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Businesswoman: 'Winning Bayfair Contest Ruined Me'

Donna Davis of Castro Valley won $25,000 and other help to open a bakery at the mall's food court, but she feels like the fine print prevented her from opening.

Last summer Donna Davis won , an honor that came with $25,000 in start-up money to open a bakery called Sweet Abundance.

She was also promised a year’s free rent in the Bayfair Food Court and other help worth more than $200,000.

At the time it seemed a dream come true.

Now Davis says has turned into a nightmare.

“I’m in financial ruin because of that contest,” says Davis, who lives in Castro Valley’s Five Canyons neighborhood. “My hair is falling out. I’m losing my health.”

Madison Marquette, which owns Bayfair Center and 79 other malls nationwide, stood by the contest process.

“Bayfair Center has been committed to fostering local entrepreneurial spirit by hosting the Retail Star competition for over three years,” a Madison Marquette spokeswoman said via email. “In 2011, Ms. Donna Davis was selected as the Retail Star. Despite numerous good faith efforts by Bayfair Center, Ms. Davis elected not to open her business within the center.”

Davis tells a different tale in a five-page letter to San Leandro city officials. She furnished a copy to Patch.

In brief Davis says that:

  • During the competition, the rules prevented her from seeking outside financing. Then, after she won the contest, she discovered that her lender of choice didn't think the Food Court was a good location.
  • After she won the contest, she was told that the $25,000 in seed money could not be used to buy the bakery equipment she need. This took her by surprise especially because she couldn’t get other financing.
  • Bayfair was supposed to spend about $200,000 building out the food court location to suit her bakery, Davis says. But she says there were $40,000 in costs that were her responsibility that she only learned about after winning the contest.
  • Bayfair promised her a year of free rent. But when that expired, the mall initially sought $5,000 a month for the space, whereas she had stated in her contest entry that she had envisioned paying $2,500 a month.
  • Davis was supposed to open Sweet Abundance on or before Black Friday. That was less than 120 days after her contest win. She said she asked for a reprieve to open in January 2012. When Bayfair said no, she quit her job in an effort to meet that deadline, losing income that further added to her financial distress.

She never opened the store. Nor did she get the $25,000 in seed capital, except for about $1,100 to pay the web designer who created her website, www.sweetabundancecakes.com.

City business development officer Jeff Kay says Davis met with him and City Manager Chris Zapata and both of them spoke with Bayfair officials urging “an amicable resolution.”

But that hasn’t happened, at least from Davis' view.

The Castro Valley woman has consulted a lawyer but doesn’t think she’s a match in court for Madison Marquette, a privately held corporation with malls in 13 states.

“It’s a David versus Goliath story,” says Davis.

She went public to put pressure on Madison Marquette and also to tell other small businesses what happened to her.

Madison Marquette says it did not host a retail star contest at Bayfair this year because it did not have space for the winner.

But the company is “still considering the program for this property and others throughout the company,“ a spokesperson said.

Editor's note: Hear Donna Davis tell her story in the accompanying video.

