As a pastry chef for more than 18 years, Kathleen McDaniel has had an impressive career as a culinary innovator. After studying culinary arts and pastry in Rhode Island at Johnson & Wales University, Kathleen returned to her native Atlanta and worked as Executive Pastry Chef for several of the area’s top restaurants.
Kathleen recently became co-owner of a new bakery, Zambawango, in Sandy Springs. Kathleen brings her considerable expertise in traditional pastries as well as her innovative talents in creating low-carb and gluten-free confections to her new bakery. We had a chance to talk to Kathleen about her journey as an entrepreneur and an innovator and about her thoughts on creating baked goods for people with different dietary needs.
What do you do? And what’s your title here?
“I am the Executive Pastry Chef and I am the Head of Operations. I’m also considered the fourth partner. So we have three partners and the fourth partner is me. I’m basically the bone structure of the leg because I came up with all the recipes and without a pastry chef how would you be able to run a bakery?”
Why do you do it? How did you get into cooking?
“My mom was in the catering business for 26 years. I started off setting the Egyptian Ballroom at the Fox Theater. So I kind of got into the whole cooking thing. I went to Johnson & Wales and studied the whole cooking thing for two years. I had an awesome teacher right at the end who taught me how to blow sugar and all this awesome stuff you see on the food network, and I was like, ‘Wow, maybe i should stick around for two more years and do baking and pastry.’ So I stuck around for two more years and got my Bachelors. I’ve been doing pastries now since 2000, and I only did culinary for two [years]. So my passion has definitely gone more to pastry, I mean food is art no matter how you look at it, but pastry is more decorating and it’s a lot more hands on for me.”
Why did you want to start your own bakery?
“I always wanted to start my own bakery, and my vision was to have this sort of Willy Wonka meets Alice in Wonderland funny, funky theme. But I’ve been an à la carte pastry chef for eighteen years and back in May, some things weren’t going very well for me and there was a job posting on Indeed looking for a pastry chef for a bakery, and I thought why not? Why don’t I just take this leap of faith and see what happens? And I was blessed to have three great guys who already had the vision in place but then they allowed me to pick out the tables and pick out my light fixtures and do everything. So it was kind of like we collaborated together to form a great vision that we have.”
What drives you ? What’s important to you?
“In the bakery everyday, when we get into the aspect of what the menu is and what kind of people I deal with every day, who are health conscious or have health issues, that’s kind of what inspires me. It fills my heart when i see on Instragram or Facebook that people are like “This is fabulous!” or “The staff is so nice.” It’s almost like every day I have an inspiration waiting for me. I get up, and I want to come to work. There have been days where I didn’t want to go to work because I worked twelve, thirteen, or fourteen hours shifts or I’m a mother and I had to work Mother’s Day. Now, I kind of plant my own seed and make my own schedule. I have such a great staff. It’s internal hospitality. If you have a happy staff and a happy chef, then everyone else will be happy.”
What are you giving to the market that no else is doing?
“We have been told that we’re the only low-carb, gluten-free bakery in the U.S.. I haven’t done the logistics of really researching. George, who’s my true partner, my side-by-side partner, he has googled it and really looked. You can be a gluten-free bakery without being low carb. So what does that mean? That means that a lot of gluten-free bakeries use chickpea flour, rice flour, sunflower flour, a lot of stuff like that. All that stuff is loaded with carbs and sugar. We use almond flour and coconut flour as our main ingredients. For us the market’s almost like a goldmine right now. George will tell you that our vision is to bake things that not only taste good, but it looks good. I have gone into gluten-free bakeries where there is no color, there is no life, there is no flavor, there is nothing to love. That is what I have put into this case.”
What are your biggest challenges in starting and growing your own business?
“Our biggest challenge right now is that we’re busting at the seams. I can’t keep up with the supply and demand. And trust me, it’s a good thing. I’m not complaining at all. It’s just I’m one of those people who wants to keep over-exceeding and keep it going and going, and not feel like a failed because we ran out of bagels. When we run out of bagels, that’s a good thing; but I wish we had more. And then I look at it as, “Wow I lost money, because if I had more bagels I could be making more money.’
“And there are a few challenges. Social media is a big market right now. No one really reads the AJC paper anymore. They read it online. Facebook is here, and Instagram is here, and no one is really tweeting anymore. If you have one customer makes a complaint, it hurts your feelings. And it hurts my feelings, whether it’s someone forgot to put a slice of cheesecake in their box or things like that. I also feel like I can’t make everyone happy but those things do kind of set me back a little bit.”
What do you want the company culture to continue to be here at Zambawango?
“The culture is very strong. One of my mottos is that I spend more time here than I do with my own family. I have a 14-year-old daughter. I’m a basketball mom. I’m a cheerleading mom. It’s a juggle of life, but as we definitely want to open multiple locations. I think that the staff I hired and my assistant will be able to run [the bakery] the same way when we open a new location, and I’ll be able to leave this location. We take pride in our consistency and continuing our vision, and we do want multiple locations, hopefully, in Midtown, and out of state. We are definitely looking at out of state locations.”
For other entrepreneurs who want to do what your doing, what’s your advice to them?
“It’s not easy. The three guys that basically started this company did a lot of the leg work. There’s a lot of small logistics—permits, paperwork, things that need to be done. It’s not easy. It’s easy to say “Hey, I want to start my own business,” but you need money. If you go to the bank they’re not always going to give money to just anyone. Restaurants are the businesses that fail the quickest. So you have to have that.
“You also have to have faith and love in what you do every day. Just because you saw someone else do it doesn’t mean you can do it. Everyone wanted to have a cupcake shop, then everyone was doing cake pops, then food trucks. Look at them now. There are cupcake shops that are filing for bankruptcy. Randomly you still see food trucks are out there, and they have these great collaborative spaces where they can all get together. But I don’t even think cake pops are out there anymore. It’s a lot of hard work. I just don’t recommend it for anyone who doesn’t have the dedication and the time.”
What’s next for Zambawango? What can be expected in the near future?
“Shipping is going to start soon. A lot of people are upset right now because I told them February, but it’s a lot of logistics and a lot of paperwork that has to be done. We’re working with the FDA and submitting recipes. It’s not as easy as you think it is. I’m not just going to put something in a box and mail it to you because I want you to come here to my shop and take it home. That is how i want it to be delivered to your doorstep. You know, sometimes you get packages, and they’re just mangled. This stuff is fragile, but shipping is definitely on the rise for us.
“And like I said, some new locations out of state. We just have to figure out the right next demographics for us that makes logistical sense.”
Tell me more about your low-carb options.
“We don’t preach keto. We preach low-carb. Because keto is the new fad. It’s the new Dr. Atkins, or South Beach. It’s not really like Paleo or Whole 30. But the way I think about it, people, if they have celiacs disease, they can have a cake here. A lot of people are diabetics— and because we use Swerve which is a non-GMO, plant based sugar substitute that doesn’t cause any glycemic index for people who are diabetic— they can eat here. What do you know, that’s two people right there. I have health coaches that come in here that are amazed by us because they are trying to get people out of obesity and onto the right track. I’m not here to preach keto or preach low-carb.
“I have people who have celiacs disease and who are allergic to nuts. Then what do you make? I have this couple, and I love them. I have rice flour. So I’ll call them up and say, ‘Hey do want some muffin tops? I’ll make them this Saturday. Come get them!’ We cater to people with all different aspects.”
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