Making a sweet return to Baltimore

Alejandra ’15 and Nicole Leiva opening brick-and-mortar bakery in Federal Hill

By Megan Bradshaw on October 7, 2019

Holiday alfajores

Cooking and baking have long been sources of comfort to the maker and the recipient. For sisters Alejandra ’15 and Nicole Leiva, food and care have been intertwined their entire lives. 

The Leiva family emigrated in 2001 from El Salvador, where their father worked in the restaurant supply business for 40 years and their mother trained as a chef to support him. 

The sisters have baked all their lives but initially took different career tracks. Alejandra graduated from Towson University with a degree in healthcare management. Their sister bond induced Nicole to enroll and study psychology. Both women have associate degrees from Montgomery County Community College (MCCC). Nicole realized after a few years her heart lay in food and hospitality, so she returned to MCCC to follow that path.

Alejandra worked in longterm geriatric care after graduation; putting her whole heart into caring for others left her in need of comfort and community herself. She leaned on her family and spent more time in the kitchen as she pondered her next move.

Over the years and on the side, Alejandra and Nicole had been selling alfajores in their Etsy shop Dulceology.

They started selling to family and friends, and their shop was one of just three alfajor sellers on Etsy when they opened in 2012. The orders grew slowly but steadily.

The Leivas differentiated themselves with nontraditional shapes and sizes, wholesome ingredients and elaborate decoration. Alejandra credits the 3D printing electives she took at TU with helping her create decoration molds. 

The sisters call the alfajor “the most amazing cookie we’ve ever had.”

When Alejandra enrolled in George Washington University’s (GW) new interaction design master’s program, the sisters decided to take the plunge and turn their baking into a fulltime job.

Minicakes and donuts

In February Alejandra and Nicole entered GW’s New Venture Competition—one of 219 entrants—and, to their surprise, continued to advance. Their confidence grew as they honed their pitch and shaped their company based on judges’ feedback. The sisters had attended several TU Student Launch Pad events but had always talked themselves out of making Dulceology a startup.

Alejandra and Nicole won $20,000 from the competition in April and entered the school’s accelerator to continue to grow their business. Every day for nine weeks they worked with advisers to fine tune their business plan. 

“Starting a business is not like using a cake mix; you can’t just add water,” says Alejandra. “You have to work out all the issues and steps that are unique to your business situation.” 

Alejandra and Nicole Leiva
Alejandra (left) and Nicole during the competition

Nicole is in charge of production, the kitchen, inventory and packaging. She also develops recipes; she created Dulceology’s gluten-free alfajores when she was diagnosed as gluten sensitive and couldn’t imagine not being able to eat her cookies.

“Now I get emails from people who are gluten free, saying how wonderful the cookies are and how happy they are to be able to have a safe, tasty cookie,” Nicole says. “That fills my heart.”

Alejandra is in charge of communications, social media strategy and administration. When the business experienced busy seasons, she would temporarily rent a commercial kitchen in Washington, D.C., where the pair live. After demand grew to year-round and the sisters decided to take Dulceology fulltime, they’ve moved permanently to a commercial kitchen.

As the plans for their business evolved, the Leivas started to think about opening a retail bakery. They found the perfect space at 1138 S. Charles Street in Baltimore. The sisters frequently took trips into the city while they were students and feel “very much at home” moving their business there. 

Alejandra and Nicole call the bakery space in Baltimore a “blessing” and can’t wait to get started. In addition they will open a stall in D.C.’s La Cosecha at Union Market in January 2020 and still receive orders from their Etsy store.