From home-baked to Union Street, Sweet Somethings serves up two decades of delectable desserts
Sweet Somethings owner Lee Slaninko built the business like he builds his cakes —using high-quality ingredients, a dash of resilience and a pinch of nostalgia.
Slaninko’s dessert shop on Union Street in Wilmington has produced some of the area’s best cakes, pies, cupcakes and other sweet treats for more than two decades. What began as a home-based business evolved into a tasty stop along North Union Street’s “restaurant row.”
Slaninko and his ex-wife, Pamela Slaninko, who met in the mid-90s while attending the Culinary Institute of America, began selling desserts out of their home in Kennett Square, Pa.
After a successful run selling to friends and family, Lee and Pamela convinced the owners of Iron Hill Brewery to use their desserts at their Newark location.
Though Sweet Somethings and Iron Hill cut ties in 2013, many other Delaware restaurants such as Culinaria, Cantwell’s Tavern and Two Stones Pub, have added Sweet Somethings’ desserts to their menus.
Mike Stiglitz, owner and director of operations for Two Stones Pub and 2SP Brewing Company, has known Slaninko since 2003 when they both worked for Iron Hill Brewery. A few years later, when Stiglitz opened his own business, it was “a no-brainer” to purchase desserts from Sweet Somethings.
“I can’t source desserts as high-quality and affordably priced as those from Sweet Somethings,” says Stiglitz. “If the last thing a diner eats at my restaurant is a dessert from Sweet Somethings, I know they’ve left happy.”
Slaninko founded Sweet Somethings on its ability to prepare moist, flavorful and quality products at affordable prices, and not to sell the latest dessert “fad.” He also wanted to avoid what happened in the 1980s, when baking distributors began selling cakes to bakeries (rather than many bakeries creating cakes in-house).
Those cakes didn’t taste good, and is the motivation Slaninko uses to avoid the comment he fears most: “This isn’t as good as it used to be.”
Maintaining quality keeps Slaninko using premium ingredients such as vanilla extract and Philadelphia brand cream cheese even though he goes through a gallon of extract every two weeks (costs $250-300 a gallon compared to $40 for imitation extract) and because the alternative cream cheese brand just “isn’t as creamy.”
COVID wasn’t the only challenge Sweet Somethings had to endure in 2020. After a string of business and management difficulties (Slaninko calls them “Mike Tyson punches”), including the death of the shop’s beloved glass dessert showcase, Slaninko had to figure out how to navigate and sustain the business through one of its most difficult periods.
“We were growing rapidly before COVID hit,” says Slanink. So, his decision to close for a couple of weeks was not an easy task. “We weren’t ordered to shut down,” he says, however, the temporary closure allowed him to figure out how to keep the business running while adhering to the new social-distancing and mask mandates.
During this time Slaninko bought a new, high-quality glass showcase and invested in aesthetic updates for the foyer. And even though the changes were stressful, they “…were fulfilling,” he says, and much needed to reassess their growth strategy even during the pandemic.
From the start, Slaninko built his business on his fondest childhood memory: the neighborhood bakery. As a child, Slaninko remembers visiting his local bakery, which was filled with bright showcases, wood-panel walls and desserts of all kinds, especially cakes.
Slaninko wanted his store to speak to nostalgia, to be warm and welcoming, but also to lift the curtain on the baking and decorating process that typically happens behind closed doors.
The store is an intimate space with much of its square footage dedicated to an open-air kitchen where someone in either the front- and back-of-house can see and hear everything.
“I wanted to instill the importance of good customer service to all of my team,” says Slaninko. With the open-kitchen setup, everyone could hear compliments as well as criticisms.
Slaninko sees his team as “a big family.” The atmosphere at Sweet Somethings is “really joyful and our team is great at what they do,” he says. He feels what distinguishes his bakery is the staff’s attention to detail and quality.
“I like to tell my bakers and decorators to pretend that they’re making the cake or dessert for their family and friends,” he says. “It’s that extra moment you take that can make all the difference in someone’s day.”
This special service extends to all customers, including Stiglitz, who celebrated his birthday during the height of the pandemic.
“(In April) my family surprised me with a drive-by birthday. Lee drove over before the celebration to hand-deliver my favorite cake — carrot cake with cream cheese frosting,” says Stiglitz.
Like this surprise delivery, Slaninko enjoys making the store’s wholesale deliveries even though he could easily pay someone else to do this.
“It’s a way for me to be part of the restaurant industry and be the face of my business,” says Slaninko. “It also allows restaurateurs and chefs to bounce new dessert ideas off of me,” something Slaninko appreciates from both his external partners and his team.
While Slaninko values speed and accuracy when his decorators and bakers are at work, he also allows time for them to explore new recipes.
Many of these ideas become staple products including the trifle, a layered dessert with cake and frosting packed in a domed-lid cup with a spoon so it’s ready to eat.
“All of the crème brûlées and some of the flavored bombes (a hemisphere-shaped dessert made of chocolate cake, mousse and topped with a dark chocolate shell) were created by our team members,” says Slaninko.
And though new ideas are always welcome, bestsellers remain popular as dessert trends ebb and flow. Sweet Somethings’ bestselling cake flavor is raspberry white chocolate, and for good reason. (Full disclosure: I’ve tried all of their cake flavors — yes, I’m that person — and would never in a million years pick a yellow cake to be my “favorite.” However, I can say that the white chocolate adds a subtle sweetness that complements the raspberry and yellow cake perfectly.)
Other popular cake flavors include the chocolate caramel mousse and Oreo mousse.
In the future, Slaninko hopes to explore expanding new areas of the business like fresh-baked croissants and danishes. With its internal facelift that included a new, larger showcase and more tables to offer grab-n-go options, Slaninko also hopes to open one or two more locations in Delaware and possibly, Pennsylvania. The new, smaller footprint locations would still rely on Union Street as the main bakery but could support local communities with fresh- baked goods.
— For more information about Sweet Somethings or to place a custom order, visit 1006 N. Union St., or visit online at sweetsomethingsdesserts.com.