Sheer Ambrosia: a businesswoman’s journey

Story by JUSTIN GALLETLY

Sherrita “Rita” Magalde is the owner of Sheer Ambrosia, a small business based in Salt Lake City dedicated to baking baklava to sell to customers.

Over the last year, Magalde’s business has reached new heights.

She’s seen a big spike in sales and has met arguably the greatest commercial success of her business’s lifetime.

However, it wasn’t always glitz and glamour for her brand, as she, like many up-and-coming small-business owners, ran into many roadblocks along the way.

Many of these roadblocks predate her business’s very foundation and go back several years before she even came up with the idea to sell homemade baklava.

During a phone interview, she explained that she’s been involved in independent, entrepreneurial endeavors stretching as far back as the mid-90s.

In 1996, she and her then-husband moved from Spain to Salt Lake City due to its reputation as a great place to go skiing.

She started a small mortgage brokerage and later ran a travel agency with her husband.

Despite her success with her independently run business, her relationship with her husband wouldn’t last in the long run.

“We were six years into running the travel agency when we got a divorce and neither one of us wanted to leave the business. So we tried to make it work, but I was very unhappy so I decided to quit. I still wanted to be a business owner, but I wanted something that was all my own, so he bought me out of the agency in 2008, which is when I also started the bakery,” she said.

Rita Magalde

Magalde always enjoyed cooking and baking, having grown up learning from her mother.

Baklava, the dessert Magalde’s business is built around, was primarily learned from hanging around a Greek family she worked with while growing up in North Carolina.

“The baklava has stuck with me through the years, so I decided I wanted to see if I could turn it into a business. So I decided to start slow from home and got a cottage food license from the Department of Agriculture and began my baklava business then,” Magalde said.

Despite her experience running independent businesses in the past, the transition was not a smooth endeavor.

“One of the big differences between running a travel agency and a bakery is now you have to deal with inventory,” Magalde said. “It also isn’t as lucrative a business as a travel agency, so I’m selling my baklava at $3 a piece and wasn’t able to hire people right away. Also, unlike when I began the travel industry, I now had two children and was without a partner.”

She also refused to take any bank loans and only used the funds she gathered from selling her share of the travel agency.

The barrier to entry felt much steeper than previous endeavors.

Over time, she was able to find a degree of success with her business.

In 2013, five years after beginning Sheer Ambrosia, she took a big step to legitimize her business.

She ventured out into a commercial space in hopes of getting more people to take her business seriously.

“I put $50,000 of my own money into the space to build it out and was able to legitimize my business and really bring Sheer Ambrosia to the forefront. People weren’t taking me seriously until I did that,” she said.

Although while her business continued to do well, it didn’t do as well as she had hoped.

After the death of her father, Magalde decided to cut back, as the long hours which required her to work upward of 16-hour days every day of the week took its toll on her.

“I decided to sell the space to another bakery and moved Sheer Ambrosia back into my home,” Magalde said. “I fell into some debt, and my son who was graduating high school wanted to go to an expensive college. So I said I’m going to sell my home so I could get out of debt and allow my son to go to the college he wanted to attend.”

Things got especially stressful when the pandemic hit.

 Magalde’s business, like many small businesses, was severely hit when it all began.

“No one wanted baklava, they all wanted toilet paper and hand sanitizer, so I had to get another job to make ends meet when the pandemic hit,” she said.

Rita Magalde

Then, in the midst of the pandemic, a tragedy occurred that shook the entire nation to its core.

“In horror, we got to see George Floyd murdered before our very faces by a Minneapolis police officer. Black people have been watching this kind of thing happen for years, and it seems as though the white community has been oblivious to it,” she said. “Right after that, there were so many white folks in the community who decided they wanted to support local Black-owned businesses.”

While Magalde was initially reluctant to embrace this swell of support because she didn’t want to feel she was capitalizing off a tragedy, she changed her mindset when she realized how it played into a good cause.

“I started to think about it and saw that these were people who don’t necessarily want to protest in the street. They don’t want to get out there and hold a sign and yell, and walk the street protesting that way. This is their way of putting their money where their mouth is by supporting Black-owned businesses,” she said.

She also came to realize that while they may initially support her business because she’s Black, that didn’t mean they would continue their support if her products weren’t satisfying.

“It’s still my job as a business owner to make sure they want to come back by giving them a quality product and amazing service. So it’s not going to be free service, I still have to earn their repeat service, so this a challenge for me,” she said.

The success led to a busy holiday season, one where she would need some additional help if she was going to continue thriving.

Helene Simpson and her daughter, Desi Hayda, offered their services.

“She’s very dedicated. She’s very grateful for everything, and it’s hard that it was the death of somebody which created an influx of sales, her product is what continues her business and for people to come back to her,” Simpson said during a phone interview. “It’s not just because people think ‘Black Lives Matter’ and only supporting her for that reason. She sells quality products, has excellent customer service.”

Simpson said she appreciates Magalde’s positive guidance.

“I think she’s very thorough. Just how she explains things to you and wants things done, and that’s to be expected because everything she does is pretty perfectionist, so you just follow her instructions and help her out when you can. She’s awesome to work for,” Hayda said.

“Now I’ve got a following that I can parlay this into growth for my business, and I’m hoping for one day to quit my second job and go back to running my business full-time,” Magalde said.