Most days, Kelly Ball buzzes around her Lakewood bakery, watching after her staff – she can be spotted with short, brown, curly hair and tortoise blue glasses. A personalized gallery lines the wall with mementos from her travels to places like Serbia and Japan. A warm, colorful lamp hangs above the cash register.
Ball, a long-time lover of baking and cooking, opened Leila Bakery & Cafe two and a half years ago. The European-inspired eatery sells an assortment of quiches, kolaches, muffins and more.
Now settled into her career, Ball has reflected on the journey that brought her to where she is. Ball said the struggles she has endured — including a miscarriage and divorce — brought greater clarity to her purpose in life and the direction she wanted to take in her career.
After years of growth and maturing, Ball uses her own life lessons to create a healthier workplace environment for her staff.
“I say laughingly [that] this came about,” she said, “when my life fell apart.”
When Ball was a child, growing up in Texas and Louisiana, she found freedom in the kitchen. She was particular about her food and what ingredients went into her meals, but she trusted herself to cook something good — plus, she got to dye her scrambled eggs purple for breakfast.
“I cooked for myself pretty early on and in college and into my adult life,” she said. “It was my creative outlet or even stress relief.”
She didn’t plan to make a career out of cooking or baking. In 2007, she graduated from Northwestern University with her undergraduate degree in sociology and cognitive science and then moved to Dallas with her then-husband. She went back to school to take post-baccalaureate classes at the University of Texas Dallas for a pre-med degree.
Around this time, Ball learned she was pregnant.
“I was terrified for about a week, and then I was over the moon,” she said.
Ball found out in the second trimester of her pregnancy she had suffered a missed miscarriage, which means the baby either dies or does not develop in the parent’s womb, but the parent doesn’t have any physical symptoms.
“Miscarriage is devastating, no matter when you learn of it,” Ball said. “If you’re wanting a child, it’s heartbreaking.”
Ball and her husband separated around the time their baby would have been due. She tried another semester of pre-med classes, but she said it was too difficult to keep up with the classwork while she was struggling with her mental health.
She eventually found herself working at the Legal Grounds coffee shop, where Ball said she was initially “ashamed” and “lost” because her life wasn’t shaping up the way she expected it.
“I had all these expectations of what I thought would bring me happiness that involved being married and having kids and having a good job,” she said. “All of those things just fell out from under me at the same time.”
But a turning point for Ball came in early 2012, when she met a group of friends she said inspired her with not only how much they pursued their business, but also how much they pursued their hobbies, which she said are just as seriously a part of themselves as their careers.
Composed of musicians, photographers and business owners, this circle of friends opened her eyes to new possibilities for her career, she said. Among them was Nikola Olic, a Dallas-based architectural photographer, whom she has been with for nearly 10 years.
“That was when I started to think differently about what is possible with life,” she said. “It’s OK to pursue something that you enjoy just because you like it.”
So, Ball began wholesale baking and selling her goods at farmers markets while catering on the side. Ball eventually opened her storefront in early 2020 and named it Leila Bakery & Cafe after Nikola’s aunt, who lives in Serbia and gifted the lamp that hangs above the register.
Ball is set to open another location of Leila Bakery & Cafe this fall in the White Rock Center. She said the bakery experienced staffing instability in the early winter and spring of last year. She said was overwhelmed with her workload — so much so that she wanted to sell her business.
Even though the cafe is still experiencing some staffing instability, Ball said she has learned to better manage her staff and delegate responsibilities, which included hiring a manager to take on tasks.
“It was such a huge lesson to have a really strong manager that I can rely on,” she said. “It’s been a really tough journey, and learning to delegate and rely on people … and be a good manager has been a huge part of this being able to survive.”
Ball has been open with her employees about her journey with mental health, and she works to respect and accommodate their mental well-being.
“They feel comfortable sharing their stories with me, and we try to make schedules that allow people to have a healthy lifestyle,” Ball said. “There are definitely times when we have overtime, but I try to work with my employees to keep reasonable schedules in place. That’s a value of mine. “
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the storefront had music playing in the background, with an occasional staff member dancing and the customers coming through the door. The front-of-house manager, Tyler Hollandsworth, handed out stickers to a child. Ball embraced a cook who had just gone into labor and was heading out the door.
Hollandsworth has worked at the bakery since December. She said it’s her favorite industry job she’s had, and the care for mental health is “totally different” from her previous jobs.
There are about 20 people on staff, and Hollandsworth said there is an “environment of love and acceptance” at the bakery, where she has been able to make real friendships. Hollandsworth said she loves that it’s women-owned and operated.
“We’re all very respectful [and] willing to work with any of our employees on making sure that they feel comfortable,” she said. “I am constantly talking with the other front of house workers and making sure that they feel valued, that their ideas are heard and that they know their worth in the company.”
Rahim Quazi, a full-time musician and songwriter, met Ball about 10 years ago. He’s a part of her friend group, which Quazi said is full of creatives who are always supporting one another, whether that be attending a friend’s concert or going to a gallery night.
When Ball used to sell her goods at the Good Local Markets, Quazi said it became a “waterhole” for the friend group, and he would take his son with him every other weekend.
“It kind of became our breakfast hook-up with all our friends,” he said. “And then if she ever was in a bind or needed help, one of us was there.”
Quazi said he watched Ball’s business grow little by little over the years, and he makes regular visits to the storefront for baked goods – not only because she’s his friend, Quazi said, but because the food is good, too.
“I’m always kind of blown away by her,” Quazi said. “She does the same for me, and she comes out to my shows tirelessly and has fun, and I can look at her for a smile.”
Ball said in the past decade she has matured and grown in her personal life. She now has a better understanding of what she wants in life and how she wants to treat other people, which she attributes to Nikola’s help.
“I have a completely different understanding of what it means to love and to be loved,” she said, “and I feel like I am much healthier now than I used to be.”