Just before Thanksgiving, Anna Lilly sat in a social worker's office asking for food stamps. Fighting back tears, the Newport News mom and wife recited her account balance — $2.18. And, as she told the social worker, nothing was coming in.
Eight months later, Lilly's kitchen has plenty coming in and going out. If you stop by on a Friday — the busiest day of the week for Bella Cakes Inc. — you'll find Lilly and two of her employees elbow-deep in fondant icing and cake batter. The crew shuttles out as many as 40 custom cakes a week, allowing Lilly once again to feed her family and pay her water bill.
The trouble began for Lilly and her husband in 2007, when the sour economy bludgeoned their home renovation business. When clients and contractors' checks started bouncing, Lilly's account did a flip of its own. At one point, the bank called to say her balance was negative $16,000.
"What do you do with that information?" she asks, tears starting to build in her eyes. "We lost our house, our cars, and I was 7 months pregnant with my second child."
The couple drained their savings to stay afloat until July 2008, when they — and their young children — had to move in with Lilly's parents.
"I went from being a very independent adult to living with my parents for the first time since I was 17 years old," she says. "Family and friends look at you . . . and you feel like an utter failure."
At the time, both Lilly and her husband were looking for jobs, but nothing materialized. And as her mother's January birthday approached, Lilly didn't even have the money to buy her mom a card.
"My mom told me that she would buy the supplies, and that I could bake her a cake," Lilly recalls. "And I thought to myself, 'I'm going to make the best darn cake anybody has ever seen.'"
The birthday party turned out to be a rather large affair, and the three-tiered square cake got a lot of attention.
"People kept saying to me, 'You should do this as a business,'" she recalls. "And I thought, 'What? This is the first cake I've ever made.'"
Even so, the requests began flowing. And Lilly found that while she was working to find a job in interior design, she was inadvertently building a client base for her custom cakes.
"At one point, someone asked me if I had a business card," she says. "I didn't, but it wasn't that hard to print out a few. Then someone told me I should post pictures of my cakes on a website. I know how to make a website, so I went ahead and did it. And, then, I had a business."
Lilly admits that she is unusually disposed to learning quickly from reading instructions in a book or looking at a picture, so she never thought of taking a class or seeking training for her new pursuit. And her experience as an interior decorator gave her a leg up on the creative side, she says.
Lilly says she saw her business really take off in January of this year, exactly one year after baking that first cake for her mother. And yet, Lilly will never forget that Thanksgiving stop at the social services office, and the bleak Christmas that followed.
"I walked around Wal-Mart with $20 to spend on groceries for the whole week, and I thought to myself, 'This can't be my life,'" she says. "We came from a situation where money wasn't an issue. We did what we wanted to do, and we went where we wanted to go."
On March 6 — the date Lilly refers to as D-Day — the Newport News mom sat in her kitchen in tears once again. The tears were still out of frustration, but this time, success seemed within grasp.
"I had 17 cakes to make in one weekend by myself," Lilly says. "And it's just not an option to call someone and tell them that their cake isn't going to be ready. I realized at that point that I needed help."
A few days later, Nicole Vitantionio, a graduate of the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University, e-mailed Lilly inquiring about openings.