Have you noticed a little something special on the dessert menus at The Wicked Hop or Ruby Tap? Maybe a little sweet something served up in Mason jars?
If you have, you’ve been introduced to one of the newest dessert purveyors on the block, Sugar Jar Treats. The brainchild of Mary VanDeWeghe, Sugar Jar is a labor of love from a gal who grew up baking with her mother and grandmother.
"I’ve always baked," she says. "I also read a ton. In fact, I read just about everything I can get my hands on, and I’ve learned so much that way… there’s also the trial and error in the kitchen."
VanDeWeghe, who grew up in Sheboygan, attended college at UW-Madison where she studied marketing, international business and German. Her studies led her to a job as a merchandise planner at Kohl’s Corporate in Menomonee Falls, where she’s worked for that past seven years.
And yet, behind her serious corporate façade, she harbored an interminable passion for desserts.
"I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for three or four years now," she says. "I travel a lot, and when I do, I find any excuse to go and visit bakeries wherever I go."
Some of her favorites include Billy’s Bakery, Crumbs and Christina Tosi’s Momofoku Milk Bar in New York.
"I’m the type where I’ll literally open my phone map and type in ‘bakery’ and see what I find," she explains. "I’m looking for the new places, the hole-in-the-wall places."
She visited Tartine in San Francisco as well as Mission Pies. And then she happened upon Hot Cakes in Seattle, where she found true inspiration.
"They do molten chocolate cakes in jars," she explains to me. "I hadn’t seen the trend here in Milwaukee, and I got really excited about it. I knew that desserts in jars were something I wanted to do."
So, she set to work in the kitchen. After a good deal of trial and error, she came up with a core collection of flavors, including salted caramel cheesecake, strawberry rhubarb crisp, apple pie and key lime pie.
But it wasn’t until her fiancé Josh Johnston, who works at The Wicked Hop, encouraged her to have a conversation with the restaurant’s owners that her dream began to look more like reality. When the owners said they would carry her product and allow her to use their tiny-but-effective kitchen for her production, VanDeWeghe couldn’t believe her ears.
It took some adjustment to get used to her new baking quarters, but she says things are working out really well.
"The ovens are built for cooking more than baking," she tells me. "One is wildly inconsistent. The other is good, so I try to use that one. I use oven thermometers and check them constantly. After working here for some time now, I feel like I finally understand the ovens and they understand me."
On a good night, VanDeWeghe turns out about 40-50 dessert jars – a small operation by almost any measure. But, she says she likes it that way.
"I call myself a craft bakery," she says. "I’m small-scale, and I’m using old fashioned techniques. It’s simple, back to the basics. In general, I’m keeping things simple and good."
She doesn’t even mind that she has to work on weekends after the restaurant is closed.
"I’m so very grateful to the Hop folks. But, they’re open seven days a week. So, I’m baking at two in the morning on the weekends," she says. "I sleep during the day, or whenever I can find the time. Fortunately, I’m finally starting to get my routine down. Sometimes I can get it all done on Friday nights."
Burning the midnight oil might be a challenge, but VanDeWeghe says she wouldn’t trade the real world business acumen she’s gleaned from her day job for anything.
"Understanding costing and profit margins is huge," she says. "Understanding enough to pull together a basic business plan was invaluable. Also reading and reacting. Understanding what’s successful, what’s working and what’s not. I was surprised that so many restaurants and bars were interested. But, understanding that the customer knows best and reacting to what people want."
Reacting to her customers’ likes and dislikes includes continuing to fill the orders for her salted caramel cheesecake, which she admits isn’t her favorite flavor.
"People love it, though," she says. "And seeing people enjoying what I’ve made is really the name of the game."
VanDeWeghe is excited to make the desserts for her first wedding this September. She says the wedding is based on a rustic, romantic theme. So, she’s planning on a deep chocolate cake with brandy chocolate ganache, vanilla bean cake with champagne buttercream, as well as salted caramel apple pie and s’mores in a jar.
She loves the fact that she doesn’t need to stick with a standardized menu. She can create customized desserts for all of her clients.
"It’s one of the great things about being small," she admits.
But, growth is definitely on the horizon for this budding entrepreneur. She has started selling her desserts to The Ruby Tap in Wauwatosa. And she’s exploring a number of other wholesale options, as well as farmer’s markets.
"I’ve done the math and I’m nowhere close to this being a full-time job," she admits. "But, I’ll keep growing as much as I can. I’ll need others to help me figure out what the potential really is."
On her wish list for the coming months is making more connections with more local businesses, including local fruit producers, and probably a local dairy.
And she’s already started contemplating new flavors, which she’ll start selling this fall, including salted caramel apple pie, pecan pie, gingerbread cake and a peanut butter truffle pie.
"I’ve been so blown away by the support here in Milwaukee for new local businesses," she says. "Being a really small start-up, I didn’t really expect people to pay attention to me, but the reception has been wonderful. I don’t know if I could have made this happen in another place."
Sugar Jar Treats are available in two sizes, four-ounce and eight-ounce jars, priced at approximately $4-$5 each. For more information, contact Mary VanDeWeghe at email@example.com. Or visit her at the special farmer’s market at Anthropologie, 301 N. Broadway, on Saturday, Aug. 24 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.