We’re Driving Across America, Learning About Hard Decisions and Sweet Potato Pies


Open Road - Week One
By Team IBAM

Two teams of Ross students are traveling across the country this summer, visiting entrepreneurs and helping them solve business challenges. They’ll be blogging about their experience throughout the summer. Read more about Open Road.


“I don’t like to do things half-done; I want to do them excellently.” - Cassandra Thomas, co-founder, Sweet Potato Sensations

We launched into our Open Road journey with the delicious smells of fresh sweet potato pie at Detroit’s Sweet Potato Sensations — which is celebrating 28 years of business.

Sweet Potato Sensations represents the resiliency and homegrown innovation of countless small business owners across this country. And Jeff and Cassandra Thomas have established themselves as shrewd business owners, champions of the community, and connoisseurs of some of the finest baked goods and chicken and waffles in Detroit (dare we say the country?).

Walking into Sweet Potato Sensations, a customer is usually greeted by a member of the Thomas family. They appear to be everywhere at once. At its core, Sweet Potato Sensations is a family business. In a routine perfected by countless hours together, the Sweet Potato team moves in a choreography of food preparation, front-of-store customer service, and managerial to-dos.

It’s well-choreographed, sure, but it wasn’t long until we were clued into the countless unsung obstacles and hitches that are part of an entrepreneur’s daily life: employees walking out midday, vehicle breakdowns on potato runs, anticipating the next great opportunity, and the list goes on.

We heard early in the week about the importance of trust; family recipes, new and old, are held close and the pipeline to become a fully integrated member of the team is a long one. Over the last few years, Sweet Potato Sensations has grown considerably and now stands at the precipice of even greater expansion through wholesale relationships, an expanded kitchen, and additional menu offerings.

In the coming years, the demand for sweet potato pies, particularly around the holidays, will overwhelm the capacity of both the staff and facilities.

Questions of growth swirl among all members of the team: How should it best be approached? What are the tradeoffs of one option over another? How does each member of the family and staff contribute?

All conversations on these topics, from those between father and daughter to those we had with the family, often led back to one issue: Can they trust people from outside the family with recipe knowledge and baking secrets that have taken years of hard work to perfect?

“This is your baby, but you have to let go. How do you become Mrs. Fields? Mrs. Fields isn’t making all those cookies.” - Jeff Thomas, co-founder, Sweet Potato Sensations

On our first day, we heard that “the pie is the bridge that has brought us to where we are now,” so the pie is where we started with a morning of baking with Terelle, Sweet Potato Sensations’ principal baker of the past five years.

Over and over, we heard of the challenge of planning appropriately for that one week in November that constitutes 10 percent of the entire year’s sales of sweet potato pies.

The team working with a Sweet Potato Sensations

Our week took on a two-fold focus to provide information that could aid in a growth strategy: first, costing the sweet potato pies to more accurately take into account all operations associated with production; and, second, identifying bottlenecks during pie preparation — particularly during Thanksgiving.

By the end of the week, we shared with the Thomases a method for cost accounting that could be applied to all of their products with an aim to better understand their margin and how to best position their company in the marketplace.

It was on the second part where we struggled to balance the textbook approaches to growth and the difficult realities of sharing "your baby" with others. Our business school approach led us to confirm the theoretical capacities necessary to produce the pies at Thanksgiving and affirmed the need to evaluate options to expand (like utilizing a co-packer, hiring more staff, or setting up another baking team at an industrial kitchen).

But the reality is that any of those options requires a degree of letting go — and that’s a difficult decision that didn't come up in our operations or strategy core courses.

“Small businesses make up America. We need to support one another, because that is the only way we are going to survive. I am going to make a conscious effort to do more of that.” - Jeff Thomas

Almost three decades ago, Cassandra started making sweet potato cookies in her kitchen. Since then, Sweet Potato Sensations has responded to every challenge thrown at it and maintained its excellence.

As Sweet Potato Sensations continues to expand, it will be challenged to find the sweet spot between staying true to itself and pushing itself to grow. With the grit and love that has gotten them to where they are today, Sweet Potato Sensations will undoubtedly rise to and push beyond whatever hurdles may come.

Team IBAM consists of Iris Nguyen, Mikaela Rodkin, Aaron Steiner, and Blake Van Fleteren, members of the Ross MBA Class of 2017.

They just wrapped up their second week with Discovery Recycling in Daleville, AL and are headed to New Orleans, LA to work with Goods that Matter. Follow #RossOpenRoad for more.

Open Road is sponsored by the Zell Lurie Institute, the Center for Social Impact, and General Motors.

Read More From The Open Road


WEEK ONE: We’re Driving Across America, Learning About Hard Decisions and Sweet Potato Pies
We launched into our Open Road journey with the delicious smells of fresh sweet potato pie at Detroit’s Sweet Potato Sensations — which is celebrating 28 years of business. Read Blog

WEEK TWO: In a Small Town, We Learned Some Big Lessons About Partnerships
There is no economic or regulatory incentive to recycle in the surrounding area, so Kevin relies on community members’ sense of environmental stewardship. Read Blog

WEEK THREE: Here in New Orleans, We Discovered What Really Matters
Our week with Tippy, Tonto, and Goods That Matter taught us the power of passion. Tippy is successfully integrating product design and social impact in a meaningful way. Read Blog

WEEK FOUR: This Is Business in the Real World. Textbook Solutions Will Only Get Us So Far
AMP faces real business challenges with the futures of real people on the line. THIS is business in the real world. Read Blog

WEEK FIVE: In Kansas City, We Witnessed How Human Connections Are Closing the Digital Divide
When you consider how critical the internet is to leading a productive life as an engaged citizen -- allowing us to access job opportunities, education, or any kind of information -- the idea of the digital divide begins to take shape. Read Blog


WEEK ONE: We Just Had A Perfect Experience During Our Entrepreneurial Road Trip Across America
Earlier this month we landed on-site with our first group of entrepreneurs who founded and run the company Mitten Crate. Read Blog


WEEK TWO: We Dove Into the Twin Cities to Learn About Hydroponics and Aquaponics
While with the Garden Fresh Farms team, we were asked to address how the farm can raise capital within two months to support the business in its next phase of growth. Read Blog​

WEEK THREE: The Entrepreneurial Pulse of Fargo Lives in the Prairie Den
Greg Tehven, co-founder of Emerging Prairie, presented us with this question on Monday: “How can we get people to want to stay in Fargo-Moorhead for one more day?” Read Blog

WEEK FOUR: We Experienced the Thriving Midwestern Tech Hub in Downtown Minneapolis
Our team arrived in Minneapolis on May 21 for the last leg of our amazing Ross Open Road experience. As we entered the 25-member premise of Flipgrid, a tech startup, we felt a strong connection to the office culture that promotes creativity. Read Blog