On New Year’s Eve, as sisters Jaqi Wright and Nikki Howard gathered together with their church family for Watch Night service, the Man Above was clearly watching over them.Exactly ten days into what has gone on record as being the longest U.S. government shutdown, Howard, a furloughed Food and Drug Administration worker, sacrificed at the supermarket to buy premium ingredients to make a sweet potato cheesecake for the service. What was birthed from that decision was a decadent dessert that has now launched a bona fide business. “Her heart and soul went into that cheesecake,” doting sister Jaqi says. “I’ve known her since she’s been cooking, so I’m always eating her food. I’ve also had her cheesecake before. But this cheesecake was magical.”When the sister’s joined Howard’s perfected recipe with Wright’s business acumen, “The Furlough Cheesecake” took off. In the last month since starting the business that was intended to help them “get by,” they’ve been blessed with a flourishing operation with no signs of slowing down.Media attention from major news outlets like CNN and The Ellen Degeneres Show has only helped to widen their appeal. The demand for their coveted recipe “has been a blessing and it’s also kind of forced us to have to figure some things out pretty quickly,” says Wright, who was furloughed by the Department of Justice on December 22.One of those things is how to communicate effectively. The ladies who are two years apart — or “22 months” if you ask Howard— have always had a good relationship. In fact, Wright didn’t think the two could talk more than they already do. But now that the DC-area residents work so closely together, they’ve had to learn how to navigate the kitchen and a new sister dynamic. “A good thing about working with Jaqi is I can kind of boss her around in the kitchen,” jokes little sister Howard. “I can’t do a whole lot of bossing any time else. But in the kitchen, I can kind of be in charge.”They haven’t quite settled on what their actual roles and titles are, but the entrepreneurs who are both married with children, have decided that they will use their budding business as a means of helping others. The growing interest in their cheesecake has helped them at a financially difficult period, and also provided them with an opportunity to give back to other furloughed workers within their community. “It is impossible to ignore what it is doing for others,” asserts Wright. “It’s impossible to ignore. It’s actually gone to a level that we couldn’t have foreseen this quickly.”Orders for the coveted cakes now come with a 2-3 week delivery time. And what used to be a home kitchen operation is now a production ran out of an official kitchen that allows The Furlough Cheesecake owners to triple their output. Rest assured that even with the overwhelming interest, every dessert is fulfilled with the same love, attention, and quality ingredients that went into the first one. “Don’t want to just throw it together and get it out there because we have this demand,” Wright insists.The demand for the sweet potato flavor and the “original” is likely to get a lot larger now that the women are in talks with Wal-Mart. Mentor Mahisha Dellinger, who has a personal goal to help make as many African-American women seven-figures through her Black Girls Making Millions Academy, introduced them to the woman responsible for Pattie Pies. Both Howard and Wright agree that they can’t go backward, so they’re pushing forward.
“Those letters they gave us when we were told that we were in furlough status — like my sister says all the time, you can’t take it to the grocery store; they don’t care at the gas station,” Wright laments. “And honestly, they say you can give it to your mortgage company, but my mortgage company said ‘Well we know about it. It’s in the news. Maybe we can waive your late fee, but if you go over this amount of time we will report you to the credit bureau.” With that in mind, the ladies are no longer allowing their financial fate to be determined by the federal government. Before wrapping up our call, Howard recalls a quote from Author Ashe, “To achieve greatness, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” And that’s exactly what these ladies are doing. Howard sums up their journey as stepping out on faith. “I mean look what can happen when you really just step out.”