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Fran July 18, 2012 at 04:05 PM
I was going to enter that contest. lol. But then I remembered the number one rule. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. The money and build out of a space is enticing, but in the long run, if the space isn't viable it's all for naught. Maybe they can change the contest name to Recipe for Disaster.
mloura July 18, 2012 at 05:23 PM
It almost made me choke when Madison Marquette said they didn't host a contest this year because they didn't have any room. Seriously??? Bayfair is a ghost town. They could give away 10 spaces and still not have a full mall. What a lame excuse.
Justin Agrella July 18, 2012 at 05:41 PM
Lesson learned. Money for nothing is worth exactly what you paid for it. I never enter contests for such things because there are ALWAYS strings attached.
Tom Abate (Editor) July 18, 2012 at 06:11 PM
The big stores on the outside are pretty healthy. It's the interior. Bayfair is trying more events to get people inside. This NYT story says its a trend. Will it work? http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/18/business/malls-take-on-the-internet-by-stressing-the-experience.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120718
Been Taken July 18, 2012 at 11:07 PM
Ms Davis is facing a Goliath; this mall owner is an undesireable neighbor in this community. She felt this was a fair chance to establish a viable business; but this mall owner does employ attorneys with the intention of finding advantages; disception; and dispicable conduct. It's a Retail Bust! This mall is a retailers last resort to operate. Coincidentally; the General Contractor who built the food court also has "stiffed" local small specialty contractors for mall improvements with knowledge all the way to the Corporate President. This G.C. also uses attorneys to munipulate; for the shared profits between mall and G.C. reducing construction costs. There are huge judgements against him. The Owners do not practice professional standards! Look at the tennants inside? This mall holds no value to this honest; hard working community. Macy's should have sent Ms. Davis's banker to evaluate this losing venture. Doing business with this mall is at your own risk; but take cash in advance. Patronizing this mall; with the crime and violence inside and out; is at your own risk! Don't carry cash! Avoid this mall for principle alone; and find honest mall operators. Simon malls are an excellent alternative. The mall operators try events to bring people in; there are toys and amusemnt rides to attract people; so beware. A true blight to the community.
Fran July 18, 2012 at 11:48 PM
I just visited Davis' website. The cakes look yummy, and rather extravagant. I don't know if her plan was to sell those in particular, but if it was, my guess is the business would have failed eventually. I can't imagine a bakery of that quality would succeed in any mall, except for maybe the Beverly Center down in LA. I haven't been in a mall in ages, but if anything could get me in one, it'd be a great bakery. But that would be a once in awhile endeavor at best.
Tom Abate (Editor) July 19, 2012 at 12:26 AM
Fran, I can tell you are no friend of Donna's, at least as judged by this bit of advice that one of my friends posted on his FB page today: “You've learned what artists really wanted from their friends. It wasn’t honesty, it wasn’t constructive criticism, it wasn’t truth. They’d get the truth soon enough from dealers, editors, directors, agents, grant-makers, foundations, critics, and the public. What artists really wanted from their friends was simply support, and encouragement, and, if it wasn’t too much of an imposition, unconditional adoration. About works in progress, they wanted you to tell them: It’s perfect. You don’t need to change a thing. It’s good to go. About works that were about to be exhibited or released, they wanted you to tell them: It’s brilliant. You’re brilliant. I love it. I love you. What was the point of saying anything else?” —From The Collective by Don Lee
Barry Kane July 19, 2012 at 02:25 AM
A bakery would have failed miserably in an interior mall location, especially at Bay Fair. She is not too very business savvy to even think that location would work and no one in the world would ever consider financing it.
Fran July 19, 2012 at 02:27 AM
Huh? Sorry if my comments were misconstrued. Proclaiming that her cakes belong in The Beverly Center and not Bayfair Mall is an insult? That was a compliment. I'm on her side, not the malls believe me. She is way too good for that place as far as I'm concerned. I plan on ordering a cake from her as a matter of fact.
Leah Hall July 19, 2012 at 02:49 AM
Amen, Tom.
Jamie July 19, 2012 at 03:46 AM
mloura I hear ya.
Al Cautiverio July 19, 2012 at 06:39 AM
This are not the answers she wants to hear.....my advise is to call 7 ON YOUR SIDE....give them a chance to look into this.......they also have lawyers there to give you some suggestions. Good Luck
Carol Parker July 19, 2012 at 10:21 AM
