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Enterprising USF student cooks up sweet job in down economy

Sarah’s Sweets owner Sarah Byrne, 24, of St. Petersburg makes strawberry cupcakes in the Nova 535 kitchen for a Tampa event. Byrne is a public relations student at the University of South Florida.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Sarah’s Sweets owner Sarah Byrne, 24, of St. Petersburg makes strawberry cupcakes in the Nova 535 kitchen for a Tampa event. Byrne is a public relations student at the University of South Florida.

ST. PETERSBURG — One USF student isn't holding her breath for a dream job out of college.

She's incubating one.

Sarah Byrne, 24, studies public relations at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She tends bar at Tropicana Field during Tampa Bay Rays games.

And she owns Sarah's Sweets, a dessert delivery and catering service that uses the kitchen at Nova 535 in St. Petersburg.

You'll find her Baileys Irish Cream cheesecake at Crowley's Downtown on Central Avenue, and her red pepper cheesecake at Anytime Pizza on 34th Street S. For her brownies, cakes, cookies and cupcakes, you'll have to call.

On a Friday afternoon, she's in Nova's kitchen, blond hair pulled back, black apron tied over a Sarah's Sweets T-shirt. Crocs, the requisite culinary footwear, are pristine pink.

Her treats are headed for a women's vendor mixer at Push Ultra Lounge. She's mixing pink sugar cookie dough. She's pulling strawberry tarts from the convection oven. She's layering raspberry jam between small rounds of vanilla cake for a riff on the whoopie pie (they'll also get a piped swirl of cream cheese frosting).

Her pink-and-black theme tonight means pink sprinkles on those pink sugar cookies, plus strawberry cupcakes, coconut cupcakes, brownie pops, Baileys brownies, mini carrot cakes and pink-chocolate-covered pretzels.

It won't be her only work for the day. She'll also bake five cheesecakes for Anytime Pizza, which she'll deliver to the restaurant.

She's quickly outgrowing her Empire Red KitchenAid stand mixer.

Byrne, a St. Petersburg native who attended St. Jude's and St. Petersburg Catholic, wasn't sure what she wanted to do after college. She studied theater at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, culminating in an off-Broadway performance, then came home to St. Petersburg College, still not set on what to study.

But she had worked since age 16 — get a car, her mom said, and you've got to pay for the gas. Her employer, a mall sporting goods store, handed her the store keys at age 18. She was assistant manager.

"It helped me know I wanted to be in charge," she said.

Her mom, former Times reporter Maureen Ahern, says Christmas was a breakthrough. Byrne baked everyone their gifts.

"The feedback she got was, 'These are really good. Spectacular,' " Ahern said.

By January, Byrne had registered Sarah's Sweets LLC. She spent about $4,000 of her own savings to set up the business, including kitchen equipment, glassware for events, a logo and a Web site. For a kitchen, she approached Michael S. Novilla of event space Nova 535, where she had worked as a public relations intern.

She showed him an executive summary of her business plan. They worked out a deal: kitchen time for dessert catering.

"She has all the ingredients, pun included, to be successful," Novilla said.

Right now, the work pays for itself, plus puts cash in the bank for expansion. Byrne keeps costs low. She writes her own press releases and gets the message out with Facebook and Twitter. She bakes samples for events. She spent five hours downtown handing out fliers. That's how she snagged Crowley's. Anytime Pizza's owners tasted the Crowley's cheesecake and wanted to know who baked it. Byrne collaborated with them on a red pepper ricotta delicacy.

One of Byrne's public relations professors at USF, Kelli Burns, wishes more of her students would create their own opportunities. The state unemployment rate in February hit 12.2 percent. Byrne is the only student she can think of in nine years to offer a product.

"It's extremely impressive to have a student who takes the initiative to give her some job security when she graduates," Burns said.

Byrne finishes her PR degree this year. She already knows who her big client will be.

Becky Bowers can be reached at bbowers@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8859. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.

Fast facts

Sarah's Sweets

sarahssweetsonline.com

(727) 385-3653

Entrepreneur Social Club at Nova 535

Feeling entrepreneurial? Join Sarah Byrne and Michael Novilla from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursdays, 535 Dr. Martin Luther King St. N, (727) 821-6682. Gatherings are free, with dinner available for purchase.

Enterprising USF student cooks up sweet job in down economy 04/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 4:29pm]
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