Company grows from love of life, cake and healthy eating

This story is by Vivian Henoch of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, and originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine.

This is a story about hope, courage, inspiration, patience and cake batter. A lot of cake batter.

It’s a story that begins in Jane Imerman’s kitchen in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, where her passion for baking and healthy food collided with the reality of cancer.

Jane always had been a firm believer that the purest foods are the healthiest. But years after her youngest son, Jonny, was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 26, Jane has taken health-conscious cooking and baking to a whole new level, learning everything she could about organic food and developing her own recipes.

Jonny regained his health, turned his energies to advocacy and, in 2006, founded Imerman Angels, a worldwide cancer-support organization, based in Chicago, with the mission to provide one-on-one connections among cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers.

Finding a passion

Jonny had Angels. Jane had recipes. Jeffrey Imerman, Jane’s oldest son, had the vision to start the Imerman Cake Company: Why not market Jane’s delicious organic coffee cakes and share them with the world, then donate a portion of each sale to Imerman Angels?

A former TV anchor/reporter, Jeff was practicing law at a big firm in New York City when he had the notion to change the course of his life, leave his job, return to Detroit and partner with Jane to create Imerman Cake Company.

“I loved the excitement in New York, enjoyed working with my colleagues and the challenges of litigation, but I didn’t feel that I wanted to stay on that path for a lifetime,” says Jeff.

Describing the moment in 2010 when the idea crystallized, Jeff recalls a conversation with his brother.

“It was 2 in the morning and I was still at my desk at work, and my brother was sitting at his desk in Chicago, still working alone, launching Imerman Angels, and I said, ‘Jonny, I don’t know if I want to do this forever,’ and he said to me, ‘Jeff, find your passion. If that’s not where you are today, then look for something positive and fulfilling. Because I see people die every day – at age 7, 25, 62. You don’t know how much time you have, so make a change now, it could all be over tomorrow.’”

A dialogue with the founders

Jeff: I wrote a 50-page business plan, inspired by my brother’s fight against cancer. After he survived, we did a lot of food research and learned more about what we are putting into our bodies and how that affects our health and well-being. We learned about organic foods and the benefits of eating organic. . .

Jane: . . . and we didn’t find any organic desserts in the marketplace.

Jeff: I knew we could create something in our local community that we could be very proud of.  So we started in my mom’s home kitchen, took a cake recipe that she had made since our childhood, and we streamlined it to make it even more pure and organic.

Jane: We spent a lot of hours baking, taste-testing and tweaking the recipes, one cake at a time. As many as eight cakes a day. We spent about a year.

Jeff: Using all organic ingredients, gram by gram, we took out as much as we could to lower the sugar, cut the fat and reduce the calories to make the cake as lean as possible without sacrificing the flavor.

Jane: We took out the nuts too because of all the nut allergies. For instance, in the cinnamon cake, we now use toasted rolled oats instead of the original walnuts. We also switched to a Neufchatel cheese from a cream cheese to lower the calories.

Jeff: But we knew the one constant was quality, and the bottom line was the taste. That couldn’t change.

Learning the ropes

“We had to learn our business from the ground up,” observes Jeff. “We didn’t know the food industry. We couldn’t just rush out into the marketplace. We knew we had to be patient. And everything took longer than we anticipated.”

Getting it right, Jeff and Jane took another year or two traveling to food shows and seminars all over the country, doing demos, taking classes, learning from experts in the field. “We were surprised to find how collaborative the food industry is. We were amazed to meet people so willing to take us under their wing and offer guidance. There were people who had built up very successful companies — like Dave Zilko of Garden Fresh and Mike Marsh of Flatout Bread  who became great mentors to us.”

After three years, Imerman Cakes are on grocery shelves in high-end markets in Detroit and Chicago, in both cinnamon and chocolate chip flavors, available in a two-pound size and a mini half-pound size. The cakes are still hand-mixed, one at a time, but because they carry the USDA Organic seal, production has moved out of the Imerman household to the Achatz Handmade Pie Company, a certified organic facility which is also a local family-owned business.

“We are still in our infancy,” says Jane. “2014 was our first full calendar year of sales.”

New recipes are in the mix, new flavors and sizes are on the way. And the criteria for the ingredients remain strictly organic: free from artificial preservatives and sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup and genetically engineered ingredients. No ingredients come from crops exposed to harmful pesticides or fertilizers, and the dairy products come from animals that have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Even the boxes are eco-friendly, fully recyclable with a window film that is biodegradable.

“Because our family name is on the box,” says Jeff, “The product reflects back on you, your values.

“You need to be proud of what you are providing, and we wanted to provide people with a totally positive food option: better tasting, better for the body, better for the environment, and a help in the fight against cancer. Overall, it’s an indulgence people can feel good about.”

Jane and Jeff didn’t want to provide a cake recipe, since selling them is their livelihood. But they were happy to provide a recipe for mac and cheese that Jane has made for years. Jeff says he and his siblings loved it while they were growing up. I know we published a mac and cheese recipe last August; this is another version that’s lower in fat and calories.

My game of Jeopardy! (and a California recipe)

Answer: It was broadcast on April 2, 2004.

Question: What was Bobbie Lewis’s national television debut?

It’s hard to believe that was almost 10 years ago! As I mentioned in my February 17 Feed the Spirit, I was a contestant on Jeopardy!, which is marking its 50th anniversary this week. My show was taped in mid-January, 2004 and aired on April 2.

