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Sisters Jaqi Wright  and Nikki Howard, founders of The Furlough Cheesecake
Sisters Jaqi Wright and Nikki Howard, founders of The Furlough Cheesecake
Courtesy of Furlough Sisters Cheesecake

Jaqi Wright and her mother couldn't get enough of her sister's cheesecake.

The two of them, relaxing on New Year's Day, savored two slices each while sipping coffee. "'You really can sell these,'" Wright recalls her mother saying.

"And that's when I sat up straight," Wright says.

Wright and her sister, Nikki Howard, are furloughed federal employees who have found themselves without work and a paycheck since the partial government shutdown began Dec. 22. Like some of the 800,000 federal employees and contractors who are without pay during the 19-day shutdown, Wright and Howard — who work for the Justice Department and Food and Drug Administration in Washington D.C., respectively — are worried about how the lack of pay will impact their finances.

So the Maryland-based sisters decided to follow their mother's advice. They launched The Furlough Cheesecake on New Year's Day and are now selling cheesecakes for $29.98 each.

"We don't know when this is going to end. We don't have a clue," Howard, the baker behind the operation, says. "But instead of dwelling on that and feeling the depression that tends to come with these kinds of situations, we're making a decision to do something else."

It didn't take long for the duo to get their business off the ground. Wright, who is 50, conceived the name for "The Furlough Cheesecake" and quickly registered it on GoDaddy.com, an internet domain registration site. She then applied for an employee identification number on the IRS's website. Howard, 48, already had her food handler license, and she enlisted her teenaged and college-aged daughters to help create their website and promote the burgeoning business on social media.

Now, they're sorting the materials to ship their cheesecakes to customers around the country.

"We have a little machine that's working," Howard says.

The sisters have teamed up before on small business ideas. They created a to-go meal service to assist parents sending their kids with food off to camp a few years ago. That only lasted one summer, they say, since it was a lot of hard work for little cash.

But interest in The Furlough Cheesecake grew fairly quickly, the sisters say, particularly because of the difficult time it has arrived in. This past Monday, the sisters were working on about 10 orders. By Wednesday evening, that number grew close to 200 — with requests coming in from as far as Alaska, California, and Washington state. Since launching 10 days ago, they haven't turned a profit yet, but the rush of orders has already helped balance out their expenses.

"We had to pool our resources to purchase everything to put this together," Wright says. "Just to see that we have a balance, it's like having a paycheck there. We know that some of those things that we're facing we'll now be able to take care of."

For now, they both hope the business can help them make ends meet. Howard has an electricity bill and her daughter's college tuition due date is coming up. Wright has been struggling to get her mortgage company to allow late payments. Some customers — and even other furloughed employees — have also sent along donations as small as $2 to help the sisters out during the shutdown, which, if it continues past Saturday, will become the longest ever.

But, even when the shutdown comes to an end, Howard and Wright hope to continue their business after they return to their jobs. And they'll keep the name, too.

“In the shadow and the foolery of this shutdown, this has made it a little lighter," Howard says. "I get to work with my sister and try to invest some of our time into something positive."

"This is a heavy time for a lot of folks," Wright adds. "This is where the dream started, and we're going to stick with that name. We're going to hopefully help remind people that you can take lemons and make lemonade."