Kei Okumura has built a business that supports her family and seven employees on the magic that happens over a delicious treat and a cup of tea. For the decade it's been in business, Sugarbird Sweets and Teas has gone through multiple iterations, but one thing has remained constant—Kei's passion for helping people connect.
Leaving a career as a music video producer after 9/11, Kei sought meaning and found it in her baking hobby. "[I asked myself], 'Why am I doing a Beyoncé video when I don't feel like there's any meaning to it? I love my cakes. I love bakeries. Let me go abroad to the most wonderful place that pastries are made—to Paris.'"
Returning to the U.S. after pastry school, Kei started selling custom herbal tea blends at a local farmers' market but found there wasn't a large enough market for tea alone. "So, I said, 'What goes with tea?' And it came naturally. Tea and scones."
More than a tea party
Afternoon tea is a special ritual for Kei. "Growing up in Asia, we always had tea in the afternoon. That was a special time for me, and I think that stuck with me throughout my life. [Tea] is a time for people to gather. [Adding sweets] is a casual way of saying we'll make it something enticing," she says.
Enticing is the perfect word to describe the Sugarbird Sweets and Teas scone experience, available through their website a la carte and in themed "afternoon tea" gift boxes. The scones are colorful drops with dainty garnishes and glossy glazes, lovely as their exotic flavor names imply. The first bite's soft, pillowy texture and subtle but rich flavor take the full experience to another level that begs to be shared. Or, in Kei's words, a scone at afternoon tea is "a catalyst to open up to other conversation. And it's time. You're giving yourself a moment, taking time out to really connect with other people."
Pastries and people of all flavors
Kei's interest in building connections goes deeper than scones. She is invested in the team that helps her create them. "As a minority woman owner, I have this amazing team that is neurodiverse, LGBTQ, and racially diverse. It's been great to have that. I think people need to reduce their stigma about hiring people with neurodiversity."
She considers her team a key motivation and is appreciative of what they bring to her business. She says she has an "amazing" group of bakers who "are sticking with me in this whole journey, and I really, really want to make this happen for them. For us too, but it's really because of them."
Expanding her thoughts on the value of a diverse workplace, Kei says, "My team allows me to have a wide range of comfort in discussing things like neurodiversity and LGBTQ [issues]. We just make it open. So the team feels like they're at ease working here and dealing with life with the challenges they may be facing. We want them to flourish in the environment. It's not a factory. That's the whole point."
Creating beautiful baked goods and leading a team is more than a full-time job, and Kei often looks to LegalZoom for help with the legal necessities of running a business.
"When we started getting into business accelerators, it was an eye-opener for me to get access to capital, to legal advice and accounting, and all that stuff started to fall into place after me. And I didn't know how to contact attorneys to get my corporation and business documents in a row because there was so much to learn. I think that's how I found LegalZoom, and I was like, 'Wow, I didn't know legal had all this stuff,' and that made it easy."
Over the years, Kei has relied on LegalZoom to help her take care of multiple business tasks. "It's easy for me to just reach out to LegalZoom and say, 'Hey, I need to get our logo trademarked. How do we do about it?' And they're like, 'OK!'"
After pivoting from a wholesale business model to sell direct to consumers in the pandemic, Kei has set her sights on reaching more customers with her teas and baked creations. She recently launched a new website, appeared on a Hulu cooking reality show, and continues to improve her scone shipping and delivery options.
As for the future, she envisions a line of scone kiosks in malls across the country and to ultimately "streamline our growth and our scalability to become this multimillion-dollar company in the next five years." As anyone who has tasted a Sugarbird scone can attest, she'll probably do it.
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