Hristina Bayryakova wanted to throw her husband a special thirtieth birthday party.
Radostin is a car enthusiast with a soft spot for Ferrari, so a car-themed cake would be a fitting present and one that wouldn’t be hard to make — or so Hristina thought. The couple lives in Panagyurishte, a small town in east-central Bulgaria, and it turned out that the nearest bakery that would make a specialty cake was located in Plovdiv, nearly 50 miles away. Keeping the cake intact and cool on the drive home would be challenging; the pastry-maker didn’t deliver either.
So, Hristina rolled up her sleeves, and the result was memorable: a gleaming Ferrari cake in the brand’s classic red was served to the gathering – to enthusiastic reception by everyone. Radostin was struck speechless.
Today Hristina, a graduate of Business Academy for Starting Entrepreneurs (BASE), the America for Bulgaria Foundation’s entrepreneurship program, runs her own bakery and makes several specialty cakes every month. But she still remembers that first one, made eleven years ago, and not just because it was a surprise for her life partner. It took Hristina three days to bake and assemble the cake, a process made all the more challenging because she was using home equipment. She watched YouTube videos to fashion some of the more intricate details and enlisted the help of a friend to put it all together. She even hand-crafted the brand’s prancing stallion logo out of chocolate.
Shortly after the birthday bash, she received her first orders, initially from attending family and friends. “It all started as a joke, but I was soon getting orders from strangers as well,” Hristina says. In those days, she still saw pastry-making as more of a hobby than a business. Soon, professional endeavors were put completely out of her mind: she and Radostin became parents to twins, and for a few years their care was her top priority.
Through all this, Hristina kept baking for others – only occasionally during the twins’ infancy and with increasing frequency as they grew older. “I had some ideas about what business was, but I really had no clue what I would be doing as an entrepreneur,” she says.
The final nudge came from BASE, a free entrepreneurship program Hristina learned about from a friend, who encouraged her to apply. “I signed up on a dare,” she says, laughing. She was accepted to the summer 2019 edition of the program in Panagyurishte, and soon the proverbial lights came on. Being in business did not involve doing anything radically different from what she was already doing, she realized. What is more, Hristina was already very good at it: she always delivered the best quality on budget and on time. Making a business out of it involved changing how she thought about her work and following a few simple steps.
“My interest was piqued. Everything I learned in the program was helpful,” Hristina says.
Over three months, volunteer mentors from the world of business guided Hristina and other aspiring entrepreneurs through those steps, covering topics such as business planning, budgeting, market research, pricing and sales, marketing, and client relationship management. They talked about their own first steps in business and initial mishaps. They gave practical assignments and helped participants flesh out their business plans. At the program’s end, participants presented their ideas for a chance to win support for their development.
Hristina’s presentation won the jury over, earning her the program’s top prize. A few months later, in December 2019, Hristina’s bakery opened its doors to customers in Panagyurishte.
Today, business is booming at Maraia Bakery, which is named after Hristina and Radostin’s daughters, Maria and Raia. Located on one of Panagyurishte’s main streets, it gets a lot of walk-in business as well as regular orders. Customers can select from a wide selection of patisserie or order a custom cake. Holidays inspire special desserts and decorations, and regulars already know that they should pop in to check what’s new on Mother’s or St. Valentine’s Day. Recently, Hristina added catering to her expanding business, after teaming up with decorator and fellow BASE graduate Petya Uzunova-Naseva.
Hristina believes you cannot fail “if you put your soul into something.” And to everyone who has been to Maraia, it’s clear that she does. Everything is done with the customer in mind – from the shop’s welcoming atmosphere to the attention to detail visible in every one of her creations, to her constant experimentation and innovation. “I like doing new things, things people like,” she says. Hristina is attentive and careful to take care of her clients, taking copious notes about special orders and communicating with clients clearly to make sure they leave her bakery happy. Once, she even made a birthday cake based on a little girl’s drawing.
She learned a few hard lessons, too. When you make a commitment, you cannot break it, even if that involves staying up all night, which she often does. Weekends and public holidays are especially busy, and in the summer, weekends are several days long, as people search for the perfect weather for their wedding or for a baptism. This summer she managed to get some time off, but only after she posted an out-of-office message on the bakery’s Facebook page. “Last summer my phone overheated,” she says, laughing. She hadn’t made the break official.
An early client and friend recently came to the shop to place an order, and the two chatted about this and that. At some point, the client said: “I still remember that amazing red Ferrari cake!”
If someone still recalls your work eleven years later, you must be doing something right.
Business Academy for Starting Entrepreneurs (BASE) is an entrepreneurship training program developed by the America for Bulgaria Foundation and run in partnership with organizations such as the Industrial Cluster Srednogorie Association, National Association of Small and Medium Businesses, Association of Bulgarian Leaders and Entrepreneurs (ABLE), Council of Women in Business in Bulgaria, Magna Natura Association, East Accelerator Foundation, Society and Safety Foundation, and Trust for Social Achievement. Since its first edition in 2018, BASE has helped dozens of individuals across Bulgaria build or expand small businesses creating hundreds of jobs in places like Lovech, Troyan, Pleven, Mirkovo, Zlatitsa, Panagyurishte, Etropole, Elin Pelin, and Sofia.