Eva Roberts opened her bakery Just American Desserts in Spokane Valley in 1986, and it’s safe to say in her 34 years as a small-business owner, 2020 has been one of the most memorable.
Despite the pandemic, business has been strong for the diversified Just American Desserts, for which Roberts is very thankful (“We’ve been very lucky during the pandemic,” she said), and on Dec. 21, she reached the finals of the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship,” in which she finished fourth in a field of 12.
Filming for the competition was outside Los Angeles for nearly one month in July and August. The friendly Roberts, who as part of a military family was born at Fairchild Air Force Base and went to high school in Japan, chatted over the phone Sunday morning after the Christmas week work crunch at Just American Desserts:
Congratulations on reaching the finals of the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship.” How does it feel to have made it so far in the competition?
I was thrilled. When you do something like that, it’s pretty scary when you’re putting yourself out there like that (laughs). It was an absolutely phenomenal experience.
What was your favorite dessert challenge during the competition?
Probably the corn one. Out of my head, I had some ideas. It was something I was very comfortable with making. Choux pastry is one of my favorite things, and I had been experimenting previously with choux pastry, like with coconut. So, when corn came up, I thought, “That will be perfect.”
It’s fabulous – and a feather in Spokane’s cap – that you were one of two women from Spokane to compete in the field of 12.
Isn’t that amazing? It says a lot about our food scene, I think.
What do you think you brought to the table? Why do you think you were selected to compete on “Holiday Baking Championship” among a national field of 12?
I am more seasoned, but remember I’m not professionally trained. I got my start at Patsy Clark Mansion in Browne’s Addition. I started as a weekend pastry chef. I had no experience, and I brought the general manager a homemade chocolate fudge cake wrapped in tin foil.
They were open about a week, and I saw an ad for a weekend pastry chef. We had a baby at home, but my husband was home on weekends, so I applied for the job. They gave me the weekend position. After a couple days, the pastry chef did not work out, so they gave me the program.
I had no experience. My couple years at Patsy Clark were my college years in pastry, my culinary school. I was down in the basement baking. I learned a lot. I love baking from scratch and all the quality ingredients. It has to look good, but it also has to taste good. I’m very traditional with flavors. It was my education in the field.
When we talked at the beginning of the competition in November, you noted how everything viewers saw was real – that were was no Hollywood gloss or sheen. What is the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from competing on “Holiday Baking Championship”?
More self-confidence. Basically, you can call me a home baker who turned it into a profession. It is my passion. I am a small-business owner, and I love what I do. I have an absolute passion for what I do – it is my life.
I went into the competition thinking, “Am I going to be good enough?” “I’ve been doing this a long time, but can I think fast enough on my feet to compete with people who have gone to culinary school?”
I gained a lot of self-confidence from it. It was very grueling, it was very exhausting. Truly, it was really, really hard.
Just American Desserts has been in town for nearly 35 years. Have you always been in the same Spokane Valley location?
We started in 1986, and we were in a strip mall across the street from where we’re at now. It was called U-City North, and we were next to Eggers Meats and Williams Seafood. It was the three of us when I started as a specialty bakery, and Eggers is still there. Then in 2000, we built our own complex on University, and we have two tenants, as well.
What do you remember from your first day or first year of business?
People would come in and say, “Oh, do you think you’ll make it?” It was an all-new concept, and we were very, very young. And the products are expensive when you’re cooking with real butter and cream cheese and using old-fashioned techniques. It’s very labor intensive with expensive ingredients.
It was a whole new concept back then … but Spokane really received us, and I’m very thankful to Spokane. I was very young, and I would respond, “Of course, I’m going to make it. What do you mean?” It’s been a journey (laughs).
Another thing, and this is funny, but I remember salesmen coming in, and I would be in the front end in my apron and bonnet, and they would ask, “The owner, is he in?” It never bothered me. I would respond, “That’s me. I’m the owner.”
