Letha Pugh and Wendy Miller Pugh, founders and operators of gluten-free bakery “Bake Me Happy,” have long tempted Columbus, Ohio residents with their tasty treats – but leasing a storefront limited the bakery’s growth potential. However, Columbus’s real-estate market was almost too hot to handle, and the pair spent years searching for the perfect space.
When they found it – a former post office in the city’s South Side neighborhood – Letha and Wendy knew they had to pounce on it. So, they turned to First Merchants Bank.
Bob Main, Relationship Manager with First Merchants Bank, helped the pair apply for a Small Business Administration (SBA) 504 Loan to facilitate purchasing and breathing new life into an old building. A 504 loan application must be submitted through a financial organization like First Merchants in collaboration with a Certified Development Company (CDC) – in this case, the Community Capital Development Corporation. The bank helps guide people through the complex SBA process and prolonged timeline to secure a successful loan, bringing accessible financial solutions to its communities.
“First Merchants Bank and Bob advocated for me throughout the process,” Letha said. “It was a difficult loan and a rollercoaster of a process, but I knew Bob had my back.”
“We accomplished this by adapting and partnering throughout the process,” Bob added. “We were all focused on making this work for Bake Me Happy – it’s a great example of First Merchants Bank’s commitment to helping our clients and communities prosper through attentive service.”
Letha shared that, at their old storefront, Bake Me Happy was facing increasing rents without increasing value to their business. While Letha and Wendy put their own money into the property, they had little to no control over the building or the cost. But they also knew that they wanted to remain in the South Side neighborhood.
“Our business started here, our customers are here,” Letha said. “We want to invest in this neighborhood the way they have invested in us. We feel like we have a responsibility.”
While it made their real estate search a tricky one, in the end, it was worth it. In total, Letha and Wendy borrowed $800,000 – and their monthly loan payment is far less than what they used to pay in rent.
“In the new property – they’ll pay less in mortgage than the increasing rents set by the landlord – and will build equity in a property they own and control,” Bob explained.
As minority entrepreneurs, owning real estate is helping Letha and Wendy set their beloved bakery up for sweet success. Bob added that Black-owned and other minority-owned businesses are often shut out of opportunity or access to resources that can help them secure something like a 504 loan.
“Often minority-owned businesses are neglected by financial institutions,” he shared. “That leaves a gap in communities where people aren’t getting what they need – either from businesses that aren’t able to get financial support to stay open or from institutions that aren’t investing in those areas. Some of the best ideas never get off the ground because they don’t have access to capital and investment – at First Merchants Bank, we work to bridge those gaps.”
And Letha and Wendy gave something in return, as well. Throughout the process, they provided thoughtful feedback and pointed out ways that First Merchants Bank could better serve and support minority-owned businesses.
“Black and minority-business owners, we’re not out making business deals on the golf course, we don’t often inherit businesses from our parents – we have to build from scratch, from the ground up,” Letha explained. “And that means you have to approach working with a minority-owned business differently than you would approach working with another business. I wanted to help First Merchants Bank become a better advocate for others like me.”
Letha and Wendy have also worked to connect Bob with other minority-owned businesses in the area so that First Merchants Bank can continue its work to advocate for and elevate those voices in the Columbus community.
“We are thrilled to work alongside Letha and Wendy in order to help them reach a positive and successful outcome. Our ‘helping you prosper’ approach to serving them helped them enjoy the benefits of the better future they wanted for their business,” Bob said. “They are true role models for their community, and we wish them continued joy, success, and pride in their business.”