As owner of Wired Whisk Bakehouse in Sarasota, Fla., Christine Nordstrom is providing fresh, scratch-made cupcakes, cookies and cakes for both residents and tourists. By listening to customers and drawing on her own skills, she has found the perfect product mix.
As owner of Wired Whisk Bakehouse in Sarasota, Fla., Christine Nordstrom is providing fresh, scratch-made cupcakes, cookies, cakes and pastries for both residents and tourists. By listening to customers and drawing on her own skills, she has found the perfect product mix.
How did you get your start in baking?
The first thing that comes to mind is Christmas in Ohio on my grandparent's farm. Our kitchen at home was too small, so every year we went to Grandma's to bake. I followed my mother in the grocery store with her massive list of ingredients needed to make everything from cookies and fudge to rugalach and cathedral windows. We mixed, baked and decorated for two days, then packed everything neatly into tins and passed out our treasures to friends and family as gifts for the holidays.
When I was in the tenth grade, I remember sitting in a guidance counselor's office trying to answer the “what I wanted to do” question. I had no clue. My parents were always involved in foodservice, so I visited the Wayne County Schools Career Center on career day. In the culinary arts class, everyone got to decorate a cookie, and the winner was awarded a cake to decorate. I won and officially decorated my first cake. During the next two years, I went through the paces of the two-year vo-tech program where I had the opportunity to run the bakery. Everyday we sold baked products to teachers, students and staff as well as in our student-run restaurant.
During this time I had the life changing opportunity to compete in the FHA/HERO Baking and Pastry Arts competition. The first year I won, and the following year I came in second. The prizes were scholarships to culinary arts schools, so I chose Johnson & Wales University (J&W) in Providence, R.I.
What training/education have you received?
I pursued the culinary program rather than the baking and pastry program at J&W. I thought I already knew how to bake and decorate, so I wanted to explore other areas of the kitchen. My four-year journey at J&W led me to Asheville, N.C., back to Providence, then to Saratoga, Calif. I have worked in many professional kitchens, and on every occasion, once the chef learned that I knew how to bake and decorate, I would get reassigned to the sweet kitchen.
In the sweet kitchen, I was an absolute sponge. I asked questions, took notes and watched everything. I have learned more from the pastry chefs I worked under than any program could have taught me. I learned the importance of blending creativity, innovation and drive. There is no substitute for observing the creative process in action, to see an idea go from a test batch to a menu item. I try to surround myself with creative, innovative and driven people because, regardless of their training or experience, I can always learn something from this type of person.
Who are your mentors?
I have been very fortunate to have so many great people influence my life and career. My first mentor was my culinary instructor in high school, Mr. Bercaw. He pushed me, and I mean pushed me like I had never been pushed before. Mr. Bercaw was hard on me, as all of my mentors have been.
Also, Chef John Caputo of Bin 41 in Chicago and Adrian Vasquez of Providence in Los Angeles have both been very important to me. I was lucky to have worked under them as part of the opening team for the Napa Valley Grille in Providence, R.I. I started in the depths of the prep kitchen. Adrian was the pastry chef, and my prep table was near his. Adrian affected me. He was infectious. I wanted to be just like him, his laugh, his sarcasm and his insane drive and creativity.
Chef John pushed me, though I think he appreciated my hard work and diligence. In this kitchen full of men, I learned many lessons that continue to serve me today-thick skin, endless drive and the importance of finding my own niche. I experienced great personal growth in my two years with Chef John and accepted the pastry chef position at the Napa Valley Grille when Adrian left. This was my first pastry chef position and I had big shoes to fill, but Chef John helped me every step of the way.
Today, my mentor is not a culinary genius. My business partner, Michael Duranko, saw my ambition and believed in my potential. We met three years ago and I have grown immensely both professionally and personally. Michael puts me outside my comfort zone and challenges me, but also praises my accomplishments. I have grown from a simple baker to a known pastry chef, business owner and entrepreneur. And I have yet to see him pick up a whisk!
When/how did you decide to open your own bakery?
In March 2007, I knew it was my time. Sarasota is a unique town with an affluent mix of professionals and retirees steeped in the arts. The population swells each winter with Northerners, most with high expectations when it comes to baked products. Sarasota was in dire need of an honest, made-from-scratch bakery. I believed that people would welcome, appreciate and value a modern bakery with traditional values. I could see the market shifting towards high quality, identifiable foods. Although Sarasota has an activeand vocal population devoted to healthy living, everybody needs a good cake now and then! The Wired Whisk Bakehouse opened for business on March 10, 2007.
What challenges did you face opening Wired Whisk Bakehouse?
Staffing, and the challenge continues! I struggle with control issues, and find it hard to be satisfied with the work of others. I have a few 2009 resolutions in this area.
We moved into an existing bakery tucked in a little plaza. We are on a busy road, but it is hard to get people's attention and stand out from the roadside clutter. We continue to struggle with exposure and visibility. Letting people know who we are and what we do has been an enormous challenge.
We have been very clever and creative in promoting the Wired Whisk Bakehouse. When we started, we accepted almost every opportunity to offer our baked products, from charity events where we worked through the night for very demanding planners to brownie competitions at outdoor festivals (in the rain). Each event has helped establish the Wired Whisk Bakehouse prominently in the community.
Also, I made sure I was well-versed on the Florida Food Code when we shopped for a bakery. This eliminated many roadblocks and helped us open quickly. It wasn't only the existing space, but I envisioned the changes we could make as we grew. Most importantly, we tried to keep our options open.
How did you decide on your product line and what adjustments have you had to make?
Our product line has evolved from day one for a very simple reason, we listen to our customers. We have wholesale, retail and gift lines that we run out of the bakehouse. I constantly evaluate and adjust the product lines for all three aspects of the business based on what is selling and customer feedback.
We make everything fresh from scratch daily. Many of our customers are trained to the point where they expect nothing but the freshest and best product in town. The Bakehouse added an extensive cupcake line, the most dramatic adjustment we have made so far. Once we launched cupcakes last year, things really took off, and we now have two other cupcake shops in town.
Where do you hope to be professionally in five years?
I would love to be the Rachael Ray of baking! Delicious baked products made easy. I intend to grow the Wired Whisk Bakehouse into a nationally known brand producing creative and wholesome products shipped nationwide, and possibly a few more Wired Whisk locations on the map. I always have ideas swirling and know that I have to be ready when opportunity knocks on the bakehouse door.
How has the current economic situation affected you, if at all?
The current economic situation has been difficult in some ways, but also has created opportunities for the Wired Whisk Bakehouse. People want quality in what they purchase, and cupcakes, cookies, etc., will always be an affordable luxury, especially when other luxuries must be eliminated. So, we have stepped up our game and focused on quality. I have made the conscious decision to work more in the business, rather than on the business. Also, our gift line has dipped, especially this holiday season where many of our wholesale accounts made drastic cutbacks. We have been investing in our retail line for the past two years, as well as shifting to higher margin products.
If you couldn't be a baker, what would you be?
This is a tough one since I don't ever see myself doing anything else. Just being a mom would have to top the list. Working as much as I do, I miss out on many of the little things in life. It's a nice thought, but I know would be diving headlong into something else!
What is your favorite meal?
I am always on the go, so my favorite meal would be any meal that I share with my family. It is a grounding experience at the end of a long, arduous day to sit down with my husband and two little ones and share our adventures. Food-wise, I am a simple girl. I like fish dishes. Amberjack is my favorite fish and I love well done Swedish home cooking.