Running a small business, I think one of the reasons people fail is because you have to wear many hats. I’m good at my craft, but can you manage the HR, the accounting, the advertising and marketing? It’s just so difficult to do it all, and it is a balancing act.
How has your business been during the pandemic?
Actually, we’ve done really well. The key sometimes to a small business is to make sure you’re diversified. I do a lot of big caters, hotels, restaurants, Sodexo at Gonzaga, the Spokane Club, large banquets and weddings. I have my regular retail. And I also sell to a couple high-end grocery stores like Huckleberries and My Fresh Basket. I’m in Eggers, as well.
I don’t have all my eggs in one basket. I’m not strictly weddings. I’m not strictly retail. I do a lot of different things. All my wholesale died … but my retail at Huckleberries and My Fresh Basket has quadrupled. People are staying home, so they’re going to the grocery store and buying desserts and ordering. Retail has really gone crazy.
Thank you, God, all my employees are back, and we’re chugging right along. And the show hasn’t hurt, either, in terms of visibility.
What else has been challenging, or been the biggest challenge, pandemic aside, about owning and operating Just American Desserts?
Finding a balancing act. Early on, I had a hard time letting go of production. I thought I was the only one who could do it right – I’m very perfectionistic. Slowly, as you grow, you learn that there are people who can do it just as good as you and even better than you. You have to learn to delegate, and that was hard for me at first. But you can’t keep working 15 to 16 hours a day.
I am very lucky that I have key people who have been with me for over 30 years … 33 or 34 years. I have my righthand man. My key baker has been with me for over 34 years. She works graveyards and is consistent. My products are still consistent and identical after all these years. I’m very lucky with a seasoned crew who supports me. They’re my family.
What has been the best part of owning and operating Just American Desserts?
I like being the final decisionmaker and moving the business in the direction I want it to move. I own the business, but I listen to my co-workers. I listen to my customers. I like the freedom. Even though it’s more work, I go home with it day and night always thinking about it … I like working as a team. I like the teamwork and making the ultimate decision.
What are your most popular items at Just American Desserts?
Probably our tuxedo cake is No. 1. I had a groom come in a couple years ago. He and his bride live up in Alaska. They were getting married here, and she had never had Just American Desserts.
He told me, “We’re having a tuxedo cake for our wedding because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a tuxedo cake for my birthday. It’s my family tradition, so I have to have a tuxedo cake as my wedding cake.”
I’m doing generations, and I love that! When you’re a part of the celebration, and it’s a family tradition, that is the best. I love it – that’s why I do this.
What has been the biggest change in the culinary and dessert industry for you?
The Food Network and Pinterest. It has been great because the Food Network has elevated the food industry and our careers into something that is respectable and gives us credit. With Pinterest, there is a lot more out there that is really beautiful and to see. Years ago, it was the Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, and now there is so much out there.
When we first spoke in early November, you said that you enjoy baking pies and making Christmas wreaths and yule logs and that coconut cream pie is your favorite dessert to eat. Which dessert do you find the most difficult to make?
The yule log with the little meringue mushrooms is the most labor intensive. I make my sponge cake totally, totally the old-fashioned way. Nobody makes it like that, I’m sure, where you warm up the eggs and whip them. Then you make the homemade custard and the homemade butter cream, then the meringue mushrooms. I don’t think anything’s difficult, but it’s labor intensive.
What advice would you give to a pastry chef who wants to open their own dessert business in Spokane?
If you open up a small business, a) you have to be doing something nobody is doing or b) you have to be doing something someone else is doing and do it a lot better. You have to have an angle that is special.
Research. The food industry is not easy – it is a very difficult field to be in. And it has to be a passion – a sick, deranged passion (laughs). The food industry is passion, and I absolutely love it. I love working with a team with the same vision, and Spokane has been very good to me.
What are you looking forward to most in the new year?
Seeing all the restaurants get back on their feet. Hopefully this pandemic will go by the wayside with all the vaccinations. I’m worried about my friends in the industry, very, very worried, and I pray that we all move forward and the new year brings stability.
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