Kara and Denise Steely already had a business plan cooking, but after graduating from Kalamazoo’s food-focused incubator, the Can-Do Kitchen
in the spring of 2017, that plan has transformed into a full-fledged job for both of them, and the mother-daughter duo is now busy serving up treats to Southwest Michigan and beyond.
With products that include the Karacomet (the duo’s signature energy cookie), the Funky Monkey breakfast cookie, granola mixes such as MidNight Crunch, and more, Denise and Kara’s 100 percent gluten-free goods are being sold online, at farmers markets, and are available at a half-dozen health food stores in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek as well as Bronson Hospital Cafes.
Future plans for the Steelys call for expanding their product line and their reach, getting their tasty treats into stores in Grand Rapids and throughout Northern Michigan.
Better known to many as the Dough Chicks
, Kara and Denise have been baking together for a lifetime. And while they got their start together at home in the small, northern lower peninsula town of Petoskey, it was 10 years ago when they launched their LLC in Wisconsin after participating in in a smaller-scale incubator in the Green Bay area.
Kara, now 34, had been attending culinary arts school in Appleton, Wisc., but due to multiple learning disabilities was unable to finish and had to pull out after one-and-a-half years of study. The young Steely had learned all the techniques she needed to pursue her dream, however, and her mother decided to shift gears in her own career, switching to part-time so that she could help her daughter see that dream become reality.
“Life throws you curves, and I never thought that I would do this, but since this was a passion of my daughter’s I wanted to help her see it through, and it just has gradually become more of her life,” Denise says.
Kara’s life and Denise’s too.
Neighbors in Wisconsin began asking them to bake bread for them, and after Kara received a young entrepreneur scholarship to an incubator kitchen in Algoma Farm, things began to take off. In a year’s time they were busy baking 100 loaves of bread a week for an area restaurant and also selling cookies, brownies, and biscotti to area schools and hungry neighbors.
The family relocated to Kalamazoo when Denise's husband took a job there. When they got to Kalamazoo they found a greater demand for their healthier products than they had in their previous market.
“When we got here (in 2008), we started right up doing what we had been doing in Wisconsin, but it didn’t seem to be going nearly as fast here as it did there,” Denise says. “We started doing some research and really listening to people, many of whom thought we were already doing health foods. So we decided to do more nutrient-dense things, and focus on the energy bar idea that we had already been playing with in Wisconsin.”
When they made the connection with the Can-Do Kitchen a couple years ago and went on to complete its program they were able to take their goods beyond the South Haven Farmers Market, where they had focused their expansion efforts, and really begin to grow.
“They were really good at teaching us how to go forward with our business and advertise and really focus on healthy foods,” says Kara.
The Steelys immersed themselves in classes covering topics from labeling and packaging to food photography, financial management, pricing, marketing, social media, and website creation to market research. They learned about legal issues and how to grow a business form the cottage to the commercial stage.
Now that they are through the program, Denise is a full-time Dough Chick and helping her daughter set up what she hopes will be a lifelong career.
“I think the real aspiration or dream for me is that this can become something for her as long as she lives,” Denise says. “As a mom, I won’t always be around, and I want her to do this on her own and I want it to supply her with enough income to get by.”
A big boon has been that Kara’s personality has begun to shine as she has come into her own and evolved from someone who was, according to her mother, very shy and awkward socially to someone who has begun to go to farmers markets and sampling events on her own and become comfortable doing so.
“Kara has really grown a lot since they became members of the kitchen,” says Can-Do executive director Lucy Dilley. “I’ve seen her get a lot more independent and confident in what she is doing. The whole business started because of her recipe ideas and I just think it is great that Denise was able to feed that and recognize how important it was for Kara to have something meaningful in her life. All of us want something meaningful in our lives and that can be a little bit harder for someone on the spectrum who doesn’t have a lot of support like Kara does.”
That support has also translated to continuing education with the incubator and the ability to use the kitchen on a regular basis.
The Dough Chicks are among a dozen Can-Do Kitchen members that routinely use the 2,500-square-foot kitchen. Incubator members pay for kitchen rental by the hour and get a lower rate than a one-time kitchen renter. Graduates pay close to market rate to use the kitchen. And while some incubator members only use the kitchen once or twice a month, as graduates, the Steelys lease it out approximately 40 hours a month. That gives them the needed space to experiment with new ideas and bake and package their current product line.
“When we first started the program, we thought we would build a commercial kitchen, but we decided we just didn’t want to go into that kind of debt and the Can-Do Kitchen made it affordable to play around and to see what worked and what didn’t,” Denise says.
Kara, once too shy to talk to customers on her own, is now helping with some of the incubator workshops, teaching others some of the lessons she’s learned along the way.
“It’s definitely helped me to speak in front of a lot of people and has gotten me out of my shell,” she says. “I was very, very shy and didn’t like to talk. I would let my mom talk when we did markets. Being by myself has really pushed me to interact with customers, which has been gradual. We’ve been doing it for 10 years and in the last two years I’ve gotten a lot better at talking.”
Ryan Boldrey is a freelance journalist and editor living in Kalamazoo. A Michigan native, he returned to his home state in 2016 after spending the better part of a decade working as a writer and editor in Colorado. He spends much of his time traveling to see live music and is an avid Michigan State and Detroit sports fan.