When her restaurant employer started having financial troubles in early 2010, Bowie resident Tamarra Thomas said she wasn’t too surprised when she was laid off.
“When a restaurant is having trouble financially, they cut managers or they cut pastry,” she said.
As the restaurant's managing pastry chef, Thomas was among the first on the chopping block. Collecting unemployment and contemplating seeking another vulnerable restaurant pastry chef position, she decided it was time to take a chance.
“I’d always had the dream of owning a candy shop, so I thought, ‘I’ve been laid off, I have the time, the time is now,’” said Thomas, and that’s how Mama Cocoa’s Delights was born.
Thomas started small, by renting a table at the Bowie Farmers Market and renting kitchen space in Gaithersburg. Those two expenses were her only overhead. So between collecting unemployment and borrowing a few hundred dollars from friends and family, she was able to get her business up and running.
“Although it seems counterintuitive, recessions actually spur new business,” said Thomas, adding that the success of those businesses depends on how much the entrepreneurs are willing to put into their work.
After putting in one season at the Bowie Farmers Market, Thomas realized how much interest and support there was in Bowie for her business. The drive to and from Gaithersburg was also starting to wear her down, so she started looking for business space nearby.
She had heard about a local ice cream shop that was closing and while she had reservations about the location, the rent was affordable. Importantly, she knew that space must have passed health inspections because of the tenant that was operating there.
Thomas found an investor willing to put some money into her venture, and for about $20,000, she was able to get Mama Cocoa’s Delights up and running in February 2011.
Both of Thomas’ parents spent their entire careers in the military, and she gives them credit for instilling in her a strong work ethic. Her mom retired as a command sergeant major and her stepfather retired as a lieutenant colonel.
Even though her parents each had only one career that spanned decades, Thomas is on her third. She thinks that employees and employers are less committed to each other these days.
“When my parents were young, you got a job and you stayed with it for 30, 40 years,” said Thomas, adding that now people are looking for jobs where they can stay a while, learn, grow and move on to the next level.
This doesn’t happen just because of a restless workforce, says Thomas, but also because employers can no longer guarantee an employee’s job will still be there 30 years later.
“Gone are the days of a gold watch at retirement,” she said.
In one way, Thomas thinks her parents had it better because they had job security. But in another way she thinks her generation has it better because they have more flexibility.
Security or no, she loves her job but finds the business end can be tedious and challenging. The happy faces she sees coming in and out of her shop every day enjoying her sweet treats make it all more than worth the effort, she said.
Community support has been very important to Thomas’ success and she says Bowie residents have really embraced her and supported her efforts.
“Bowie residents want to spend their money in Bowie,” she said. “They want to live their lives in Bowie.”
The local business community has also shown its appreciation for her efforts. The Greater Bowie Chamber of Commerce named Mama Cocoa’s Delights small business of the year in 2012.
Thomas credits her hard work and stubborn pride for keeping her going and a willingness to start small and build slowly for making her business successful.
“Is it difficult? Yes, but if you’re determined enough, it’s possible,” she said.
Locals looking for a sweet treat can stop in her shop Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., or check out her table at the Bowie Farmers Market on Sundays.