What is the recipe to encourage daughters to have an entrepreneurial spirit and a dedication to improve their community?
For Lara Walters and her family, it comes down to a passion for cupcakes.
Together, she and her daughters operate Three Sisters Sweet Shoppe in Elizabeth, Ill. Located on Main Street in the heart of downtown, it is easy to recognize by an over-sized pink lawn chair, big enough for the girls to sit on.
Describing her daughters, Lara said, “Sisters Madelyn, Kathryn and Evelyn have operated Three Sisters for the past seven summers, and the cool part is they are 20, 18 and 13 years old.”
Each summer, the Walters girls serve customers cupcakes, including traditional flavors of chocolate and vanilla. They also developed specialty cupcakes like cinnamon roll, lemon drop and others on the daily menu.
A love for the Elizabeth community sparked the business idea.
“In 2014, Elizabeth participated in a rural development program,” Lara said. “Often referred to as ‘mapping the future of the community,’ the program energized Elizabeth, and this energy is still carrying on today.”
Back then, the Walters family, including dad Cory, joined the mapping program alongside others in their community. They were excited about planning methods of growing their hometown, especially figuring out how to advance Main Street development.
“Madelyn, like everyone there, had an interest in promoting and energizing her community,” Lara said. “At the time, she and her two younger sisters had been successfully selling cupcakes and baked goods at the local farmers market for a couple of years, and (I) had completed cake decorating classes.”
The mapping program inspired Madelyn and her sisters, so they asked their parents about opening a permanent cupcake store. According to Lara, the girls already had found vacant space in a downtown building.
It took some convincing, but as teachers in the community, Lara and Cory knew they would have time in the summer to help. They recognized how the idea would compliment revitalization efforts for their small town.
“The girls were able to convince (me) to help develop a business plan that required all three sisters to be the labor to make this work,” Lara said. “This was a big commitment from a soon-to-be ninth-grader, seventh-grader and fourth-grader.”
Today, the shoppe opens each May and runs through the fall. The Walters sisters are involved in all aspects of the business, and they have expanded their product line. While customer-favorite cupcakes like sea-salt caramel and vanilla dominate the orders, Three Sisters now sells ice cream, pie, candy and toys.
“Despite all three girls sacrificing having a typical summer like their friends, they still enjoy opening up,” Lara said.
The shoppe is so popular they added additional staff to help cover open hours.
Middle sister, Kathryn, said her favorite thing about the business is “working with my friends and getting to spend more time with them and my sisters.” Even though the three sisters share duties for the operation, Lara noted Kathryn likes baking best.
Sales this year have gone well; however, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted operations.
“We have installed walk-up windows for people to place their order with limited contact,” said oldest sister Madelyn. “It has been challenging (with) a new way of operating. Using the window service has been overall positive but does require more people working so that service can be prompt.”
Alongside new outside seating in an adjacent lot, the pink chair continues to draw visitors. Lara said the chair frequently is a photographed location in Jo Daviess County.
“Everyone has a lot of laughs taking pictures in the big pink chair,” she said. “Despite the pandemic, we have had a successful summer selling our gourmet ice cream and delicious cupcakes. Next season, we hope to show off our expanded indoor seating and retail space that we completed last winter.”
Lately, the Walters have been busy moving two of the daughters to college. Madelyn is entering her third year at Southern Illinois University, studying economics with plans for law school, and Kathryn is starting her first year at St. Ambrose University. As for Evelyn, she will begin high school soon and remains involved with activities in Elizabeth. The cupcake shoppe is a priority tied to her future.
“I have learned a lot about operating a business and have been able to save money for college,” she said.
Lara echoed that.
“It has been a great opportunity for (them) to learn how to work with and communicate with people,” she said. “As a small business in a small community, we have learned the importance of teaming up with the Chamber of Commerce, other businesses and the village to make Elizabeth a destination.”
The sisters have volunteered through the Chamber of Commerce to help with events and other community projects. In the future, they will continue working at the shoppe during their summers. But Lara admitted the family is in denial that the girls are growing up so quickly. Three Sisters will continue to bear their names, though, with the hope of two encouraging parents that their daughters might return to Elizabeth to make it their permanent home.
“We are very proud of their business accomplishments and how they have helped revitalize this community,” Lara said. “However, I am even more impressed with their many other successes in life.”
Sherri Edwards is a freelance writer from Dubuque.