Tornado Survivor Follows Dream, Opens Bakery in Tuscaloosa’s University Mall
When Nikeah Leech launched Sweet Dreamz Delivered from her home kitchen, she had no idea the journey she was embarking on. This weekend, after years of hard work, she's officially set a grand opening for a storefront expansion in University Mall.
Sweet Dreamz is a specialty bread and dessert store offering treats ranging from strawberry brownie cheesecake medleys to keto meals, fresh cookies and smoothies. It's set to open officially on Saturday at noon.
Leech said she has already seen tremendous success in the city, but she said the path to get here wasn't always so clear-cut.
A native of Columbus, Mississippi, Leech started her career working in healthcare office management in the Magnolia State and moved to Tuscaloosa in 2009 to run her own optometry shop inside JCPenney.
Like so many others, though, Leech's life changed drastically on April 27, 2011, when her home in Charleston Square took a direct hit from the EF-4 tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa that day. Eight of her neighbors died that day, and dozens more were killed across the city.
"I lost everything," Leech said. "My husband and I had to move back home to Columbus. I had a child in the first grade, an infant, and I was also pregnant. I needed a better place to raise a child."
Leech had to start over from nothing. She made the difficult decision to stay at home to raise her children back in Mississippi and said she knew she was going to have to find unconventional ways to make money.
The answer, it turned out, was a simple one. Leech had been baking her own breads herself to save money while her family rebuilt. What began as a necessity became a passion, then a revenue generator.
"I would send baked goods to class for my kids, and soon people started reaching out and asking me to make foods for them," Leech said. "My husband said that should be an option to consider."
Leech went to business school, set on pursuing this idea. When she graduated, she began researching recipes and trying to get ahead of upcoming trends. Something that stuck out to her was the rapid growth of food delivery businesses on the West Coast.
She knew she wanted to try the model out here in the southeast, but also recognized that Columbus, a city with fewer than 25,000 residents, was probably not the best place to launch such an enterprise.
To get her feet off the ground, Leech said she recruited a high school friend named Kelly Butler Turner to bake with her and they started her first business in the back of an existing restaurant kitchen.
"That gave us a chance to in essence piggyback off of the usual customers," Leech said. "We would manage the restaurant part-time and do some marketing in exchange for free rent, so that was a blessing."
Leech always knew she wanted to return to Tuscaloosa, once she was financially sound enough. In 2017, she got a call from her former boss at the JCPenney optical that her replacement was leaving, and she could come fill that spot again.
She saw this invitation back as an opportunity to bring her bakery, Sweet Dreamz, to Tuscaloosa, and ultimately she moved back and used her spare time to put her business on the map.
She said she opened popup shops and eventually found a spot to sell her goods on weekends at the Tuscaloosa River Market. Leech said that's where the trajectory of Sweet Dreamz Delivered really changed.
Leech recognized a lot of younger customers were interested in fresh local products and diversified her menu by adding different products like keto items.
"People went crazy for the keto menu," she said. "My husband is diabetic, so I had already started changing recipes to accommodate his needs. Both he and my customers really took to how I found ways to sweeten my baked goods without adding sugar."
Keto, gluten and sugar-free goods became a highlight of the Tuscaloosa menu and in early 2020, Leech said she found herself in a unique position -- as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, bread disappeared from shelves around the same time as toilet paper.
Soon enough, her baked goods became a hot commodity in Tuscaloosa. She went from mainly making sweet treats to focusing on "essential baking," fast-tracking the success of Sweet Dreamz in Tuscaloosa.
Word of mouth helped Sweet Dreamz become the go-to service for delivering bread last year -- Leech said sales were up an almost unbelievable 900 percent over the previous year. It wasn't long before she decided she needed a physical storefront.
She faced another setback soon after, though, when she suffered a grade-2 concussion while vacationing with her family in Tampa Bay. What was meant to be a 3-day trip turned into a six-week stay as she recovered.
Her business stalled, she physically couldn't bake for weeks, and suddenly all the money she earned at the start of 2020 was being spent on her recovery.
Fortunately, though, Leech shared her story with a friend, who submitted it to the Black-Owned Small Business Impact Fund, sponsored by the NAACP and Beyoncé. The organization provided $22 million to black small business owners across the country last year, and Leech won a $10,000 grant from them.
With that help, she was able to begin pursuing a storefront for Sweet Dreamz once more.
She finally signed a lease to open a storefront in University Mall in March and will officially open Saturday.
"It's going to be a big event because anyone that knows me knows how long a journey this has been," Leech said.
Check out Sweet Dreams in the mall's food court to see and taste where Leech's journey has led for yourself.
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