That was so long ago that I have the recording on VHS, not on DVD.

So how did this come about? In the fall of 2003, Jeopardy! held auditions in Detroit.

My friends and family kept telling me I was good at trivia – indeed, I could often answer the Jeopardy! questions quickly – so I registered and a few weeks later found myself with 100 or so other hopefuls in the ballroom of a Detroit-area hotel. It was one of at least five such sessions in Detroit; there are a lot of people who dream of being on Jeopardy!

Answer: You ace a test with 50 short-answer trivia questions.

Question: How do you get invited to be on Jeopardy!?

They gave us a 50-question quiz, reading and projecting the questions on a screen, while we scribbled the short answers on an answer sheet. The questions seemed to come every five seconds or so. There was no way to say to yourself, “Ooh, ooh, I know that, let me come back to it,” because by then they were on to the next question – and there was nothing on the answer sheet to help you remember the question.

I missed at least five, and probably got at least a few more wrong. Dejected, I started to pack up my things when I heard my name called as one of the half-dozen from that session who had made the cut.

Answer: You’ll never know.

Question: What’s a passing score on the Jeopardy! quiz?

They never tell applicants what the “passing” score is or what their personal score was; you either make the cut or you don’t.  In some sessions there were a dozen who passed, in others, three or four. “Tell your family and friends you missed it by one,”  was their not-so-helpful suggestion for the losers.

We chosen few were asked to participate in a short mock game and then do a short taped interview. They wanted to make sure the prospects wouldn’t freeze at the sight of a camera.

Then they told us we’d be in a “pool” of contestants for a year, and they could call us any time. “Well, that’s that,” I thought, never expecting to hear anything more. Imagine my surprise when the producers called just a month later, inviting me to be on the show!

Now the process is a little different. They do an initial weed-out of applicants with an online quiz a few times a year. Those who pass can move on to an in-person audition – another 50-question quiz plus the mock game and interview – either at the Sony studio in Los Angeles or at one of the other cities the team visits throughout the year. Learn more about the process here.

Answer: A lot!

Question: What do most viewers not know about Jeopardy!?

  • They tape five shows a day, one after the other, with an hour’s break for lunch. The week’s worth of contestants – 11 hopefuls  plus a few alternates – start out together in the morning. Except for the previous game’s winner, all contestants are chosen by lottery from the day’s pool.
  • Only the winner gets the money. The person who finishes second gets $2,000 and the person who finishes last gets $1,000.
  • Jeopardy! doesn’t pay for airfare, hotel or any other expenses – but the winnings should cover it, even if you come in last. (If you win the last game of the day and live out of town, they do pay for you to come back the following week.)
  • There isn’t a huge amount of swag for contestants either. I got a Jeopardy! tote bag, a travel mug, a cheap ballpoint pen – and a very nice glass frame with a photo of me and host Alex Trebek.
  • All the contestants are instructed to bring two changes of clothing, so if you win and come back, it looks like it’s another day. I guess they figure out that if you win three games and there’s still more taping to be done that day, no one will notice if you’re wearing the same clothes you wore a few games earlier.
  • Around the game board is a row of lights, which you can’t see on your TV. Contestants are not supposed to buzz in until the lights go off when Alex finishes reading the question. Those who buzz in too early are penalized a tenth of a second. That’s why you see contestants hitting their buzzers repeatedly – if they’re too early, and no one else buzzes in, they might still have a chance to answer.

It was my luck to be in the last game taped that day, so I had to sit through four previous games with my palms sweaty and stomach churning.

Before the first game of the day, one of the producers goes over the personal stories for Alex’s chat after the first commercial break. The producer gives Alex two stories per contestant to choose from.

Here’s my favorite, which for some reason Alex chose not to use:

The contestant was an attorney in Washington, D.C. and was at a fancy government dinner where someone introduced her to King Somebody. She had an Uncle King, and was interested to meet someone with the same name. “So, King,” she said, “what is it that you do?” He looked at her for a long moment and then said, “I’m the king.

Answer: By being the only contestant to get the correct answer to Final Jeopardy.

Question: How did Bobbie Lewis redeem her terrible performance in Jeopardy! and end up in second place?

As I told you in my earlier post, I did not perform very well in my one and only game. I don’t know whether I was buzzing in too early or too late, but I didn’t have an opportunity to answer many questions at all, and when I did, I made a few stupid mistakes. But I was the only one who had the correct answer to Final Jeopardy and so I came in second. My $2,000 winnings paid for a swell four-day vacation in Los Angeles. My husband and I toured the Sony studio, visited the fabulous Getty Museum and the fascinating LaBrea tar pits, enjoyed looking at the gorgeous houses in Venice and the weirdos at Venice Beach, and had a terrific meal at a Persian kosher restaurant.

Would I do it again? You betcha – although 10 years later the synapses are firing a little more slowly. I don’t get as many answers as I used to, and there are a lot more “ooh, ooh, I know that!”  moments. I seriously doubt that I’d make the cut. Luckily I don’t have to worry about it  –  no one who’s already been on the show can audition.

Answer: Nothing, but it’s made with artichokes and wine which makes me think of California.

Question: What does this week’s recipe have to do with Jeopardy!?

This is a nice recipe that’s great for weight watchers because it’s made with skinless, boneless chicken breasts and has no added fat, and it’s elegant enough to serve for a fancy company meal.