Katelyn Sornik, entrepreneur and foodie, chats about Kate Bakes.
From a law student to a self-described alternative baker, Katelyn (Kate) Sornik is not afraid to reinvent herself. Forced to take a break from law school because of health reasons in 2010, Kate began developing a high protein snack bar that met her gluten-free and vegan dietary needs. It ended up being the start of Kate Bakes Bars, which Sornik launched in late 2012.
Now sold in four states and the District of Columbia, as well as online, Kate Bakes has officially arrived. I sat down with the charismatic Sornik at Pleasant Pops—one of various DC shops that stocks her bars—to discuss how exactly her business came to be, what she’s learned throughout the process, and what advice she would give to budding entrepreneurs.
What drove you to start Kate Bakes?
I found myself in the position of dropping out of law school and I had been writing a food blog for a while [“New Kid On the Vegan Block”—now defunct]. I enjoyed it so much and loved creating recipes [for the blog]. At that point, vegan and gluten-free foods were the ‘final frontier’ of my diet. I had been eliminating stuff for years because of health issues and I still wanted to eat good food! I started experimenting and came up with a [gluten-free, vegan] bar recipe, which seemed to be the most popular with friends and family. I knew I wasn’t going back to law school, and I decided, ‘Well, let’s go for it!’ and to start my business. I started slowly and steady and found that I loved it more and more.
It seems like farmers’ markets are a popular way to start. Were you selling in farmers’ markets in the beginning?
It’s funny that you say that because I’m trying to get into farmers’ markets now! When I started, there were much fewer markets than there are now, and I wasn’t local enough—not all my ingredients were local. I think part of it too was being a little stonewalled because my business was new—which is fine—but it did change the direction of my business. I went straight into wholesale, which I think for me is the best.
Now that I have my footing and people know who I am, I think I’ll be more successful in a farmers’ market—whichever decides to let me in!
“Sometimes you don’t have as much control as you want, despite being a business owner.
You run the show for the most part, but you are going to run into things that are out of your power.”
[Going back to wholesale] I had finally gotten into one retailer and was having some success with my online store…and I decided to really do this. That’s when things really went from zero to sixty. I embraced my true entrepreneurial spirit—my ‘get sh*t done’ spirit! I feel like I pulled a complete 180—from being a lawyer to being an alternative baker…
But I think the drive is similar…
Yes! I would agree with that completely. Whatever is in me that made me stick it out in law school for as long as I did is also what helps me bake twelve hours a day!
What is your favorite thing about being an entrepreneur in DC?
The people I’ve met. I have made so many new friendships and have had so many great experiences with other small business owners. I find that there is a good community here. I don’t have an office to go to, but I still feel like I have ‘work people’. There is always someone to reach out to and talk to. I love the people I work with—even though I only have one employee—I love all of them [employees, other small business owners].
What qualities make you most successful as an entrepreneur?
Relentlessness [laughs]. A lot of time I can be like a dog with a bone with the things I want to achieve and I’m not easily deterred.
What are some examples?
Getting my initial kitchen space [Kate picked up the phone and called local restaurants until she found one that agreed to let her use kitchen space], getting into retailers, and getting new accounts. Getting a new account can be a one…two…three month process. People can like your product but actually stocking it is a whole other story. I have my rule of three…I will reach out first, casually, and then again three months and six months later. Then at that point, I am finally able to let go of it. So, not getting discouraged easily.
I imagine that’s difficult if it’s your own product.
Oh yeah, definitely! It’s my baby!
What is the most important thing you have learned since starting your own business?
I would definitely say having a positive attitude! It seems cliché and cheesy, but there is a lot of mental cheerleading that goes into running your own business, especially if you don’t have a partner.
And also an element of organization. Whatever system works for you, don’t minimize it because it’s definitely essential. It may be hard for some to grasp that piece, but it’s so necessary.
Can you give me one example of a time you ‘failed’ or experienced a challenge with your business and what you learned from it?
The one that keeps popping into my head was with a local retailer that I fought a long time to get into. The rule with that retailer at the time was that every new product had to start in a particular store location, and if the product did well there, then you could expand to other locations.
I met with the [retail] buyer at the time and explained that I knew my product, and I did not think that my bars would do well in the initial store location he had selected. I had gotten emails from customers requesting the bars in other locations, but there did not seem to be an interest where he wanted to put them. But the buyer wouldn’t listen. So we put the bars where he wanted them, and they just did not sell! They just sat on the shelves, which was heartbreaking in itself for me and I was like, ‘I knew this was going to happen.’
That experience was tough because I feel like I wasn’t given a shot. I learned that sometimes you don’t have as much control as you want, despite being a business owner. You run the show for the most part, but you are going to run into things that are out of your power.
My last question is: what advice would you give other women entrepreneurs?
I feel like it’s so cliché, but think outside the box, do cold-calling, and always ask. Never assume that things are a certain way. Rules are one thing, but just figure out a different way to do it.
And always be super nice! In every business relationship, you always want the other person to leave with a positive impression of you. You never want to give someone a reason, if they have two choices to pick, to choose the other person or product over you.
Cover photo and portrait courtesy of K. Sornik. The other photos are mine, of the Cardamom Date and French Toast bars.