Fort Dodge has a new bakery in the heart of downtown. The woman Iowans have come to know as the Cheesecake Lady - Renae Grogan-Hulsebus - has opened the FD Cheesecake Lady's Home Apron at 518 Central Ave.
The arrival of Home Apron is the latest event in an evolving entrepreneurial success story that started out as a short-term project, Grogan-Hulsebus said.
"In 2009, I wanted to raise some extra money for the holidays," she told Fort Dodge Business Review in January 2012. "I was only going to do it for the holidays. That was the original plan. Then, in January I kept getting phone calls for cheesecakes. And then a friend of mine asked me to donate some cheesecakes to Hawkeye Community Theatre that they could sell and raise money for the theater. From there, it just took off. People I didn't even know were calling asking for cheesecakes."
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Known for her skill at producing decadent desserts, Renae Grogan-Hulsebus has moved her cheesecake production out of her home and into a retail location downtown.
By the following spring, Grogan-Hulsebus was at the helm of a thriving home-based enterprise she had named The Cheesecake Lady. It had developed a substantial and growing local following.
She said being a vendor at Market on Central - starting with the inaugural 2010 season - resulted in a major boost to her business because it gave a wide cross-section of the public an opportunity to sample her wares.
"Because of Market on Central, I have attracted customers from all over Iowa and Minnesota," Grogan-Hulsebus said.
Running a highly successful baking business out of her home set the stage for opening a full-fledged bakery. Grogan-Hulsebus said the point was reached where the demand for her products was such that she had to shift to a retail site or stop growing her sales.
"I'm limited on how much I can sell from my home," she said. "The Health Department doesn't like you to sell more than $20,000 from your home. ... I've had to make that as a cutoff line the last couple of years or we would have exceeded that. I had to decide if I wanted to keep doing that every year or if I wanted to open a retail location."
She decided that the demand for her cheesecakes and other baked goodies was sufficient to make a commercial bakery not only feasible, but also a very attractive financial option.
Choosing downtown Fort Dodge
That decision having been made, Grogan-Hulsebus said there was never any doubt in her mind that downtown was the right location for the venture.
"I've always loved downtown ever since I moved here to Fort Dodge," she said. "I very much wanted to be a part of downtown. ... I think that people genuinely care about what happens downtown. I think they'll come down here."
She said the opportunity to open her bakery in the historic Garmoe Building was appealing because of its stunning architecture both inside and out.
The Garmoe Building was built in 1896 by Isaac Garmoe, who was Webster County treasurer from 1861-65, an incorporator and director of the Commercial National Bank and was involved in other Fort Dodge businesses. The building's location on an aesthetically significant City Square corner makes it an important factor in preservation efforts downtown. As a result of major renovations, the exterior of the building and many interior areas closely resemble the way it appeared more than a century ago.
Grogan-Hulsebus said the decor of her business takes advantage of the building's history and architecture.
"The building itself is just beautiful and I would like to emphasize that more than add to it," she said.
The game plan
Cheesecakes, brownies, cakes and cupcakes have been the principal offerings from the enterprise Grogan-Hulsebus has operated from her home. All those will be featured at her new bakery. That, however, is just the start.
"In the beginning we're just going to continue with the same menu," she said. "We'll do the desserts - cheesecake, pastries, brownies, cookies, cupcakes, cakes. ... As we add more equipment, we'll add more products - bread and sandwiches and things like that.
In the past, virtually everything was made-to-order because Grogan-Hulsebus had limited ability in her home to have a large on-hand inventory. That is changing.
"Because I have so many flavors, a lot of them will be made-to-order, but I will keep a lot of the more popular flavors in stock," she said. "I have right now over 90 flavors for cheesecakes, including seasonal flavors."
At Home Apron, expansive, refrigerated display cases will be stocked with a wide array of ready-to-go delights. Custom orders by telephone or through her website - ftdodgecheesecakelady.com - will still be available. Customers making special orders will pick up their selections at the bakery. Delivery will not initially be offered, but the owner said it might be added as the business evolves.
While family members will continue to be involved in the business, Grogan-Hulsebus said she expects to have additional non-family employees soon. She said the staffing will probably involve four people in the kitchen and two behind the counters.
"I have a lot of applicants to sift through," she said.
Getting Home Apron ready for customers has been a summer-long project for Grogan-Hulsebus, her entire household and many family friends. She said her husband, Chris Hulsebus, has been a key player in readying the new bakery for business.
"He has been down here every day all summer remodeling in addition to working his full-time job," she said.
Additionally, many customers helped get the evolving business over the financial hurdles posed by the transition. They bought what were called Cheesecake Bonds.
"For a $50 investment in the bond, they could use it to get $100 of product when the store opens," Grogan-Hulsebus said.
She said she was humbled by the response to this innovative funding device.
"Honestly, it takes a great amount of trust on the part of the customer to hand over $50 without even knowing when I would be open," Grogan-Hulsebus said. "I'm really just touched that so many people got involved to make sure that we got open. ... I would just like to thank everybody. We've had friends and family members down here every day helping us with the remodeling. ... This is really a bakery that was built by friends and family and supported by the entire community."
Looking to the future, patrons of Home Apron could be the initial people to experience something that began here and grew. Grogan-Hulsebus has ambitious plans.
"When this is really successful and doing well," she said. "I'd like to open more locations in Iowa."
As she builds her business, Grogan-Hulsebus said she still loves the baking that has made her something of a local culinary legend.
"I still love it very much," she said. "I can't wait to get back in the kitchen where I belong."