Katie's Note: I met Vera Stewart for the first time this past summer, but I felt like I had known her forever. She's originally from Middle Georgia, as am I, and her accent sounds like home. When I was a student at UGA (Vera's alma mater too) I remember reading about VeryVera's mail order cake in Southern Living. The cake of course, looked delicious, but the wow factor for me at that time in my life was that a woman from my home state was the successful entrepreneur behind it all. And if she could do it, imagine what was possible for me? So, it's a privilege to interview Vera Stewart in our Culinary Woman and Coffee series. And we're lucky that she has a new cookbook out, The VeryVera Cookbook, where she shares all the recipes behind her success.
I grew up the middle of five children, and I think survival probably came naturally for me based on my birth order. I graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in Home Economics Education and at the time saw a teaching career as the right choice for me. After making the decision several years later to be a stay-at-home mom, the home economics part played a huge role in introducing me to a cottage industry catering career. With several years' experience and now school-aged children, I jumped full steam ahead into a commercial location and eventually diversified into the mail order business to have a constant income flow. My mail order cakes led to an invitation from the Food Network for a Throwdown with Bobby Flay, and my Carrot Cake victory landed me a local cooking and lifestyle show, now syndicated in 13 markets for Season 7. The teacher in me never went away, and for sixteen years, I have hosted young people into my company for VeryVera Cooking Camp, now franchised into many of the markets that air my show.
I love the creativity surrounding the show and the passion that has inspired me to grow this idea into a way for VeryVera to live forever. I Love Lucy did it....how about VeryVera?
For most of the 34 years I've been in business, arriving at VeryVera is met with the aroma of coffee. The bakery opened at 6:45 AM, and you could count on the coffee being ready by one brave soul that arrived early enough to make that happen. It's fun now with all the millennials in the building to determine who made the coffee based on the roast you smell when you walk in.
During the week, my husband and I are both rushing out the door for work. I know the weekend is here when he sets up the coffee station on Friday night with everything he needs for that coffee to start percolating on a Saturday morning. It's a lot better than an alarm clock to wake up to the aroma of coffee.
5. What’s your best piece of advice?
It's hard to pick just one so I will go with three and let you decide:
6. What’s the favorite part of your work day?
When I see my team leading! After 34 years, I'm certainly not the smartest or the most ingenious, but I've had the most mistakes that have lead to a lot of silver linings. When I see growth in a staff member or the "light" come on, I feel that my roots as a teacher are being fertilized and strengthened.
7. What is your biggest challenge?
Juggling multiple projects has constantly been a challenge and it is certainly the nature of my profession. I try to stay organized, look ahead, and use my planner religiously.
8. Can you give advice to a young woman interested in a culinary career?
Test yourself as a volunteer to make items for friends and family and require feedback. Testing your skills on people that love you will be easy, but then it will be time to branch a bit further out. Overbook yourself and test yourself for stamina when it gets hard. Do you forge forward or do you lean on excuses to get out of a bind? In the culinary world, it’s hard to make good money without a big break. Breaks are going to be more forthcoming to someone that has proven herself to be a warrior in the kitchen.