Life is sweet when Wendy Dodson launches a new business that taps her passion for baking.
by Jim Dodson | illustration by Gerry O’Neill
Not long ago, my wife, Wendy, joined 47-million foot soldiers of the Great Resignation by retiring early from her job as the longtime director of human resources for one of the state’s leading community colleges.
She loved her job at the college. It was fun and fulfilling in almost every way. But something was missing — and revealed — when COVID invaded our lives.
Simply put, it was time to follow her heart and do something she’d envisioned doing even before I met her 25 years ago: to start her own gourmet, custom-baking company.
News late last year that an innovative shared community kitchen for food entrepreneurs (called The City Kitch, based in Charlotte) was opening branches in Greensboro and Raleigh propelled her into action. She signed up for the first private kitchen studio and got to work preparing for her debut at an outdoor weekend market just before Christmas, selling out everything she baked in a couple hours. It was a promising start.
I should pause here and explain that Wendy is no novice or newcomer to the luxury baking world. Even while masterfully holding down a demanding career over the past two decades, she made stunning custom wedding cakes, luscious pies, artistic cookies, and other baked delicacies for friends and neighbors.
As I say, she was already wowing customers in Syracuse, New York, when we met during one of my book tours in 1998, and she agreed to go on a formal first date that turned out to be, as I fondly think of it, baptism by baby wedding cakes.
To briefly review, on a brisk autumn evening after a seven-hour drive between my house in Maine and her home in Syracuse, I arrived just in time to find Wendy cheerfully boxing up 75 miniature, exquisitely decorated wedding cakes for some demented daughter of a Syracuse corporate raider.
“Oh, good,” she beamed, flushing adorably with a dollop of icing on her button nose, as I appeared. “Want to help me box these up and take them around the neighborhood for me?”
How could I refuse? Her neighbors, it seemed, had offered space in their refrigerators and freezers until the cakes could be delivered to the wedding hall.
Truthfully, I don’t recall much about being pressed into service as an impromptu delivery man. I just have this vague memory of carefully boxing up dozens of the beautiful little cakes and bearing them all gussied up with elegant ribbons and bows to pals around the cul-du-sac. “Oh,” one actually cooed as she looked me over. “You must be the new boyfriend from Maine. Careful you don’t put on 50 pounds. Wendy’s cakes are awesome.”
I gave her my best Joe Friday impersonation. “Never tasted ’em, ma’am. Just here to help out the baker.”
Happy to report, the baby cakes made it safely to the wedding hall the next day without incident. The grateful baker even thoughtfully saved one of the gorgeous treats for my trip home to Maine.
I’m embarrassed to say I never sampled it. Cake wasn’t my thing, probably because I grew up with a mama who made me a birthday cake from a box mix and store-bought frosting that tasted like chocolate-flavored sawdust with icing. I gave Wendy’s baby wedding cake to my children, who absolutely loved it.
Another issue emerged on my next visit to Syracuse, our critical second date. I breezed into her kitchen with a bottle of wine before we went out to dinner, and found her putting the finishing touches on another masterpiece of the baker’s art.
Sitting nearby on her kitchen counter, however, was a wicker basket full of popcorn, my favorite snack food. As she opened the wine, I grabbed a handful.
Her lovely face fell. It turned out to be a groom’s cake that only looked like a wicker basket full of popcorn.
Profusely apologizing, as I licked the evidence of the crime off my greedy fingers, figuring this might be our last date, I had something of a dessert awakening.
“Hey, this is really good. I don’t even like cake. What is this?”
To my relief, she laughed. “Only the finest Swiss white-chocolate, sour-cream cake with salted buttercream. But no worries. I can make another. Let’s just get take-out for dinner while I work.”
I’d never seen such composure under fire. Right then and there I decided to propose to this remarkable woman and even confessed my sad history with cake, wondering if she would do the honor of making me a birthday confection.
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll even make you a box mix cake if you want it.”
Talk about a selfless act of love — this was like inviting LeRoy Neiman to do a doodle of a racehorse.
Fortunately, by the time our wedding rolled around two years later, Wendy had schooled me up like a pastry chef’s apprentice, sealed by my first taste of her old-fashioned caramel cake — which she now makes me every year for my birthday (along with a sour cherry pie).
Not surprisingly, the spectacular cake she made for our wedding disappeared without a trace before I could even get a taste. Our greedy guests left nary a morsel — I suspect they even took home extra pieces stuffed in their pockets.
Since that time, a steady stream of pies, cakes, cookies, scones, muffins, and rolls have flowed from her ovens to friends and family from Maine to Carolina.
Which is why the creation of her business, Dessert du Jour, is such a milestone. The love of my life has never been happier since launching her dream company. And she shares her joy with others, one gorgeous theme cookie or slice of roasted pecan-studded carrot cake at a time.
And for the moment at least, I have the honor and pleasure of being her sole employee, the one who puts up the tent and tables at the street market and delivers the goods wherever I’m sent, paid in cake tops and leftover cinnamon rolls.
I ask you, does life get any sweeter than that?
This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue of WALTER magazine