Front and Center: Just American Desserts
Eva Roberts banks on niche products, loyal market
When Eva Roberts applied for her first baking job, she had no formal training and no references. Her résumé consisted of a homemade chocolate cake wrapped in foil.
She got the job.
A week later she was promoted to head pastry chef, and four years later opened her own business, Just American Desserts.
Today, Roberts’ desserts are served in area restaurants and sold at Huckleberry’s Natural Market, and she makes custom wedding cakes for clients whose parents bought their own wedding cake from her.
Her main store and production facility is at 213 S. University Road in a retail complex she built 14 years ago. Roberts also has a satellite shop on North Division Street, and a display case at Egger’s Better Meats on South Perry Street.
During a recent interview, she discussed the difference between reality-TV baking shows and reality, and what ingredients are needed for success in the boutique dessert business.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Roberts: My dad was career military, so we traveled all around the world, and were exposed to different cultures and foods. I graduated from high school in Japan before we moved here.
S-R: When did you discover baking?
Roberts: I’ve had a passion for it since I was very young. I remember in grade school going through the 1950 Betty Crocker cookbook and making everything.
S-R: What were your favorite recipes?
Roberts: I gravitated toward desserts, because they’re more exacting. I remember making cream puffs when I was 10, and not understanding how much the choux pastry blew up. The recipe was supposed to make a dozen cream puffs. I put down three globs, and they came out the size of bowling balls.
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Roberts: After high school, we moved back to the states and I attended Eastern (Washington University) for a couple years. I was good in the sciences and thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. Instead, I got married and started a family.
S-R: What got you into the food industry?
Roberts: When Patsy Clark’s Restaurant opened (in 1982), it advertised for a weekend pastry chef. I had a baby at home and no formal training in the pastry field at all – zero. But I told my husband it was just two days a week, and he said fine. So I made a chocolate fudge cake from scratch, took it to my interview with the general manager, and got the job. The next week they decided their regular pastry chef wasn’t working out, so they gave me the whole program. That was my college education in the food industry.
S-R: How long were you there?
Roberts: Two years. When the general manager left to open the Coeur d’Alene Resort, I thought, “This is fun. I’ll start my own business. How hard can it be?”
S-R: How long did it take to open your own bakery?
Roberts: Almost two years. I look back now and think, “Oh, my god.” We started with a $20,000 business loan, and when we opened, we had $300 left in the checking account.
S-R: Who’s “we”?
Roberts: Originally it was my mother, my sister and me together. My sister left the business eight years ago, and my mother is semi-retired.
S-R: What would it cost to start a business like yours today?
Roberts: At least $300,000.
S-R: How did you choose your company name?
Roberts: We wanted to be called Just Desserts, but that was already taken. So we registered as Just American Desserts, because all our desserts were made from scratch with lots of dairy and real butter, and very heavy – not European style.
S-R: Any particular lessons you learned early on?
Roberts: Most people don’t realize that small-business owners have to wear a lot of hats. That’s why so many fail, especially in the first five years. I’d be happy sitting at the decorating table 12 hours a day, but that’s not where my time is best spent. I also have to think about marketing, bookkeeping, and a lot of other issues. Success is about more than just producing great cakes.
S-R: How has Just American Desserts evolved?
Roberts: I’m in the business of selling memories, not just cakes. So I have to offer my traditional items, but also keep up with trends. On the other hand, Spokane is about five years behind a lot of trends, so if I introduce something too soon, it may just sit on the shelf. I remember the craze with the maple bacon bars, and peppers and chocolate. But people still want the basics – they want their tuxedo cake and sour cream white cake.
S-R: Is demand seasonal?
Roberts: Yes, we have our busy wedding season in summer, and the holidays. But I have employees who have been with me 25 years, and to keep good workers, I need to give them regular 40-hour work weeks. So in between our busy seasons we do things for hotels and restaurants to stay on an even keel.
S-R: Are there any business decisions you regret?
Roberts: Not really. Every risk I take, I calculate whether it would bankrupt us if it were to fail, and I won’t do anything that jeopardizes the business.
S-R: Do you get unusual requests?
Roberts: We get calls for bachelorette parties, but I don’t do graphic cakes. We’ve done birthday cakes for dogs and cats and a horse, but those cakes are for the owners, not their pets.
S-R: Have cooking shows changed people’s perception of your business?
Roberts: Most definitely. They’ve given credence to the industry, but also glamorized it. Making a dozen cookies is fun, but when you’re making 1,000, it loses its mystique real fast.
S-R: Do customers sometimes ask for something exotic they’ve seen on a show like Ace of Cakes?
Roberts: Yes, and we can do that. But it may end up costing $20 a serving.
S-R: What distinguished Just American Desserts from what we get at grocery stores?
Roberts: Everything we make is truly from scratch. I buy my chocolate by the truckload directly from Guittard out of California. I’m not knocking anyone – there’s a place for everything. And I wouldn’t buy one of my cakes for my child’s preschool class. But we’re a whole different thing.
S-R: Any misconceptions about the business?
Roberts: People say, “Oh, you own a bakery. That must be so much fun.” Or they say, “I’ve always wanted to work in a bakery.” So I hire them, and it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, my feet are killing me, and I’ve got to lift this and move that.”
S-R: What’s your typical schedule?
Roberts: Twenty-five years ago, I’d start at 4 or 5 in the morning and leave at 6 o’clock at night. Now it depends on the day. The beginning of the week is mostly bookwork. But when we get to wedding season, I may start on Friday morning at 5 and go 20 hours straight, because I do all the finishing touches, and I can’t do that a week ahead.
S-R: Is there anything you’d like to offer, but don’t?
Roberts: I wouldn’t mind getting into puff pastries, but it’s just not feasible for the way my bakery is designed.
S-R: What’s the outlook for this type of bakery?
Roberts: It’s good. We’re a unique business, and Spokane is a loyal market.
S-R: Do you have a favorite dessert?
Roberts: I love coconut – coconut cream pie, coconut cake.
S-R: You look so healthy. Why don’t you weigh 400 pounds?
Roberts: (laughs) It’s very, very hard. We’re around temptation all the time. Chocolate-chip cookies come out of the oven right as you’re taking a coffee break. If you’re trimming cakes, scraps pile up. Or something comes out of the oven broken, and we can’t sell it. Or we try a new recipe. Everyone who works here has a passion for food, so it’s not easy to be around it all the time.
S-R: You have our sympathy.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.