It all started with an Easy Bake Oven for Nycole Donelson. She was about 7 or 8 years old and when those little packages of cake mix were used (in a couple hours) this mini-baker moved on to bigger and better things. Just knee-high to a grasshopper and beyond spunky, Nycole would wedge herself between her momma and granny and soak up their pearls of wisdom about baking, and cooking in general.
"Everything from scratch back then and of course today," said this owner of Short Cakes Cakery and Café in Mt. Juliet.
That little sous-chef is all grown up and has several "real" ovens and those mini Easy Bake cakes have been replaced by the most exquisite creations that grace banquets, weddings, and so many more venues. Voted "Best" in countless culinary rankings, her six year old Short Cakes bakery has taken the community and beyond by storm and now will be showcased on "Tennessee Crossroads" (Channel 8, Nashville Public Television) Jan. 19 at 7 p.m. and Jan. 22 at 10 a.m.
That little girl who knelt on a stool to reach the counter to stir up a batch of brownies probably never dreamed she would be the star on prime-time television to showcase her uniquely flavored desserts, pastries and homemade goodness. Take that back, she's known for a longtime she would be a success.
She quips a friend told her café and bakery should be Triple-N rated, for "No Napkins Necessary!"
"Because people eat to the last crumb!" she said.
Journey to Crossroads
While Nycole has always been the queen of confections, it's been a long and persistent road to today's success in the culinary world. While she learned a myriad of "from scratch" recipes - savory, sweet and downright downhome - from the matriarchs of the family, she quickly learned her own flare.
"All through high school my friends would come over to my house and fill up on great homemade food I made," said Nycole.
In college, it was her dorm kitchen that teased students with aromas "like home" and there was a steady parade of kids armed with Tupperware filled to the brim with pot roasts, mashed potatoes, porkshops and carrots.
Always an entrepreneur with her kitchen utensils nearby, her field of study was in accounting. She married and had three children and went though a divorce. Nycole's side job was her creative passion and she did some catering and wedding planning along the way. She moved to Mt. Juliet in 2007 and opened Creative Celebrations, a unique catering-type business.
"But the recession got to me," she said. "I worked at home doing accounting things and raised my children. I didn't want cooperate because I needed to be with my children as much as possible."
She met her husband, Derrick, at Bible Study.
"We are both foodies," she laughed. "We spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I had prayed to God to bring me someone who was supportive."
One day they were "fooling around" with fruit juices and concocted a fruit tea that jumpstarted her full time culinary career.
"I know," she said. "That sounds odd. But we loved it and everyone we served it to, did to."
A graphic designer, Derrick looked Nycole in the eyes and said, "I believe in you, I want to support you."
She quick ran to Dollar General and bought all the mason jars she could find, made up a batch of the tea and Derrick brought it to work and people begged for more. They sold the tea for a couple bucks. This morphed into selling the tea in medical complexes, sharing at the Taste of Wilson County and at the Mt. Juliet Farmers Market.
The cupcake craze
Then, all of a sudden, cupcakes were all the rage. And, Nycole can make a tasty little cake. Word got around and one guy who tried them started a buzz and asked if she would sell them at the Barnes and Noble café. This was Feb. 2012.
The couple went for broke after "a bunch of praying."
"We cashed in all our savings, and I mean all, and started looking for a storefront," she recalled. "We knew this is what God wanted us to do."
That storefront is her bakery and café at 4037 N. Mt. Juliet Road, in what has emerged the "it" place to be in Mt. Juliet. Cupcakes and tea blossomed into cakes, pastries and now even breakfast and lunch menus, as well as catering for big leaguers like Under Armour, Dell, Hollister and more. Derrick left his corporate job and works with Nycole full time at the bakery.
"He bakes and cooks, makes teas and can decorate cakes," Nycole bragged. "He likes to use his graphic skills in the bakery. His support is almost unfathomable."
Why "Shortcakes?" She loves to make cakes, but short ones too (cupcakes) and he refers to Nycole as "Short Cake."
"I'm 5' 2''," she laughed. "And ½!"
Like back in the day, Nycole's bakery sells only scratch made products. There are cakes, cookies, pies, breads - all homemade. Her cupcakes are unique. Her signature cupcake is the chocolate peanut butter.
"Some recipes are passed down," she said. "Others are created by our employees and some even come when we make a mistake."
Cake pops and truffles are popular and there's never a set menu. The cinnamon bacon bun is the bomb and their peanut brittle is to die for. Also, Nicole's bread pudding is intriguingly savory.
The breakfast menu rolled out late November and is served from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"We are cooked to order," she said. "We hand make our English muffins and the crescents literally melt in your mouth.'
Pancakes, French toast (from homemade bread with a secret ingredient) are also serviced.
Lunch offers her signature homemade chicken salad on a crescent with four varieties: regular, fruit and nut, curry and spicy. Soups are also from scratch, as well as the chili.
Nycole swears she and Derrick are like Frick and Frack. They work and play 24/7 and are rarely apart.
"It's not a chore," Nycole explained. "We love what we do. We never really disagree. I know, it seems unreal."
At times things are so busy they just bunk at the bakery to get things ready on time for big events. Mentoring is essential to Nycole who remembers sandwiched between her grandmas. Sydney Sotteck is now her sous-chef, a 12-year-old who makes awesome cupcakes.
"We want to share our knowledge," said Nycole. "We hope to one day branch out to a place we own and it be big enough to teach kids how to pursue their dreams, like we have."
Extremely spiritual, in her spare time Nicole is working on a line of Christian apparel with inspirational messages to uplift others.
Nicole loves to work with brides and has a program where they can sketch out their dream wedding cake and she makes it come to fruition. She's also aware of this culture of "sensitivity eating," and offers vegan, glutton and dairy free. As far as her television debut this week, she's excited and nervous.
"I wasn't thrilled to be in front of the camera," she said. "I'm most comfortable cozy in the kitchen making goodness. It's been a fun ride."
Nicole remembers something and harkens back to the time she was a little chef. At that time she also was her grandmother's helper at a newspaper stand in the city.
"I guess taking chances and working hard are ingrained in me," she said. "I'm blessed."