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Jamie Powers is the owner and executive pastry chef of Deluxe Cakes and Pastries, a beloved bakery in Iowa City that has been a staple of the community since 2003.
I talk to Jamie about how she got her start in the restaurant industry, the glorious struggle of being an early morning pastry chef and some of the surprising challenges that came along with starting a bakery. Jamie also shares her thoughts on balancing her business with being a mother, how she recruits and keeps incredible staff, and how bringing on a key employee allowed her the opportunity to make her business even better.
I learned a lot and I think you will too.
NK: Let’s start by just talking a bit about baking. How did you end up in that profession?
JP: I was working at a restaurant back in the late ’90s, and they needed a Garmache and dessert chef. I jumped in the back and worked for about two years. I knew I never wanted to leave.
You started professionally in more of a corporate environment, though. What drew you to this career change?
I did PR for Boeing and other things, and I would go down to 900 North Michigan in these Converse. I had shoes under my desk that I always was supposed to change into. I mean, metaphorically, I never changed them. I always stayed in my Converse, went to meetings, did all that, and I never could really quite put that full costume on.
I would work on the weekends and sometimes at night for this restaurant, I absolutely loved it. It paid me basically two cents an hour, and I figured out that I could pay my rent by just working there 40 hours a week. So, I left the corporate world and joined.
What did you particularly enjoy about working in the line back in the kitchen?
It was everything combined. All circuits are fired. The second you walk in, there is a rainbow of characters, people, very hard workers. Then, mentally, you have to be on your game all the time. I would start about two o’clock. I would get done at about 11. I couldn’t wait to get to work and I never wanted to leave. Every day was something totally new, and if you become self-aware and you practice being in the moment, there’s nothing like working in the culinary world.
Was there always this little seedling in the back of your mind about wanting to open your own place?
Never. Not when I was growing up. Not when I was working in that kitchen. Never did I think that I could, that I would or that I should. It was what I enjoyed doing in that moment and I was good at it, so I never wanted to leave. I was not good at other things. I was very good at this.
When did that seed of potentially starting your own business start to sprout?
Well, I first started at Wolfgang Puck on their Garmache dessert line. Then I also would work at night, if they needed somebody. I’d wait tables or work bar; I would do both. I worked all the time. Then I worked with this awesome guy named Richie, and he said, “You should apply at the Brown Palace Hotel. It’s a five-star hotel. They need somebody in the bakery.” I applied.
Everybody at that point that I had worked with had been to culinary school and I had not, and it was a whole different game. It was catering, it was weddings, it was high tea. It was everything you can think of in a five-star hotel. I started doing all of their high tea pastries. I’d get there at three in the morning and I would work. I actually thought I would be in a hotel or a restaurant all my life at that point.
That three in the morning thing. We have to talk a bit about that. Was that a big life change?
Of course. I would, like a robot, get on my bike at 2:30 a.m. We lived near downtown. I would park my bike at the Brown, go down in the basement and start my work with these crazy overnight bakers. If you’ve ever met true overnight bakers, they’re a whole different spectrum. It’s a whole different world.
I just remember getting on my bike in the dark every day and then going down in a basement, working, and then coming out from the basement, it being sunny out, and I’d get back on my bike and say that I had the full day ahead of me. All the pastry that you get from a true pastry shop: There is a beautiful human that’s coming in between two and four in the morning producing this food every day for you. It’s really cool and I appreciate that world so much.
When does this idea of starting your own bakery begin?
There was one thing I could not learn how to do at the hotel because my head chef always did it, and that was the wedding cakes. I wanted to learn wedding cakes really bad. So, I applied to this small bakery in Denver that was very reputable: Gateaux Bakery. I started there and started to see what a true mom-and-pop shop was like that delivered morning pastries, morning coffee, birthday cakes, anniversary cakes and wedding cakes. It was truly a full-service bakery. I saw the connections that they made with families, the connections that they made with staff, and the life moments that this bakery was involved in with these families. It was so cool to me, and that’s when something really triggered.
