“Really, I love people. That’s my favorite part of this. People come in to buy cheesecake, but I want to know more about them than that. I like to hear their stories. I see new people every day. If you come in here more than once, I know you. We’re cool.”
Monique Williams is the resident cheesecake connoisseur of Montgomery, AL and owner of the fast-growing local business, The Cheesecake Empori-yum. The warmth of her store surrounds anyone lucky enough to walk in with rich and delicious smells, greeted by her loud hello and energetic smile. After that first hello, you feel like you’re a part of her business too -- it’s the kind of feeling you have to tell everyone about. And that’s what makes her so good at what she does.
After moving around a lot as a child due to the military, Monique and her family settled in Montgomery, AL. She’s called it home ever since. “This is where my home is. My family. My friends. I can’t imagine not living here, now. I don’t think I can leave. I don’t want to.” She’s committed to investing in her own community in her own way—by providing locals with some of the best cheesecake they’ve ever tasted in flavors they never thought imaginable, while making them feel like the most important people in the world.
Monique learned to bake from her mom. Her mother’s kitchen is where she learned the foundations of baking, delved into new flavor combinations, and perfected an amazing red velvet recipe. “My mom is my biggest supporter. I couldn’t do any of this without her. She runs errands for me, watches the storefront when I need her to… and this free place to live has helped a lot too! I’m able to focus solely on my business because of her.”
"The Cheesecake Empori-yum --with its famously unique flavors, revolutionary cheesecake pints (yes, pints of cheesecake), and accommodating recipes for vegans, gluten-free folks, and low-carbers alike -- came to fruition as Monique went through a divorce." “You know, you need things to distract you from what you’re going through. When I bake, I don’t think about anything else going on.” As with any stumbled-upon dream, the operation started small. She began selling cupcakes at her former workplace. On her off time, she would bake hundred of cupcakes--in a variety of flavors, of course--and package them to be sold. “I would make 200 and sell out within an hour. People loved them!”
Because of her love of baking and her growing fan base, Monique dove in and expanded. She wanted to tackle a new and unique baking front in Montgomery: cheesecake. Now she owns a rapidly growing bakery that continually gets rave reviews on its more than 40 original cheesecake flavors--including banana bread cheesecake and donut cheesecake. “Every day I meet new customers. Word spreads and people come find me. They walk in and they’re like, ‘Girl I love you!’ Well, I love you too!”
But, Monique is quick to remind her fans that she’s successful because of hard work. She’s not a superhero; she’s just determined to make it. “Like, I own a business and people think it’s really glamorous. Let me tell you, it’s not. I mean it’s 5 a.m. to maybe 6 p.m. or even 8 p.m. every day. I’m baking, I’m running errands, and I’m making business meetings. I have to be at the store front. And on the weekends and at night I’m here or at other community things. I’m not out here popping bottles at night, y’all. No. I’m tired.” She laughed.
Monique didn’t necessarily set out to be a baker and business owner. After studying communications at the University of Alabama and almost completing her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, Monique wanted to help people in a different way. Her vision was for a healthier workplace. “Imagine if every workplace had a [mental health] counselor—like how every school does. People should have access to that at work. People would work better and handle their life problems better. I wanted to bring this to employees at businesses.” With this driving her, Monique is passionate about mental health and access to guns -- two problems facing both Montgomery and the nation. “If we could actually address problems people are going through and support them at work, we probably could avoid a lot of the [gun] violence and shootings happening.”
This goal could still be on the horizon for her. She is determined to finish her master’s degree—even when waking up at 5 a.m. to bake every morning. Even as she attends school and runs an entire business on mostly on her own, Monique is always smiling and always thankful. She has made it this far with determination and unending support from her family. Her creativity, knowledge of her community, and branding expertise also helped, too.
Since starting her business, Monique has begun to realize a bigger purpose in her work. “It’s really cool now to get to meet all kinds of new people and hear their stories. I love to ask, like, ‘so where are you going?’ The answers are always different.” She finds that often, she has a positive impact on her customers, and is able to improve someone’s mood or day just by being herself. “I can relate to everybody, because I’m not a judgey person. It doesn’t matter where you come from, I don’t care. I want to get to know you. But at the same time, I’m not a typical west-side urban girl. I’m a little quirky, you know? I love Katy Perry… and I meet people and they’re like ‘uh, Katy Perry? Really?’ So I’ve never been a really known person. I’m just now really becoming one of those popular people.”
Not only is her impact important to her customers, it’s important to her entire community. The need for more economic growth in Montgomery fuels Monique’s drive to do more, better. “I want to help Montgomery grow, even with my small business. I want to create jobs, add to the things to do. I hope this place will start growing and be better off.”
In a majority black city with a 30% underemployment rate where 18-30 year olds comprise the highest low-income demographic, Monique is doing something extraordinary. As a young black woman entrepreneur, she’s paving the way for others to follow their dreams while showing them how to get there by being an example herself. “Us as a people—I mean black people—have to learn that you can be better than what you started from. It’s just the little steps, from starting out. People even ask me why I’m taking it so slow. They ask why I don’t have my own building yet. Well, I don’t have any money for that. I’m still building clientele. I’m not interested in jumping too fast. I wanna do this the smart way and make it last.”
She wants to add to the small-business scene, to grow jobs, and to provide more opportunities for fun in the community. But, she recognizes the challenges the community faces. From racial segregation to violence, Monique sees room for improvement in Montgomery. Her hope is that the city can learn from its history and use the lessons as a roadmap forward.
“I believe that Montgomery can grow, too. One step at a time. Let’s learn about our history and let’s grow from it.”
What’s next for Monique in her journey to becoming the resident cheesecake expert in Montgomery? Continuing to grow her clientele, a building wholly devoted to the cheesecake cause, and more community outreach. She’s even got hopes--and a plan--for the country to see her cheesecake pints in their favorite grocery stores one day.
Her first big event for the community will be the Capitol City Cheesecake Chase in Montgomery on National Cheesecake Day, July 30, 2017. It’s a scavenger hunt where teams of four will work together to solve riddles—and win over 500 dollars in prizes. “I wanted to do something cool for my brand and something positive for the community. What’s better than to make people work together on a scavenger hunt in Montgomery?” All proceeds from the event will go to benefit Women of Refined Gold, an organization dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence in Montgomery. “I wanted to give [the money] all away. It needs to go somewhere that’s helpful.” She hopes that this family-friendly, positive event will become a recurring thing for the community.
With her determination and creative mind, I have no doubt that it will be.
If you’re interested in checking out Monique’s business, eat her delicious cheesecake, or want to sign up for the Capitol City Cheesecake Chase, visit the Cheesecake Empori-yum’s Facebook page.
- M. S.