Happy Chicks Bakery owners Jessica Bechtel and Jana Douglass met in 2001 while working together as exhibit designers at a local landmark. It was not a pleasant work environment; the pair was referred to as, “The Painter Chicks,” and it wasn’t a term of endearment. But, as Bechtel says, “It was because nobody ever really bothered to remember our names.”
Both Bechtel and Douglass were vegans before they met and soon began baking vegan goods together as a way to produce food that they enjoyed and weren’t able to find in stores.
“I stopped eating meat when I was like 10,” Douglass says, “and then I realized I was very lactose intolerant, so it just made sense to cut out dairy. And so I was basically vegan.”
For Bechtel, it wasn’t dietary issues but principles that led her to make the change. “For me, I loved all kinds of food, so it was a really challenging decision because I enjoy eating everything,” she says. “It was more of a long-term, helping-future-generations kind of decision. The ecological impact of having a more plant-focused diet than a meat-rich, dairy-rich diet just seemed a more ethical decision, and it was easier to cut out some of those things than to try and do all of the research to try and find out who was doing sustainable stuff.”
Neither Bechtel nor Douglass has any formal pastry training, but they began baking vegan treats not only for themselves but also for coworkers — especially copious amounts of cupcakes and cookies around Christmastime — always receiving positive feedback.
Discontent with the way their non-baking careers were heading, the women decided to cater an event at clothing store Anthropologie. Naturally, they were nervous. “It’s one thing if your friends and family and hungry maintenance coworkers will eat a plate of cupcakes or a pie,” Bechtel says, “but it’s another thing if you do an event and strangers react positively.
So when they did overwhelmingly and asked us where we sold our product and if we took orders, we did. After about three to four months, I stopped saying, ‘We’re starting a bakery,’ and started saying, ‘We have a bakery.’ ”
The duo started with special orders and then progressed to farmers markets, including those in Northside and Madeira, and then picked up Anderson the following year. At first, given the fact that they were offering a niche product, Bechtel and Douglass played up the fact that their baked goods were vegan.
“At first we were like ‘Vegan Bakery!’ ” Douglass says, “and no one would stop at our booth. People were always like, ‘I don’t like vegan stuff.’ And we were like, ‘We don’t like it either! Try it!’ Once we downplayed the vegan aspect, all of sudden, who knows how many weddings we’ve done and people don’t even know that the cake is vegan.”
“We want you to choose us for our interesting flavors and a very creative presentation,” Douglass continues. “We want all our stuff to be unbelievably beautiful when we put it out there, but we also want different flavor combinations that you aren’t even going to find in non-vegan stuff.”
“We get so many dairy- and egg-allergy customers, and that’s huge,” Bechtel adds. “Being able to help families who have never been able to give their kid a birthday cake, it’s a really nice aspect.”
After two years of baking out of Bechtel’s home, the growing business made it clear that a larger space was needed. The business was taking over every inch of living space, and the women wanted to open a café to be able to expand from baked goods to savory options. When the former Take the Cake space in Northside became available, the women jumped. For now, the bakery offers cakes, cookies, cupcakes, pies and more, all with fresh, seasonal flavors. Inspiration comes from everywhere, including, Douglass says, “menus from respected restaurants, millions of food magazines and blogs. We’re self-described ‘food nerds.’ ”
Bechtel and Douglass are hoping to open the savory part of the café by the beginning of 2015, with light take-out lunch options, including salads and soups that are all freshly prepared from non-processed foods.
As for the origin of the name “Happy Chicks,” Bechtel says that, yes, it is a legacy from their last job as “painter chicks,” but that this time the chicks enjoy what they’re doing.
“One of the things we really wanted to carry into whatever we did was positivity,” she says. “We wanted to actually like going to work, and if we were going to take this risk, and it’s going to be hard, then we should at least be happy about what we’re doing.”
Happy Chicks Bakery
Go: 4035 Hamilton Ave., Northside;
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.