Sheila Mertens chose an unlikely place to open Sheila Kay’s Bakery & Catering. In September 2019, she began her culinary journey in a drafty tent, on a 40-acre gravel lot, an hour north of Fort Wayne. She was a fledgling vendor among other vendors who sold primitives, hand-painted signs, unique collectibles, and landscape greenery.
No problem. Her business grew despite her unusual surroundings. Today, the tent has been replaced with a small building complete with electricity and a refrigerator. Customers continually flock to her tasty, treat-filled Booth No. 413 at the Shipshewana Flea Market for an ever-increasing variety of baked goods.
“I went to Shipshewana just to see if the product would sell. People loved it,” said Mertens adding, “Now, I sell full-size products, as well as individual servings. People want to eat something while they are walking around or taking a break. It is working out really well.”
“We offer both fruit and meringue pies, quick breads and yeast bread, cookies, candy, cupcakes, muffins, brownies, and coffee cake. I also do specialty cakes for events like weddings, birthdays and retirement parties,” she said.
Besides traditional baked goods and pies, Sheila offers 4-ounce Mason jar pies. Both meringue and fruit fillings are available. Additionally, pumpkin and even a chess pie can be bought in a small Mason jar.
“You can do just about any pie and they are really kind of cute,” she said.
Lacking her own commercial kitchen, Mertens rents kitchen space at CookSpring Shared Kitchen, 1025 W. Rudisill Blvd. There are several benefits to using a shared kitchen for start-up entrepreneurs.
“We take care of the equipment and order all the cleaning supplies,” said Troy Tiernon, general manager of CookSpring. Adding, “those are things that newly created small businesses just don’t have to worry about.”
Besides using the kitchen continuously, Mertens used a gathering space at CookSpring to promote the catering side of her business in June 2018.
When I had my soft opening for the catering business I had it here. I handed out survey cards to find out how people liked our food and if they would recommend us to others, Mertens said.
Besides the soft opening Mertens relies on word of mouth, taste tests, a Facebook page and business cards to advertise her catering expertise.
“I have always baked, and always cooked. I started as soon as I could see the top of the stove. My mom started working with me. I always watched her and Mawmaw (Grandma), Mertens said.
One culinary practice Mertens has passed down to her own children began years ago when her mother taught her how to make candy. It has made her holidays a little more special.
“I love the Christmas season because I make gift baskets filled with candy for 12 of my friends. I have passed that tradition down to my kids,” she said.
Despite her childhood kitchen lessons, Mertens initially pursued a business degree in college. However, along the way, she left school, married and started a family. Finally, in 2015, when her youngest was a college senior she went back to school and back to her roots.
“I changed to culinary school for baking and pastry classes. I couldn’t pick between the two so, I did both,” she said. Mertens graduated in 2018 and holds an Associate degree from Ivy Tech in hospitality management with a double minor in culinary arts and the baking and pastry arts.
Currently, Mertens has two goals. She plans to eventually open a storefront and get a deck oven. Location of a storefront has not been determined. However, Mertens knows exactly what she wants in a deck oven. She wants a conduction oven that ensures delivery of consistently even heat to the baked goods.