I wonder if the lender would have had the same problem with the location if the interior of the mall was a busier place? I'm thinking about the fact Costco's bakery is way in the back of that store - yet people flock there to buy bargain birthday cakes.
Marga Lacabe July 19, 2012 at 06:15 PM
Of course, art is subjective while business plans should aim to be anything but.
Forward Thinking July 19, 2012 at 06:32 PM
All new business owners must consider all options to introduce their product. In addition the contest did not disclose the location of where this business would be located at Bay Fair. So, what other positive input can you offer?
Leah Hall July 19, 2012 at 08:17 PM
I've never written up a business plan, but my understanding is that there is a lot of subjective judgement there as well. My grandfather and grandmother owned the first shoe store in Los Alamos, NM "Hall's Shoe Store." I recently learned from my father that my grandparents were awarded the contract from the government agency running the labs, after the decision was made to turn the site into a normal town. Others bid on other shops, and then Los Alamos became a town sort of overnight with one shoe store, a clothing store, a barber shop, a drugstore, etc. The shoe business was successful but had many challenges which required lots of subjective human intellegence, aka "art." It is easy for bystanders to overlook an operation and second guess it or criticize it. Not so easy to be the "cook" and put oneself out there and on the line.
Leah Hall July 19, 2012 at 09:42 PM
God, I love the internet! Did a little digging on Los Alamos and found this bit of history on my grandparent's shoe shop: "The Community Center opened with much anticipation on October 11, 1948, and was proclaimed in following day’s edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican as “America’s most modern community center.” Ten businesses selected by the AEC, including a pastry shop, department store, jewelry and gift store, shoe shop, furniture, variety store, and a Firestone dealer occupied the new storefronts, as well as buildings housing a theater, bowling alley, radio station, and town hall. Although the shopping center civilized the former Army post by offering new goods and services, testimony at a 1948 Senate hearing on AEC expenditures at Los Alamos, found many of the stores at the center had been too costly to construct and selling merchandise at an inflated price. The hearings, which later led to a congressional “searching investigation” brought to light that the contractor for Group Two overran his original bid for the project by several hundred million dollars. Despite the blatant “‘waste and extravagance’” of government contracts, witnesses at the hearing painted a more optimistic picture of Los Alamos, especially as it came to the AEC’s efforts to improve housing and provide businesses and services to the civilian community." http://www.newmexicohistory.org/filedetails.php?fileID=21152
Leah Hall July 19, 2012 at 09:56 PM
Donna, I hope your dream of running a successful bakery will come true. My grandparents' story reminds me of yours because for a long number of years they struggled to turn a profit. Winning the contract came with unforseen financial burdens, and they were middle-class family dependent on that profit for their living expenses.
Charles Kane July 19, 2012 at 11:57 PM
$5000 per Month for a small start up is tough when you are at the mercy of the Mall for hours of operation and the type of promo you can use. The lady has a dream to develop. I hope she succeeds, maybe finding more reasonably priced space.
Lisa July 20, 2012 at 06:03 AM
It's really too bad she couldn't have opened her bakery anywhere else BUT Bayfair. SL is lacking in good bakeries, in fact I can't think of any good bakeries in this city. Lord knows there are plenty of empty store fronts. We used to have Marita's on the corner of Dutton and Bancroft, as good as their products were, they had a limited menu-I only went there for the red velvet cake. Thank goodness the old Neldams in Oakland reopened as The Taste of Denmark. Location, location, location as someone else mentioned. They could be the best cakes around, but I would never venture into Bayfair even if they were giving the cakes away for free. I do have to wonder if she had a lawyer look over any paperwork before accepting the prize money.
Lisa July 20, 2012 at 06:15 AM
Actually I was just looking at her menu, looks really good. She ought to think about doing oversized cupcake versions of her cakes to add to her menu. I can't tell you how many times I've had to bring dessert somewhere and one cake was too much. The cupcake place near Hidden Wok is awful, they taste the same as store box cake mix.
Tom Abate (Editor) July 20, 2012 at 06:13 PM
So many great suggestions here. I hope Donna is encouraged to keep on keepin' on.
Rai W. July 21, 2012 at 04:01 AM
Please let us know where you open. This area needs a good bakery. The only descent baked goodies are found at the farmers market. Other than that, Oakland & Dublin has a few awesome bakeries but is too far to drive.

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