CHAMBERSBURG – Roque Zubia talks about his company Sweet Rollers (115 E. Queen St.) with the endurance of a QVC shopping channel host and the business sense of a “Shark Tank” contestant. He is a brand ambassador, an evangelist and a true believer. He has seen the future, and he is inviting you to have a taste of it today.
He can’t help but share the story of Sweet Rollers with anyone and everyone who will listen. Even those who have heard it already. Anyone, really. Literally anyone.
“For four years before I was even doing it at my house, I was talking about Sweet Rollers,” said Zubia. “Every person who knows me was just fed up with it before I had even started. It’s going to be my whole life. I had shirts made, and we weren’t even making cinnamon rolls yet.”
Instead of the traditional baggy, checkered pants and white hat of a baker, Zubia wears jeans, a fresh-looking black t-shirt with his company’s current logo (designed by Chambersburg-based graphic designer Dustin Fritz) and a backwards baseball cap bearing an old version of the logo.
Standing in Sweet Rollers’ 800 sq. ft. bakery space just off of Main Street, Zubia talks about opening a Sweet Rollers in every community where there are nonprofits, youth sports organizations or video game clubs that rely on public fundraising – “pretty much any organization that needs to raise money, which is every organization.”
“Any little town could have a Sweet Rollers,” he said. For now, he is scouting out the Gettysburg area.
He foresees a time when Chambersburg could be famous for being the place where Sweet Rollers originated. He is aghast when he learns that the town is currently known for its peaches.
“Peaches?! That’s what we’re known for?! I thought it would be more for Martin’s Potato Rolls.”
Zubia’s intensity when discussing Sweet Rollers suggests that if he had to, he could make his vision a reality through sheer force of will. He won’t have to. His passion is backed by a delicious product and a finely-honed, easy-to-replicate business model. These are the ingredients with which he hopes to make a lot of people a lot of money.
To those who have never attempted to launch a business or a large-scale creative project in Chambersburg, applying so much energy to something like cinnamon rolls can seem baffling or naïve. Entrepreneurs, innovators and creatives, however, will understand that this is simply what it takes to turn dreams into realities. Passion is a fuel that burns longer and hotter than cash.
If you get caught up on the cinnamon rolls or the soft pretzels or the coffee in front of you, you won’t see the big picture of what Zubia is really trying to accomplish by blending business and fundraising. The sweetest part is that it’s all for a good cause.
Every transaction is a fundraising transaction
A little over six years ago, Zubia was managing the TGI Fridays in Gettysburg where a local cheerleading group would frequently come in and sell whatever their fundraiser of the moment was. Zubia wanted to help, but the selection was so limited that he eventually started giving them money without accepting the product. On top of that, there was a five-week turnaround from when he placed the order to when he actually received the item. By the time it arrived, he had forgotten that he had even ordered it.
It was clear to Zubia that the fundraising system that so many organizations relied on was broken.
“I told them that I would go home and make them some cinnamon rolls,” he said. He delivered 300 cinnamon rolls, and the cheerleaders sold the entire quantity in front of a grocery store for five dollars a piece in under an hour. They returned to Zubia asking for more.
He had destroyed his home kitchen, and it had cost him a great deal of money, but underneath the mess he saw real potential. There was something to this.
He began to convert his residential kitchen into a commercial kitchen, and he baked cinnamon buns in his house for nearly a year. Eventually the orders grew too large – sometimes exceeding 1500 rolls – so he opened the storefront in Chambersburg.
“We streamlined everything,” said Zubia of his upgrades to traditional fundraising. “What I did when designing the structure of our fundraisers is we only give them seven days to sell. We book them and schedule them on a weekly basis. If they start selling on Monday, they turn in their order sheets the following Monday, and then we have two days to get them their rolls – no matter how much it is. It’s nine days total from when they start to when they have their money.”
There would be no more five-week turnaround times.
“If I allowed them to do a month or five weeks of selling, then nobody does anything until the last week,” he added. The time constraint – along with sales support from Sweet Rollers – keeps everyone focused and holds everyone accountable for their contributions.
“You have to remember that these organizations are volunteer-based,” said Zubia. “Nobody will take the reigns and take control over what’s happening. That’s what we do.”
