How One Chef Ditched the Runway for the Bakery
Katy Gerdes’s journey from fashion designer to professional bakerLaurie Woolever
April 25, 2019
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), with founding support by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Laurie Woolever unpacks the evolution of Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program alum Katy Gerdes from fashion designer to pastry chef, baker, and business owner.
For Katy Gerdes, it took a high-profile detour into fashion to realize that her childhood passion for baking was her true professional calling.
“At the age of 10, I told my mom I wanted to make a cheesecake,” recalls Gerdes, a onetime apparel designer who competed on the television series Project Runway, and now owns Angel Food Bakery in her native Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“She said, ‘You can try, but it’s really difficult.’ She bought me some cookbooks, I made a cheesecake, and it turned out great…then I just started baking everything I could. I love logic puzzles and being creative, and baking is a combination: there are strict rules, but once you know what those are, you can start breaking them and being more creative.”
Gerdes spent her teen and college years working part-time baking and pastry jobs, and after earning her degree in apparel design from the Rhode Island School of Design, she returned to Minneapolis to design menswear for Target. It was a heady time, yet she never felt at home in the industry.
“The business is so focused on image that it really took a toll on my mental state,” she recalls. “I got very self-conscious, body-aware. I was never, and still am not, a fashion-y girl,” she says, “but I like designing and making things with my hands. I always loved baking. It didn’t occur to me that it could be a career, but I knew I needed to do something different.” Gerdes auditioned for Project Runway, and quit her job when she was cast in the show’s third season.
“It was very intense. We had maybe three or four hours’ sleep a night, but I loved it.” She was eliminated after episode three, which she chalks up to having been too reserved for the drama-hungry production.
Back home, she did independent design, and baked as a placeholder job while pondering her next move. She eventually became pastry chef at her family’s restaurant, Hell’s Kitchen, overcoming her nepotism-averse mother Cynthia’s objections.
“I had to work really hard to win her over,” Gerdes recalls. “I was the only pastry chef, so I got to build the program; I take that kind of responsibility very seriously. And there was the added pressure of proving to my colleagues that I’d earned the position.”
Gerdes won her mother’s confidence, and when a space opened up in the Hell’s Kitchen building, the two became business partners. In 2012, they opened Angel Food Bakery, where customers can see sweets being made from scratch in the open kitchen. A few years later, they opened their second location, at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, requiring them to partner with concessionaires Delaware North.
“We’re very much a family business, doing everything ourselves,” says Gerdes. “We hadn’t had investors or partners before, so to take on a partnership like that was intimidating; we didn’t want to lose who we are as a company. But they’ve been fantastic partners. It’s such a different style of business, but, we [still] make everything on-site, just like we do downtown, and it’s a fully open kitchen.
“People assume that what they eat at an airport is going to be of lesser quality, but for them to see us scraping the cookie dough, rolling out the doughnuts…they can see that we didn’t just get that in frozen and pop it in an oven.”
In 2017, Airports Council International named Angel Food “Best New Quick Service Food and Beverage Concept for North American Airports,” and in 2018, they were named “Best Local Concept in North American Airports.”
Spurred by her participation in the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) program, Gerdes is now mapping a growth plan. “I’m in the feasibility assessment phase,” she says, “and asking myself, what do we want to do? We could get into wholesale production, but then who’s delivering product at 4 every morning? Who gets the phone call when that person doesn’t show up to work? That’s me. Do I want that in my life?”
On the job and through WEL, Gerdes has also learned the value of mentoring and developing employees. “Our current general manager, her goal is to own her own bakery, so we’ve invited her to all our ownership meetings. The feeling is, ‘what can we teach you so that you’re successful when you do it?’ Or, ‘what can we teach you so you know if this is something you want?” Because it’s not as glamorous and fun as everybody thinks it is.
“If somebody puts in hard work to grow the company, why shouldn’t we share in some of the benefits? My goal isn’t to have as much money as I can possibly have. If I can share a little bit to keep a solid person happy and invested in something, that’s great.”
Laurie Woolever is a writer, editor, and co-host of the food-focused podcast Carbface for Radio. She lives in New York.
The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.