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Great Startup Bakeoff offers students a chance to flaunt their baking, entrepreneurial skills; plus the public gets a tasty benefit

The Great Startup Bakeoff takes place this weekend, ending with a bake sale at noon to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Central Library.   (Getty Images)

The owner of Sweetbox Delivery and River City Kitchen believes it is essential to educate and “nurture” the younger generation that is entering the food industry. Clay Cerna’s work as a Sparks Weekend organizer – an entrepreneurial competition – sparked an idea: an entrepreneurial baking competition for teens.

The purpose of the Great Startup Bakeoff is “to give students a slice of life of what it’s like to run a kitchen, manage a kitchen or start a kitchen,” Cerna said. “If somebody participates in this event and decides that they want to start a business, that’s a big win.”

Fifty teens, ages 14-18, forming 10 teams will participate in the bakeoff Friday through Sunday. Each team will have a leader and four members.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing what the young chefs and bakers want to bake,” Cerna said. “I’m also interested in seeing how they market.

“There are a lot of similarities between this event and Sparks weekend. It is a great event because it kind of demystified the challenges of starting a business. I guess that’s kind of what I want to accomplish with the great start-up bake off. It’s all about building towards a better future for our food industry.”

After three years of brainstorming with his fellow organizers, Cerna has crafted his vision of the bakeoff to perfection. His experience as an entrepreneur inspired him to teach young people about the basics of entrepreneurship. He takes on many roles within his two businesses.

“Typically, I introduce myself as the owner, the GM, the HR director, the janitor and delivery driver,” Cerna said.

There are a handful of options each team leader can choose between regarding what their team will be baking. These items consist of some version of bread, buns, rolls, cookies, biscuits, scones, muffins, cinnamon rolls and sweet breads. Each team is required to use five or less ingredients in their dish, not including seasonings.

“Instead of everybody baking the same item, everybody has a choice of what they think will sell best, getting away from the more traditional baking competitions where everybody bakes the same thing,” Cerna said. “We’re definitely going to be taking feedback from the participants.”

Pre-registered participants will meet Friday to form their teams at River City Kitchen. The team leaders will have 60 seconds to pitch what they plan to bake. Based on what the rest of the participants want to bake, they choose which leader they want to join to form a team.

The following day, each team has two hours to prepare, bake and package their food. The goal is to make as much of their item as they can without going over the $100 budget. If a team does not spend the entire $100 on ingredients, they can use the remaining money to purchase advertisements.

On Sunday, the Central Public Library is host to the bakeoff and will act as a farmer’s market-style venue from noon to 3 p.m.. Each team has its own booth and will have those three hours to sell as much product to the public as they can. Sales totals are tallied and winner is announced at 4 p.m.

The winning team is the one that makes the most profit. The goal of pricing is to teach the participants how to calculate cost of goods sold (COGS) and use that to plan their preparation.

“That is the concept that is the core of every business, whether you own it or not,” Cerna said. “The prices are set by the students and the winner is based on profit, not revenue, and that’s just like real life.

“That’s kind of the goal; we wanted to put together an event that gives people a real taste of what it’s like. Everybody’s wallet is the determining factor for every food business out there, and that’s what we’re about. One dollar is one vote.”

After all the products are sold, regardless of who wins, all of the participants keep the money they earned.

Though Cerna is the head organizer of the event, he has several co-organizers who helped him bring this dream to fruition. Two of these organizers are local high school culinary teachers. There are over 1,000 students in Spokane Public Schools enrolled in the culinary program and the teachers, given their experience with teens in the kitchen, helped Cerna figure out what would be the best format for the bakeoff.

Katie Jackson is a teacher at Ferris High School and an organizer of the Great Startup Bakeoff. She teaches food and nutrition and culinary hospitality classes. She is also the school’s ProStart teacher.

“ProStart is a hospitality-recognized program that gets kids involved in work-based jobs,” Jackson said. “For ProStart competition, you make a three-course, fine dining meal in one hour on only two camping stove burners.

“The kids are really talented. They do some really amazing work. They are making meals that are so nice that you can’t even get them in Spokane.”

Some of Jackson’s students are participating in the inaugural Great Startup Bakeoff and they are all in ProStart. She helped Cerna’s goal of hosting a teen bakeoff come to life by offering her perspective as a high school culinary instructor.

“Katie opened up my eyes to how many kids are in culinary,” Cerna said. “It is so helpful to have people who work with kids all the time to give some pretty vital feedback on what’s going to make this event work.”

Jackson teaches 150 culinary students and is excited that they have an opportunity to show off their skills they developed throughout the school year.

“As a teacher, I just love having opportunities for my students to be able to compete and show off their skills that they work on throughout the year,” Jackson said. “I love having a way to kind of have a say in how the kids can show off their skills. It’s been really fun as a teacher to tailor it as a challenge for my students and offer them a hands-on learning experience.”

Cerna has also had extensive help from Mt. Spokane High School’s culinary instructor, Maureen Collins. Collins and Jackson are both the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) advisers at their schools.

They both met Cerna at a Washington FCCLA state competition. Cerna volunteered his business space as a place for students to bake their food for the competition and asked Collins and Jackson to help him figure out the logistics of creating a successful bakeoff for teenagers.

Jackson and Collins have both been crucial components of the forming of the Great Startup Bakeoff. Combined, they teach about a dozen students who are participating in the inaugural bakeoff.

“This event involves everything we teach our culinary students,” Collins said. “Our classes don’t just teach how to cook, but we really focus on a lot of the soft skills that are needed in all industries. We’re problem-solvers and this event is a great example of that with the limited ingredients available.”

Both Collins and Jackson had nothing but positive things to say about the event and are extremely appreciative of Cerna’s willingness to help guide the upcoming generation.

“It’s an entrepreneurial experience which I think is extremely important in our world today,” Collins said. “It gives students an opportunity to branch out of their comfort zone.”

Jackson applauded Cerna’s efforts to put together the bakeoff.

“Clay has put so much time and dedication into this, and I know he’s really passionate about it,” Jackson said. “It’s great to see community members who are as passionate and dedicated as him.”

Cerna plans to make the teen bakeoff an annual tradition, as well as incorporating a bake-off during the holiday season with no age requirements.

Liam Bradford's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.