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Mount Vernon baker opens doors on residential “storefront”

With steady growth, the future of the city’s only bakery is heating up

Mount Vernon baker opens doors on residential “storefront”
Mount Vernon baker opens doors on residential “storefront”
Mount Vernon baker opens doors on residential “storefront”
Mount Vernon baker opens doors on residential “storefront”
Mount Vernon baker opens doors on residential “storefront”
Mount Vernon baker opens doors on residential “storefront”
Mount Vernon baker opens doors on residential “storefront”
Mount Vernon baker opens doors on residential “storefront”
Jen Juhl, owner of White Tree Bakery, adjusts a cake top for a customer as she works in her kitchen of her Mount Vernon, Iowa, home Thursday, November 10, 2022. What started as a side gig baking for friends and family has blossomed into a business of making custom orders, attending farmers markets and operating a "storefront" from her home one day a week. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Jen Juhl, owner of White Tree Bakery, decorates a cake for a client as she works in her kitchen of her Mount Vernon, Iowa, home Thursday, November 10, 2022. What started as a side gig baking for friends and family has blossomed into a business of making custom orders, attending farmers markets and operating a "storefront" from her home one day a week. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Jen Juhl, owner of White Tree Bakery, spreads frosting on a cake as she works in her kitchen of her Mount Vernon, Iowa, home Thursday, November 10, 2022. What started as a side gig baking for friends and family has blossomed into a business of making custom orders, attending farmers markets and operating a "storefront" from her home one day a week. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Jen Juhl, owner of White Tree Bakery, positions sugar pearls on a cake she is decorating for a client as she works in her kitchen of her Mount Vernon, Iowa, home Thursday, November 10, 2022. What started as a side gig baking for friends and family has blossomed into a business of making custom orders, attending farmers markets and operating a "storefront" from her home one day a week. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Light from a gold cake pad is reflected onto Jen Juhl, owner of White Tree Bakery, as she spreads a sugar syrup onto the bottom half of a cake in her kitchen of her Mount Vernon, Iowa, home Thursday, November 10, 2022. What started as a side gig baking for friends and family has blossomed into a business of making custom orders, attending farmers markets and operating a "storefront" from her home one day a week. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Jen Juhl, owner of White Tree Bakery, adjusts a cake top for a customer as she works in her kitchen of her Mount Vernon, Iowa, home Thursday, November 10, 2022. What started as a side gig baking for friends and family has blossomed into a business of making custom orders, attending farmers markets and operating a "storefront" from her home one day a week. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Jen Juhl, owner of White Tree Bakery, wipes down a cake pad after decorating a cake for a client as she works in her kitchen of her Mount Vernon, Iowa, home Thursday, November 10, 2022. What started as a side gig baking for friends and family has blossomed into a business of making custom orders, attending farmers markets and operating a "storefront" from her home one day a week. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Jen Juhl, owner of White Tree Bakery, takes chocolate chip cookies out of the oven as she works in her kitchen of her Mount Vernon, Iowa, home Thursday, November 10, 2022. What started as a side gig baking for friends and family has blossomed into a business of making custom orders, attending farmers markets and operating a "storefront" from her home one day a week. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon’s latest bakery opening has rather limited hours in its unconventional storefront. Most of White Tree Bakery’s customers end up becoming repeat customers, anyway.

Thanks to a couple of pocket doors, a curtain and a small table for assorted goods, the foyer of the proprietor’s 1900 home has become what is currently Mount Vernon’s only bona fide casual shop for a wide variety of cakes, cookies, scones and more — all made in-house.

For owner Jen Juhl, baking has been a lifelong occupation. But only recently did she realize she could make a business out of it.

It started last Thanksgiving — the time of year when those with a talent for baking and cooking tend to shine. Last holiday season, a heavy sprinkle of encouragement and a little dash of pressure prompted her to start taking pie orders.

“I’ve always loved baking, but my friends and husband had been after me for a while to do something about it,” Juhl said. “They said ‘you’re so good at it, you should do something about it.’ ”

A quick Facebook post and 17 pie orders later, she realized they were onto something.

“I said wow, I can actually do something with this and make this a business,” Juhl said. “It kind of blossomed from there.”

