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Dessert mafia takes over Grand Rapids

Jason Kakabaker owns the Cakabakery.

Torrence O'Haire owns Propaganda Doughnuts.

Chris McKellar owns Love's Ice Cream.

The Cakabakery

The Cakabakery

Love's Ice Cream

Love's Ice Cream

The Cakabakery

Propaganda Doughnuts

Propaganda Doughnuts

Chris McKellar, owner of Love's Ice Cream.

Joe Muha, left, orders from Torrence O'Haire at Propaganda Doughnuts.

Propaganda Doughnuts

New purveyors of hand-crafted ice cream, doughnuts, and cupcakes are invading Grand Rapids, delighting residents with unique treats that are worth every calorie. Lauren F. Carlson gives us the scoop on the sweetly subversive shops.
Grand Rapidians have developed quite a sweet tooth. Artisan doughnuts, cupcakes and ice cream top the list as some of the city's newest and most popular dessert options, but these sweet treats are unlike grocery store desserts and prepackaged indulgences. The owners of these tasty ventures, playfully referring to themselves as the "Grand Rapids Dessert Mafia," care principally about wholesome ingredients and experimentation, yielding a product that gives its consumers a somewhat guilt-free sense of satisfaction after one, and many times two, helpings. In parallel with the Grand Rapids' artisan food, beer and coffee scene, dessert crafters are making a splash in the city, but do so with thoughtful and unique ingredients that keep GR residents coming back for seconds.

New Eastown resident The Cakabakery maintains a focus on tasty, all-natural ingredients. Founder Jason T. Kakabaker crafts his custom cakes, cupcakes, cookies, cake pops and caramel corn "always from scratch. 100%. Always." Kakabaker's inventive combinations, such as vegan cherry almond espresso and lemon cupcakes with basil buttercream also make him stand out as a locally and nationally known favorite. Competing on Food Network's Cupcake Wars in May of 2013, Kakabaker wowed the judges with his merlot chocolate cupcake.

Kakabaker's goal now, he says, is "creating the best product that you can for your guest." Though "cakes are the majority of the business," he says, this labor of love also extends to his cookies and cupcakes, offered daily behind the counter at the Windmill Building on Wealthy Street. "Cookies are hugely popular," says Kakabaker of his four decadent flavors, including an impossibly soft chocolate chip. "No one does a great cookie here in town," Kakabaker says, and he seeks to fill the gap.

Serving guests out of the new Wealthy location since June of 2013, but launching his business in his Heritage Hills home in 2010, Kakabaker lives and breathes baking. Having crafted confections throughout his fifteen-year Meijer corporate career and decorated ice cream cakes in the cooler of a Kalamazoo Baskin Robins in high school, Kakabaker understands the precision and whimsy demanded from a bakery. "If you can master that, you can do this," he says, of the quickly melting ice cream cakes. With excitement for the high demand of artisan desserts in the city, Kakabaker looks forward to carrying Love's Ice Cream in his shop this summer. "Custom bakeries and desserts can only grow in this town," he says.

Collaboration with Love's Ice Cream, located in the city's new Downtown Market, is natural, because the brand shares Kakabaker's affinity for natural ingredients and playfulness. "I try to keep my label as wholesome as I can," says Love's founder Chris McKellar, whose organic ice cream utilizes local, whole ingredients cooked and churned from scratch. This slow, thoughtful churning yields a smooth, creamy product that is a mere 20-25% air, much like gelato.

Through this diligence and focus on whole ingredients, McKellar creates a straight forward product not often seen in traditional ice cream. "I don't try to cut corners…at all," he says. McKellar prides himself on the total transparency of his ingredients, informing patrons of each and every dairy, fruit, chocolate or coffee product that makes its way into his ice cream. "I don't try to mislead," he says, unwilling to compromise either his ingredients or his final product. "I am trying to be as authentic as I can be," McKellar says.

McKellar's small size enables him to experiment with interesting flavors, like his MadCap Coffee ice cream, that play off other local businesses. Other unique flavors include hand-pulled peppermint stick during the holidays and blackberry ginger. "I'm always trying to be inventive," he says. McKellar also carries Propaganda Cinnamon Bun ice cream, a rich confection that tastes just like the real thing. "Over time, we'll be doing more things together," says McKellar of his partnership with Propaganda Doughnuts founder Tory O'Haire.

Grand Rapids' newest venture, Propaganda Doughnuts entered the scene nine weeks ago when it opened to a ravenous public hungry for just that -- doughnuts and only doughnuts. But these are no ordinary doughnuts: baked from scratch and using only local ingredients and trans-fat free oils, owner Tory O'Haire declares, "My doughnuts don't make you feel like crap when you eat two of them." Located on South Division, Propaganda's goal is to fill the void of artisan doughnuts in Grand Rapids while providing its patrons with a tasty, more wholesome product.

Carefully crafted, O'Haire's selections tout ingredients not generally found in the traditionally sugar-packed pastries. "If you make it well and balance things out accordingly, no food should be off limits," he says. Such diverse options include The Capricorn, with dark chocolate and absinthe, and a Norwegian Krumkake (waffle cookie) inspired creation.

"I don't have a passion for doughnuts. I have a passion for food," says O'Haire. With fifteen years of experience in the restaurant industry, he has witnessed businesses fail or succeed according to their practices and experience. "I've seen people do great things," he says, and "I've seen people really mess up." This perspective contributed to Propaganda's experimental hours, 8am until noon everyday (save Tuesday and Wednesday), with additional hours of 8 p.m. until midnight on the weekends.

These late, mysterious hours also correlate with O'Haire's shop's theme: the detective story. "I like detective stories," he says, adding that the theme also plays on the widely accepted idea that donuts are an off-limits indulgence. "If you're going to say doughnuts are evil, let's make an evil doughnut shop," says O'Haire. Most of all, he seeks to make a playful, tasty product. "It was my goal to make something I wanted for breakfast and hopefully people like them," he says.

Propaganda Doughnuts, Love's Ice Cream and The Cakabakery are paving the way for handcrafted, thoughtful sweet treats in Grand Rapids. "Our city is going through a renaissance of food," says McKellar, and sweets are no exception to the rule. Eastown or downtown, ice cream, cakes or doughnuts, Grand Rapids bakers are thinking smarter and developing more interesting flavors to add to the city's bourgeoning food scene. "You've gotta treat yourself," says Kakabaker. So, come on, have a doughnut.

Lauren F. Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at lauren@emptyframecreative.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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