PARIS – Looking at the luscious cakes spread out in front of Laurie Jones, it’s easy to imagine that her small baking business will become a gold mine.

Still, the owner of Laurie’s Signature Desserts admits that the decision to expand her business was not easy.

“It’s a little bit scary,” Jones said Friday at opening day of the annual Oxford Hills Business Showcase. “But I believe if you have a quality product, you cannot go wrong.”

Quality indeed. Triple chocolate layer cake, coconut cake and pumpkin spice cake with molasses cream cheese frosting were just some of the goodies Jones displayed as she distributed samples, which were certain to dampen one’s lunch appetite.

Jones had been baking in the kitchen of her Norway home for five years for devoted customers who wanted her to bake desserts at the holidays.

She decided to branch out to the general public, taking out a home equity loan so she could build a commercial kitchen in the house. The new kitchen will be inspected soon, and once that process is done, Jones will offer 15 new flavors of cheesecake along with her traditional specialties. She plans eventually to bake for restaurants, as well as weddings, holidays and other events.

“I believe I’ll do well,” she said.

In an era when large mass retailers attract customers seeking low prices, small-business owners at the showcase said they are aware they face challenges in that type of climate. But they voiced optimism, saying their unique products and services should keep them afloat.

Maine’s small-business climate is dismal, according to the Small Business Survival Index 2005, an annual report by the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council. The report showed that Maine’s ranking dropped from 46th in 2004 to 49th in 2005. State taxes and health insurance costs were cited as two major reasons for the ranking.

“Right now it’s expensive,” said Peggie Staley, owner of Natural Essence in Norway, where one can buy richly fragrant soy candles. “This is one of the reasons I’m here, to drum up business.”

Staley cited overhead costs as her biggest financial challenge, but she found ways to reduce her startup costs, including taking up a friend on an offer for store space that cost “next to nothing.”

She has been operating from her Main Street location for about one year, and right now it’s just Staley and her husband, Frank, running the business. Staley said soy candles’ wax burns slower than other waxes, increasing burn time about 30 percent. Soy wax candles also produce very little, if any, soot or smoke.

“I think it’s going to pay off in the long run,” Staley said.

Anna Cyr took advantage of her husband’s 14-month deployment to Iraq to pursue her dream of opening a business with her sister, Lisa Keisman. The sisters opened LisAnna’s Hair & Bodywork Studio in Norway three months ago.

When Cyr’s husband, Jason, was overseas, she studied massage therapy and graduated in June. Keisman had already worked for 11 years as a hairstylist. The sisters promote “beauty and balance” by offering unique indulgences such as tangerine salt scrubs, Indian sunset mud masks, and hot stone massages, as well as a full range of hair services using aromatic shampoos and styling products.

Like Staley, the sisters found ways to reduce their startup pains. Family members including their husbands, parents and Keisman’s father-in-law donated their labor to renovate and spruce up their Cottage Street location.

“If it wasn’t for them, honestly I don’t think we could have done this,” Keisman said as she recalled her discouragement when she initially sought help with starting the business.

“I went to places that promoted themselves as places that help small businesses,” she said, without using names. “I didn’t have any money and I think they looked at me like I was too young and had no experience.”

“We were kind of laughed at,” added Cyr, who cashed in a 401(k) from a former job for extra funds.

The sisters persisted, and Cyr said the business is growing steadily. It is attracting new customers, and Keisman’s clients from her former job have followed her.

“I think things work out for a reason,” Keisman said.

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