This year, she’s planning for about 40 pie orders.

If you go:

What: White Tree Bakery

Where: 217 First Ave. NW, Mount Vernon.

Hours: Residential storefront open from 2 to 6 p.m. every Friday. Expanded hours on Thursdays anticipated in the future.

Phone: (319) 855-8663

Email: whitetreebakery@gmail.com

Details: Friday storefronts offer a variety of coffee cakes, bars, cookies and cakes for purchase. Custom and advance orders can be placed via email or phone.

Cost: A dozen cookies starts at $17, pies start at $25 and cakes start at $40.

Rising growth

After quick success last Thanksgiving, Juhl opened her business in earnest after New Year’s. With steady growth through the year, she later started vending an ad hoc farmers market at Morning Glory farm over the summer. By August, she had enough demand to open the storefront in her home’s foyer for four hours every Friday.

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“The community support has been amazing,” she said. “Your friends always tell you that you can do things, but you’re always your worst critic. I realized yes, people would buy pies from me and yes, I could do this.”

Juhl grew up in a family where cooking was a way of life. Her mother was a catering manager for Cornell College. Family activities were cooking-based, and gardening and butchering were just as much a part of life as baking in the kitchen.

Juhl, 37, served as an assistant pastry chef at Molly’s Cupcakes in Iowa City over nine years ago. She even catered her own wedding.

She knew she was good at baking. But it wasn’t until a few elements in her life came to a head that she realized she could make a living from it, too. After having two children, now 4 and 6, the clerk at the neonatal intensive care unit in the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics started to reassess what she wanted to do with life.

The pandemic made it clear that her job in health care, where she continues to work weekends, wasn’t necessarily what she wanted to do for a long-term career.

Starting an at-home bakery business isn’t exactly a productive path for a working mom who wants more free time. But to Juhl, it’s an investment in the future that’s becoming clearer with time.

“As a working mom, this has made life more challenging in ways,” she said. “But I feel like it’s a way to set up my future so I won’t have to work weekends forever.”

With strong sales that continue to grow, she’s considering adding an extra day to her home storefront. The growth has forced her to think about the business’ future.

And while she’s not sure exactly where that will be located or what it will look like, she has a dream.

“I want to own a storefront, have some place you can go and get a cookie if you want, or a piece of pie — anything,” the business owner said. “In the big grand scheme of dreams, I’d like to make it a bakery and deli where you can get a really nice sandwich and a cup of soup.”

In the town of about 4,500, White Tree Bakery’s home storefront is one the only place for confections in town. The bakery niche is one with potential for a broad swath of clients with a sweet tooth in Mount Vernon.

Her specialties

White Tree Bakery is not a “specific bakery,” Juhl explained — it’s a jack of all trades. With everything hand made, White Tree has a focus on being fresh and artisan through a comforting simplicity reminiscent of home.

“I don’t do just cakes. I don’t just do sugar cookies. I do a little bit of everything,” she said.

Pie crust is rolled with half butter and half shortening, and seasonal ingredients are incorporated as much as possible. This fall, pumpkin pie customers will be getting a slice with pumpkin she roasted herself.

“If I’m going to get a pie, I want it handmade start to finish,” Juhl said.

With some experience from Molly’s Cupcakes, Juhl has taught herself a lot through online research and trial and error.

Cakes are frosted using her Swiss-style buttercream, where hot sugar water is poured into a meringue before being cooled and mixed with butter. The frosting gives cakes a unique, fluffy feel that seals the deal.

“It doesn’t contain a bunch of powdered sugar. I feel like it’s a lighter frosting, it doesn’t feel as heavy,” Juhl said. “That’s my personal favorite.”

Chocolate frosting is made with literal melted down chocolate, rather than cocoa powder.

Juhl’s from-scratch approach makes it easy for her to work with clients who have dietary limitations, broadening her offerings to include gluten-free, dairy-free and allergy-free baked goods like pumpkin bars, coffee cakes, scones and more.

At first, Juhl wasn’t quite sure why her customers kept coming back. But then she figured it out.

“There’s nothing like it around here,” she said.

Comments: (319) 398-8340; elijah.decious@thegazette.com