Mud pies to high-end cakes: How an accountant lost on Food Network, got a Naperville shop
Denise Chambliss can point to specific life moments that seem to have foretold her future as a professional baker and cake decorator.
And yet, looking back, she never imagined she'd end up competing on a TV show, let alone opening her own shop, SweetNeecy's Cake Boutique, in Naperville.
As a child living in a rural area, Chambliss grew up making intricate cakes out of dirt and water, decorating them with wildflowers and shaping them to perfection before letting them dry in the sun.
When she was a young military wife living on the base in Hanau, Germany, she got a job at Baskin-Robbins and learned how to assemble ice cream cakes and pipe frosting and create unique confectionary designs.
She soon became a mom, got divorced, earned an accounting degree and started a 20-year career in that business. But she never stopped making cakes on the side, first for family and friends, then for paying customers.
"I think it has to be just the creative process of bringing something to life," Chambliss said of her desire to carry out her passion amid an already busy schedule. "You start out with sugar and flour and small, tiny particles of (ingredients), and you turn it into something beautiful that makes people smile."
Chambliss had been living in Florida when she remarried and moved to Naperville nearly six years ago, challenging her to expand her clientele and learn a new set of laws for selling homemade baked goods. She worked out of shared commercial kitchens, took sugar art classes, experimented with recipes and made connections with industry experts.
About two years ago, Chambliss won third place in an edible art show and decided to start applying for baking TV shows. Her first two attempts were unsuccessful, but the third time was the charm.
Chambliss was selected last year to compete on the Food Network Canada's "The Big Bake," a competition in which professional teams are tasked with creating dynamic cakes based on a theme. She and her teammates, Carla Galfi and Briana Wils, didn't win on the episode that aired in May, she said. But the challenge sparked her passion for growing her own operation.
That's when plans started falling into place, Chambliss said. The company where she was still working as an accountant downsized, giving her an opportunity to focus on baking. She started traveling to cake shows and serving as a demonstrator both in person and virtually.
Then this summer, through mutual acquaintances, she was handed the keys to the former Beans & Sweets pastry shop at 3344 S. Route 59, Suite 108. The previous owner had to move due to her husband's new job, Chambliss said, and all the equipment was being left behind.
"It happened out of nowhere," said Chambliss, who now lives in Oswego. "It was a blessing."
After negotiations were finalized, Chambliss spent weeks deep cleaning, organizing and making the shop her own. SweetNeecy's Cake Boutique is now hosting a grand opening from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, complete with music, raffles and giveaways.
Chambliss hopes to eventually offer virtual and in-person classes for kids and adults, and establish a shipping service so she can send cakes to friends and family across the country.
"I'm excited to just be able to really interact with my clients on a more one-on-one basis rather than delivering my cake and leaving," she said. "I love seeing the smiles. That's why I do what I do."