Despite pitfalls, Life is Sweet for Keene store owner

In or out. There are times in life when it comes down to just that — in or out. Do you risk it? Put all the eggs in the basket of the unknown, try something new and commit to it, come what may? Or do you go safe, back to the comfort of how it’s always done and walk away?”Sometimes I think the biggest difficulties or struggles or opposition that comes against you — like having no job or really making it work or not having the money – really teach you to think outside the box and to decide, am I all in or am I out?” said Tracy Keating, owner of Life is Sweet candy, cupcake and ice cream shop in Keene.She knows a little something about all of it. The last few years have been tough, and at every turn, this first-time business owner has been faced with the choice of continuing or giving up.Well, she’s still here, her business is still growing and life, for Keating, is still sweet.”I figured if I said it enough I’d remember,” said Keating of the name of her store. “That we’re lucky enough to live in a country where you can start over.”Keating and her husband and kids lived on New York’s Long Island in 2001. She was a stay-at-home mom, and he owned his own business. John Keating had an appointment at The World Trade Center on September 11th. He was supposed to be in the building when the planes hit, but after the first attack on the trade center, visitors weren’t being allowed in until after 9 a.m.”He was at 29 Broadway, which is diagonal,” Tracy Keating said. “So when he heard everything, he went over and watched. He was there the whole day and experienced all that. It affected everybody, in the country and in the world, and specifically people who saw things they never thought they would see.”Life was very difficult in the years after that. John Keating was diagnosed with PTSD and struggled to cope with all he’d witnessed. By 2003, the family made the decision to get out of New York. They found a place in Munsonville on Granite Lake, though John Keating continued to run his business, commuting between New Hampshire and New York.Making a choiceFor the first few years, she continued to be a stay-at-home mom and home-schooled her kids. But as they got older they showed interest in going to school and Keating obliged. The change, however, left her wondering what she would do next.Though she had no business background, she decided she wanted to operate a store. She drew up a business plan for a community thrift store and set to work on looking for spaces. She found an empty storefront on West Street in Keene, just off the city’s Main Street square.But once she saw the space, its bones said something different to her. They said: Candy. There were no candy stores downtown. (The nearest one — the 80-something-year-old Ye Goodie Shoppe — had left downtown years earlier.)Now in love with the idea, she chucked her plan and signed on the dotted line in November 2006. She and her husband invested their nest egg in renovations and managed to open the store by January 2007. He had even found a new job and was finally living with them in New Hampshire.”That month, the company my husband worked for went out of business,” she said. “It quickly went from being a business that was just going to be something fun to do, to something that needed to work to carry us through until he got a permanent job.”Still they had a choice.”So do you quit trying to make it work and go get a job, even though you’ve invested? Or do you keep going and just maybe be smart and careful about everything you do and try new things?” she said.Her husband encouraged her to keep going. He told her it would he would find something, and they would make it work.”We were just kind of all in,” she said.She started making connections with local businesses, friends, customers. Since they had a limited budget, with almost all of the money coming in from the store, she was always looking for ways to be thrifty but also promote the business.”It’s amazing how you can kind of find opportunities,” she said. “Whether it be business groups that you can kind of connect with, or friends or the downtown merchants association. Because they were planning activities, and I wanted them to come to my store when these activities were happening. It’s amazing how you find inexpensive ways to market your business when you don’t have the money.”It was through those connections that a short time later she was offered a space right on Main Street in Keene, right next to the popular Colonial Theater. The space was perfect and would definitely increase the traffic, foot and otherwise, to her store.With no nest egg this time, she and her husband decided to do most of the work themselves and reopened. It was 2008. The Great Recession was just getting under way.”It was great timing all around,” she chuckled. “But I have to say I was really embraced by the community — people who come, they come a lot. And they’re so nice. I mean, it’s a candy store, so people are happy to be there. And even when things are not perfect or maybe not going the way you want them to go, being around that sort of happy energy was really rewarding.”The cupcake solutionThe recession was followed by a new neighbor. Ye Goodie Shoppe, the Keene institution that was so far away before, was moving to Main Street. Five doors down from Keating.”That was sort of stressful. Because they’d been there forever,” Keating said. “So really, actually, I was terrified and nervous, and all that stuff, for obvious reasons.”Once again, she was faced with the choice of quitting or keeping on. She had been in business for two-and-a-half years and decided she wasn’t going to hand over her business to Ye Goodie without a fight.”The decision was we’re going to keep going and we’re going to do better, we’re going to be better,” she said. “We’re going to have better variety, better customer service, and just have our own niche, because how do you compete with 80 years of tradition? You don’t to some degree, but you can create your own form of that.”She let them have the chocolate business, but then expanded her own offerings, adding European and Japanese candies. With Keene State College just around the corner, the next natural addition was cookies and cupcakes, which she baked herself in a little kitchen she rented from a neighbor.Her luck and hard work held and she started to get some of the orders Ye Goodie couldn’t do and eventually was making cupcakes by the dozens and hundreds for weddings and other events.She opened up the cupcake arm of Life is Sweet in January 2011 on Washington Street.The store took on a life of its own and attracted a whole new clientele, people who just wanted cupcakes and had never even heard of the candy store. They bought cupcakes by the dozens, not just one or two. But she was only open on weekends and that frustrated people.This led to yet another move. In May, Keating relocated to a storefront at 32 Main St., right on the square in Keene where she can house both the cupcake and candy businesses as well as sell ice cream. She still puts the money she makes from the store and pays for everything with the cash she has to avoid going into debt. This also means she has to wait tables a few times a week to keep ends meeting. But with the move, she said, she’s on track to double her profits this year. And later this year, she also plans to re-launch her cupcake delivery business.