From pandemic to success story, one chocolate cake at a time

Author: Biayna Mahari

Edition: Transition
Topic: Women

It was one in the morning when Armenian artist-turned-baker Nana Manucharyan asked me to reschedule our meeting from 9:00 to 8:30 in the morning. 

Seven hours later I was waiting at her apartment, thinking my unanswered knocks at the door meant she was still asleep. It wouldn’t be surprising, I surmised, if she was—Nana, 29, was juggling two businesses during the pandemic and raising her son as a single parent. 

As I pondered the decency of calling her this early in the morning to remind her about our meeting, Nana, 29, popped up from around the corner, arms full of supermarket bags and already started on the day’s itinerary. 

Throughout the day, I recalled this incident—a single moment that exemplified Nana, an artist who had found inspiration in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and managed to turn the crisis into a creative new business.

Even her business plans come to Nana in a rush. Weeks into the pandemic, she was wrestling with how to continue to pay her staff and rent for her four Terracotta art studios after being forced to temporarily close them. The online classes she organized after the pandemic was announced had provided a bit of income, but not nearly enough to cover the bills. Nana's son Argishti kept asking her to buy Nutella, the cocoa-hazelnut spread. Loathe to buy the processed version at the store, Nana decided to try and make some at home. The chocolaty cream was an instant success, and further experimenting with cakes proved even better. In a flash, her four sisters helped design the logo for Arty Choc Bakery, and she started marketing it online. That was on a Sunday. By Monday, she had two cake orders and the business was born.

8:48am These days, Nana rises before the sun most mornings to bake for a growing number of customers. Arty Choc averages ten orders a day, which Nana delivers while still running her art studios.
8:57 It is a few minutes before 9 am and Nana is already decorating her chocolate creations. She often gets up before 6 am so she can buy fresh fruit at the local wholesale market.
9:00 Arty Choc has taken over the apartment where Nana used to live with her son, Argishti. Over the weeks of pandemic, her business has rapidly expanded and Argishti has temporarily moved in with his grandmother. He now refers to the apartment as “the cakes’ house.”
9:03 Nana’s friends helped her decorate and renovate the apartment. They painted the walls her favorite color and decorated them with plates she made herself. Before Arty Choc, Nana spent ten years building up her art and ceramic studio, Terracotta. The studio offers a range of classes, including summer school for children.
9:18 In the beginning Nana did all the “cake work” alone but now two women help her. Sveta arrives early to help bake cake layers so Nana can pack the ready cakes for delivery and head to the studio to open the summer school. No matter how busy she is, Nana always finds a few minutes to fix her hair, put on a little make up, jewelry and a red hairband to brighten the day.
9:25 On the way, Nana has to stop at another supermarket for more supplies, this time for the summer school. Today the school is welcoming new children, and Nana always tries to be there to greet new pupils on their first day. This year is the tenth anniversary of her summer school—last year was a wild success and she had made big expectations for this year, too, but the pandemic had other plans.
9:43 Nana arrives at one of the three Terracotta studios in Yerevan. The fourth is in Vanadzor, a town in northern Armenia. Arty Choc helped to pay the rent for all of them during the lockdown, when Nana had to temporarily close them. Her son, Argishti, is already at the studio, ready to help. The family cat, Porsche (named by Argishti), is also there. He, too, has moved out of the apartment to make room for Arty Choc.
9:46 Every morning Nana finds time to sweep and tidy the yard in front of the residential building where one of her studios is located.
10:12 After welcoming new children and their parents at the studio, Nana is off again for cake deliveries. While some cakes are delivered by Arty Choc’s delivery guy or by taxi, Nana often still deliveries several cakes a day.
10:37 After the cake run, Nana heads back to the studio to check in on the lessons. When she is not teaching classes, she likes to keep tabs on how the school day is going and help out as needed. There were nine children attending—the most since the pandemic started, Nana noted. She added that both children and their parents are eager for activities outside of the house after weeks in lockdown.
11:21 Two months into the business, Nana is still developing a routine to handle the cake orders, and messages on Arty Choc’s social media accounts. Now she takes care of all the communications herself, jotting down the orders and delivery instructions by hand. When I ask why she doesn’t use an app to keep everything straight, she laughs. “Can you imagine how long it would take to open an app, write everything down and close it? I really don’t have so much time.”
12:16 Nana delivers cakes to the nearest supermarket using a wooden box she specially ordered to hold four cakes.
12:21 Arty Choc cakes are already sold at five supermarkets in Yerevan, which means Nana has to personally visit all of them every two or three days to see if the cakes need to be restocked.
3:50 After sorting some cake business, Nana heads out to the Terracotta studio on Saryan Street. This was the first studio she opened 10 years ago. First Terracotta was only a ceramic and painting studio but now it also offers sewing, clothing design classes and much more.
4:39 Nana has been working with pottery since she was 13. By age 17, she was already teaching and she started Terracotta two years later. Today she has expanded to include therapeutic classes as well as pottery skills. Despite the financial crunch of the pandemic, Nana is still planning to expand her studios; she has already refurbished a bus that will become a shop for her work.
5:21 At the studio, Nana treats the students to one of her cakes—a rare moment when her two worlds merge.
5:27 After a short cake break, Nana is back to work. She does all the social media marketing for both her businesses. “There is no one else who can do it like I do because those are my brands and I care for them”. Also she used her knowledge of photo/videography to organize online master pottery classes during the lockdown. She prepared small kits which could be delivered to students’ homes and started shooting and editing the teaching videos herself.
6:38 Nana hasn’t been at the studio for long before she gets an urgent cake order. “Can you send us a cake right now?” So she leaves an employee in charge of the ceramic class and heads back to Arty Choc to send the cake out for delivery.
6:48 Nana is greeted by one of her students when she gets back to the studio. “Are you here to lead the class?” a little boy’s mom asks Nana through the open car window while we are trying to park. “He refuses to stay here without you, we were going home already.”
7:44 “The amount of people in both the ceramic classes and summer school today is the biggest since the pandemic,” Nana notes happily. Classes at the Terracotta studios have slowly started to resume but Nana is not planning to close Arty Choc. Over the past two months, her Nutella-inspired idea has turned into a promising business.
8:20 By 8 pm – over 12 hours since she started – Nana is done with everything but the cleanup. Tomorrow she has to start preparing a new location for summer school but for now, she is nearly ready to relax. Finally I can see that Nana is a little tired, I thought this will never happen.
10:41 Later, after the cleanup is done, Nana has a few friends over to the studio to relax, discuss new ideas and try a new cake recipe. I asked her why she called them when it was clear she was exhausted. “If I don’t see my friends because I’ve had a busy day, I will never see them,” she said.
10:51 Roughly 14 hours after I started documenting Nana’s life, I put down the camera and head home. I am happily planning to sleep for at least 14 hours but I know Nana will be up by 6 am the following morning, heading out to the market for fresh fruit and a day full of non-stop work for an artist and a baker.
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