If you don’t visit Amador County Facebook groups, you may not be aware that there is a thriving home baking industry in the county. I asked to interview several of those home-based bakers, and I connected with two of them: Leanna Mckay of Mckays Dessertz in Ione and Katlene Kuehn of KatieKates in Jackson.
Both Mckay and Kuehn are working mothers. Mckay is 30 years old with young children and going to culinary school to become a pastry chef. Kuehn is in her mid-forties and takes care of her adult autistic son; she had to abort her plans to become a pastry chef after high school but is now fulfilling that dream in her home kitchen.
Kuehn has been operating KatieKakes since 2013, but she said that she started to gain traction in her business in 2016. She was always interested in cooking because it was a part of her life growing up. “My father is a chef,” she explained, “and I learned baking from my mother and grandmother, so food was always part of my life.”
Once she became pregnant soon after graduating from high school, she decided to forego her plans to go to culinary school and became a medical assistant because, she said, “it was cheaper and easier to go there.”
When her son Brandon was diagnosed with autism, Kuehn quit her job at the doctor’s office she worked at and started baking. Once her son was settled into his developmental programs, she started baking and worked at Gold Trail Natural Foods in Jackson. KatieKakes was growing steadily—and then business exploded when the state declared a public health emergency in March 2020.
“People were at home and local bakers were closed,” she said, “and people still want their sweets.” Kuehn’s son was also regressing because he couldn’t attend his regular program, but she noted that having him at home has also been good for his development. “Every time someone buys a cake, they’re not just helping me,” she said. “They’re benefiting my son because he’s learning life skills and making him more functional in society.”
Kuehn creates custom cakes, wedding cakes, cupcakes, cookies, and bars. She also does some candies but added, “I don’t do a lot of candies because it’s a whole other realm of baking.” Kuehn also isn’t big on fondant. “I’m strictly a buttercream girl,” she asserted.
Kuehn plans to continue working at home and delivering her creations to individual customers as well as to events including weddings and birthday parties. (Her husband David helps with deliveries, too.)
She also plans to have a booth at the Amador Farmers Market in Sutter Creek a couple of times this summer when the weather isn’t too hot. “Eventually,” she added, “I’d like to have my own little shop down the road.”
In the meantime, Kuehn intends to keep doing the things that have made her successful. “I put so much energy, heart, and soul into everything I bake,” she said. What’s more, she’ll continue to buy locally. “I source locally as much as I can, especially with dairy and non-GMO ingredients,” she said, “and I also use local artists for cake toppers. I want to put back into the community as much as I can.”
Mckay also learned about baking from an early age and discovered she liked it. “I baked with my mom a lot, and then I started branching out and doing a bunch of stuff on my own.”
Mckay’s first dream was not baking. She wanted to play softball professionally, but an injury ended that dream. So, she pivoted. “I decided to go to online culinary school and become a pastry chef,” she said. “I’m learning a lot more new things and it gave me the confidence to run an online at-home business.”
She just started her business this year as a side hustle. “Full time, I work in kitchens at different restaurants,” she said. “Right now, I’m working at Siena Restaurant in El Dorado Hills and I’m looking for a second job because I’m kind of a workaholic.” Mckay has found steady work even during the pandemic when she worked for restaurants that offered take-out services including a restaurant in Valley Springs and Pizza Factory in Ione.
Though Mckay initially wanted to do baking for fun, she decided she liked it enough to enroll in online culinary school. “That gave me the push I needed to try the at-home online bakery,” she said. Mckay will graduate from her culinary school in August and become a certified, licensed pastry chef.
Bake to Suit
Though the pandemic hasn’t affected Mckay’s full time work, it has kept her business from growing as fast as she’d like. Even so, she doesn’t want to grow the business too quickly after graduation. “I have to get my kitchen and have that inspected and all that,” she said, “and be able to sell inside stores like Ione Sweets. It’s just a process that I’m all very new to.”
Mckay’s connections with friends of friends, as well as family, keeps her busy enough as it is. “Soon I’m going to be doing chocolate-covered strawberries for an event for a friend of my mother’s,” she explained. “It’s for over 300 people, and the strawberries will be decorated with American and Mexican flag colors.”
Chocolate dipped strawberries are just one of many sweet treats Mckay offers. “I can make anything from cakes to cheesecakes, I love doing cupcakes, and I just learned how to make French macarons.” She added that she can try to do anything. “I’m pretty well known for a lot of my cheesecakes from when I worked in Valley Springs,” she said. “If I’m given a recipe, I can figure it out and add my own little twist to things.”
Slow and Steady
Mckay’s plan is to go slow. “I want to stick to being an at-home, online bakery until I can get enough clientele to get enough confidence and have enough money saved up.” When she’s ready to expand, Mckay added, “because I’m Native American, my tribe will help me with small business loans.”
Her original plan was to open a small bakery in Ione that would offer donuts and other pastries. “The only donut shop is all the way in Jackson,” she explained. “It might be more convenient for people who live in town and who do walks to stop in.” But recent developments have her thinking of a new idea. “Me and my new boyfriend are both cooks so we both want to try to open up a restaurant together,” she said. “He would focus on the cooking side and I would focus more on the pastry and bakery side.
No matter what path she takes, Mckay believes she’ll succeed because she’s motivated by her children. “I want to show my kids that it doesn’t matter how old you are. You can always do it if you keep pushing yourself.”
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