CASTLE HILL — On the surface, Annette Olmo seems as bright and sugary as the pastry company that she runs from her Castle Hill home.
The pink ad pamphlets she hands out for The Love U Bake show off a cake she decorated with rainbow-colored butterflies. The red minivan she drives is plastered with banners bearing blue skies and a photo of Olmo’s smiling daughter, 5-year-old Mia, holding a flower-covered cake and wearing a pink chef’s hat.
Beneath that exterior, though, is a single mother of two girls desperate to keep her house out of foreclosure. She's banking on her fledgling baking business not only to keep a roof over her head, but also to prove herself to her family.
"I am my children's role model and my parents’ legacy," said Olmo, 41. "And I want to build something they can be proud of."
Olmo's troubles began when her father died unexpectedly, leaving her emotionally devastated and solely on the hook to pay for the house she and her father bought and renovated.
In 1999, Olmo’s father, Nelson Olmo, invested in and renovated a dilapidated house on Newbold Avenue, which the two cleaned, painted, carpeted and outfitted with a new boiler. He kept only his name on the mortgage, but let his daughter live in the house.
In 2008, at the age of 56, Nelson died suddenly of a stroke. Olmo, who already struggled with depression, was distraught.
"I didn’t even know how to put one foot in front of the other," Olmo said. "My base was pulled out from under me."
Barely able to get out of bed, much less work, Olmo soon fell behind on the mortgage payments. The matter was complicated by the fact that only her father’s name was on the deed and that he had never bought life insurance, which would have eased her financial load.
Meanwhile, Olmo gave birth to her second daughter, Alanara, who was born two months early and weighed less than 2 pounds.
The infant’s strength, Olmo said, inspired her.
She decided she would bake pastries, and began teaching herself by reading pastry blogs and books (“The Cake Bible,” “Cupcake Heaven, “The Cookiepedia”), taking notes as she watched endless online baking videos — "the University of YouTube," as Olmo puts it.
She had hoped to study at a culinary school in SoHo, but when she couldn’t afford the nearly $40,000 tuition, she took a three-day seminar there instead, where she learned to create sugar-paste flowers.
On Alanara’s first birthday, Olmo celebrated by baking her first-ever cake from scratch.
Soon after, she began baking cakes, cupcakes and cookies for her family and friends, and then their friends.
Last November, she formed The Love U Bake, LLC . The phrase comes from the Beatles song "The End" with the final lyrics,"The love you take is equal to the love you make." Those words are engraved on her father’s gravestone.
Olmo and her father, a furniture salesman, were always close.
When she floundered after college, trying stints as a cab driver, a babysitter, a Spanish teacher and a T-shirt maker, he assured her that she was just destined to be a late bloomer, she said.
Since starting the business, she's invested in a machine that can turn computer images into pastry cutouts, and she used prize money she won in an entrepreneurial class to buy a new refrigerator and a printer that creates edible images. When she offered a deal through Groupon, she attracted 200 new customers.
One of those customers was Ellen Jones, a former Bronx teacher who is developing a nonprofit that will educate girls about entrepreneurialism. Jones said she sees Olmo as a role model for young women.
"She's doing her own business and taking her own risks," said Jones, 42.
But she added that Olmo seemed to be reaching the limits of what she can do on her own and will eventually need to hire staff if she wants her business to grow.
"Every time I have a conversation with her, she's delivering, she's busy, she's on the go," Jones said. "At that point, you do need assistance."
Today, Olmo bakes the cakes and cupcakes in her kitchen and delivers them in her minivan to birthday parties, family celebrations and weddings.
Eventually, she would like to rent her own storefront where she could expand her menu to include sugar and gluten-free cakes and cake pops called "Lanapops," named for her daughter. She said she could hire other single mothers who need the money.
Her dreams are overshadowed, though, by her debt, which she said is nearing $100,000, due to back mortgage payments, fines and lawyers’ fees.
For now, her plan is to keep baking — if for no other reason than to teach her daughters a lesson.
“If we’re in a bad situation,” she said, she wants them to think, "How can we fix it?"