At that point, we’d spent all of our vacations coming back to Iowa City and visiting family. We did love Denver, but we decided to move back to be near family. I got here and I was pretty much a lost soul. I didn’t have a place to work. I started to do wedding cakes out of my house, but I did not want to be in my house. I was a professional chef, so I did what I could with what I had. I passed this art gallery and I walked up and said, “Are you selling this place?” and he said “Yeah.” Boom. This is the bakery building that was originally a grocery store, then a studio, then an art gallery.
Everything happened very fast after that. I knew I had to make a decision to either open the shop or pursue something totally different in my life. But I was not going to be making food out of my house. I was going nuts.
My mother’s really great at crunching numbers. She said, “If we could find a place that we could buy, we could take out some women’s business loans.” I took out as many loans as I could. I had nothing. I remember I’d saved $2,000 or $3,000 from the wedding cakes that I’d done out of my house, and that’s what I had to put down. We figured it out.
What was your goal out of the gate? Did you have a plan or strategy?
My goal was to pay my bills. It was me and one other woman who still lives in Iowa City. I got it going and I hired her about a week before. I would hear the door go off and my goal was to run out, help that person as best I could, provide the best baked goods that I could, and hoped that they came back and loved the shop for all that I wanted it to be.
What was the biggest surprise about running your own business that jumped out to you?
It never goes away. It’s always on your mind. I was up every day at five and closing at six, all to do it again the next day. After I had the two kids, I was still pulling the same hours. It was about Dec. 23 and the holidays were hitting hard. I didn’t do nannies. I would come home and it’d be 10 at night and I still had to wrap gifts and be a mom.
But I love the families that come in. The people that come in every day are new. I love my work. It’s a force field. I can’t describe it.
Was there a turning point where you felt like you were going to make it work?
I’ll tell you when it was. I had a woman join me. Everybody knows who she is at this point. Her name is Heather. I was so behind in the world and Heather came and said, “Hey, I signed up for an internship. You need to fill out the paperwork.” I don’t know how to fill out paperwork that well, but she was like, “I basically filled it out. You just have to sign it. I’m your intern. I start in a month.”
The second Heather started, she allowed me to propel the bakery where it needed to go and we got the train rolling. Heather created the structure that I would try to create, but couldn’t because I was greasing a wheel over there or throwing coal in the back or climbing on top of the train to fight off the bandits. Heather was so steady. I had a steady sous chef to come in and lock it down. That’s when I knew I could now take the bakery where it needed to be.
We’ve got great bread. We have great croissants. We have beautiful cakes, an amazing community and beautiful coffee. People come in. I can see the weight of the world come off their shoulders when they walk in. We get to say, “Hey, what’s up? How’s your family? How are you doing? Here you go. You want oat milk? Fine.” It’s great.
Do you have any bridezilla stories or stories of terrible clients?
The bride world has changed because there’s not only bride world. It’s bridal showers. Baby showers. First birthday cakes. You name it. People are on Pinterest for about 42 hours. They send us about 72 photos. They have themes. They have color swatches. It all comes down to the cake.
How do you approach attracting and retaining great people for your team at the bakery?
That’s a tough one, besides saying the obvious. I always try to embrace all of their positive qualities. Every day is a new day. At the end of the day, for me, it’s figuring out what the bandwidth is of that awesome human coming in to make this bakery work. It’s knowing when your staff member is done and giving them the graces to be done.
What does success look like as you look out into the future?
I think, for me, success will look like it if it gets passed on. Success will look like the same beautiful humans walking in for their espresso. Yep. Success will look like that big red door constantly opening for a cookie or an $800 wedding cake. That’s what success is to me.
Do you think of or talk to your team about the role that Deluxe plays within the community?
I try to stress to them that people love the product you’re putting out, but it’s so hard to see that when you’re that two in the morning baker at that wood table. It’s so hard to see that when you’re a front-of-house person and you’re pouring oat milk latte after oat milk latte. I hope that they see all they do for the community. We need those baguette shapers. We need Tory, who makes those cute cakes. We need my nephew, Will, who is 20, and who comes Sundays and Mondays in the middle of the night and shapes all the croissants with his headphones in.