Class of 2024

Natalie Mercado

CEO, Sweetera & Co.: Age 37

Natalie MercadoNatalie Mercado always knew she wanted to work in the food space. After high school, she enrolled in New England Culinary Institute and earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts and restaurant management, then slowly rose up the ladder, eventually becoming a sous chef.

“My goal was always to open my own restaurant,” she recalled. “I did catering jobs on the side, but I never took the initiative to open up a business.”

In the meantime, she went to work for MassMutual as an underwriter consultant, a job she still has. But in 2021, she started pursuing her dream again, getting entrepreneurial help from EforAll Holyoke.

“I applied with the intention of starting a restaurant. This was all during COVID, and I was advised to rethink my business plan because so many storefronts were closing down.”

So, Mercado pivoted and launched a food trailer called Sweetera & Co., specializing in “milkshakes and over-the-top desserts.” She posts on her website and social media to let people know where the truck will be each week, and she also started catering. The enterprise was an immediate success, and still is three years later.

“I really didn’t expect it to take off the way that it did. It was a great surprise, honestly, because I had endured so many setbacks with building the trailer,” she said. “It was during COVID, so supplies were back-ordered, and trying to find reliable contractors was hard. So it took longer than anticipated. I had to get comfortable getting uncomfortable.”

But Mercado isn’t done challenging herself, with plans to launch a second trailer in Florida by next year and a storefront by 2026.

“Everyone’s like, ‘you’ve come so far, and you should be proud of yourself.’ And I am proud of myself, but I’m also hard on myself,” she told BusinessWest. “I know where I want to be, and I know I’m not there yet. But I need to give myself more credit than I do.”

She still enjoys her work at MassMutual, approving life-insurance applications and helping clients secure their future. But she sees a bigger future for herself in Sweetera & Co.

“I love the creativity,” she said. “The best part of it is seeing the customers’ reactions when they get their bubble waffle sundae or their milkshake — their eyes get really big like, ‘oh, wow.’ The feeling I get is incomparable. It really makes all the hard work and all the setbacks worth it.”

—Joseph Bednar