 16

Curious about what awaits you at college? Get the basics and some inside information at an open house event hosted by Northeast State Community College on Thursday, Feb. 16 from 6 – 8 p.m. at the Blountville campus, adjacent to Tri-Cities Regional Airport.

Sponsored by Northeast State’s office of Enrollment Services and Campus Information, the open house highlights the College’s academic programs, student activities and support programs, financial aid, scholarships and applying for admission.

Attendees will check in at 6 p.m. in the William W. Locke Humanities Building and enjoy a variety of learning sessions.  Staff and faculty will conduct three sessions at 6:15, 6:45, and 7:15 p.m. describing the academic opportunities in the Advanced Technologies, Business Technologies, University Parallel (transfer majors) and dual enrollment programs. Staff will also present sessions detailing financial aid and scholarship opportunities available at Northeast State.

The open house also features a Student Services Fair where attendees can speak with representatives of various student service offices.

To attend the open house, please make a reservation by calling the office of Enrollment Services at 423.323.0243, e-mail or visit

Reservations are recommended, but walk-in visits are most welcome.  If e-mailing a reservation, please include the student’s name, mailing address, high school/college, year in high school/college, and number of people in his or her group.

For more information, contact Admissions at 423.323.0243 or