2020 East Nashvillians of the Year – Business: Sweet 16th Bakery
When Sweet 16th Bakery first opened its doors on a sunny day in May 2003, owners Ellen and Dan Einstein faced the usual opening day jitters. “Our first day open it was just Dan and I,” Ellen Einstein says. “We had no employees. We had planned and planned and were baking for days in advance. We finally got it open and sold everything in just a few hours. We had nothing left. I looked at Dan and said, ‘How in the world are we going to do this again?’”
For the last 18 years, Dan and Ellen have been doing it again and again — serving up tasty cakes, cookies, muffins, and thousands of their trademark breakfast sandwich, a doubly cheesy, egg and green chilies delight, named one of the 10 best breakfast sandwiches in the country by Food & Wine Magazine.
The decision to open a neighborhood shop powered by long hours and hard physical labor was a life-changer for Dan, the former vice president and general manager of John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, and Ellen, who worked as a caterer and high-end food stylist for video and photography shoots. Both drew inspiration from Ellen’s parents, both Holocaust survivors who witnessed their Polish-Jewish community eradicated and who understood the importance of pursuing a dream.
“What they always taught us, whether it was subtly or not, was you can do anything you set your mind to,” Dan says. “They came to this country without being able to speak a word of English with only $100 in their pocket and made a great life for themselves and their kids.”
“When we were getting ready to start the business,” Ellen says, “my father said, ‘If you don’t try you’ll never know, and if you fail, it’s fine, but at least you tried.’”
Sweet 16th’s true success story is a direct result of the philosophy they’ve followed from the very beginning. “We had survived the  tornado so we had the feeling we had to stake our claim and bring something back to the neighborhood,” Dan says. “Seeing the goodness of people in the neighborhood and the way everybody came together. Our thing was to make a living, pay our bills, and give back to people who live around us.”
Staying true to those simple goals made Sweet 16th a true community business in the tradition of local markets, drug stores, bars, and diners that once served as social crossroads for neighborhoods. That’s not to say there haven’t been rough times. Despite the initial sell-out success of their first day, it took time to build the business and also establish themselves as something more than just a place to grab pastries and go.
“It took 11 months until we hired our first employee,” Ellen says, remembered the long hours of the rough and tumble early days.
“The whole business grew organically. We had to find out what people wanted. What sells and what doesn’t,” Dan says.
As it turned out one, the thing people definitely wanted was Sweet 16th’s trademark breakfast sandwich. “The breakfast sandwich is what really put us in our groove,” Dan says. “We’d been talking about the idea for a while when our friend Kim Totzke kickstarted it with a suggestion. Al Anderson, our first employee [who now owns Big Al’s Deli in the Salemtown neighborhood], and the two of us created the breakfast sandwich. It didn’t take off immediately. At first, we were thrilled if we sold 10 a day, now if we don’t sell more than 10 in an hour it’s a failure.”
Success through collaboration has been an important part of Sweet 16th’s story. Besides Ellen and Dan, the bakery has only three employees, all of whom are long-time members of the team. As a way of expressing their appreciation, and to take a break themselves, the Einsteins close the bakery for three weeks in both the summer and winter, giving their employees full pay for the time off. As Ellen notes, “It keeps everybody fresh. When we come back we still love each other.”
Not only is the staff of Sweet 16th a family of sorts, but the familial feelings extend to the neighborhood. Sweet 16th specifically refuses tips, but many customers leave them anyway, leading to the Einstein’s making bi-annual donations of accumulated tip money to neighborhood-focused charities. In the aftermath of the March 3 tornado and the COVID-19 pandemic, Sweet 16th has stepped up, providing meals and other support to their neighbors, as well as keeping prices low in a tough economy.
“We really wanted to create a sense of community and a community meeting place,” Dan says. “Obviously with COVID right now, it’s harder to do that, but over the years we’ve been able to play a role in introducing neighbors to each other, helping people find a place to live, or to find a job.”
“We’ve even had a wedding in the bakery,” Ellen adds. “The couple met in the bakery and got married there.”
As Dan explains, their dedication to the community extends beyond the walls of the bakery. “About nine years ago Ellen noticed there were a lot of young Jewish kids moving to the neighborhood who didn’t have associations with a synagogue or a formal group,” Dan says. “So we started a group at our house for break-fast during Yom Kippur and a Hanukkah party just to give them a sense of belonging.” Since that time, the informal gatherings have expanded to include parents, single adults, interfaith couples, and just about anyone interested in joining the celebrations. “We welcome everyone,” Dan says.
”It’s just for that sense of community,” Ellen adds. “It’s amazing how many people have met through this group, formed connections, and hopefully have become lifelong friends.”
While the usual next-step for successful businesses is to expand and grow, the Einsteins have chosen the road less traveled. “I was never interested in being Mrs. Fields — making a million dollars and having a million locations,” Ellen says. “It’s one and it’s done.”
Dan agrees wholeheartedly, “If you go beyond one, you start to lose the community you did it for,” he says. “One thing that has remained constant, despite the gentrification, is if you go a few blocks in each direction, there are people from every economic level — literally from the trashman to the CEO. We never want anyone to feel put upon by our prices or that they can’t afford something. We’re here to serve the entire community.”