With such an attention to detail that even the vanilla extract is made from scratch, it's not an upset that a Grayslake bakery is a finalist in a Martha Stewart contest seeking the best products from small-batch local entrepreneurs across the United States.
Candice Hunsinger's Cacao Sweets & Treats is vying for a food category championship in Stewart's 2014 American Made Awards. Of 1,000 finalists, 10 will receive top honors in crafts, design, food and style.
Open since 2013 on Center Street in downtown Grayslake, Hunsinger said it's gratifying for Cacao to have received approval from Stewart's judges to become a finalist. Stewart is the contest's head judge, but it's unknown whether she sampled Cacao's submission.
"It's all of her food editors and her food ... dream team, I guess, so if they're giving the OK on (Stewart's) items, I'm OK with them giving the OK on mine," she said with a laugh during a break at her shop Tuesday.
Hunsinger, 31, said the organic bakery shipped a varied offering to the Stewart team. House-made peanut butter and vanilla extract, plus baked goods such as bars and cookies, were part of the package shipped overnight to New York in August.
Stewart's representatives emailed Hunsinger that she qualified for the final round the day her submission arrived.
"I think what sets us apart from everyone else is the fact that we take that extra care down to the very little details of making our own vanilla extract," she said.
"There's some amazing vanilla extracts out there, but we can really control exactly what we want out of it by making it ourselves."
Cacao creative director Melissa Becker said she hopes the Stewart approval leads to the bakery becoming a destination business in downtown Grayslake.
"For us, I think it's very exciting being able to be recognized nationally," Becker said.
American Made Awards judges sifted through entries from June 23 through Sept. 8, using demonstrated creativity and innovation as part of the criteria to decide the finalists. Martha Stewart Omnimedia spokeswoman Alexandra DeAngelo was unable to say how many small businesses entered.
Nine winners will be selected by the judges and the 10th through an audience online vote beginning Monday, Sept. 15. Two craft distilleries and Cacao are the Illinois finalists in Stewart's contest.
Among the prizes will be $10,000 for each champion to use to grow their business. Winners will be announced Oct. 17.
Hunsinger, who began her professional baking career in 2009, said she hopes she accomplishes her goal of expanding her customers' palates and their appreciation of quality ingredients.
"So if you're going to indulge, do it the best possible way." she said.