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Success after tragedy; sisters build new business after fire wipes them out

Tory Johnson
My Family Business

Imagine investing ten years to build the most decadent cake business of your dreams, attracting clients including Oprah Winfrey, Jim Carrey and Bono, and commanding prices ranging from a couple hundred dollars to more than ten grand. That’s what Brenda and Mary Maher did – they made a Red, White and Blue cake in the shape of an Uncle Sam hat for Jim Carrey when he got his American citizenship in 2004. They made a cake in the shape of a bulldog for Pete Wentz, who, well, loves bulldogs. As for Bono, he just wanted a plain, white cake. Something simple. “He was on a budget and he was like, I just don’t want to go overboard”, says Brenda Maher, who, along with her sister Mary, owned an elaborate custom cake shop in Chicago that garnered an impressive national following.

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But, after ten years of booming business, while holding down other full time jobs, tragedy struck. “We closed the door on Saturday night and essentially get a call Monday morning that the business is burning to the ground,” recalls Mary Maher, “We're standing there watching what we built literally burn from the top down.” A fire caused by another tenant demolished The Cake Girls storefront and the sisters were devestated. What originally started as a side business out of their apartment, ad required 14 hour days and generated a whopping half a milliondollars annually in its best years. The stress of the accident took its toll: the sisters were physically exhausted and emotionally spent.

But, adversity caused them to look at things in other ways and eventually they decided upon and entirely different business. Still, however, helping concoct cakes. They started TheCakeGirls.com, a party supply website with creative projects and do-it-yourself kits for the home baker and cake maker. “Lots of people love to make cakes, but if you look online to find an example of what to make, a lot leans toward the old fashioned,” says Mary. “So we've really packed our website with ideas, recipes, how-to’s all geared toward modern, simple, easy to make at home. Then we've paired it with curated party items.” In addition to very easy-to-follow recipes for such wintery treats as snowman cake pops and an icy igloo, the site is packed with perfectly chosen cake stands, swizzle sticks, packaging for home baked goods, and assorted specialty ingredients to bring out your inner Martha Stewart. “We don't just leave people on their own,” says Mary. “We have all the instructions, a photograph and everything listed there to buy, so they’re not going into it blind.” (Find all the must-haves for a festive peppermint party or learn how to go for the glittery gold and silver fun here.) Since putting the brakes on baking for a living, the Mahers have rediscovered the joys of sisterhood.

Tory Johnson hosts My Family Business, a Yahoo! Finance original series. As a champion for small business owners, she runs Spark & Hustle, appears weekly on ABC’s Good Morning America and will gladly talk to you anytime @ToryJohnson on Twitter or Facebook.com/Tory.