Donna Nemecek inducted into the WBA Bakers Hall of Fame
By: Amy Behrendt
A career more than 30 years in the making and many, many happy customers are just some of the blessings longtime WBA member Donna Nemecek has received from her years in the baking industry. All that hard work and dedication was recognized with an induction in the Wisconsin Bakers Association (WBA) Bakers Hall of Fame Aug. 7 at WBA Day at the Wisconsin State Fair. Surrounded by family, friends and industry colleagues, Nemecek was thankful for such an honor. She was nominated by fellow WBA member Tamara Mugerauer of Tamara’s The Cake Guru, in Oshkosh, Wis.
She recalls the emotions of that morning, as she prepared to travel to the fair from Kimberly, Wis. where her business, Artistic Cakes and Cookies is located. “The butterflies moved in my stomach in the morning when I was getting ready to travel to the fair,” she said. “I wish I had written some notes before addressing the people at the luncheon. I am never short of words, but this moment was an exception. I think I rambled: I really hope I thanked all of the WBA members, Dave Schmidt and most of all, Tamara, for considering me worthy of this induction.
“I was very honored to have my 90-year-old mother, Mabel Feistel of Forest Junction, Wis.; several other immediate family members; several employees; and close friends in the audience. My baking career was certainly inspired by my Grandmother, Lottie Zirbel, and my Mom. I grew up in a household that smelled like a bakery many mornings.”
All those years in the industry, and Nemecek has learned a lesson or two from fellow colleagues. Lessons in friendships and fondant have gone a long way for Nemecek in her career! “One of the greatest perks of being in this ‘cottage type’ industry is the friendships formed over the years,” she said. “Among those friends that mentored me are: Irena Uher of Woodstock Ga., a retired pastry chef and cake decorator; Nikki Alcorn of South Africa, who shared many rolled fondant and gumpaste techniques; and Pat Williams, one of my first teachers and retired owner of The Cake Gallery in Little Suamico, (Wis.). Pat mentored and encouraged me through those early years of ‘lumpy fondant’ and tears of frustration. I will always remember her on the other end of the phone saying ‘Donna, stop crying, throw the lumpy fondant away and I will walk you through making another batch over the phone.’ Who ever knew in the early 1980’s that those words would lead to a 31-year career with that same fondant recipe?
“Another valuable lesson is to respect others in the industry, including your own employees, fellow cake decorator competitors and venue owners. It is truly an honor to have one’s competitors being among your best friends. In 1992, while suffering a personal tragedy, my competitor friends were at my side to carry on my cake business without any hesitation or concern of their own orders. No successful business is single handed: It takes a sea of dedicated, passionate people to complete endless orders in a timely manner. I am truly blessed with a supportive group including my baker and ‘new-found’ decorator, Linda Betters; decorator Sarah Otte; Deb Pontow; Linda Stanelle; Bob Rauen; Heidi Kieffer; Lynn Sommers; Dave and Linda Albrecht; Rose Fritz and former employee Linda Oudenhoven. From helping with deliveries to keeping the mixing bowls clean, these people are all a part of this honor.”
Friends and colleagues helped her through another tough time in 2007, when her in-home business flooded. Five years have passed since that time, and she is still thankful for the assistance she received. “Sometimes you have to be careful of what you pray for,” Nemecek said. “For years, I prayed for direction in moving my home-based business to a ‘real’ store front. There always seemed to be some type of red flag roadblock. Then in June 2007, we were forced into an overnight move due to a massive sewer and water backup in the bakery. I experienced the horror of this mess only through phone calls, and later pictures, as I was attending a wedding conference in California.
“Despite the severity of the situation, we were truly blessed with the immediate response of help from Chef Jeff (Igel), Department Chair of Culinary Arts and Hospitality at Fox Valley Tech College (in Appleton,Wis.); Paul Garvey of Wilmar Candy in Appleton; and current landlord Mike Roberts of Appleton. Looking back, it’s hard to believe three moves in 11 months didn’t cause any of us a nervous breakdown, or the immediate choice of finding a new career. Despite the ‘off-season’ struggles, the 2007 disaster was a blessing in disguise. Since 2008, we are enjoying a nice location on the east side of Kimberly. Long-time, faithful customers and new faces interested in the uniqueness of our designs make it all worthwhile. This is truly an example of ‘If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it.’”
After all those years in the industry, what advice does Nemecek have for those just starting out? “There are endless books written and lots of people giving advice of how to be successful in whatever you do,” she said. “When I teach young 4-H decorators or Girl Scout groups, I tell them the biggest personality trait needed to be a good cake decorator is patience: Patience mainly with yourself, but also with your products. Fill yourself with a degree of passion, lots of patience and set your goals high. Whether you are a new mom wanting to make birthday cakes for your children, or a beginning student learning how to make butter cream icing and roses, do it with a distinct goal of success at any level. Today’s high-tech world offers endless opportunities to learn. The Sugar Arts offer a unique avenue for your creativity ability: Go for it!”
Reflections on the Bakers Hall of Fame induction
Nemecek said news of the honor came as a complete surprise. “When Dave Schmidt, WBA Executive Director, called and told me this news, I was completely overwhelmed with emotion and surprise. This honor was never a ‘goal’ I even imagined. I didn’t feel I’ve made that big of a difference in the world of sugar art in Wisconsin. To have this nomination come from Tamara Mugerauer added to the element of surprise, and the emotions I was feeling. I admire her as a talented sugar artist and a friend of many years. This honor is surely a highlight of a very blessed career.”
Here is what Tamara Mugerauer said in her nomination:
“I nominate Donna Nemecek to the Bakers Hall of Fame for Wisconsin Bakers Association. Donna is truly a talented cake artist and baker. With her talent and her business sense, she has taken the concept of a small in-home cake shop that many do as a hobby, and was able to grow it into a successful business. Donna has done much to promote sugar arts, including workshops for the WBA, for Dairyland Decorators, Edible Etchings and ICES to name a few. She truly was one of the first sugar artists in the state of Wisconsin to introduce clients to the art of fondant well before its current popularity. She is very involved in many industry groups, both in the baking industry and the wedding industry as well.”
Note: This story originally appeared in the September issue of Beyond Baking.