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Patrons whip up recipe to save bakery

Updated 10:38 am, Friday, February 1, 2013
  • Rick Dickinson, owner of Great Cakes in Westport, takes a cake order from Chris Ahlgrim, a longtime patron who also bought a dozen cupcakes. Ahlgrim was one of many customers to support the shop after word got out that Dickinson would have to close shop if he did not come up with $4,000 for a town tax bill. Photo: Michael C. Juliano/Staff Photo

    Rick Dickinson, owner of Great Cakes in Westport, takes a cake order from Chris Ahlgrim, a longtime patron who also bought a dozen cupcakes. Ahlgrim was one of many customers to support the shop after word got out that Dickinson would have to close shop if he did not come up with $4,000 for a town tax bill.

    Photo: Michael C. Juliano/Staff Photo

 

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For almost two decades, Rick Dickinson has been providing Westporters with sweet treats from his Great Cakes bakery.

Over the past few days, however, Dickinson's customers have been treating him after learning the bakery was in financial straits and that its closing seemed imminent.

Dickinson needed $4,000 within 24 hours to save his business. And the story of how his customers rallied to rescue the business illustrates the power of both new-age social media and old-fashioned customer loyalty.

On Wednesday, the veteran baker believed he had frosted his last cake at the 772 Post Road East shop. If he didn't pay $4,000 in overdue property taxes the next day, he would lose the food permit he needs to operate, he said in an interview Thursday. And he didn't have nearly $4,000.

But he mentioned his plight to a blogger. The blog report was enhanced and posted to a Facebook page, and before long, customers were lined up to open pre-paid accounts and make donations that filled the bakery's till with more than it needed to cover the tax bill.

"It was a lot of money, more than I did at Christmas," Dickinson said Friday. "Even a girl came in with her piggy bank with $11.43 saying `Don't close.' "

Dickinson said he told Dan Woog, a blogger and Westport News columnist, about his plight when Woog visited the bakery Wednesday morning. Woog posted an item about the bakery on his blog, which was seen by some Westport women who operate Kool2BKind, a school anti-bullying program.

The women suggested pre-paid accounts, posted the news on the organization's Facebook page, and before long, customers were flocking to the shop.

"I wasn't aware of Dan's blog [post] until a customer called me yesterday morning," Dickinson said Friday. "There was a line all day long."

Kool2BKind put signs in the window advertising the pre-paid accounts. At least 50 were opened, the baker said.

Dickinson has owned Great Cakes for 19 years, but has worked there for 24. He has six employees.

He said his financial woes are a result of a slow economy over the past few years and a recent Westport Public Schools ban on cupcakes at classroom birthday parties. Those cupcake sales, he said, had accounted for 15 percent of his business.

"I could not make up that loss," he said.

The pre-paid accounts and donations have saved his business for now, but Dickinson said he needs to come up with a long-term survival strategy.

He said he plans to seek advice from retired business executives with an organization called SCORE -- Service Corps of Retired Executives -- who volunteer as consultants. He also plans to work with Our Town Crier, a website aimed at supporting local businesses.

"And I definitely need to increase my prices," he said.

The support from the community has been overwhelming, said Dickinson, who has donated his goods to many local organizations over the years.

"It was coming back to me big time," he said Friday. "I was in tears half the day yesterday."

Chris Ahlgrim of Westport, a patron for 15 years, came into the store Thursday morning to buy a dozen cupcakes and order a cake after a friend emailed him about Dickinson's predicament.

"That's why I'm here," he said.

mjuliano@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 112; twitter.com/mjulianoadv