Sweet Rollers also does a monthly in-store fundraising package in which a portion of every sale made within the bakery goes to a local organization.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said. The organizations go out and introduce their members to Sweet Rollers’ products while Sweet Rollers raises money and awareness for the various causes.
“This isn’t just a business or a company,” said Zubia. “This is a new way to raise funds and engage with the community. We give a lot of money, but when you give a lot of money, the support you get is valuable.”
Comfort food for troubled times
Sweet Rollers officially opened the doors of its bakery on March 29, 2020, and it cannot be overstated that this was a miserable time to launch a brick-and-mortar business venture.
“Not only did people tell me not to do it, but that I shouldn’t do it,” said Zubia of his decision to move forward.
A series of extremely fortunate factors would ultimately shield Sweet Rollers from the worst of the lockdown. For example, the bakery didn’t rely on foot traffic the way other downtown businesses did, and while the original plan included indoor seating, the core model had always relied on pre-orders and grab-and-go quick service. The food items had always been individually packaged in plastic containers.
“We’ve only been open during that time,” said Zubia of the pandemic restrictions. “We don’t know any before, so it wasn’t hard for us to follow the rules.”
By the time Zubia was opening Sweet Rollers, he had left TGI Fridays and was working at another chain restaurant in the Norland Avenue area, which had a much more difficult time adapting to the changes. “Because [the chain was] open for years before that happened, it was just chaos,” he said. “It drove everybody crazy. [At Sweet Rollers], there was none of that because we didn’t have anything before that.”
In some ways, the pandemic actually helped them solve some of their initial floor plan quandaries.
“Instead of contemplating whether we should or shouldn’t have tables, it was, like, whelp, that’s not an option right now, so get it out of here,” said Zubia. They reversed the layout and ended up significantly expanding their prep space, which would prove to be beneficial as the pre-orders continued to come in.
“I truly believed that if we opened up this shop, the community would support us because we’re supporting the community,” he said. “And that’s exactly what happened. When I say the community supported us, I mean, it caught on like wildfire.”
A fundraising company masquerading as a bakery
More than “baker” or even “business person,” the word that best describes Roque Zubia is “entrepreneur.” He doesn’t seem to have any trouble selling his cinnamon rolls and pretzels, so he has turned his attention to perfecting the structure of the business so that he can expand the concept of Sweet Rollers into multiple locations.
He’s already taken on a lot of risk and a lot of expense along the way. By September 2020 he had put $130,000 into kitchen equipment, renovations and a trailer that allows him to take his products to events and pulls double duty as a mobile billboard. For Zubia, that willingness to take risks is the difference between a businessperson and an entrepreneur.
“A startup needs to be started by somebody that’s very creative and can see the big picture and is willing to be stressed out and risk a ton,” he said. “A ton.”
The thing that’s scarier to Zubia than the risk of failure is to have never pursued his dream at all.
“If you are focused on something, and you know you have something, you truly believe you have something special, then you need to go do it. You owe it to the world to go do it.”
As 2020 wound down, the trailer made its debut at Lowe’s on Lincoln Way East. The sold-out December event benefitted Noah’s House and Gracie’s Place, which provide a well-structured and managed transitional home setting for men and women suffering from all forms of substance abuse.
Sweet Rollers also collaborated with Fourscore Beer Co. in Gettysburg to create a “Sweet Roller Cinnamon Bun Pastry Stout.”
On December 8, the Sweet Rollers Facebook page announced their entire 2021 in-store fundraising schedule. The list includes: PenMar Youth League, Capital Theater, Fayetteville Fire Department, Chambersburg Exchange Club, Sweet Grace Ministries, Healthy Kids Running Series, Nicodemus CCS, Make-A-Wish Truck Convoy, Eve’s Victory, PEO, and Special Olympics, Franklin County.
Learn more at www.thesweetrollers.com.
[Main image caption: Roque Zubia, founder of Sweet Rollers, poses in front of his location at 115 E. Queen St. on September 16, 2020. The logo on Zubia’s t-shirt, the storefront window and the cinnamon roll packaging was designed by Dustin Fritz.]