The year was 1970. The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” was a number-one hit. The New York Knicks were the NBA champs. And Amira Abdul-Wakeel had made her first pound cake.
Although she was extremely proud of her creation, her pride was quickly tempered when her mother tried it and proclaimed, “Sweetie, this is the best cornbread I’ve ever tasted.” With a mother’s judgment as motivation, Abdul-Wakeel vowed that she would set out to be a world-class baker.
Also popular at the time was Book-of-the-Month Club. But while her friends were exploring young teen fiction, Abdul-Wakeel was lining her bookshelves with cook books ranging from “The Joy of Cooking” to “The New York Times Cookbook,” which are both still part of her current library of more than 350 cookbooks.
Abdul-Wakeel continued baking for friends and family into the new millennium, and in the early 2000s decided she wanted to make a real go at becoming a professional baker. When she decided to professionalize, however, hardships arose.
“Unfortunately, I had been working for other people,” Abdul-Wakeel recalls, “and they weren’t so happy about me starting a business because that meant I was no longer working for them.”
Starting a business in general is tough, but starting a business in Philadelphia — a city accomplished at tying new businesses in knots with red tape — added another layer of challenges. Abdul-Wakeel recalled how difficult it was to understand how to get a business license, how to get the correct insurances and how to get into a commercial kitchen to satisfy health requirements.
So she gave in and went back to school. She got a degree in social work and later a degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania. Although most people would be completely content with such an achievement, Abdul-Wakeel just could not deny that baking was her true passion.
Finally, in 2017, she was ready to leave education and give baking another shot. This time she was able to find support from the Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia, which works with emerging entrepreneurs to overcome the hurdles that tripped Abdul-Wakeel up a few decades back. Just after she launched her business, Amira’s Delites, her alma mater invited her to bake vegan cookies for a cafeteria serving a whole dorm’s worth of students.
“Most people taste my stuff and are like, ‘Why are these buttery?’ Well, that’s the olive oil,” Adbul-Wakeel explains. “Quality ingredients give you a quality product.”
In spite of that quality, UPenn did not renew her contract a year later. So Abdul-Wakeel took that as yet another learning experience and diversified her sales outlets. She went back to the university dining system, landing a contract with Drexel University in 2019. She expanded to the Fairmount Farmers Market and grocery stores such as the Weavers Way Co-op, just as the pandemic set in.
What drew Abdul-Wakeel to Weavers Way in particular was that they, in her words, “have my customer.” Those who frequent cooperative grocery stores like Weavers Way tend to be health conscious — appreciative of treats such as Amira Delites’ vegan muffins — and attentive to quality.
“I like to say that I know my chickens,” Abdul-Wakeel says with a laugh. “I know my miller, and I know that the Weavers Way shopper values that.”
And that value is recognized not just by the shoppers at Weavers Way, but also by the staff. What started as one-off purchase orders of Amira’s Delites has now turned into a weekly standing order. And for Abdul-Wakeel, the ease of communications, the on-time payments and the general support and positivity of the staff now provide what she needed so badly when she first started.
“I feel like I can grow within Weavers Way, and as a new business entrepreneur, it’s really important to me that I get to grow, that I get to make mistakes and improve on that. My goal is to be one of the premier items in the brand new store [Weavers Way is opening in Germantown].”