Heart of the Entrepreneur: Shana Cakes
Rachel Lock | Photographer
She started losing her hair. It took a while for Dempewolf to solve the problem, but when gluten was eliminated from Shana’s diet, the girl went back to her happy, healthy self. They went to the store searching for gluten-free snacks, treats, breads and cookies. There wasn’t much selection and what they did find tasted terrible compared to their gluten-filled counterparts. Dempewolf went online and started trying out recipes for gluten-free baking. The recipes were inconsistent. Some worked. Some didn’t.
“When you look through cookbooks you’ll find chocolate cakes are just about the same from cookbook to cookbook,” Dempewolf said. “When you start looking at gluten-free recipes online, they are all over the map. It was hard to find a pattern. You might find one recipe that worked well, but you didn’t know what about that recipe worked well. When I couldn’t find a single pattern, that’s when I switched into scientist mode.”
As Dempewolf applied her chemistry knowledge to the problem, she knew she had to understand what the different ingredients in the goodies were supposed to be doing before she could figure out how to replace them.
She started with the sweet stuff— cookies and cakes—which went fairly well, but had to work harder on the bread. Shana had gone through four brands of gluten-free store bought bread before she found one she could tolerate. But Dempewolf did not think that was good enough.
“No one wants to just tolerate their food,” Dempewolf said.
As a former high school teacher, Dempewolf also understood the teenage mind. Dempewolf knew in order to have a prayer of convincing her daughter to stay gluten free through her teenage years, the food would have to taste really good.
FINDING A MARKET
After finding some successful recipes, Dempewolf started taking her product to the Lawrence farmer’s market. (There was no open space in the Topeka farmer’s market.) Immediately, people started asking her about the elimination of other allergen related ingredients. Her products currently are free of dairy, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree-nuts, shellfish, fish and corn. Nearly everything can also be made without eggs or vegan. Dempewolf says those top allergens compose 90 percent of the food allergies in the population. She also threw out artificial flavors, colors, GMOs, Casein and preservatives.
Dempewolf uses a combination of “replacement” ingredients including brown rice flour, millet and sorghum flour, potato, tapioca and arrowroot. She mixes her own blends because people are still allergic to some of those ingredients and the chemical properties of the ingredients produce varying textures. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
“Wheat is an amazing flour and it can do a lot of things. There’s no other grain that can have all the same textures by itself,” Dempewolf said. “When you buy store brands, the blend might work well for cookies but not cupcakes because you need different properties for different textures. By blending them myself, I can control it better.”
Dempewolf also had to find the right ingredients to be a business owner.
“I didn’t intend on being an entrepreneur. I intended on helping people and realized I needed to become an entrepreneur to do that,” Dempewolf said.
In December of 2015, she opened the first “Shana Cake” in Topeka with a menu that includes breads, muffins, cupcakes and other treats. She had to learn how to start a business, work with the city planning department and follow health codes, all in addition to developing her recipes and hiring a staff.
The business challenge has been rapid growth.
“From the day the Topeka store opened, my sales have been higher than projected,” Dempewolf said.
She opened a second location in Lawrence in April of 2017. Sales there outpace Topeka. She works to make sure the quality stays consistent and she also likes interacting with the customers.
“I still need to be in the kitchen baking and making sure the product is good and that my customers are being treated with the best customer service,” Dempewolf said. “I like my customers. I don’t want to be too far removed from the customer in the business side of it.”
FINDING GREAT TASTE
While the primary target market is people avoiding certain ingredients in their baked goods, Shana Cake has many customers who just come in for the taste. Dempewolf’s goal is to make all of her baking so good it is impossible to tell the difference. That’s where her son comes in.
“He is 14 and can eat anything he wants. If he and my husband like it, then it’s good,” Dempewolf said.
The best part about her business is that it meets her original goal of helping people. “People walk into my store and they are in tears because it’s the first time either they can walk into a bakery or bring their kids into a bakery. Literally, it is the only place they can take their kids and say, ‘Pick out anything you want.’ It’s totally safe. It’s humbling and satisfying and it makes all the work worth it.” TK