MILFORD, Del. (AP) — Laughter intermingles with the sharp and smoky smell of pork slow-cooking in the kitchen.
One of the owners of My Sister’s Fault, Angie Robles, calls out from behind the counter, “Buenos días, Julio,” to a recently retired customer who has found himself enjoying his spare moments at this bakery that reminds him of the Puerto Rican food he ate growing up.
You can’t go wrong with anything you order here, he says.
As he waits for his food at a counter lining the vibrant pink walls scattered with inspirational or sweets-inspired messages, more people start streaming into the bakery just after 8:30 a.m.
One woman drove all the way from Millsboro to visit the small business in Milford because she knew people who raved about the gluten-free desserts here — as well as the famed empanadas, which she admits were tempting her to stretch her dietary restrictions, you know, just for a taste.
Another regular said he comes for the food, of course, but sometimes it’s the people that keep him coming back again and again.
“Sometimes?!” Angie throws back at him with a laugh and a warm sense of familiarity.
Earlier, Angie said she tries to remember every one of her customers’ names — and if she’s lucky, their kids’ names, too — but it’s clear that this deep connection with the community and staff goes far beyond memorization.
Angie started My Sister’s Fault with her sister Rous Robles nearly five years ago. The inseparable sisters first moved to Delaware from Puerto Rico when they were 19 and 20 years old, but the dream to start their own bakery didn’t arise until years later.
CREATING A NEW SENSE OF HOME
Both Angie and Rous were working at Perdue when Rous started to feel homesick. One thing she missed most: the extravagant birthday cakes she could always find in Puerto Rico.
Whether it was the traditional almond amaretto cakes, flan or even puff pastries, Rous could never seem to find local baked goods that reminded her of home. So, one day she decided to give it a shot and try to bake them herself.
The first few cakes? Yeah, they were horrible, she said with a laugh. But as she practiced more, her skills sharpened and she began to feel confident enough to share some of her creations with her coworkers.
Then, people began asking the same question: “Are you going to open a bakery anytime soon?”
It seemed that a lot of her coworkers and friends also missed those Puerto Rican-inspired flavors that they couldn’t get anywhere else.
Rous shrugged off the question at first — this was just for fun, she argued. She wasn’t even charging for her cakes and pastries at that point.
But, Angie said, “That’s when we started dreaming about having our own business.”
While recovering from a surgery, Angie had time to think and research the possibility. She attended a small business seminar and reality came crashing down: This wasn’t going to be easy, and it was going to cost a lot of money if they were going to build their own business from scratch.
While Angie was at physical therapy one day, she was lamenting over the challenges of making this dream come true, when her therapist lit up. She knew someone who had an available building to rent in Milford, and she could connect them.
“You have to do that,” Angie recalled her physical therapist telling her. “You have to bring (this bakery) to Milford.”
Within two weeks, My Sister’s Fault was no longer a dream — it was a physical bakery located in a red brick building with a few other businesses in downtown Milford.
As everything started coming together, the nerves began to nag at Rous and Angie. What if something went wrong? What if they crash and burn? What if the community doesn’t show up for their savory or sweet food?
They looked at each other, laughing off some of their fears, and agreed: “I’ll just say it was my sister’s fault.”
And the creative name of the new bakery was born.
GROWING AND EXTENDING THEIR REACH
Since that first day opening the bakery on Front Street in Milford, My Sister’s Fault has only grown an even wider and more loyal base of customers.
Because the bakery is not extraordinarily visible from the outside — customers walk through two sets of doors to find the colorful gem inside a building with other small businesses — it’s almost like a poorly kept secret.
Anyone who visits My Sister’s Fault during lunchtime will find themselves in a sea of hungry customers who fill the small business and line up practically out the door as employees hustle behind the counter filling orders of empanadas and cakes. (It’s one reason the owners highly recommend people order online before stopping in.)
With this immense support from the community, My Sister’s Fault has begun to extend its reach by supplying some other businesses like Eggcellent in Lewes or The Coffee House Powered by Schell Brothers in Rehoboth. But they know they are quickly outgrowing their physical space and their ability to offer wholesale is limited.
That’s why the Robles sisters have plans to eventually build or move into a new bakery. While the original plan was to use an empty lot that they had recently purchased next door to construct a new building, Angie said they are also now considering purchasing an existing building due to constantly rising construction prices.
While it’s not clear yet how this new bakery may come about, they know that it’s the next step to support their continuing growth.
Besides physical space though, Angie and Rous have built up their staff to a force of 10 people, and they said their focus is mostly on supporting those staff members and their community.
They’ve adjusted their hours to make sure employees could pick up their kids from school. They’ve hosted financial literacy classes at their home for staff. And they’ve partnered with the Milford Housing Development Corporation to support their employees in homeownership.
“If we have to show less profit as a business, but our employees were able to sustain their families without having to go and claim unemployment? That’s satisfaction,” Angie said. “That’s what really is rewarding about this business.”
As for the community, they’re the reason the business has been able to thrive and grow, according to the sisters, and they are constantly looking for ways to give back.
Through what they call Synergy Projects, My Sister’s Fault has recently collaborated with other community organizations like a cooking class at Polytech that wanted to learn about making Puerto Rican food, or a homeless nonprofit that partnered with them to receive a meal every time a customer ordered a certain platter.
With more than 17,000 people following My Sister’s Fault on Facebook and another 4,000 on Instagram, their potential to connect with others and make a difference is only reaching new heights.
Both Angie and Rous said they feel a responsibility and a passion to uplift those around them.
“I’m not my own boss,” Angie said. “My boss is the 15,000 people that follow us. My boss is everybody that walks in our store every day. My boss is everybody that orders from us. I don’t have one boss. I have thousands of bosses.”
ALL ABOUT COMMUNITY
That commitment especially shined through on one recent warm Wednesday morning.
The entire staff was dressed in bright pink or green T-Shirts and some were even wearing mismatched socks with colorful Crocs or big yellow bows in their hair. The day before, Angie and Rous had rallied the staff and encouraged them all to wear funky outfits and bright colors to welcome spring — and they were all clearly on board.
While often busy filling orders and icing cakes or frying food, the atmosphere at My Sister’s Fault is unlike anywhere else. The joy and love for one another is clear, not just in these many projects that Angie and Rous put together for their staff and community, but in the way the employees and customers greet one another and talk about their favorite foods.
(That Dominican cheese with soft gooey inside and crisp outside, dipped in guava sauce? Unbeatable.)
Then, there was the spontaneous birthday party around 9 a.m.
Every day, one of the employees Alberto writes a Bible verse on a yellow sticky note and gives it to Rous. (She said she now probably has at least 30 of these notes sticking up somewhere).
So, in celebration of Alberto’s birthday, Rous surprised him and created a one-of-a-kind cake resembling a stack of yellow sticky notes complete with a Bible verse written in black cursive icing.
As the staff and customers sang “happy birthday” in Spanish, the smiles and laughter filled the room – that sound and lingering smiles essential ingredients that make My Sister’s Fault the community staple it is today.
My Sister’s Fault; 10 SW Front Street, Milford; 302-503-7446; mysistersfaultbakery.com; www.facebook.com/mysistersfault