The scenic route to success
From the innocent age of 15, Katy Nelson knew she was different. Sure, the Iowa native had big dreams like anyone else. She wanted to run her own business, be strong and independent, and make her parents proud. Only Nelson didn’t speak about her dreams out loud. Maybe it would cheapen lofty goals if the words rang out for anyone else to hear. Perhaps people around her would chalk it up to youthful naiveté. “You don’t have a clue what it takes,” they might say in a dismissive tone. So silence became her ally. Rather, she’d devote herself to putting in the hours and the training and laying the groundwork for a successful career in baking and pastry. She’d keep her mouth shut and let her results do the talking.
For any veteran bakery owner who worries the millennial generation doesn’t have the right stuff to make it in this business, which requires grueling hours and relentless dedication, one only need to look at the example set by Katy Nelson and rest easy. “I don’t know how people work just 40 hours a week,” says Nelson, the 27-year-old owner of Scenic Route Bakery in Des Moines, Iowa. “What do they do with all that extra time?”
In the 12 years since winning the Iowa Egg Council cooking contest at age 15 (a pivotal event that pushed her toward a culinary career), Nelson polished off two culinary degrees (including the heralded French Pastry School in Chicago), studied pastry in northern France, worked as a Marriott pastry chef in Chicago, and managed kitchen operations for a four-store bakery café in Seattle.
Then two years ago Nelson decided it was time to come home to open a bakery. Her mother, Stephanie, had just retired from a successful career as a doctor of obstetrics. Her father, Mark, an entrepreneur in facilities management, was ready and willing to provide whatever necessary for his daughter. “He’s my business partner,” Katy Nelson says. “I’m the primary owner. I’m very blessed. None of this would be possible without my family.”
And yet as anyone who grows up in a family business understands, it is ultimately up to the child to be or not be a success. “Even in high school, I had two jobs and a paper route,” Nelson says with a grin. “I have a lot of energy.”
Planning for opening day
When the lights flipped on at Scenic Route Bakery for its grand opening on Dec. 29, 2014, the young owner reflected on the countless hours of labor and preparation necessary to make it happen. She had found a 3,200-quare-foot space for lease in the historic East Village section of downtown Des Moines, where 80,000 people come to work every day. The space had been empty and needed renovation. She wanted an attractive pastry case that would fit up to 30 items (laminated doughs are her specialty) and plenty of seating for customers to relax and enjoy their sweet and savory pastries.
They upgraded the HVAC and installed baseboard heaters to ensure a cozy environment during the cold Iowa winters. All lights are on dimmer switches so the bakery cafe can host special events at night. As for the décor, she calls it “rustic minimalism.” Wooden chairs, black and white photos in wooden frames on the wall, old lanterns and farm antiques serve as reminders of home on the farm. “This is all me,” Nelson says, admitting that many of the pieces she collected since high school. “This is all my stuff. My apartment is empty now.”
As an attractive bonus, the style and pace of Scenic Route Bakery fits perfectly into the downtown scene. According to the Downtown Community Alliance of Des Moines, East Village offers an eclectic blend of historic buildings, hip eateries, boutiques, and a wide variety of other retail establishments. Located on the east side of the Des Moines River, the East Village district begins at the river and extends about five blocks east to the State Capitol Building. The northern edge of the neighborhood is Des Moines Street, and the southern border is Court Avenue. Here there are new apartments and several loft-style housing projects springing up, as East Village has taken on a comfortable neighborhood feel. On any given day, you may spot doctors, executives, lawyers, legislators and other professionals dining and shopping alongside avant-garde artistic types and other colorful characters.
Leading by example
“I believe in putting my staff first. When you put your staff first, you have very little turnover and a happy staff,” Nelson says when asked to describe her management style. “Everything flows down from there.”
As much as pastry was her calling from an early age, she has been equally drawn to lessons in leadership. As she moved around the country in various jobs, Nelson picked up lessons from mentors and bosses along the way, always trying to learn how best to manage. Her first boss taught her the importance of the “work hard, play hard” philosophy. Working in the heat of a kitchen means it’s important to hydrate, so Nelson will lead the staff in water chugging contests on occasion, while they dance around to music ranging from hard rock to pop to opera. Nelson enjoys opera as she bakes “because it’s so good for the brain.
“I love the environment we are creating here,” she says. “I set my expectations high. I am not an easy boss. But as much you guide and critique, you should praise and thank. I don’t employ one person who doesn’t care. And if you can’t inspire the people around you, you shouldn’t be leading them.”
The product line
When Nelson talks about the inspirations for her bakery café menu, she likes to joke about the cupcake craze and how it influenced the direction she would take. Remember, she is a classically trained pastry chef, after all.
“A lot of our product line stems from me being disgruntled about people asking me, ‘Are you going to make cupcakes?’ No, I answer: ‘I make amazing French bread, laminated doughs and fantastic cheesecakes.’”
She decided to devote her energies to making laminated dough and puff pastry in house, ensuring that Scenic Route Bakery would not be just another ordinary stop along the road. Butter is her favorite ingredient for making laminated doughs, and honey is another particular love. The sticky buns at Scenic Route Bakery are baked in sugar and honey. “Honey is my favorite food ever. It’s so interesting because there are so many different flavors. It’s the coolest food on earth.”
One of her favorite products to make is monkey bread, which is laminated dough chopped up in pieces and topped in sugar and tossed in the oven. “We also make all our bread in house for sandwiches, using a 60-quart Hobart mixer. We make white, wheat, rye, challah, baguettes and flatbreads.”
The top-selling item on the menu is their Pinwheels, and other favorites among the locals are chocolate croissants and scones. To keep it simple, they make three flavors of scones: cranberry, blueberry and almond. “Ours are scoop and drop. The less you touch the dough, the better.”
Where she pushes the creative envelope happens on the savory side of the menu, where she offers everything from a goat cheese and anchovy croissant to crust-less quiche. The cafe serves open-faced sandwiches regularly; one recent example is arugula, avocado, fried egg topped with Harissa béchamel (a classic white sauce made from butter, flour and milk) on toasted rye bread. “Put an egg on top of anything and people here love it,” she says. “Early mornings, people want savory things to eat.”
“I like comfort food,” she adds with a smile. “It’s what makes us very genuine.”