On Cherokee Street, Whisk Bakeshop has just opened its doors for the day, and its owner, Kaylen Wissinger, ran upstairs only a few minutes ago to change out of her pajamas. Kaylen and her husband Pete renovated the two-story building themselves, and now live on the second floor. Downstairs, two black-and-white photographs taken by Kaylen’s father hang on the walls, alongside a painting of a frosted cake done by her mother. A glass case at the back of the room holds an array of fresh desserts Kaylen has baked, including bacon chocolate chip cookies and salty caramel cupcakes. A tray of homemade Twinkies sits on a baking sheet in the back kitchen–fluffy and golden, they look far more appetizing than their store-bought counterparts. In keeping with Whisk’s tagline, “a sustainable bakeshop,” Kaylen uses as many local, organic ingredients as possible in her creations. “We have so much good stuff in the Midwest during growing season,” she says.
Kaylen taught herself how to bake in college, between courses for a major in education–she’d painstakingly mix all of her dough by hand. For her 21st birthday, her godmother bought her a Kitchenaid mixer instead of jewelry, at the request of Kaylen’s younger sister. “I remember the specific day that I got into cupcakes, which I know sounds really weird,” she says. It happened when she discovered a cupcake blog while idly surfing the Internet as Pete, then her boyfriend, was packing boxes to move out of his dorm room. Scrolling through the pictures, her infatuation was instant and instinctual.
After graduating from college, Kaylen took a job at a local all-girls high school, where her days were consumed by administrative work–tasks like writing the alumni newsletter, or filling in spreadsheets. However, she felt stifled and bored sitting at a desk all day. “It was nice to have a steady paycheck … but at what cost? I cried every day at home,” she says. “It was not what I wanted to do. I watched my dad have an office job for years and years, and towards the end he was pretty miserable,” she says. Her father worked at Anheuser Busch for 27 years, until he lost the position in a round of mass layoffs shortly after Kaylen graduated from college. “I appreciate and love what he did for our family, but life’s too short. I don’t want to be stuck doing something I’m not happy with.”
Cooking provided her with a distraction from her frustration at work. She would come home and start mixing batter, filling the oven with trays of cookies and cupcakes. “There was a meditational quality to baking for me,” she says. “Baking is a science–everything has to be perfectly measured or else it might not work.” The ritualistic steps gave her a sense of control: measuring out the precise tablespoons and ounces, setting the oven to the perfect temperature, the slow process of cooling.
After a year, she decided to quit her job and open a full-time baking business. “It felt really right. It felt like I was in the right place, and I was doing the right thing. I wasn’t as scared as Pete was, or my parents,” she says. She waited longer to tell her parents than anyone else, after she had already given notice at her job. “I was dreading telling them,” she says. “They were so supportive, but also a little worried. They didn’t want to see their daugher fail.”
Kaylen started out selling cupcakes and cake balls at the weekly farmer’s markets in Tower Grove and Webster Groves. Although she hadn’t yet found a brick-and-mortar location, the fledgling business absorbed most of her time. “I was 22 and had my fingers crossed,” she says. She began to use local and seasonal produce from other vendors at the Tower Grove market as the cornerstone of her recipes, in addition to a healthy dose of butter and sugar. “I would basically do a walk-around of the market and think, ‘What could I turn that into?’” she says. The litany of produce she has incorporated into dessert recipes includes corn, cucumbers, and zucchini. Spinach also made its way into a recipe for scones.
To keep costs down at first, she did all her baking at a shared kitchen downtown at the St. Patrick’s Center, an organization that helps the homeless in St. Louis. The nonprofit installed a state-of-the-art kitchen as part of its new business incubator program–it was convenient, but crowded. Kaylen estimates she frequently shared the kitchen with up to 20 other small businesses at a time. One day, her parents were walking down Cherokee Street when they saw a “For Lease” sign in the window of the former Shangri-La Diner, a vegetarian restaurant with a kitschy, 60’s-inspired theme. Kaylen and Pete held their wedding rehearsal dinner there before it closed, gathering friends and family together amidst beaded curtains and indoor plants. “The building has a special place in my heart,” she says.
After signing a lease to rent the space, she put together a $15,000 Kickstarter campaign, anxiously watching her computer screen throughout the month of May as donations came in. She exceeded her target by close to $400. Much of the amount she raised on Kickstarter went into renovating the building, as the landlord had been using the building as a temporary woodshop. A thick layer of sawdust clung to the grease left behind in the kitchen. The space had to be completely gutted, an overwhelming task for two people to tackle on their own. “After the second week I was like, ‘I hate everything’ … I’m perfectly capable of painting a wall, but that doesn’t mean I want to do it forever,” says Kaylen. She and Pete begged everyone they knew for help finishing the renovations, and soon assembled a team of friends and relatives to help with the painting and demolition. A close friend of theirs who had recently been left by his fiancee took out his anger by knocking down the old walls with a sledgehammer.
Kaylen and Pete moved into the apartment upstairs soon after the repairs were completed. Her father bought the renovated building, and is now her landlord. He often comes by Whisk to fix leaks, mow the grass, and repair broken appliances. “I don’t ever really leave this building,” she says. “95% of the time it’s awesome, but that other 5%, it sucks.” If she tries to take a day off, she will be constantly distracted by the sounds of work filtering through the floor: the phone ringing downstairs, the shop door opening, and customers ordering at the counter. Recently, she tattooed a personal anti-anxiety mantra, “be here now,” in cursive script on her inner arm. “I’m doing what I love every single day,” she says. “So many people I’m close to aren’t, and that makes me really sad.”
As customers begin to filter through the doors today, Kaylen sits at a table near the counter, piecing together Valentine’s Day garlands. She strings pink paper hearts onto a fishing line, her tattoo flicking in and out of view with each motion of her wrist. One of her regular customers walks through the door to pick up an order, bringing in a curly-haired dog on a leash which bounds over to greet Kaylen. After she locks up the shop for the night and goes upstairs, she will cook dinner and probably watch “Wheel of Fortune” while reading a magazine. “My brain goes a thousand different directions,” she says. Tomorrow morning, she will wake up around dawn and walk downstairs to start baking a fresh round of treats to fill the display case. A few weeks ago she posted an early-morning photo to Instagram, the sky streaked pink and blue outside Whisk’s windows, with the caption: “I’m still not a very good morning person, even after a year and a half of very early rising – but this sunrise is so pretty.”
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